Leading Bulgarian entrepreneur enjoys immense success in golf and hospitality sector

by Sean Hillen

George Tchouklev is unfamiliar with terms like ‘don’t,’ ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ – that’s why he was the center of everyone’s attention at the recent 10th anniversary celebration for the Lighthouse Golf & Spa Resort on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.

After building 350 apartments and two 8-floor office blocks in Sofia, George – a talented engineer who studied ‘underground structures, for metros as an example – ignored the naysayers who whispered in his ear and launched into the then – unfamiliar to him – world of hospitality.

To use an old cliché, now he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

To help turn dream into reality, George linked with IMG, formerly the International Management Group, a global sports events and talent company headquartered in New York City, with offices also in Richmond, London. George also linked with EGD (European Golf Design), a joint venture between the European Tour and IMG.

George paid around 400,000 British pounds to IMG/EGD for his 18-hole course design and for their signature on it when it was completed. As part of that contract, EGD also sent its Ambassadors on average two times per month during construction for about three years to oversee progress.

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Following an investment of  75 million euro, including 15 million euro from George’S own hard-earned savings and that of his partner, Ivan Altanasov who has 20 per cent of the business, they built the Lighthouse Golf Resort & Spa, a stylish holiday complex on a spectacular plateau on top of the towering white cliffs with breath-taking views over the Black Sea. It bears a 5-star distinction and was awarded ‘Luxury Sea View Hotel of the Year 2018,’ by Luxury Travel Guide.

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Last weekend, many of the top leaders in the fields of politics, diplomacy, sport, arts, banking and business from Bulgaria and other countries gathered together ‘under George’s roof’ on the terrace of his resort’s golf clubhouse and paid tribute to the ever-smiling gentleman for his never-say-die spirit and enduring triumphs. 

Glowing tributes came from too many people to quote everyone. Three will suffice.

“George simply never says ‘no,’ ” said Neeraj Sareen, founder and managing director of New Delhi-based Sports Mantra, who attended the 10th anniversary celebrations. “He was born with a determination that knows no bounds, and an energy and vision to match. I am extremely proud to be involved in the Lighthouse Golf & Spa Resort project with him.”

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(l to r) Sean Hillen, Mrs. Sareen, Dimitri Chaynes, Mikael Fernstroem and Neeraj Sareen

Clients that Sports Mantra manages include leading Indian male professional golfers, Anirban Lahiri, Shiv Kapur and Chiragh Kumar, as well as champion woman golfer, Gauri Monga, and international cricketer, Robin Uthappa. Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, the first two baseball players from India to feature in first season of his project, ‘Million Dollar Arm’ are also nurtured by Sports Mantra. Neeraj has also worked closely with Sir Nick Faldo in developing golf courses in the Greater Noida and Lavasa regions.

Neeraj Sareen, Sports Mantra

(l to ri) George Tchouklev, Neeraj Sareen and Sean Hillen

David MacLaren, head of the Staysure Tour and of European Tour Properties, said of the Bulgarian businessman, “Magnificent, simply superb. It has been a rare pleasure to work with George and develop this fantastic course and complex alongside him. Long may our collaboration continue.”

George Tchouklev, Lighthouse golf resort and spa

In turn, both George and Neerjah, congratulated all the staff at Lighthouse, for creating top-level quality and service, including French-born Golf Operations Manager and Head Pro, Dimitri Chaynes, whom they said has proven to be “a terrific club leader.”

Lighthouse golf and spa resort

(l to r) Mikael Fernstroem, Dimitri Chaynes and Franz Allenspach

To help celebrate the 10th anniversary of Lighthouse, a European Tour Senior Classic (for golfers over 50) was organised with such leading players as Ian Woosnam, Jarmo Sandelin and Santiago Luna.

Ian Woosnam, Jarmo Sandelin, Santiago Luna

Lighthouse golf & Spa Resort is a sprawling 120-hectare located along a driveway off the main road between Bulgaria and Romania (no wonder, many of the resort’s clients and some of its real estate owners are from the latter country). It is 15 km from the house and gardens of Balchik Palace and 60 km from Varna Airport. 

