The first and most important thing is to focus on guest happiness. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Our daily messages with the team focus on making the guest happy. Sometimes it’s not so simple because just saying yes to everything a guest wants is not going to ensure our guests as a whole are happy necessarily. So you need to have foresight as well to determine that if you say yes to this, does this open doors to stuff that you cannot deliver? Thus, in the end, is saying yes going to make the guest more unhappy in the long run? It’s important to manage guest happiness and manage the happiness of a group.

As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kjeld Schigt.

Kjeld Schigt started Kalon Surf in 2011 after living all over the globe and working for multinational companies such as BP, Heineken, and Unilever. Schigt is very passionate about Kalon Surf and wanted to create the best surf school in Costa Rica. Kalon is a resort experience for people to relax, learn to surf, and reconnect to nature. Schigt has built Kalon alongside his wife, Silene, and together they are enriching the community of Costa Rica and all who visit them.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Of course, thank you for having me. What brought me to my career path was a conversation I had with a mentor and previous employer, Huub Stokman. He asked me what I wanted out of life, and it really stuck with me that I shouldn’t just be focused on making money, but doing something that I enjoyed as well. I really appreciate that my mentor was the one to help me come to the realization that what I thought was driving me was not my true source of motivation. Money had not only changed my career path but rather what I did and how I lived my life. Figuring out what drove me didn’t take away anything from my work ethic, or how I operated, rather the opposite happened. Knowing what drives me has helped a lot.

Can you share the most interesting story that has happened since you started your career?

I remember one moment when I was working for BP, I was not very senior yet but within the year I was leading a team. Because of this, when I had my performance review, I went in and thought, ‘This will be good, I will get an excellent rating, I will have a good bonus’ and everything. Perhaps I was a little bit arrogant, perhaps a little bit cocky, but I saw my manager and my manager asked me how I thought I did and I said ‘Well, you know, I lead the team and we had been traveling everywhere. I think we had great success, and we did way more than what was expected. So, I think it went great.’ He said, ‘Well, I agree with you on everything except for the fact that you promised me a year ago that you would learn German because you were based in Switzerland. You didn’t learn German, so I cannot give you an excellent rating.’ It took me by surprise. I remember telling him, ‘How did you want me to have done that?’ Because I was traveling five days a week all over Europe. I was doing all kinds of stuff. So, how should I have been able to learn German? He said, ‘Well, the thing is Kjeld, I don’t think you will get another chance like this to learn another language so closely. On this career path, you most likely will go to the UK and continue to speak English. This was a chance to learn something new to improve your skill set, and you did not take it.’ That happening to me has instilled a very important lesson in me on how I approach things and make the most out of every situation.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I learned Spanish thanks to traveling around the world and living for short periods of time in Spanish-speaking countries. What I had not mastered yet, was that there were different nuances within each country’s language. Each country has its own phrases and way they say things and much like American to British sayings, they’re not all the same. So I was working in Costa Rica and I would ask the people I worked with, ‘Can you do that now?’ using the Spanish word ‘ahora’. ‘Ahora’ in Costa Rica means basically, maybe, whenever, any time in the future (or not). It took me some time to figure out that the equivalent of now is ‘ya’, but once I figured it out, it became a little bit easier. The lesson here is that even though you might be well-traveled, or you might have worked in a lot of countries, or might be in a country where you think you understand everything; there’s always room to improve. In the end, you’re the messenger of your own message, right? So you need to figure out that whatever you want to get across will come across in such a way that people actually can understand what you want, and act on it in a similar fashion or understand what they’re saying. Never stop learning.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I previously mentioned him, but I am grateful to my mentor Huub, who helped me realize that the business path I was on was not fulfilling. Two months after I left BP, thanks to his advice, we had dinner together. There, he asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ and I was feeling a little lost, I had interviews but none of them felt right and I didn’t know where to go from there. I had this idea for a surf camp, but it seemed so far-fetched since I had never worked in that industry before. During the dinner, he finally got the idea out of me, and he saw how passionate I was about it. He encouraged me by saying that it seemed like more than an idea and could be a great business venture. I had more passion for the surf camp than I realized, but it came across to him so clearly. His encouragement helped push me to start Kalon Surf in 2011and; in 2012, he got to visit and see the work he had encouraged me to do in person, and it was a great full-circle moment. He became my partner in Kalon Surf, and he’s a great person to have on your team. He asks hard questions that you might not want to answer, but it keeps us sharp, and the company is in great shape thanks to his efforts.

Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

When I was looking for surf camps to attend as a professional businessman myself, I felt that everything was geared toward hostels. We went into this niche market for professionals that are looking to learn to surf (properly) while still enjoying luxurious comfort. This also allows us to actually teach a sport that is very difficult in a very proper way. Using our business background, both my wife, Silene, and our partner gave us an edge to look at the hospitality industry in a different way. Approaching it from a business point of view, from learning you’ve got to understand your customers a lot more and understand the guests that you’re getting into your hotel, understanding what they’re looking for, what makes their stay better and how to make it a once in a lifetime experience. And that, I think, is what we did with cannon and what we do very well. Focusing on one thing only, and not like a billion things allowed us to get better and better and better at what we do, optimizing processes and finding people that are a better fit. Our business is definitely a people business and it is important to understand exactly who our target customers are and what they are looking for in a resort. Too many businesses offer a crazy amount of services to try to please everyone and thus are not excelling at any of them. Instead, we focus on one to three services and do them extremely well.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

It can be difficult to learn how to surf. People from the U.S., which is more so our target market, do not have a huge amount of vacation days and work hard. When they go, it should be great, it should be dedicated, it should be worthwhile. So a lot of people do not have like a huge amount of time to learn a very difficult sport. Because surfing is so challenging and time-consuming, our resort offers them a chance to dedicate a week of learning with proper techniques while also having high-quality accommodations and food. Our resort is fulfilling a lot of needs for many of our guests. A lot of them actually also want to surf for comfort. The reason I think why Airbnb got big at one moment, is because hotels had gotten too cold, and too expensive with not much value in return. However now, I think there’s a slight shift again back to hotels because people want comfort and time to actually spend on their experience rather than dealing with issues that can arise with Airbnb Owners. I think people are looking to experience quality, connection, being taken care of, and comfort; hotels provide that. They’re looking for an experience, and for warmth since you’re leaving the comfort of your home. You should feel happy to come back home after a great vacation because you had a trip of a lifetime and because you met sincere people. People you connected with that moved you, made you happy, and feel connected, and I think that’s what we do. We make sure experiencing our resort goes far beyond surfing, which we do for all experience levels, but it also brings some kind of comfort. So much so that people find it is even better than home as it still has the sense of familiarity and being together while sharing the sport of surfing with a level of professionalism. I don’t think you can find this in a lot of places, but I do think a lot of people are looking for an experience like this.

As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?

I think the key thing about COVID is that there’s a business part and there’s an experienced part. We do know that anything can happen, and you need to be ready for that, for both the hotels and the customers. So in our case, we helped figure out where you can actually get proper travel insurance and helped educate our customers on their insurance options. We explained that there are travel insurances that can help to take away a huge amount of risk on both sides. This helps customers to enjoy the trip more easily because there is a lot less stress around it. The other part is definitely the experience part where people want to be with nature. On one hand, COVID was all about isolation and everything but in the end, we’re human beings, we’re used to and supposed to be together to connect to experience stuff. If you can do that in nature, like it’s kind of a double bonus because you feel healthy, you feel good. Perhaps going back to the insurance part, with risk buffers or risk mitigation, I think COVID kind of helps encourage you to not postpone everything and live a little bit more in the now and have the kind of experiences that you always wanted to have. Taking trips allows you to live in the now, whether you stay at a hotel or not. You don’t know what can happen in the future. If nothing happens, you can do another thing you wanted to do, and it’s often a lot better than just sitting at home just waiting, waiting, waiting until the time is right. You’ll never know when the time is right for travel. If anything, if you can do it now, do it now. So I think hotels should play a role in this effort to live in the now and definitely should not take guests for granted. They should understand the guests are looking for this and they should help them with this. I think when you run an impersonal business, it’s going to be difficult for people to form connections, and I think it might have some kind of level of distrust of the guests with the hotels. If you don’t bring that warmth and sincerity, you can’t inspire connection.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

