After growing up in small-town Ohio, Dana Krauskopf dreamed of getting out and exploring the world. During her childhood years, her travels consisted of road trips from Cape Cod to California, with her parents and all five kids packed together in their trusty family station wagon.
However, as she got older, Dana had opportunities to journey beyond U.S. borders and even live abroad in Eastern and Western Europe. She has dived all over the globe, explored beautiful sites straight out of National Geographic, enjoyed a traditional dinner with a Bedouin tribe and even eaten bumblebee larva.
The places she’s lived and worked along with her desire to gain life experiences and immerse herself in different cultures all helped give her the courage to go after her wildest dream – owning a boutique hotel in a stunning yet undiscovered location.
This past October Dana, her husband, Dave, and their three children celebrated 15 years as owners of Hamanasi Resort, a top-rated eco-resort located in Hopkins, Belize. We talked to her about her amazing travels, her desire to build a boutique resort and the challenges she and her team overcame to make it happen.
You and your husband Dave have been partners in life and business for a long time … where did you two meet?
We met my freshman year in college – he was a senior – in a restaurant bar at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I tell him he ruined my college years because we started dating so early after I got there. I was 19 years old at the time and we got married seven years later.
Did you two travel much together in the beginning?
Yes, we started traveling together before we got married. During college, I studied abroad in Luxembourg and when Dave came to visit, we were able to travel around Germany. We traveled to Bonaire in the Caribbean, which is where we learned to dive. We dived in Mexico, the Red Sea, Zanzibar, Australia and other great destinations. We also lived in Europe for a while (mostly Prague and Moscow) and traveled to most Western and Eastern European countries … we traveled a lot.
Most people probably wouldn’t leave a “safe” job to move to Eastern Europe, especially in the early ‘90s, but you did … what gave you the courage to make such a drastic life change?
I had lived in Europe prior to that, twice, so I understood it and wasn’t intimidated – I knew I wanted to go back. I was young and without kids, no commitments, so it was the right time. So I just moved. When you’re younger, some decisions are easier to make because there are fewer major consequences. I knew if it didn’t work out, I would just move back to the States. I went over to Germany first, then found a job in Prague and, a few months later, Dave came too. We just went for it.
You have traveled and lived in a lot of places … why was a “life of adventure” important to you?
Because you’re always learning, always experiencing something new – it keeps your mind and body active. Traveling helps you empathize with other people, cultures and perceptions. Plus, it’s kind of fun. According to my aunt, one of my ancestors is Captain James Cook, so I say it’s in my blood! I grew up in small town and didn’t particularly enjoy it. When I was young, my oldest brother (who is 10 years older) was in the Peace Corps in South Korea and traveled all over – that sparked my imagination.
When did you start dreaming about owning your own boutique hotel and why?
The idea germinated when we were traveling in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. We had already learned to dive and were still excited about that, but what we liked about that trip was that we were able to do a lot: we visited Mayan ruins, experienced different cultures and found that we liked that combination of things.
The hotel started as a crazy idea. We made a little statement like, “Someday, let’s own a hotel”. Then, the idea kept growing in our minds and we started saying, “We can do this … why not?” The experience of already living and working in a pretty extreme business environment in Eastern Europe gave us the confidence that we could do it in a Caribbean country. This was something we could do that would utilize our business skills, feed our love of travel and living abroad, and allow us to help others enjoy travel too.
Why was Belize the destination of choice?
We were looking all over world, wherever we traveled. We wanted a place that definitely offered diving, so we looked at places from the Red Sea to Australia to Asia and around the Caribbean. What attracted us to Belize was that it was close to U.S. (closer to our families) and was an English-speaking democracy. Plus, it had a similar legal system to the U.S. and, coming from Russia’s legal system where you’re always guilty of something, we thought, “Wow, this will be easy!”
At that time, Belize was still relatively undiscovered; it was known in diving circles but not for its mainland activities. We liked that the country was underdeveloped and had a great natural environment. Plus, the country believed in protecting the environment instead of exploiting it. We didn’t want to be in a city or a place that was already built up, but rather in an area where we could make our own mark. In Hopkins, you can access the best diving but still easily get inland. We liked that the piece of land we found was near the village, so our guests could have better interaction with locals.
Do you think living abroad as a young adult helped when it came to opening a business abroad? Why?
Absolutely. I think when a person lives abroad anywhere, they’re put in an unfamiliar environment and they have to navigate that. The more extreme or different the environment, the more you have to be able to adapt. That certainly was the case for us in Eastern Europe. A lot of Americans get overwhelmed and leave because they can’t handle living in a remote village in a third world country where things don’t always go according to plan. You have to be able to adapt and not get frazzled … not to say we didn’t get frazzled at times!
I think everyone should have to live abroad at at least one point in life. Wherever you grow up, you are indoctrinated by that culture and its propaganda. When you live abroad, you realize that maybe there are different perspectives. Learning about those differences helps you appreciate others, helps you grow and enriches you as a person. It doesn’t make one less patriotic; it may even make one more patriotic, just in a nuanced manner.
What were the motivating factors that kept your dream alive, especially since, at the time, you lived half a world away from Belize?
