February. A German wearing a shirt with typical Bulgarian embroidery appears on the stage of the Pitch2Pitch competition. He presents an idea for shared accommodation in a former hotel in Semkovo, based on the cooperative, where all apartment owners are to participate in the repair and maintenance of the building. It sounds a little crazy - 200 people have to manage a common property together. But doubts are soon dispelled, Matthias Zeitler tells "Capital", because he remembers how he received a similar reaction when presenting his project Coworking Bansko about 6 years ago. Today, thanks to Zeitler persevering with his bid to welcome digital nomads to the ski resort - in the face of the doom merchants - the three sites of Bansko Coworking house about 130 foreigners and Bulgarians. Proof positive that Bansko can rival other hubs for digital nomads.
Madeira, Porto and... Bansko
Where in Europe do digital nomads like to stay? A quick search on the Internet shows that they choose warm and sunny locations, most often in Italy, Spain and Portugal. But Bulgaria's Bansko also appears in the rankings of quite a few sites, described as a mountain alternative to beach hubs at a much more affordable price than Western European destinations. A fundamental factor for this, several foreigners who currently reside there tell KInsights, is the community created around Zeitler's business Coworking Bansko, one of several coworking spaces in the city.
"When I first visited Bansko in 2015 as a digital nomad, I saw its potential to become a popular location for people who work remotely, mostly because of the mountains, affordable housing and food prices, but also because of the low taxes on profits in Bulgaria," says Zeitler regarding the beginning of his project.
"It all started as a hobby. My nomad friend and I invested in the idea and opened our first location in the city center, where we started inviting other nomads we knew, and subsequently the interest grew so much that people started coming on the recommendation of their acquaintances," he adds. Over the past 6 years, investments in the business have reached about 100 thousand euros, which have already paid off, but Zeitler says that the business continues to be more of a hobby than a business for profit.
3 locations 2 minutes away
Today, Coworking Bansko has three locations in close proximity to each another, after Zeitler decided in 2021 to close the fourth one in order to avoid an increase in the monthly membership fee of 129 euros. The three buildings offer a different experience to workers and are available to them 24/7 - The lounge recreates a cafe for work, The Social Space has an area for presentations, games and shared desks, and The Quiet Space allows you to work in complete silence.
In the spring and summer, one can also work in the yard, where there are hammocks and tables, as well as barbecue plates for preparing lunch. And with the two bright orange cars parked outside Bansko Coworking's entrance, members can get to The Square, a lawn of hammocks and work benches 20 minutes away that will soon also house a hut.
To create a community
Lise Slimane and Oscar Train are among the 130 current members at Coworking Bansko. They came after hearing about the community. "What's unique here is the friendships you make," explains Train, who, in addition to being a member of the coworking space, is also the current community manager. "Other coworking spaces I've been a part of emphasize work. You come here to make friends," he adds.
"Monday is board game night, Tuesdays we play poker, on Wednesdays we go to a sports complex for volleyball or basketball, on Thursdays we all go to the hot springs in the village of Banya, and on Fridays we have dinner together," says Zeitler, who during a tour with the team of Capital around the facilities, greets each member by name and actively participates in the organization of most meetups, games and trips.
"The truth is, to a large extent, it's not us, it's the members themselves who contribute to the community," says Zeitler, explaining that members often take the initiative to organize other events. They are required to keep the workspaces tidy and buy supplies for common use in the coworking kitchens, and sometimes empty and refill the dishwasher. "Officially, Tsvetelina and I work at Coworking Bansko. She takes care of communication with clients, arrangement, organization," explains Zeitler. "We also work with 3 women who keep the facilities clean and come in the morning to reset the workspaces before members come in."
The average age of members is about 35, which, Zeitler says, is because very young people don't like to work as freelancers. "When they graduate, 20-year-olds don't have the confidence to make it on their own in a more non-traditional sector. By 30, they have more confidence in their skills, which is why most digital nomads everywhere are in their 30s," he explains.
And to attract more nomads, for several years now, Zeitler has been organizing the summer Bansko Nomad Fest, a week-long event for digital nomads with meetings, presentations and networking evenings. In 2022, 550 guests arrived in Bansko for the festival, and in the last week of June 2023, as many as 750 are expected to come.
Support from the municipality
"For the organization of the festival, and in general, we receive the support of the local administration," says Zeitler. "We have access to the municipal building, conference rooms and the central square, which in a city like Sofia would never happen; this is one of the benefits of being in a small town," he adds. "And the support has been there since our first day here. When we opened, the mayor at the time greeted us and said he wasn't sure why we would come to Bansko, but he was happy to welcome us. I think it's still like that today: locals don't know what exactly it is that we're doing, but they see the people we're bringing to the city and they're happy."
Despite the success of Coworking Bansko, Zeitler decided not to enter the hotel industry, which would have brought in competition for local landlords. Instead, since 2020, he has been cooperating with apartment owners who rent them out and publishes their offers on banskonomadapartments.com, where members of Coworking Bansko can find temporary housing.