COVER STORY SIDEBAR
One student's journey, from balance sheets to the Baltic
The medieval Estonian village of Padise is not quite where Karl von Ramm thought he would end up after graduating from Cornell earlier this year.
He had worked for a large hotel in Philadelphia before entering the hotel school's Master of Management in Hospitality program in 2009. His concentration was on operations and revenue management, one of the few areas of high growth in an industry that has been battered by the recession.
The job offers were there – a surprising number of them – but for the ambitious von Ramm, they were less than enticing. "You sit in front of an Excel spreadsheet all day long. It's actually quite awful," he says.
What he really wanted was to move into development.
With high-level hospitality development jobs at a premium, he considered another option: an ancient family manor house in Estonia, one of several that have been in his family since 1622. The properties were seized after World War II, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the family (who now live in Durham, N.C., where von Ramm was born) bought the Padise manor house in 1997.
"We really didn't know what to do with it," von Ramm says. At his suggestion, his family began the slow, expensive process of renovation and turning it into a hotel. At first he rejected the idea of managing the hotel himself, but as his time at Cornell drew to a close, the idea began to sound more and more appealing – particularly after a conversation with a prominent resort operator.
"She said, 'You have an incredible business opportunity. I don't know why you would be doing anything else,'" he recalls. And the lure of history, and of family connections, was compelling.
"I was the first one to sleep in [the house] from my entire family for 83 years," he says. "So when you attach that to it, it has 10 times the meaning. It really is a motivating factor."
Certainly, there are drawbacks. To save money on living expenses, the hotel is his home as well as his workplace. When it's booked full, he sleeps in the basement. And with less-than-perfect Estonian language skills, he has to manage a team of Estonians, few of whom speak English.
On the positive side there is Padise itself. "It's an ancient medieval town, completely untouched," he says. "There's a lot to offer there, and people just don't know."
Next to the manor house hotel are 13th-century castle ruins. "You just wander around and climb all through it – climb to the top of the tallest tower built in the 12th century," he says. "It's a real experience."
Getting the word out to the rest of the tourism world is just one of many giant tasks ahead of him. But his classes at Cornell – particularly a hospitality innovation practicum course that took him to Zambia last spring – taught him, he believes, how to tackle giant projects, one element at a time.
"I thought I was coming to Cornell to get technical knowledge," he says. "What really has come out of the program is leadership skills. Now I know how to structure a project, prioritize tasks, write an actual strategy plan out.
"It was completely invaluable."