It was like a project – we had a vision and wanted to achieve it. It was exciting, it was a challenge, and once you’re in, you’re in. We say Hamanasi was our first kid because we couldn’t just leave it; we were fully determined to make it happen. We were definitely under-financed and under-experienced, but we had drive and vision and just kept at it. Luckily we both felt the same so we could help each other.
In the beginning, we flew from Moscow to Belize numerous times, which took a minimum of two days just to travel. For the longest time, you couldn’t even make direct calls between the countries because the phone cables hadn’t been connected yet. Therefore, we had someone in the States relay messages between us and Belize. In 1999, we left Moscow and moved to New Orleans for a couple years while we worked on the business plan and started construction.
What does “Hamanasi” mean?
It is a Garifuna word, meaning almond from the Belizean Hamans tree, a gorgeous tree that grows right on the seaside. I often think that a lot of English resort names are … uninspired. Garifuna is such a unique language and few have ever heard of it, so we wanted to be respectful and honor that culture. Plus, it’s exotic and just sounds cooler!
How long was the initial construction and what hurdles did you overcome during those first few years?
We started building in January 2000, and opened on October 18, 2000, even though we weren’t quite finished building. When you have a small property like ours, you have to grow organically because you just don’t always have the capital.
There were so many challenges in the beginning. We were late getting the buildings done and were worried they wouldn’t be done to match the level of quality we wanted, since the necessary people and/or products weren’t always available or the weather wasn’t cooperating. I remember we were trying to build the pool during a particularly rainy season. It was pouring down rain and we kept trying to dig deeper and deeper but then hit the water table. We finally had a break in rain and were able to pump out all the water so we could get the concrete in, but it wasn’t easy.
Things like that you have to learn to work with. We had traveled a lot and had been in different hospitality situations, and it’s amazing how much you learn just from your experience about what’s good/bad, what to do and not to do … we started applying what we experienced in life to how we trained our employees. We had to have 100% hands-on training at first. We had to show our team how to set a table in the restaurant and explain why we needed all this stuff on the table, what the purpose was for two forks instead of just one, etc., … it was all new to them. Plus, we had to teach them about customer service: why you always greet guests, why you memorize names and display common courtesies. I remember that every night during the first few years, Dave would grill our servers, “Who’s in Room 8? What are their names? Where are they from?” He would challenge them to know who our guests were. Over time, we formalized a proprietary training program: Greet, Know, Listen, Act, and Anticipate.
A lot of our employees had never worked in hospitality before, so it was like we were all in it together. We were all experiencing this for the first time and working together to improve it over time, which is cool. We have shared pride in what we have been able to accomplish.
Was the local community receptive to Hamanasi or not so much?
They were receptive of the jobs since it was a remote village and there was a limited supply of jobs. There was only one other resort of any kind in the area at the time so people were desperate for work. That said, we hadn’t gained their trust and respect, so it took probably three to four years to fully be integrated and earn their trust. They called us the “Russians” when we arrived, since that’s where we were moving from. They had a lot of experience with white people coming in, preaching to locals, and thinking they know better. We were cognizant of the issues, but by the same token, we had a business to run and certain expectations for how people needed to act in a business environment. There was definitely a lot of chatter in the village about us, but we just had to earn their respect. It’s like what we told our managers too… as long as you treat people fairly and consistently, you will gain their respect over time, which is what happened.
Why is it important to you that Hamanasi be a premier provider of sustainable accommodations and ecotourism?
Because we are in the business of selling nature. Everything that we are offering our guests is dependent upon nature. All marine activities, the rainforest activities … another part of sustainability is protecting and respecting cultures, which include the Mayan ruins and village tours. If we aren’t careful, we would be shooting our own foot because that’s what our business model is built on and is what keeps Belize special and unique. We love nature and have always wanted to protect it. We think that it enriches our world when you have a sustainable environment and natural habitat.
Why is it important for you to continue to increase your sustainability practices and improve an already top-rated resort?
Trying to achieve awards is nice, even though that’s not our main motivation, but it really is motivating for our employees when they get that recognition since they have ownership of that, knowing they’re being ranked among the top resorts in the world.
However, sustainability never ends; it’s a process and you have to continue because there’s always something you can do to improve and become more sustainable. In life, you have to continue to improve, otherwise you’re no longer challenging yourself or contributing. If you don’t, someone else will and you’re no longer at the top of your game.
You just completed a massive 10,000 square foot renovation this November … what’s next?
We are developing the master plan for a piece of property that is a multi-stage development. Initially, we’ll start with reforestation over a large part of it, then we’ll building some two-bedroom deluxe treehouses and, ultimately, we’ll be adding more treehouses. In the next three years or so, we’ll be adding a spa with a jungle pool and yoga room/conference room nearby. Wellness travel is a growing part of the industry and since these are complimentary services that fit with what we currently offer, we can add these services to our guests’ overall vacation experience.
Any advice for women who want to make their wildest dreams a reality?
Just do it! Have confidence in yourself, do your homework – write out your business plan, get the numbers together – and be willing to work really, really hard. Its not easy, but you can do it!
This interview was conducted by Nancy Harrison, founder and CEO of Adventure Media.