There were some kids of which we were very jealous back in the 1970s. In the winter the differences were not apparent but in the summer everything changed. It was always Ron, Maia and Nir who were sent to the kibbutz to spend a few weeks with grandfather and grandmother or the uncle and aunt that did well in choosing the best place to live in the whole wide world, or at least that was what we thought. Back then only those select few could enjoy the scents of hay and the abundance of sausages in the dining hall, and we were left behind in the parking lot, waiting to hear their stories when they came back. Thirty years later the kibbutz is open to everyone. You need only pay (not a lot) and then you can enjoy everything that you miss in the big city. Yes, the kibbutz hospitality is getting better every year and receives more and more admirers, those children of back then who had no relatives in the kibbutz.
A "chicken coop” room and a "dairy barn” cabin
The essential change which the kibbutzes went through started in the 1980s, when their big economic crisis took place, which got bigger after the economic stabilizing plan of 1985. The plan brought eventually to the accumulation of large debts on the kibbutzes’ part, which were very difficult to pay back. In addition, several of the kibbutzes went through social and demographic crises which caused the leaving of many kibbutz members who left behind them deserted houses. The kibbutzniks (kibbutz members) were fortunately able to make a lemonade out of the lemons given them: in those same houses which were left unclaimed they offered to welcome all of those city folks who yearned every once in a while for that smell of hay, that is, of course, for a small fee which could help those kibbutzniks in that difficult time. And thus in fact was created the country lodging industry trend in Israeli society.
"Following the leaving of quite a few residents in 1990 many apartments became available here”, says Yonatan Alter, who is responsible for the marketing of "Nehara– Country Lodging” at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaacov Ichud. "After much thought we decided to turn them into guest units. The beginning was very modest: the apartments were spread around the kibbutz and it was hard work to walk around and show people where they will be staying. But the guests liked what they were offered and there was nothing in the city like eating in a dining hall and sleeping in basic rooms which were named after the work fields in the kibbutz, such as ‘chicken coop’ and ‘dairy barn’”.
In kibbutz Nir David as well it all started with a brave attempt to take caravans that were vacated and offer them to guests from outside the kibbutz. "After receiving immigrants from Russia, we were left with many used caravans and we thought about doing something with them”, explains Racheli Sason, the manager of "Al Sfat HaNachal”. "They were simple and the prices that we asked for were accordingly very low, but we knew that it will not be a big investment on our part and thus there was nothing to lose. We were surprised to see that despite this simplicity there was great demand and many guests have started to arrive”.
Everything started with a young woman who was looking for work
The "Ein Harod Country Suites & Guesthouse”, which is located at the kibbutz of Ein Harod, started with the youth building and with the help of one young woman. "That kibbutz member by the name of Ronit was looking for work in the mid 1990s”, says Meir Doron, the manager. "At the edge of the kibbutz were back then two deserted youth houses and she was one of those youths. She decided to turn the two classrooms that were there into guest houses in which there was a simple bed and plastic chairs and a common shower and toilet”. The people who stayed in these rooms were mainly UN people, but Ronit was pleased with her new ‘baby’. Three years later Ronit got cancer but did not abandon her idea until her last day and gave the management of the place to another kibbutz member who continued to take care of the place.
Israelis apparently were not taken back by the sparse conditions of those guest rooms in those days, perhaps because they did not have much more at home. But with the rising of living conditions toward the beginning of the new millennium the guests started asking for more and the people of the kibbutzes realized that they need to face these demands or lose their business.
Meir Doron says: "Near the beginning of the year of 2000 and the visit of the Pope in Israel we have asked and were given a grant for upgrading the guests’ complex. We renovated the rooms, put the showers and toilets inside the rooms and built 10 wooden cabins with Jacuzzis, which were not prevalent then but we heard that people were interested in them. We situated the cabins on the top of a hill that overlooks the views of the valley and invested a lot in beautiful gardening. That did bring results and we started getting guests from all around the country. In 2003, when we realized that this is a profitable business, we decided to open more rooms so that we could bring tourist buses to the kibbutz and later on also luxurious suites for couples only. Eventually we also built a central building with a dining room and a conference hall, and we also renovated the swimming pool”.