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The resort comprises an impressive network of real estate properties, an 18-hole golf course designed by Ian Woosnam, a stylish hotel with spa, bar and restaurant facilities and an outdoor swimming pool with a charming bridge over its center and seating around it.

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Modern hotel rooms offer terraces, some with sea or golf course views, as well as minibars, flat-screens and Wi-Fi access. All have sitting areas and walk-in showers, and suites add living rooms.

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Hotel freebies include breakfast, and a shuttle to a private beach. There are four restaurants and six bars, plus indoor and outdoor pools and a chic spa and gym. Other amenities consist of tennis courts, a soccer field and a shooting range, in addition to water sports, a playground and a kids club.

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George is quietly modest about his accomplishments, and openly frank in discussing the successes and challenges he faced, especially surviving the recent economic crisis.

“I had never been in the hospitality or golf business and fell into accidently,” the 56-year-old told me in an hour-long interview in his hotel lobby. “I only started playing golf in 1999 and thought to myself ‘Why not join golf tourism with real estate.’ So I started to build in 2005.”

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George Tchouklev, owner (l) and Tarek Victor, hotel manager

Until then, George had already achieved what most people do not achieve in several lifetimes. He built a massive office block in Sofia with PricewaterhouseCoopers as one of the main clients and hundreds of apartments.

By 2008, with the economic crisis well underway, he had finished the Lighthouse club house and golf course, but nothing else.

George Tchouklev owner of Lighthouse golf and spa resort

“I talked with the bank, rejigged some things, and in 2011, with five million more euro, I completed most of the complex,” he said. “I also attracted some high-level figures in the sport of golf such as Neeraj Sareen, CEO of Sports Mantra, and Shiv Kapur.

George, a likeable bear of a man whose twinkling smile seems to emanate from within, admitted the first year was “a nightmare” and the second “was bad also.”

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“I saw an opening – Bulgaria has only six signature golf courses while, for example, the Costa del Sol has around seventy-two, but I made mistakes,” he admitted freely. “Foreign guests would come and tell me service was atrocious and food equally so, not fit for a luxury property, they said.”

So, like any visionary entrepreneur, George did what he had to do. He studied hospitality.

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“I even bought books on cooking so I could know first-hand what gourmet dining meant,” he said, shaking his head, smiling at the recollection. “Armed with more knowledge, I knew what I was looking for. And found an excellent chef five years ago.”

His new chef is from France, friendly, skilled Pierre Robles.

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Building the golf course wasn’t easy.

“We had to scrape off between 50 centimeters and two meters of clay, altogether 600,000 cubic meters had to be moved and shaped, and then sand put down for drainage,” he said. “And not just any sand, as from a beach. It had to be what we call ‘clean sand.’ From the Danube River, more than one hundred thousand cubic meters of it. Then, of course, seed the grass.’

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Gazing together from the top floor of the hotel where the Presidential suites are now being completed, George said he also planted the 13,000 trees we see below us, including oak and pine.

Seemingly blessed with limitless energy, George also takes a leading role in marketing his property.

“I started marketing five years ago,” he said. “I visited different golf courses. I met with your operators. In London and other major cities. My belief is that – particular in golf tourism – the personal touch is best.”

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The Sofia-born businessman uses some innovative marketing techniques, even paying around one million euro a year to charter planes to bring golfers from regions and cities such as Scandinavia and Copenhagen. He offers seven-day, all-in holiday packages including flight and five games of golf, three of which are at the Lighthouse and the other two at neighboring courses, Thracian Cliffs Golf & Beach Resort and BlackSeaRama Golf & Villas.

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As for the real estate, the Lighthouse resort – which is approximately one kilometre by one kilometre in area – consists of a network of apartments, villas, townhouses and a 180-room-and-studio hotel, all with different pricing ranges. Some are for purchase and other to rent.

With economies rising worldwide and interest in the game of golf as strong as ever, it seems there are even more successes ahead for enterprising George Tchouklev.

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