July 13, 2020 – Marc Rowlands interviews Boris Šuljić, owner of Boškinac on Pag, a Michelin-starred restaurant, to try and discover the secret to success in the challenging summer of 2020
Among the neverending doom and gloom of this year, a ray of sunshine through the clouds. At Boškinac on Pag, the restaurant, hotel and winery, business is booming. With better numbers than at this point in 2019, is it possible the luxury sector is suffering less this season from COVID-19? And what is the secret to Boškinac’s success so far in 2020?
“I am very satisfied with this year’s business,” Boškinac owner Boris Šuljić told TCN with a smile and a carefree tone to his voice. “It’s definitely busier than last year. Some days are better than others but, generally, more people are coming.”
An island within an island. Pag’s Boškinac is located within a lush green and neighbourless section of the island’s interior © Boškinac
In a year where, depending on who you believe and how you extrapolate the info, tourism in Croatia is down by at least 50%, people sit comfortably isolated on Boškinac’s large terrace. There, they take in the view of the olive trees and Boškinac’s vineyards, with not a neighbour in sight. With special measures in place, seats in their Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant are similarly full. But just where are these guests coming from?
“Most of them this year have been from Croatia and Slovenia,” says Šuljić, not unsurprised. “I’d say the next largest group is foreign nationals, ex-pats, who now live in Croatia. But, also we’ve had quite a few from Germany, Austria, and Belgium. It’s not so difficult for us to get busy. We are a relatively small hotel – 11 rooms, 55 seats in the fine dining restaurant, and 40 seats in our more informal tavern.”
Boris Šuljić welcoming guests to Boškinac with a glass of their own-made wine in summer 2019 © Fabio Šimićev
Šuljić estimates that in total around 60% of 2020’s guests have come from Croatia, 40% from other countries, a distinct change in the usual demographic they receive. Awarded a Michelin star in February of 2020, the hotel and restaurant have earned a reputation internationally for high-quality food, wines, service, and an experience much more unhurried and relaxing than that found in many places on the popular island. So, has he dropped his prices to encourage this year’s draw?
“No, not at all” Šuljić tells us, “our prices remained normal. We are not so expensive like some other 4 or 5-star hotels in Dubrovnik, Rovinj, or Split. The average room price is around €200. Until 15 July, we arranged some special packages with the room and fine dining. We kept the food at the same price but offered the rooms a little cheaper in combination. It was successful. It seemed to attract people who’d heard of the hotel and restaurant, who maybe decided that right now was the best time to come and look. It’s not so far to come here to check us out when you only have to travel from Split or Istria, even Zagreb, which is where many of these guests have been coming from. They stayed for one or two nights and enjoyed our Michelin-starred restaurant.”
The flair with which Boškinac on Pag use their fresh, locally-sourced and premium ingredients earned them a Michelin star earlier in 2020 © Boškinac
Always keeping on top of developments in Croatia’s gastro scene (you can stay updated on our Gourmet pages), one of TCN’s most recent reports from Boškinac noted the venue’s fluctuating success of the 2019 season. The summer’s unusually variable weather was considered as perhaps one factor in the lack of footfall. With the sun shining reliably on Pag this summer, could it be that visitors care more about the weather than they do about Coronavirus? Is sun-seeking really a greater deciding factor for those looking at Croatia holidays than the ever-updating COVID-19 situation? Šuljić thinks not.
“I definitely think we’re busier this year because of the Michelin star,” he says. “People seem to really recognise this international sign of quality. We got a lot of attention because of this. I think it is also because of our communication. We capitalised on the attention and we have been sending out very positive messages. We have every reason to be optimistic and it is this optimistic message we have been sending out; we are here, we are a small place, isolated, we have no neighbours, with allocations for relatively few people, but with lots of room and air and enough terrace for everyone. This is not the usual kind of busy hotel that’s packed with people. We are very passionate about our food and our hotel experience. Ours is a business that concentrates on quality, not quantity.”
A platter of distinctly Dalmatian delights, an example of the food on offer at Boškinac on Pag‘s less-formal tavern restaurant © Boškinac on Pag
Though Šuljić’s international recognition, unique premises and isolated location undoubtedly offer an advantage in attracting high-end clientele, could other Croatian businesses learn something from the clear and optimistic communication Boškinac has been sending out since the season’s start? Well, it’s an option to all but, since opening in 200, Boškinac’s message and communications have been of premium importance to the business.
“We were very ambitious as soon as we opened, especially with our food,” remembers Šuljić. “But, at that time, this kind of fine dining experience was not so much recognised in Croatia. It was a very high cuisine for the time. People didn’t understand what we were trying to do. Slowly we grew with our guests. It was a journey we made together. It was a gradual process. On our part, a mixture of good social media communication, some PR and word-of-mouth recommendations from previous guests was what worked best.”
Spectacular presentation, one of the many wow factors attracting curious visitors to Boškinac on Pag © Boškinac on Pag
Of course, it’s too early to tell if Boškinac will maintain its story of success through summer 2020. Šuljić is aware of this. And, even though it is even more difficult to predict the rest of the season than in any other year, he remains decidedly unworried because of their experiences so far.
“It is really interesting,” he says, when asked about future bookings for this summer, “I’ve never known anything like it. We have so far not had any bookings further than three or four weeks in advance. It’s much more week to week. For instance, right now we have zero bookings for August. Usually, I would be concerned. But, it was the same one month ago and now we are almost full. All of the bookings are last minute. People are making their decisions based on the status and the quality of the information available. They check the news and the websites for advice, make a decision and then off they go.”
© Boškinac on Pag
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