In "Nehara” as well they learned in time that it is worthwhile to upgrade to luxurious rooms which started to be sought after and they built a modern lodging site. Which means less of a kibbutz and more modernity. "We have stripped down the youth houses completely, added to them kitchenettes, toilets and showers, new pavements and impressive decorative gardening which receive a lot of compliments, especially for the new trees that we planted”, says Yonatan Alter. "We added more rooms and family units and rebranded it from country lodging to ’Nehara’. The houses lost their kibbutz work field names and are now called ‘Garden of Eden’ (Gan Eden), ’Vine’ (Gefen), ‘Date’ (Tamar) and more. The dining room which was built for the guests is named ‘Once Upon a Time’ (Hayo Haya) and there we exhibit old items from the kibbutz”.
Taking advantage of the natural resources
As a part of the organizational changes which the kibbutzes went through they realized that it is worthwhile taking advantage of the kibbutzes natural resources such as their special location or magnificent views. Thus, for example, the kibbutz Nir David resort, which overlooks the Hasi stream, got its name "Al Sfat HaNachal” (meaning on the stream bank). "We discovered that people are very much attracted to the stream and to the possibility of fishing in it and thus we started to offer them the chance to sail and fish in it”, explains Racheli Sason. "After upgrading and adding wooden cabins with Jacuzzi and a fine breakfast we started to offer our guests discounts for the Sahne National Park and to other tourist attractions which this area is rich with. With time we have turned these discounts into full vacation packages”.
In kibbutz Parod, which is in the Upper Galilee region, they also took advantage of the beautiful landscape and built the wooden cabins of Parod Inn (Kait Parod) right within a natural grove. "After offering for years a group of basic rooms which were sufficiently in demand, we had to make a decision where we go from there: whether to close down our site and rent out the apartments or continue further”, says the manager Eli Greenberg. "When we decided to continue we also decided to rebuild in this natural green area and invest considerably in a tourist village”.
The key concept- personal treatment
If once there was a clear difference between the cost of a family vacation at a hotel and at a kibbutz guest house, then with the improved wooden cabins, the LCD screens and the modern coffee machines which are offered in some of the rooms, the difference in prices has diminished. Couples or families that deal with the dilemma of what to spend their money on have to look at the wider picture.
"There is a huge difference”, says Eli Greenberg from Parod Inn (Kait Parod). "Children have spaces in the kibbutz that they cannot have in a hotel usually. They can go out and play safely, which is also less possible at a large hotel. People see nature; they can ride horses or ATVs or go rafting without needing to go too far”.
Alter from "Nehara’” thinks the same: "country lodging offers much more than carpeted corridors with one door after the other where everything looks the same. In the kibbutz the atmosphere is different; the houses are on the ground level and offer a lot of views, so that when you leave your room you can just start walking. In a hotel one is closed in a space which features a room and a swimming pool. Guests from outside of Israel especially tell me how much they enjoy the possibility of an outdoor BBQ and peacefully sitting outside. They are usually not used to that”.
Meir Doron from "Ein Harod Country Suites & Guesthouse” talks about the whole country experience which the kibbutz can offer as opposed to a hotel. "Families who arrive here from the city want to show their children the dairy barn, the horses in the stables and the goats in the pen. Things that the children are hardly ever exposed to in their everyday lives. On the other hand all of the indulgences that are offered by a hotel are also offered here and today one can order massages or private chef meals here as well”. And with all of that the winning key concept is probably the personal treatment that one receives at the kibbutzes that hotels find it difficult to compete with. One can ask for things, complain and receive an answer on the spot and an immediate solution to a problem. "The service and the attention to the costumer are much more personal from those that can be given at a hotel and Israelis are looking for that”, emphasizes Sason from "Al Sfat HaNachal”. "It is probably this that leaves the best memories with the guests of the kibbutzes”.