Surrey of the Balkans
July 03, 2005
Forget France and Spain — pretty Alpine Slovenia is the latest place where entrepreneurial Brits are setting up in business, says Peter Conradi of The Sunday Times
If the secret of business success is spotting a niche in the market, then Ian Samuel, who has just exchanged the urban sprawl of Staines, Middlesex, for the bucolic delights of rural Slovenia, could be on to a good thing: bouncy castles.
Not just bouncy castles, mind. The barn at his newly acquired run-down mill also contains a bouncy slide and soft play equipment. Not to mention two pool and table-football tables, an air-hockey table and a container full of play equipment.
Together, they form the basis of what Ian, 35, a former electrician, and his wife, Louise, 32, hope will be a new life in part of the former Yugoslavia dubbed the “Surrey of the Balkans” by its growing band of enthusiasts. Their venture, Slovenia for Families, is aimed both at Britons looking for family holidays and at local people keen for new experiences for their kids.
“They don’t have anything like bouncy castles here,” says Louise, striding with a proprietary air through the long grass of what one day soon will be their own mini theme park. Here, in one of the derelict outbuildings, they plan to set up a cafe; the neighbouring block will be transformed into holiday cottages. The couple are also plotting a crazy-golf course – another local first.
“People with children want somewhere they can have a nice time and the kids will be happy,” she says. “Not everybody wants to be a lobster on the Costa del Sol fighting for a sunbed each morning.”
It was chance that brought the Samuels to Prekmurje, a region of rolling hills and vineyards in the northeast of the country close to the point where Austria, Hungary and Croatia meet. After his sister and mother died, Ian was keen to start a new life abroad.
Louise’s father had been impressed by the country — which escaped Yugoslavia relatively unscathed after nine days of Serb military occupation — during a visit with his choir, so last September, with sons Dylan, now 4, and Lennon, 20 months, in tow, the couple set off on a tour. Prekmurje was their last stop, but they knew it was the place for them.
Convinced there was money to be made in the fledgling leisure market, the Samuels spent thousands of pounds buying up their bouncy castle and other equipment on eBay and at bankruptcy sales.
The first guests from Britain are due this month, and after giving the bouncy slide its first public outing recently, they got their first booking, from a local spa.
“Slovenia, tourist-wise, is going to be big,” says Ian, apparently unfazed by the enormity of their gamble. “I call it the Sleeping Beauty.”
Other enterprising Brits have also gone into business in the area. One couple based at a nearby riverside lodge offer white-water rafting, kayaking and various winter sports. Further north, another British-run company takes small groups underground cycling, with lamps on their heads, through 435 miles of disused mine shafts.
Slovenia for Families, 00 38 640 959 364, www.sloveniaforfamilies.com