Putting ÖTILLÖ INCroatia: Meet the man behind the destination
The first ÖTILLÖ Hvar on April 1st and 2nd (READ MORE: http://otilloswimrun.com/2017/02/location-ins-otillo-hvar/) was a smashing success, and racers owe an unforgettable weekend to Ivan Verunica, CEO of INCroatia, who in 2015 contacted ÖTILLÖ Founders Michael Lemmel and Mats Skott suggesting a swimrun in Croatia.
Ivan was born in the city of Rijeka, Croatia, which at the time was still a part of Yugoslavia. He grew up in the west of the country, in the beautiful coastal town of Opatija, erected some 130 years ago as a resort for Habsburg aristocracy. “Until I was around ten or so, life, in retrospect, was picture perfect, especially as I was oblivious to the growing political and social unrest spreading through the country,” Ivan told Swimrun Life Magazine. “As we all know, this culminated in the downright ugly Yugoslav Civil War that gave all the countries a bad reputation coming out of the blocks as independent nations, and completely devastated what had been a very successful industrial economy.”
Ivan said he was never “physically afflicted” by the war, but the sense of despair conflict brings out in people, as well the fatal flammability behind nationalistic sentiment, certainly left a permanent mental imprint.
“Croatia saw the light of day after what had been an intensely complicated birth. In some ways, the country is still fighting the demons of the war, even now, 25 years later. This is certainly felt in many economic domains, with the shining exception of tourism. The country of only 4.5 million people boasts one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world and has gradually blossomed into one of the most sought-after European destinations.”
Life abroad comes full circle
At the age of sixteen, Ivan moved to the US on an academic scholarship for basketball and was recruited to play at college level, but after two years at Indiana, he was transferred back to Europe where he got a degree in English Literature and Acting from Ljubljana, the largest and oldest university in Slovenia. From there, Ivan did two years at the University of Glasgow to get his Masters in Theatre Directing, after which he stayed on in the UK and freelanced on various theatrical and TV projects.
“The prospect of a steady paycheque lured me to join EU forces in Luxembourg in 2007, but I needed a change of scenery after 18 months of relatively static office work, so I went and travelled South America for about half a year. During this trip, I met my now-wife, Sierra Rose, who is from Seattle.”
Newly in love, the couple decided to meet “half-way”, in New York City, where they spent another year and a half together. “Finally, when the once vague idea of procreation became a palpable project in the making, we started thinking of the best places to start a family and agreed on … Opatija, Croatia.” For Ivan, his first sojourn came “full circle”. “At the moment, we are very happy with our setup here, but the beauty of life is in its unpredictability and we are always open to new developments and challenges. The world is full of amazing places, and few people know that better than ÖTILLÖ racers.”
When Ivan and his wife decided to relocate from New York to Croatia, he had been working as a Communication Officer at the Delegation of the EU to the UN for 18 months. When he broke the news his boss at the UN, he was met with: “Great, then I have a job for you. Go and open a travel agency.”
He placed Ivan in charge of organising a relatively large conference in Dubrovnik and from then on, with his background in sports and education, and the many connections from those domains, it was relatively straightforward to keep developing the business.
I was immediately attracted to the camaraderie aspect of competing in tandems, as well as the working-with-nature outline of the sport.
INCroatia became an incoming travel agent specialising in sports and education tourism, which Ivan started developing somewhat by chance. “We’ve been very fortunate to tap into a ‘subcategory’ of Croatia that is not as renowned as the stunning coastline, amazing food or the rich history. Specifically, the top-notch sports and education facilities, ranging from pools and open water swimming, trails and paths, universities, stadiums and sports halls.”
Combining these facilities with traditional tourist infrastructure – hotels, restaurants, and transportation– has turned into a great professional and personal joy for Ivan, as no client is the same. “A powerhouse organisation like USA Swimming and, say, a high school from Surrey will want almost entirely different services, but we approach each project with the same passion and work hard to offer bespoke programs for each partner.” Ivan and his team can handle training camps, school trips, sports tours and study abroad trips for a growing number of clubs, federations, schools and universities, mostly from the UK, the US and Switzerland. “ÖTILLÖ is a now project for us, and one that we are tremendously proud to be associated with.”
Bringing ÖTILLÖ to Hvar
Ivan and INCroatia have been instrumental in the process of ÖTILLÖ’s arrival in Hvar, Croatia. “When I was first told of ÖTILLÖ less than two years ago by a swimmer from England, I looked up the company and was absolutely shocked with the discovery. Beyond the sheer physical strain that the racers endure, I was immediately attracted to the camaraderie aspect of competing in tandems, as well as the working-with-nature outline of the sport.”
