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Bansko Nomad Fest and the Rise of Coworking in Bulgaria: Insights from Matthias Zeitler

Matthias Zeitler
Matthias Zeitler
Bansko Nomad Fest and the Rise of Coworking in Bulgaria: Insights from Matthias Zeitler

Welcome to an exclusive interview with Matthias Zeitler, a skilled and passionate entrepreneur dedicated to transforming Bansko, Bulgaria into a thriving hub for digital nomads. With his visionary approach, Matthias has been instrumental in turning nomads into long-term residents through his innovative venture, Coworking Bansko, since 2016. Not content with just one project, he is currently focused on an exciting endeavor: the transformation of an iconic hotel in Semkovo into a 200-unit coliving space, which will be owned by the community.

Matthias's expertise extends beyond community and ecosystem development. As a sought-after speaker and mentor at tech, coworking, and startup events, he shares his wealth of knowledge and experience with others. He is also the driving force behind the highly anticipated Bansko Nomad Fest, an annual week-long celebration of the location-independent lifestyle.

With a well-organized, helpful, and sociable nature, Matthias has cultivated a vast network and earned a reputation for his outstanding networking skills and event-hosting capabilities. He brings a diverse range of expertise to the table, including a background in computer science, an MBA from Santa Clara University, and a diploma in engineering from the Polytechnical University of Salzburg. Fluent in English, he effortlessly bridges cultural and professional boundaries.

Join us as we delve into the world of Bansko Nomad Fest and the rise of coworking in Bulgaria, gaining valuable insights from the knowledgeable and dynamic Matthias Zeitler.

1. What is the current state of the coworking industry in Bulgaria?

The coworking industry in Bulgaria is currently thriving, particularly in the capital city of Sofia.

With approximately 56 coworking spaces available, Sofia has established itself as a significant hub for these shared work environments.

The demand for such spaces is largely driven by companies outsourcing various tasks to Bulgaria, including software development and call center operations. Many of these companies choose to operate from flexible workspaces in Sofia, leading to substantial growth in the industry.

The coworking scene in Bulgaria exhibits healthy competition among various providers. The country's coworking landscape is centralized, with a focus on larger cities where the majority of educated individuals tend to study and work.

Bulgaria primarily revolves around three major cities: Sofia, Plovdiv, and Varna, where most of the coworking activities occur.

However, it's worth mentioning that there are also individuals who reside in rural areas.

Among the prominent players in the coworking industry in Bulgaria are Betahaus, Puzl, and Networking Premium.

Networking Premium, for instance, boasts 6 locations across the country. Some of these coworking spaces are quite expansive, spanning an impressive 3,000 to 4,000 square meters in a single location. This signifies a robust market for flexible office spaces, catering to the diverse needs of professionals and businesses in Bulgaria.

2. Are there many spaces for digital nomads?

​​The availability of spaces for digital nomads varies depending on the location. In Sofia, there are relatively fewer spaces specifically designed for digital nomads. Most of the coworking spaces in the city tend to focus on accommodating teams rather than individuals. However, there are some exceptions, such as WorkNomads, which is a coliving space that attracts remote workers.

Bansko Nomad Fest photo collage

On the other hand, even though I live in one of the smallest cities in Bulgaria, the density of digital nomads in Bansko is significantly higher than in Sofia.

In Bansko, there are approximately 150 members on average at any given time, and there are probably another 100 nomads who are not part of our community.

Due to the small size of the town, people frequently encounter one another, creating an environment where it seems like everyone is a digital nomad.

3. What is the value proposition of spaces focused on digital nomads?

The value proposition of spaces focused on digital nomads lies in catering to their unique needs and desires for connection and community. Unlike traditional coworking spaces that primarily offer a workplace for individuals or teams, digital nomads seek more than just a physical workspace. They are often freelancers or solopreneurs who travel frequently, which means they may lack local connections and social opportunities.

Digital nomads

For digital nomads, finding social connections becomes crucial. They desire a sense of belonging and seek opportunities to interact with like-minded individuals. Instead of simply going back to their families or friends after work, digital nomads are eager to engage in communal activities. They enjoy sharing meals together, playing board games, participating in skill-sharing sessions, and spending time with one another.

Spaces specifically designed for digital nomads focus on creating an environment conducive to building connections and facilitating the experiences they seek. These spaces go beyond providing just a physical workspace and prioritize fostering a vibrant community.