It would be a lot like Kalon Surf, just not that coddled when it comes to the surfing aspect since I am an avid surfer, and that’s an honest answer. Often, when I’m traveling with my wife, work never really leaves us and when we go somewhere we cherry-pick what we liked and what we didn’t like and try to figure out how to incorporate that into Kalon Surf. For us, it’s definitely connecting with the local community, we love that. We love to walk around and find out where the locals go. We try to connect with people and hear their stories, hear what moves them, and understand how they have lived their lives. We try to discover what is important in that country, city, or wherever it is. It is so much easier to reach and connect with someone if you try to understand them than just to observe. That’s not how we travel, and for us, we like to have this mix of a little bit of activity, but it’s a moment definitely of enjoying the other part of life. We love good food, good wine, and just great table talk throughout the night. That’s what we love.

Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness-driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.

This is absolutely true of myself and Silene, and how we built Kalon Surf. It’s a key thing to do. Otherwise, you’re just going somewhere and it’s not a full experience. Costa Rica is very well-known for their coffee, so we have for example, a small coffee tasting, which has nothing to do with surfing but a lot to do with the Costa Rican culture. Similarly, we have a small cooking class that we offer. It doesn’t have anything to do with surfing, but it has to do with connecting with the people that prepare your food day in and day out. Connecting with the culture explains why it’s important how we do stuff, and why we use those ingredients, and it gives guests a far better picture of the people that serve you. This also takes place in the other parts of the hotel, whether it’s with surfing or something else. You need to connect with people to understand them. Often, it’s a very interesting experience. When we see people learning to surf, they get a lot of similar frustrations as in the work environment. You see people getting frustrated in the ocean, and you try to remind them where they are, that they are not in the office, they are at the beautiful beach and should take a moment to notice the amazingly warm water and palm trees. It’s not bad it’s not necessary to get this frustrated, it’s part of life, and surfing is a lot like that. And the more frustrated you get, the more difficult it gets. We tell them they can connect with one another through certain activities we offer so they can better understand ways they can connect with other people. So, for example, Irina does our camera work at the beach. She is passionate, very, very passionate about yoga. She teaches yoga classes as well. We have two or three more people on our team who love yoga as well, so they do that so that they can connect, they can share the passion and it’s a lot more sincere I think.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

