Like youth hostels, kibbutz guesthouses have come a long way since the days of renovated children’s rooms or a line of small bungalows at the far side of the kibbutz. Only 45 years ago, the Nof Ginnosar Hotel at Kibbutz Ginnosar on the Sea of Galilee was considered one of the more luxurious of the kibbutz accommodation options. The hotel and its iconic dining room were designed in 1960 by the talented Ziva Armoni. One of the first women to work as an architect in Israel, she also designed the National Library in Jerusalem. Nof Ginnosar was even more famous for its blintzes, which Rivka Steiner – known by all as Rivkale – prepared with a special machine and served for breakfast. When she passed away, the machine broke, and the guesthouse fell behind the times.
Ronnie Manor arrived at Kibbutz Ginnosar by chance. He met a girl, married, and has remained there ever since. For the last 12 years, he has been managing the guesthouse.
The first order of business was to revamp the hotel completely, Manor recalls. The 16-square-meter guest rooms of old were turned into luxurious 32-square-meter guest rooms. Everything else, from the dining room to the parking lot, also was revamped.
“Today we get a lot of travelers touring Israel in private cars. They come to us because their driver-guide recommends us as the best hotel by the Sea of Galilee,” Manor says.
“The other growing group of visitors is those coming through the internet. Four years ago, we hooked our reservation system directly into the internet – and reservations started to come in. The first year, we got reservations for 1,000 room nights over the internet. Last year, we were up to 6,000 room nights. It is not a large percentage of the 120,000 room nights that we fill annually, but it is growing in leaps and bounds.”
This internet presence led him to pay more attention to the hotel’s rating on websites.
“Today we are currently around 8 – but improving,” Manor says. “Every remark is checked, taken into account, and corrected if there is need to do so. The guest ratings on the cards in the rooms are usually higher – and we are making progress to get up to the same high ratings that we get on the cards that our guests complete at the hotel.”
Despite all the improvements at the hotel, guests usually stay for only a night or two. This is one of the problems of travel in the Galilee and could be changed by making the Galilee a destination from which guests will visit other parts of the country. Another option is to encourage guests to spend more time exploring the Galilee, as Tal Yeshua is doing at the Travel Hotels.
Yeshua’s path to the hotel industry was long and circuitous, with more than a few interesting stops along the way. Many of these stops were at kibbutzim or related to kibbutzim, which is not surprising since he was born at Kibbutz Hulata in the Hula Valley.
After completing his army service, Yeshua studied engineering. In 1977, he decided to settle at Kibbutz Sufa, near the new city of Yamit in the Sinai south of Rafiah. When Israel evacuated the Sinai in 1982, after signing a peace agreement with Egypt, the entire kibbutz moved from Sinai to Pithat Shalom, along the border with Gaza in the Negev.
“We moved everything,” Yeshua remembers, “the houses, the trees, the greenhouses – everything was transferred as is to the new kibbutz.”
For the first three years after the evacuation, all the members of the kibbutz stayed on. The compensation that they received from the government for the evacuation was plowed into the creation of a vibrant kibbutz at the new location. By 1996, Sufa was one of the most successful kibbutzim in the country.
Then things changed. The Israeli government went on a privatization rampage, which included the cooperative tools of the agricultural sector, and Yeshua, who had been serving as the kibbutz secretary-general, decided that the time had come for him to move on. He had reached the age of 40 and felt that he needed something new. For a while, Yeshua served as the manager of kibbutzim that were going through an economic crisis, while continuing to look for something new and exciting to do.
The idea to create a chain of hotels for travelers interested in an active vacation was born from the work he had done to get kibbutzim back on their feet. While traveling abroad, he had come across hotels that catered especially to travelers and hikers who wanted to explore the unique offerings of the surrounding area. He realized that kibbutz facilities could be adapted very well to this purpose.
Since there was broad consensus in the Israeli hospitality industry then that hotels with only 30 guest rooms are not viable, Yeshua thought of creating a chain of small hotels from the beginning. All the hotels in the chain would share certain key infrastructure, creating the synergy needed to succeed. He started the initiative at Kibbutz Eilon, which was going through some difficult times. He opened 28 guest units at the kibbutz that were designed to cater to travelers who wanted to experience the Western Galilee.
The next site also was in the Western Galilee, this time at Kibbutz Gesher Haziv. The kibbutz once had been famous for its hotel, which had closed long ago. Yeshua and his partner were not interested in reviving the old hotel, but in creating something new so they converted empty rooms that once had housed the kibbutz’s youth into 28 guest units. Around that time, Yeshua, who had remarried, bought out his partner and his wife joined the business as a partner. Since then, it has grown to four hotels. They named the chain Melonot Metaylim in Hebrew and Travel Hotels in English.