Digital nomads often feel less welcomed in coworking spaces primarily targeted at teams because these spaces tend to create their own isolated bubbles focused solely on business. While this may work well for those seeking a workplace, it doesn't facilitate rapid integration into a community, which is a key desire for digital nomads.

4. What is the story of the Bansko Nomad Fest?

The story of Bansko Nomad Fest revolves around the transformation of Bansko, a town in Bulgaria, into a prominent hub for digital nomads in Europe.

In the past, Bansko was relatively unknown and people were hesitant to travel there due to its location in Eastern Europe and its association with the mountains. Sensing an opportunity to change perceptions and attract digital nomads, the idea of Bansko Nomad Fest was born.

Bansko Nomad Fest is an event created to introduce people to the potential of Bansko and the coworking community it offers. The event serves as a week-long gathering where attendees can enjoy keynote speeches, participate in various activities, and have fun together. The time-limited nature of the event is appealing, as it allows people to experience the essence of Bansko without committing to longer stays. Typically, members of the coworking space stay for one to three months.

Conference at Bansko Nomad Fest

The first Nomad Fest welcomed around 100 people, which was a significant boost considering the coworking space had around 40 to 50 members at the time.

It doubled the membership for a week and created a positive impact. Over time, both the coworking space and Bansko itself have experienced substantial growth. The coworking space now accommodates around 120 to 150 members, while the attendance for Nomad Fest has steadily increased.

Last year, the event hosted 550 people, and this year it is expected to welcome 750 attendees. Tickets have been selling rapidly, and the event is likely to sell out well in advance.

During Bansko Nomad Fest, the town of Bansko undergoes a transformation. With the influx of a few hundred nomads, the town, which usually has around 10,000 residents, becomes vibrant and nomadic for the duration of the event. The restaurants are filled, the town square is lively, and people proudly wear branded T-shirts, giving the sense of a nomad takeover.

People on the stage at Bansko Nomad Fest

The event's size adds to its excitement as attendees get the opportunity to meet and connect with numerous individuals.

Nomad Fest attracts people from different nomadic communities, such as Nomad Cruise and Wifi Tribe, and representatives from various destinations like Greece, Tenerife, Croatia and Malaysia.

This convergence of diverse communities allows participants to explore potential future destinations beyond Bansko, thus promoting nomadism on a global scale.

5. How did you get the idea to arrange a Nomad Fest?

The idea to organize Nomad Fest was inspired by my experience at an event called Freedom X Fest, which took place several years ago in a small ski resort near Barcelona.

The concept of bringing people together for a week of fun resonated with me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the event. However, I noticed that the organizers faced significant challenges due to their remote location, particularly regarding food provision and accommodation arrangements.

Drawing from this experience, I realized that Bansko, where I was based, had several advantages that would make organizing a similar event much easier. Bansko boasted a strong network of local connections, including a variety of restaurants and guest houses. Additionally, we had a thriving coworking community. Leveraging these existing resources, I believed that organizing an event in Bansko would be more feasible and successful.

Digital Nomads at Bansko Nomad Fest

To ensure that Bansko Nomad Fest would not compete with the tourist industry and drive up costs for accommodation and food, we strategically planned the event just before the summer season began in Bansko. This timing worked out remarkably well as the weather in Bansko was already excellent, yet tourists had not yet arrived. The local community warmly welcomed the event, appreciating the energy and positive atmosphere it brought to the town. Nomad Fest effectively kicked off the summer season for the locals, creating a beneficial synergy between the event and the community.

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6. What is the utmost goal of the gathering?

The primary goal of the gathering is to ensure that people have a fantastic time and enjoy themselves.

It serves as a celebration of the location and the independent lifestyle. The intention is for individuals to connect with one another and forge new relationships. The event provides an opportunity for participants to present their ideas and thoughts, featuring a diverse range of speakers and topics. Instead of lengthy sessions, the focus is on showcasing the breadth of possibilities and perspectives for the future.

Outdoor activities at Bansko Nomad Fest

Remarkably, the event is organized with the help of volunteers, which adds an element of excitement and uniqueness. This involvement allows attendees to experience the behind-the-scenes magic of event organization and inspires them to undertake their own ventures.

Moreover, an important objective is to continue promoting Bansko as a desirable destination for digital nomads. While the event has grown in popularity, the aim is to demonstrate that Bansko offers more than just an event experience; it encourages individuals to consider a longer-term stay, possibly obtaining residency, purchasing property, forming partnerships with locals, and even starting families.

Ultimately, the overarching aim is to showcase the many advantages and opportunities that Bansko has to offer.

7. What's going on during the festival?

During our festivals, we strive for transparency, ensuring that everything happening is well-documented and accessible online. Now let me share with you the exciting activities and experiences that take place during our events.

  • Mornings are always energized with captivating keynote presentations. We have two expansive stages where representatives from municipalities, as well as keynote speakers, deliver inspiring talks and showcase various subjects of interest.
Keynote speakers at Bansko Nomad Fest
  • As the day progresses into the afternoon, we transform a large outdoor venue in the city park into a vibrant space. We set up stages and create a welcoming environment where we host unconference sessions. These sessions provide a platform for passionate individuals, even those who aren't official speakers, to share their ideas and expertise with others. Alongside these insightful discussions, we offer a plethora of engaging activities. From friendly volleyball matches to invigorating yoga and meditation sessions, from lively dance sessions to personalized T-shirt coloring, there's something for everyone to enjoy.
  • Moreover, we take pride in showcasing the wonders of Bansko during the afternoon hours. Participants have the opportunity to partake in thrilling outdoor adventures like hiking, mountain biking, rafting, horseback riding, and even exhilarating ATV rides. We also arrange visits to the Rena Monastery, enabling attendees to experience the rich cultural and historical heritage of Bansko.
Outdoor activities at Bansko Nomad Fest
  • As evening descends, the festive atmosphere continues with lively parties. We host themed nights, such as the popular "Work Face Night" and entertaining karaoke sessions. Additionally, we organize engaging events like speed networking and speed dating to foster connections among attendees. The evenings are filled with laughter and entertainment, including comedy shows and talent showcases where individuals can demonstrate their skills and passions. For a unique experience, we even hold demo sessions in the enchanting forest, utilizing a picturesque outdoor location provided by Coworking Bansko. And, of course, no evening is complete without gathering around a grand bonfire, immersing ourselves in the warmth of camaraderie and celebration.

Our goal is to ensure that participants have an unforgettable and enjoyable week.

We meticulously schedule multiple activities in parallel to offer a multitude of options, generating a sense of excitement and a desire to seize every moment.

We want people to feel that they are part of an exhilarating journey, filled with constant highs, the release of endorphins, and a shared celebration of life. So join us, embrace the festivities, and let the magic of Bansko unfold before your eyes.

8. How can the event be prospectively interesting for coworking spaces?

The event holds great prospective interest for coworking spaces and nomad destinations, particularly in terms of attracting new guests and promoting their services. We have established partnerships with several coliving spaces that eagerly seek additional participants from our event. This collaboration works exceptionally well because most digital nomads are constantly seeking new destinations to explore and work from.

While it's true that there aren't coworking spaces in every corner of the world, we do have specific destinations that cater to the nomadic lifestyle. Take Tenerife, for example. The entire island seems like a playground for nomads, and there are indeed coworking spaces available there. These spaces have even received funding from the tourist administration, and representatives from Tenerife come to our event to present the island's potential as a digital nomad haven.

Although the event isn't exclusively focused on coworking spaces, it provides an excellent opportunity for them to showcase themselves as part of the broader destination experience.

Our objective extends beyond merely highlighting coworking spaces; we aim to showcase the overall appeal of the destinations we feature. By doing so, we attract digital nomads who are not only seeking workspace but also desiring an enriching and fulfilling experience. We understand that the charm of a location goes beyond the four walls of a coworking space, and we want to ensure that participants are exposed to the unique offerings of each destination.

9. Maybe you could suggest some participation levels for coworking spaces

Certainly! If an operator of a coworking space is considering participation in our event, there are several levels of involvement that can be beneficial for them:

  • Attendee Level: The operator can attend the event as a participant, immersing themselves in the atmosphere and gaining firsthand insights into the needs and preferences of the target audience—digital nomads. By engaging with attendees and observing their interactions, the operator can better understand the expectations and desires of this specific demographic.
  • Networking Level: The operator can actively network with digital nomads, coliving space operators, and other coworking space operators. Building connections and fostering relationships within the community can lead to potential collaborations, knowledge sharing, and even future partnerships. Engaging in conversations and exchanging ideas with like-minded individuals can provide valuable insights and open doors to new opportunities.
  • Speaking Level: The operator can take advantage of the opportunity to speak at the event. By sharing their expertise and experiences in managing a coworking space, they can offer valuable insights to the audience. This establishes them as an authority in the industry and helps build credibility. Additionally, speaking engagements allow the operator to showcase their coworking space and attract attention from potential visitors or collaborators.
  • Promotional Level: The operator can consider sponsoring or exhibiting at the event. This provides a platform to promote their coworking space and showcase its unique features and benefits. By setting up a booth or hosting interactive activities, the operator can engage directly with event attendees and generate interest in their space. This level of participation offers heightened visibility and opportunities for direct marketing and business development.

While participation in our event doesn't always involve a contractual agreement with coworking spaces or coliving spaces, it offers valuable insights into organizing events and understanding the needs of the target audience—digital nomads. Attending, networking, speaking, or promoting at the event can contribute to the operator's knowledge base, facilitate connections within the community, and potentially attract new visitors or collaborations for their coworking space.

10. What is the impact of Bansko Nomad Fest?

The impact of Nomad Fest on the local economy is quite significant.

Last year, we had a little over 500 participants, and their total spend per person for the week amounted to approximately 1000 euros, covering accommodation, transportation, food, and engagement in tourist activities or purchasing event tickets. This year, with a bigger event, we expect a contribution to the local community of about one million euros in just one week.

For a small town like Bansko, which has a population of around 10,000 people, this influx of money is truly substantial. It's equivalent to around 100 euros per inhabitant, which is remarkable considering it's the offseason and not competing with other tourist income streams. The event brings additional income to the town and greatly benefits numerous local businesses. The impact is highly appreciated, not only for its monetary value but also for the intangible effects it has on participants.

Yoga classes at Bansko Nomad Fest

What's even more fascinating is the impact on the lives of our attendees. The connections they make, both on a personal and professional level, are truly transformative. Many business connections are formed during the event, and people often start companies together or collaborate on exciting projects. We facilitate numerous speed networking sessions that provide opportunities for individuals to meet potential soulmates—both in terms of personal connections and professional partnerships.

The Bansko Nomad Fest has a lasting effect on participants. Not only do they experience an endorphin high and wear a constant smile throughout the event, but they also carry that positivity with them into the world. They share their experiences and stories, which can be life-changing for some.

One significant impact I observe is how the event empowers individuals. People who may have been shy or felt inadequate in the past discover that they can become speakers at a large event like this. They realize that they have amazing stories to tell and valuable insights to share. The encouragement and support they receive at the Bansko Nomad Fest inspire them to pursue what they love and find the freedom they seek in their lives.

11. How Bansko Nomad Fest 2023 is different from all the rest?

Bansko Nomad Fest 2023 is indeed bigger and better than ever before. We have seen a 50% increase in the number of participants, making it a truly vibrant and thriving event.

With this growth, we have attracted a larger pool of professionals from various backgrounds, enriching the diversity and expertise within our community. To support the event, we now have a dedicated team of around 100 volunteers who have been instrumental in putting together an exceptional program for our attendees. We continually strive to enhance our processes and have implemented technology solutions to automate and optimize various aspects of the event, ensuring a seamless experience for everyone involved.

One significant difference this year is the broader recognition and global impact of remote work. As the remote work trend continues to surge, Bansko Nomad Fest has gained increased visibility and awareness worldwide. This recognition has resulted in attracting bigger sponsors, both domestically and internationally. Compared to previous years, we have forged partnerships with more prominent sponsors, enabling us to expand our reach and spread our message to a broader audience.

The larger scale of Bansko Nomad Fest 2023 allows us to make a greater impact within the global remote work community.

We have the opportunity to amplify our efforts, share our vision, and advocate for the benefits of location-independent lifestyles on a larger stage. This growth not only signifies the increasing popularity of remote work but also showcases our commitment to creating an event that is inclusive, enriching, and inspiring for digital nomads from around the world.

With each passing year, Bansko Nomad Fest continues to evolve, adapting to the changing needs and aspirations of the remote work community. We are excited about the growth and improvements we have made, and we look forward to providing an unparalleled experience for our attendees in 2023.

As our interview with Matthias Zeitler comes to a close, we have gained fascinating insights into the vibrant world of Nomad Fest and the evolving state of coworking in Bulgaria. Matthias's passion for creating thriving communities and empowering digital nomads is truly inspiring. To stay connected with Matthias and keep up with his latest endeavors, we encourage you to connect with him on LinkedIn, where he shares valuable insights and updates.

Additionally, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter, where you'll find a wealth of knowledge and be the first to know about the exciting content we are already preparing.

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