The first and most important thing is to focus on guest happiness. It sounds easy, but it’s not. Our daily messages with the team focus on making the guest happy. Sometimes it’s not so simple because just saying yes to everything a guest wants is not going to ensure our guests as a whole are happy necessarily. So you need to have foresight as well to determine that if you say yes to this, does this open doors to stuff that you cannot deliver? Thus, in the end, is saying yes going to make the guest more unhappy in the long run? It’s important to manage guest happiness and manage the happiness of a group. Our whole team is focused on that in their daily messages to understand better how happy guests are and if they’re not happy we must determine what we can do to fix that. And that’s the key thing. It’s not about surfing. It’s not about luxury. It’s about making sure guests have happy experiences at our resort. The second is to ensure we hire people who do everything they can to ensure a guest is happy. I would say to try to hire based on drive and passion as much as you can and teach them everything. Especially in the hospitality business. It’s very complicated. I think in a lot of industries, it’s very complicated to find the right people. There are many people in the business for the lifestyle, and it’s extremely hard work. It’s really, really hard work. I respect our staff. And if you don’t have the passion and drive to do it, it will be very difficult to continue to do that and actually to deliver a great experience. This is because it’s often not the day-to-day stuff that makes it a great experience, it’s the stuff that changes that you need to adapt to and that you need to create solutions for. This brings me to the third thing, you need to be able to think on your feet, and that I think comes with drive and passion and teaching your employees this. My wife and I did not have a hospitality background. We had a huge corporate background and educational background but not a hospitality background. We continue to travel to places where we have seen or heard our guests go, we have found some places on Instagram. We try to go to these places to understand what they like about them specifically. What are the things that they like and don’t like? Again, cherry-picking to see what we can use to set our resort against a similar standard and still try to elevate ourselves constantly. I think traveling yourself and exposing your staff to travel is very important to understand what your guests are trying to get from their trip at our resort. The fourth one is, and I think is for a lot of businesses, don’t complicate yourself by offering too much. A lot of businesses and also hospitality try to offer way too much. For example, the restaurant that has too many pages of food, won’t be very good at offering so many dishes, some will be stellar, and some won’t. So, actually having the confidence and faith that what you’re doing and what you’re offering is absolutely the right thing from your personal view by analyzing all the stuff that you need to analyze including your guests. You should stick to that maximum of three options, maybe four. That’s it. Anything more than that, you start to confuse your customers. It’s going to be very, very difficult to specialize in what you’re doing and providing a top-notch experience. So definitely stick to something and don’t get scared. Continue to optimize that and see it through, grind it out, and you will get rewarded for your hard work. The last one is to continue to invest in yourself to innovate. I think this is very important, especially in the hospitality business. For example, this whole thing started when I traveled to Brazil and invested time in myself. It sounds so cliche, but it’s very important to continue understanding what is happening in your market and with your guests. What are others doing? In what areas can you improve? How can you make yourself better? So also, hopefully, your competition has a harder time being on the same level as you. I think that’s kind of the key. We see a lot of properties that are being used as cash cows. And I think that one is sending a signal to past and current clients that trusted customer reviews that they are being taken for granted and advantage of. I think that every time a guest comes back, it should be a better experience. It can never be less.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Yes, absolutely. So we do a couple of things. We ask our guests how we can do good as a company; one initiative we started was an idea of a guest. We ask our guests to help us if they have space in their suitcases to bring notepads, pens, coloring books, toothpaste, or whatever it may be for under privilaged families in Costa Rica. The families are in the town below the resort. There are a lot of families throughout all of Costa Rica that are struggling and without those elements, they would not be able to go to school, even if those schools are free. They would not have actual tools to write with etc. So this initiative is extremely important. We have invested, and continue to do so, a lot in the local community, which I think continues to help them prosper. The community currently has a water problem that we’re trying to help them with. Then annually, with Christmas, we find several families to give food to for a year. These families need the help, despite being families that work extremely hard. It is hard to believe they need the help,, but they cannot catch a break. They work very hard. They’re extremely honest. We try to help them to show that there is goodness in the world and to show our guests and employees that there is a lot that you can do. And those are some of the things that we’re doing and will continue to do so. This year we have been able to do more of this kind of work, which is important. We try to always do it in a way that people feel empowered, rather than feel ashamed or anything like that. We want them to feel empowered and that this is just like a little push forward and that they can do the rest.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think at one moment, somebody taught me that you’re never too poor to share. So even after COVID, which was really, really tough for us because for eight months, we were closed. We kept everybody on the payroll because otherwise, they literally would not have food on the table. And we took that gamble and invested in our team. It puts stuff in perspective. The same goes for the food program, we thought what we were doing here was a great thing for us, and now we know it’s a huge thing for them. So yeah, I think, just always share and treat people respectfully. It sounds very cliche, but I think a lot of that is missing currently in the world. It’s very basic, and I think it’s something everybody can do.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


  • Savio Clemente

    Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Media Journalist, #1 Best-selling Author, Podcaster, and Stage 3 Cancer Survivor

    The Human Resolve LLC

    Savio P. Clemente is a Board Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), media journalist, #1 best-selling author, podcaster, stage 3 cancer survivor, and founder of The Human Resolve LLCHe coaches cancer survivors and ambitious industry leaders to amplify their impact, attract media attention, and make their voice heard. He inspires them to get busy living in mind, body, and spirit and to cultivate resilience in their mindset.

    Savio has interviewed notable celebrities and TV personalities and has been invited to cover numerous industry events throughout the U.S. and abroad.  His mission is to provide clients, listeners, and viewers alike with tangible takeaways on how to lead a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle.