Love, marriage, international adventure and entrepreneurial success. That’s what a little luck and plenty of hard work brought to two Kendall alumni who met in the Hospitality Management program.
Christopher Obrist, who is Swiss Guatemalan, and Emily Kring, from Northern Michigan, met in 2011 through mutual friends in the program and lived as housemates before they started dating. Christopher graduated in spring 2013, and Emily followed a year later. The couple remained in Chicago, working in management roles for luxury hotel chains. In December 2014, they were married in Antigua, a city in the central highlands of Guatemala and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In spring 2016 they moved to Antigua, and a year later they opened Maya Papaya, a luxury hostel located in the city center within walking distance of all of the sights.
Travelers are intrigued by the concept of a luxury hostel, and “the response has been overwhelming,” Emily says. Most of their guests are Europeans ages 25–40, but older travelers also come through to experience the hostel life. Over the next ten years, the couple hopes to expand Maya Papaya into a luxury hostel chain in Central America and in Europe.
In this interview, the couple reflects on their education at Kendall, their unique hostel innovations, and the challenges and rewards of running their own hospitality business.
Kendall: Tell me about the process that led to your decision to open a luxury hostel in Guatemala. Why Guatemala? Why a luxury hostel?
Emily: Christopher grew up in Guatemala City, so it was a natural choice for us to consider Guatemala as a potential place to open a business. Antigua has a relatively large expat community, and it serves as a kind of jumping off point for backpackers traveling in Guatemala. We’re used to working in four- and five-star hotels, so the hostel model brought a learning curve, but we felt that the market needed a concept like this.
Christopher: I’ve had the opportunity to travel through different countries, and I’ve backpacked through some of them. When I returned to Guatemala after 12 years outside the country, I realized that the hostels in Antigua were hostels that Emily and I would never stay in. We wanted to create a hostel that we would be excited to stay in—something with a chill atmosphere and some luxury touches that you expect in hotels but not in hostels. We have a bar and restaurant that focuses on gastropub food and our rum collection. The beds and the linens are the same as in any four- or five-star hotel. One of our goals was to make our guests feel they were in a private place while sleeping in their bed in the bunk room.
I have always thought that opportunities will come and go, and it’s your choice if you take them or not. We saw this as an opportunity to do something different that the market needed, and we took the chance.
Kendall: How do you make dorm rooms into a “luxury” experience?
Emily: A lot of people ask us this! They say a luxury hostel is an oxymoron J. I knew right away that I wanted to include things in the price that most hostels charge extra for, such as towels, sheets, lockers and breakfast. We had our bunks custom-made; they are spacious enough that the guest is able to sit up in bed comfortably. Each bed has custom blackout privacy curtains, an outlet to charge their phone (and a shelf to put it on) and a reading light. It was fun to take luxury details and implement them in a hostel setting (such as duvet comforters with high-thread-count sheets), since backpackers usually don’t expect much when they check into a hostel. Also, a lot of plants, interesting murals and Guatemalan textiles help to make the hostel feel like a home.
Christopher: Backpackers typically travel for extended periods of time, and some are used to staying wherever they can find a bed. It’s nice to hear our guests say “Wow” every time they come through our doors. We enjoy providing them an experience that’s way above what they expected. Also, a big part of our success has been our staff—we trained them extensively to ensure they provide fabulous service.
Kendall: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this dream come true?
Emily: The biggest challenge was finding the right property. It took about a year of searching before we found the right one. I also had a hard time during the construction process. Surprise surprise, things don’t work the same way here that they do in the U.S. Yes, a lot of things are cheaper, but more often than not, quality gets compromised. It was a big job supervising the construction team to ensure that details were paid attention to and the quality of the work remained high.
Christopher: It was hard to find all the specific items that we wanted. All the linens and duvets had to be shipped from the U.S. to Guatemala since we didn’t find the right ones here. Having both worked in big corporations, we are used to strict timelines, which made it hard to work with some of our contractors, who had very vague timelines. They might say something will take one week when it actually takes four. Is a little frustrating when you need to open your doors on a specific date.
Kendall: What was rewarding about launching your own business?
Emily: The best thing about Maya Papaya is that it’s ours. We report to each other, and we are free to operate and make decisions without the opinions of others. Being used to a 9-to-5 job with the Drake in Chicago, this was an adjustment for me. There’s something nice about leaving the office and not thinking much about work until you walk in the door the next day. With Maya Papaya, we are constantly thinking about what we can do to improve the business—our minds never stray far! I do think that the amount of time we spend at Maya Papaya has made a big impact on the early success we’ve had. It makes a big difference for the guests when we’re there to chat with them. And as a bonus, we’ve made friends from around the world!
Christopher: Before while working in corporate hotels, I was assigned to very specific tasks—managing a restaurant, a bar, or events. Now Emily and I are HR (we need to know the rules and regulations for the employees), accounting, housekeeping, engineering, cooks, bartenders and anything else that comes along. We’re applying everything we’ve learned and outsourcing for help when it’s too much.
Kendall: How did your education at Kendall prepare you for this endeavor?
Emily: I always tell people that meeting and interacting with the international community at Kendall was the most valuable experience I could have asked for during my college years. Understanding different cultures goes a long way in managing guest relations! The can-do attitude that Kendall teaches its students was very valuable for me as well. Opening a business is scary, but when you’ve already gone through Capstone, you realize that it’s kind of the same thing J. Because of Capstone, I felt like I already knew how to do most of the tasks I needed to get done.
Christopher: Having great teachers helped to take me out of my comfort zone and push to do more. And Capstone helped me to develop my skills in studying markets and realizing what concepts were missing and what would do well.
Kendall: What did you appreciate most about Kendall?
Emily: Being surrounded by a group of people who shared my passions. Also, meeting my husband was a pretty great perk.
Christopher: All the friendships that I made, from students to teachers.
Kendall: What advice would you give to current Kendall students who want to succeed in hospitality management?
Emily: Take the initiative to get what you want! Success comes with hard work, yes—but it also comes with networking, raising your hand for projects and problem-solving on your own. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to do some of the tasks that are listed as required for the job. Most bosses I know, myself included, look for the right personality and then just teach them what they need to know. This is cliché, but create a life and career for yourself that you’re proud of. We’re lucky to be in hospitality since it’s so broad. There’s no reason you should be stuck in an unfulfilling job.
Christopher: Never say no to a learning experience. I’ve always said that first comes learning and then comes the money. I’ve never taken a job because of the money; I’ve taken jobs because I wanted to learn and expand my knowledge. If a job pays well but I don’t gain any knowledge, it is not interesting for me. Knowledge is power.