“When we started refurbishing the hotel in Kibbutz Malkiyya, high in the Upper Galilee, we wanted it as a base for nature travel,” he recalls. “The next hotel, in Metulla, was established in 1936 and we refurbished it to turn it into a new, comfortable hotel.
“In the beginning, we worked with a marketing agent. However, we soon figured out that he only knew how to bring groups, which was not relevant for our small properties.”
They decided to focus on hosting independent tourists instead of groups, focusing on Israelis.
“Israelis don’t travel alone,” Yeshua says, “they travel in small groups. A few families travel together, or friends from work or the same neighborhood, and so on.”
This means designing a hotel that can accommodate a number of small, independent groups. So, for example, a variety of common areas and gathering places were created, play areas for children; comfortable public places to sit and relax; and spots to have a sing-along in the evening.
“The tourists we host can be divided into two groups: those between the ages of 30 and 45, mainly families with kids, and those over 50, who arrive without kids,” he says.
“Families come over the weekends and on school holidays, while pensioners, who constitute a large segment of travelers, come in the middle of the week.”
Since the Travel Hotels’ mission is to cater to travelers, the chain also designed a website especially for them.
“We offer content about the area around of the hotel,” Yeshua explains.
They invited anybody in the area with an interest in tourism – from visitors’ centers and museums to restaurants and tour operators – to come aboard free of charge and post details and photos of what they offer on the Travel Hotels website. Tour guides and tour operators also were invited to post hiking and excursion routes. The website was soon humming and serving as a useful tool for travelers planning a trip to the region.
Despite all the internet hype about the ability to plan everything on your own, Yeshua says, he has found that people still want to talk their plans over with another person. That is why, in addition to training the hotel managers so that they can suggest three or four travel routes to guests, Yeshua opened a call center in Haifa. The call center dispenses travel advice as well as taking reservations. In addition, every Sunday, after the weekend, the sales team phones about one third of the guests who stayed at the hotels that weekend for feedback.
“This allows us to pinpoint problem areas and to make changes that are better attuned to what our guests need. You need to listen to your guests, find out what they like or dislike, and act accordingly,” he says, adding that is why they have just redone all 28 guest rooms at Gesher Haziv to meet the desires that their guests expressed.
That said, the Travel Hotels also relies greatly on the internet.
“We sell 115 guest units every day – most of them to individual travelers who reach us through the internet and our call center,” Yeshua says. “We send a newsletter with travel tips over email once a month and we update our Facebook page daily. It has over 5,000 followers.”
In the internet age, the new sales technique is being connected to your clients – all the time.
“Internet orders are mushrooming. Three years ago, they were less than one percent. Today 15% of orders are coming in over the internet,” he says, adding, “Internet sales are driven by price and rating.”
Booking.com, one of the most popular internet reservation sites, rates hotels on a scale of one to 10 (in some countries, the scale is one to five) based on reviews that guests are asked to submit after checking out of a hotel. (Booking.com only allows people who have fulfilled a reservation at a hotel to rate their stay.) About half of his internet orders come from his website and half from Booking.com, Yeshua says, but many guests who do not make reservations via Booking.com use the ratings it provides of hotels as a benchmark. Many of Yeshua’s Israeli guests who order through Booking.com fill out the rating questionnaire that they receive from it.
“Israelis are very critical,” Yeshua says. “They always object to something.”
This of course forces hotels in Israel to try harder and to be more attentive. Anything below eight out of 10 is considered below par in most countries, while in Israel, getting to eight is considered a success.
Another advantage of the internet is that it allows hotels to reach out to travelers from around the globe.
“Four years ago, there were no foreign tourists at our hotels,” Yeshua says. “Today they are over 10% and growing fast. Booking.com also allows us to get last-minute reservations, where we can fill the last rooms at a reduced price.”
The old system of big hotels that cater to groups that book via travel agents still dominates the tourism industry today, Yeshua acknowledges. However, this is changing. The travel agent will eventually go digital and filling a hotel will become more and more an issue of the added value that a hotel offers and its ability to meet guests’ expectations.
“Our expertise is facilitating a full travel and hiking experience around our Galilean hotels, with a happy hour and hot soup in the winter for those returning from a day’s hike and cold drinks in the summer,” Yeshua concludes. “At present, we have four hotels, in which we have already invested NIS 7 million – all from the income generated by the company. We have set our sights on growing – setting our goal at 12 hotels in the years to come.”
Nof Ginnosar Hotel
Tel.: (04) 670-0320 | Kibbutz Ginnosar
www.travelhotels.co.il/eng | Tel.: (04) 688-3040
Kibbutz Eilon, Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, Kibbutz Malkiyya, and 52 Harishonim Street, Metulla