As many of you already know this summer I spent a considerable amount of time in Punta del Diablo, Uruguay at a hostel called El Diablo Tranquilo. To be fair it is far more than a hostel. Over our time there I feel that we all became pretty good friends.
I know that many of you have had dreams like his and so I asked him if he would mind doing an interview. There were still a few gaps in my understanding that I wanted filled in and I am confidant that you all will find it as interesting as I do.
When did the idea for El Diablo Tranquilo first strike you? Was there a particular inspiration?
I first thought about doing a project like this way back 2003, when I was coaxed into working at a hostel in Quito, Ecuador, called The Secret Garden. I really had an excellent time there, and to be honest, it was the girl who held the position at The Secret Garden before me, Chrystal Crooks, who really opened my eyes not only to the depth of travel but also to the incredible relationships that can form spontaneously when you’re out of your comfort zone.
How did your family and friends react when you told them about you idea?
Many with a chuckle and a “you would, wouldn’t you”, others wondered why a smart kid who had always worked hard wanted to become a ‘beach bum’. Even at the pipe dream’s inception, though, I knew who my real friends were because they didn’t respond with even a shadow of a doubt that I would eventually be where I am today, writing from paradise in front of the fireplace in my hostel.
How did you decide on the location or business type for that matter?
The location and business type have more to do with each other than people realize. In broadest terms I have always enjoyed my experience in the service industry, from selling hot dogs at Brewer’s games to working in bars throughout college, and the part of travel that had me hooked from the beginning was dipping into that stream of people who are exploring the world. So that’s where the dream began, but in terms of realizing that dream I had to look further.
The first aspect was the changing world economy and its effect on “backpacking”, with people expecting to work more jobs in their lifetime, changing positions more often, the demographic of travelers has shifted from ‘Gap Year’ kids, or those traveling between college and ‘real life’. Now most travelers are on a break between jobs, traveling with an increased budget and new demands. I felt this would enable me to open a hybrid Hostel-B&B, coupling quality amenities with the still social atmosphere offered by a hostel.
The second aspect as seasonality. I was attracted to seasonal locations for many reasons. First I appreciate variance in my life and am happy to look forward to the pros and cons to our seasons the way many at home look forward to winter’s snow only to begin looking forward to a hot summer. Secondly I was aware of the limitations regarding access to credit in Latin American and knew that because of a shorter span of profitability, seasonal locations are traditionally under capitalized, making them attractive markets and guarding the beauty of their undeveloped isolation. In addition, my challenge began at raising money to finance this project, not an easy task (Try walking into a bank at 22 years old, looking at a loan officer, and explaining that you want money to go open a bar on a beach in a country he’s never heard of), being able to point to a stable, regional, seasonal tourism inflow gave me a base from which to launch our projections. Finally, we are able to effectively take advantage of our seasonality because of the symbiosis of our large investment. We not only fully capitalize on summer because of our infrastructural advantages, we maintain profitability outside of peak season because that very same infrastructure allows us to offer a full range of services even when other local businesses close down.
At what point did you realize that it was really going to happen?
The day I decided it was what I truly wanted to do.
Was there ever a time when you considered throwing in the towel? What helped you get through those times?
Two times. One was while working in Brazil, end of that same trip, now in 2004. I was working in rural areas and continually butting heads with local attitudes towards work and responsibility, cultural differences can be very, very hard to survive. The other was during the fund raising process, even after arming what I considered a bullet proof plan, I had my fair share of doors closed in my face, when I realized that US banks would not loan me money because of international foreclosure laws and that Uruguayan banks would not loan me money because I didn’t share a last name with any of the nation’s elite, I worried a bit. Both times, I got over it pretty quickly because I’m a cocky bastard and my family and friends believe in me as much as I do.
What was the source of greatest resistance in making the hostel a reality?
Do you have any regrets regarding this project?
You know what, none. I suppose if I would have done it a year or two earlier I would be in better position financially, but I wouldn’t trade those two years in either…
What are your long term plans for El Diablo Tranquilo?
Ideally I will be here for 3 or 4 more years, at which point I would consider hiring a manager to take over my “live in operator” duties, at least for winter months, allowing Heidi and I to get out and travel some more. I’m just 25, other than having a definite preference to keep the property and its residual income rather than sell, I don’t want to think much further down the road than that.
What is your favorite part of living in Punta del Diablo and running El Diablo Tranquilo?
The people. I love that they love it. And I love the particular type of person who is drawn to Punta del Diablo. The view from ‘my office’ (behind the bar) doesn’t hurt either.
Finally, What advice would you have for others who are dreaming similar dreams?
Do it. You’d be surprised what you can pull off if you’re willing to work 22 hours a day for a couple years.
Email Interview with Brian Meissner, El Diablo Tranquilo Bar & Hostel
El Diablo Tranquilo is an inspiring place. I am sure Brian is starting to wonder about me seemingly never ending flow of compliments for his sandcastle, but it truly is a magical place. I look forward to seeing it again. Thank you Brian and Heidi for everything and goodluck.