All starts on a long backpacking journey that brought me to Australia, New Zealand and then South East Asia when I was 21 years old. I then got myself to Beijing and taking the Transmongolian train for a week I got to Moscow. From there to Riga, Ireland and finally back home to Italy.
I had mainly stayed in hostels and camp grounds and even if it wasn’t my first time in such kind of accommodation I knew that was what I wanted to do once I got back to Europe. I simply felt I had to try it. Most travelers in their early 20`s talk about opening a hostel or a bar abroad, its a nice dream. I like to put ideas into actions so with little money and little experience I ventured out to Bulgaria.
Why Bulgaria? I had been to Bulgaria several times before and noticed the lack of hostels in Varna where I went scouting the market with a friend. After looking at many buildings I settled with a run down restaurant called Waikiki that was very popular years before.
It was a hard gamble: starting with the language that I never learned, to being alone in a foreign land, to set up a business I had only experienced as a customer and all of this in a very hard to find villa in the hills of Evsinograd, some kilometers out of the city. I am still amazed on how people find the hostel!
In the cold winter of 2007 I bought a banger of a van and headed to Ikea in Bucharest which was the closest to buy bunk beds, linen and all I would need. I began with only 24 beds…
Opening day, 1st of May 2008… The landlords, 2 Minnesota hitchhikers, 1 volunteer and 2 friends.
The first month was hard… hostel was empty, no bookings, the little money I had left was diminishing by the day. I could barely sleep at night for the stress and thinking about what I would do when it failed. Some friends came to visit and some isolated booking. But in mid June word of mouth kicked in with the season and I was full!
I was safe and happy. I worked very hard: ironed the linen, put out the breakfast, cleaned, checked people in and out, entertained everyone day and night, took people out and slept deep and relaxed in my tent so I could rent my room out and make the most out of that first season.
It was an amazing feeling to have succeeded and I have the fondest memories of that hard beginning. Every year after that we added dormitories and made deals with neighbors who where renting their villas out so that at the end we had nights with over 70 people: tents in the garden, parking and terrace, guests and staff sleeping on all sofas and on mattresses in the common area and I even had nights so full that friends of mine slept on the tables!
In the first years X Hostel Varna guests would only go to Varna city and to the beach and hot springs close to us but then we started going to Golden Sands so the epic parties started with loads of free alcohol included: Foam party, Beach Party, Club Crawls, Singles Parties, boat parties and so on.
And one day 4 guests came to me and said
we loved this place so much that we decided to make an X Tattoo , I was almost in tears at this huge sign of appreciation. So the Tattoo went strong, so much that now over 140 people have one!
Chris was the first to join the X Hostel family: first as a guest while being a peace corps volunteer, then as volunteer, manager and finally as business partner who would take X Hostel Varna a step ahead each year!
In 2011 I met up with Alfie and Nahir, and after visiting Alicante in 2012 we opened X Hostel Alicante that also has Phil as business partner, who I met as a guest of X Varna in its first years. Alicante`s vibe is unique: a quiet provincial town and at the same time with a roaring nightlife. Great tapas, weather, sea and atmosphere overall. The hostel runs like a family with evenings on the roof terrace and days on the beach.
In 2012 we also had the opening party for X Hostel Bucharest with a NYE party people are still talking about. Then after more months of refurbishing we managed to open all the dorms and private rooms. At first we had sauna, Jacuzzi, free welcome beer in our pub but guests still complained so we keep changing our offers and services: now we have a newly refurbished pub with a huge screen, new sound system, furniture, games, bitcoin atm and much more. Still: big city guests and weekenders are not as guests you find in Varna and Alicante.
The 3 hostels after that sadly no longer exist:
X Hostel Tallinn – was a 1 big dorm operation right in the heart of the city bought from a dodgy American scammer; hostel was so cozy that all guests would always do things together. I got very involved with expats and locals in Estonia and spend some wonderful months setting up and running the place. Many great friends and a special new year party need to be mentioned! Unfortunately the landlord was a cheat jealous of this business so after repeatedly cutting gas and water and us calling the police we made a deal, he would refund me the investment and I left with a great experience and a first business that closed.
X Hostel Budapest – We bought the former stoners hostel called California from another dodgy individual. Business went really well… maybe too well or people had too much fun. The neighbors petitioned and manage to close us down after 3 years. Other issues ensued: a manager stealing a lot of money and other problems. On a good note: we bought the 270 sqm building that is in a nice location and we will probably open a non hospitality business there soon.
X Hostel Malaga – Opening and first month were Paradise: a wonderful and fun city to live in. Then we left a new partner in charge that cheated the others going on his power trip so it ended in a lawsuit with the dissolution of the firm. Anything better that being still connected to Mr. M.
Some year ago I also started looking at new projects and at the same time started 2 Escape Rooms in the Bucharest hostel and Camp X in the mountains near Curtea de Arges.
Camp X was a week long `military experience:
you would pay a flat fee and get yourself to camp. Here you would receive uniform, equipment and training. It was full on with camouflage trainings, group assault, airsoft battles, ambushing, anti-sniper tactics. Sleeping in huge tents, morning push ups, shooting and survival training, some hand to hand combat and so on. Would of been EPIC. Unfortunatlly business partners for that venture had many issues so that it made it impossible to go past the fun and tought testing period.
Escape Games became a huge hit. We made great business in Bucharest, tens of thousands of people played, all major firms did team-buildings, 3 music videos where shot in our thematic rooms. We expanded to Sofia, Brasov and Golden Sands with our own games. Then we decided it would be easier to manage and more profitable to just sell games to people who wanted to open this kind of business.
We now own the most popular firm of Escape Room Design worldwide with over 450 games in 62 countries.
The story will go on!