Opening a CoLiving Space during a Pandemic ?!
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
When Charles and Ania moved to the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores archipelago of Portugal with the idea of opening a co-working/co-living house they dreamed of hosting tourists from all over the world.
Both had traveled extensively. Charles is a musician and composer originally from Michigan in the United States, and Ania hails from Poland. Neither of them had direct experience running a co-working or guest house, but as Charles tells us, “We often had to get VERY creative when we found we were staying in an airbnb with no table to work on, or no chair to sit on. Stacking boxes or furniture to create a makeshift office in our room. It got us thinking about creating a place that works well for travelers, that has all the essentials without being too fancy or pretentious.”
When they arrived on Sao Miguel they found the perfect property in June of 2019. A gutted two story building on the north side in the village of Fernia la Luz. It was a great location and a great price. They had drive, they had passion, but what they did not have, was windows.
As Ania tells it, construction on an island can be time consuming and challenging in the best situation due to a small labor force and imported supplies. But what they quickly found was that their project was relegated to weekend only work with a small skeleton crew who were constantly pushing their timeline, and pushing their patience. Their first few months were cold, and with a busted roof the decor consisted mainly of buckets to catch the flooding water.
“We lived on-site during all the construction. There were plenty of times that I wished I was not sleeping among piles of rubble, or that when I got out of the shower I could simply walk on a clean tile floor, instead of gravel, cement, or dirt. But...... during those early days of covid, something was kind of secure in it as well. I knew what I was going to be doing each day (renovating) I knew I had a job, I knew what tasks were coming next etc.”
They could not have expected that their dream would be delayed by the global pandemic that has affected so many business owners around the world.
“We had initially hoped to open by Christmas of 2019. (this put us on a roughly 3 months renovation schedule (typical of my projects in the USA). Between contractor delays, then many many shipping delays (due to covid) we finished our renovations in July of 2020.”
After what amounted to a year of construction, they ended up with a 5 bedroom home with a large deck, beautiful windows, and an unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean. The co-working space on the second level has large bay windows looking out at the crashing waves below and the requisite hammock hanging from the rafters.
A co-living house presents its own challenges during a viral pandemic. How do you have people living together, sharing spaces, touching things presumably from many different countries. How do you have paying customers at all when travel and borders are shut down? Did they even want strangers in their home jeopardizing their health and well being?
Finally in August of 2020, with limited travel to the island allowed, Ania and Charles decided to pull the trigger and open to the public. Dwell Azores Co-Working Community & Accommodations was born.
The Azores islands have been lucky to escape the brunt of the virus that so many other locations have suffered. At the time of this article the islands have registered slightly more than 300 cases with only 16 deaths. To gain entry to Sao Miguel, travelers and residents were required to provide a negative covid test, or complete a free test at the airport upon arrival. While this sounds like a foolproof plan, early on one of their guests tested positive for the coronavirus a day after check-in. The couple spent hours trying to contact the department of health for guidance. How were they supposed to help this person, where was this guest supposed to stay for the mandatory quarantine. Would they be compensated? These were emotional and financial challenges the government posters had not prepared them for.
Charles tells us about his experience, “He tested, came to our house, made himself comfortable in his room and sure enough around 1am. (12 hr later) the guest had a phone call from the health department and shortly thereafter police arrived to confirm his location. We were told by the police to wait for the next information from the health department. The next day, Nothing.. not a word. We emailed, we called, we texted. They kinda just let us make our own judgements about how to handle it. Was a bit scary at first. They arrived in Hazmat suits to inform us, and then left everyone else in our place with a covid positive guest locked in his room! Crazy times we live in. We tried our best to feed him through the window for a couple days but eventually we could not wait for the health department's reply so we moved this guest to a private apartment in another town. We all made sure to use extra disinfectants, masks, sprays etc. Eventually we convinced the local health department to test everyone who was in the house during those days. All of us came back negative.”
When I met Charles & Ania in September 2020, I was one of their early customers. Of course they were still working out kinks. Finding the safest ways to allow guests to interact in the shared spaces. Trying to manage the cleaning schedule with just the two of them. I asked them how this changed their outlook on the business side.
“Business has been better than expected. Covid changed many people's travel plans due to cancelled flights and travel restrictions. This offered us many opportunities to welcome people (many Portuguese) who would have otherwise been abroad. Many decided to visit their islands instead. So it was kind of bitter sweet welcoming guests whose plan A, had been cancelled, but of course, we were glad to be their Plan B. We will see how winter turns out. Ania and I both have some other jobs we can stay busy with, so hopefully we can keep this place afloat and hope for brighter days next season.”
The location is magical, the price is reasonable and fair. While they still have work to do, finishing the decor and hiding the cans of paint so the guests don’t see, they are poised to be one of the only co-working/co-living houses on the north side of the island. For this young couple, the struggle of opening a business during covid did not deter them. They stuck to their plan, and they stuck to their dreams. I hope they are able to weather the winter season with even less tourists, and ride out the remaining unknown of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Charles sums it up for us,
“These islands are really great in offering any visitor the chance to connect to something in a very earthy and natural kind of way. It's a great place to explore yourself, or some ideas you may have. Our co-working space which is included with your room (if you decide to sleep here) is directly on the ocean. We don't want people to come here to feel like they were simply clients. We try to invite them to be part of the community. To meet others, to share, to explore and to have the opportunity to experience some of what the Azores has to offer all of us. (residents and visitors). We have some spaces for people who want to stay long term, we have places for those who want to work a bit while they travel, or who want an opportunity to taste what it's like to "live" in the Azores, rather than just be a visitor here. Even if you don't stay with us, please drop us an email, come up and visit and have a coffee on our terrace. :) We welcome you.”
You can find Charles & Ania’s place on various booking sites, or directly at www.dwellazores.com