Knowing the Croatian coast quite well, it was hard for Ivan to think of a place not suitable for an ÖTILLÖ race. The sport of swimrun and the beautiful mountainous coast along the clear Adriatic Sea are “a match made in heaven”, so Ivan quickly reached out to Michael and Mats and learned that they had been considering Croatia for 2017 “just as I wrote to them”.
“We looked at a couple of potential destinations for the race, but the people at Hvar Tourist Board and Sunny Hvar Hotels really left the best impression on us and clearly showed from the onset that they wanted Hvar to become an ÖTILLÖ partner. When Mats and Michael visited for the first time last March, it was just confirming what we had already felt: that a strong partnership is in place and that an exciting new chapter in the ÖTILLÖ book will be written in Hvar, Croatia.”
For those already familiar with Croatia, Hvar could be a different experience altogether. Beyond the fact that swimrunners will be on a mission, there’s an advantage for racers that the event takes place in early April – before the tourist season kicks in. “Instead of focusing on the people and the yachts and the nightlife that Hvar is renowned for in the summer months, teams and visitors will have a much more intuitive chance to connect with the city and the island, really feeling its history, beauty and the stunning nature surrounding it.”
As for the race itself, Michael and Mats “chose a tough but beautiful course” with a couple of long swims and two vertically challenging crossings between the north and south coast of the island. “I cannot wait to see how the racers do this first year. I have a lot of admiration for the sport and the competitors, so I’m excited to see what Hvar brings out of them.”
Tips for Travellers
As a contributor to Fodor’s Travel Guides, Ivan instinctively offers a couple of basic tips for travellers. “Get ready for the Croatian Kuna. One euro equals 7.5 Kuna. All hotels and banks have exchange offices, but most places accept cards or you can simply pull out local money from one of the many cash machines.”
Tips are not included in the prices, but tipping is not institutionalised as it is in Western Europe. Guests will tip (10-20%) if happy with the service provided. A coffee costs around €1 to €2, and a beer between €2 and €4.
On the food side … go for fish! “This time of the year there’s plenty to go around and it’s fresh and amazing. Pair that with locally grown and pressed olive oil and a glass of the Poship white wine, and life quickly assumes bright background colours.” Those staying at the Amfora hotel, he pointed out, will benefit from a tremendous breakfast, including locally made cheese, honey and olive oil. If staying on for a couple of days, rent a bike and zoom around the hills visiting wineries and haciendas.
A few native words to help racers get through the weekend. Thank you is “hvala” (no silent h); “molim” (moh-limm) covers both please and you’re welcome; and “bok” (boh-k) is a nifty way to say both hi and bye. Before the race, Ivan will also be handing out papers with the translation of “We are borderline-crazy adventure racers and we are in your garden by accident. Please tell your children to stop screaming.”
With five languages under his belt – English, Croatian, Slovenian, Italian and Spanish – Ivan explained that coming from a small country can be quite daunting at times. “It certainly forces you to acquire languages at an early stage. Otherwise, you’re restricting yourself to the 20 odd million people that speak a similar language, which is very limiting in a globalised world.”
Swimrun Hvar: Final Act
Languages are like flowers or physical conditioning, Ivan insisted: “they wither quickly unless regularly watered. ‘Como se dice’ is now my favourite Spanish phrase.”
While Ivan’s days tend to be quite stretched – “the scattered debris of what I once called Free Time I spend with my wife and two beautiful and inquisitive children, Zelen, 5, and Zori, 3 – he said he rejoices in the fact that he lives and works his interest and passions. “The last of the passions, red wine, comes into play after the kids are tucked away in bed.”
And as if his days aren’t full enough, theatre continues to play an active part of Ivan’s life. After moving back to Croatia seven years ago, he wanted to keep feeding his creative, expressive side of his personality and decided to start the non-profit English-language acting school, TRY theatre. “We started with 12 students in a small studio, still feeling the ropes and seeing how locals will react to this new concept. Seven years later, with around 250 happy kids in the program, I am a fervent believer in the educational value of acting and drama.” Ivan insists that putting yourself in other people’s shoes, considering multiple perspectives, developing the confidence and know-how to perform publicly – not to mention in a foreign language! – are all essential traits in shaping a more unafraid personality and a broader understanding of the world we live in.
And if he had to write a play about Michael and Mats? “It would be called ‘The Non-Stoppers’ … opening at the Old Vic in September.”
Article first published in Swimrun Life Magazine Issue # 2 (Apr/May 2017)