Interior architecture design alumna Megan Horney, ’06, and her fiancé anchor their lives, careers with a boutique hotel in Croatia.
The boat’s American and Croatian flags flutter in the wind as the watercraft cruises past seaside restaurants, businesses and homes. The ridge of bleach-white buildings, colored by orange roofs and turquoise shutters, form the dreamlike Mediterranean landscape known as Zaton, Croatia.
The tour concludes as the boat slows to the channel’s end, docking just before a charming boutique hotel — the stunning work of Hoosier and Sycamore Megan Horney, ’06, and her fiancé Jonathan Riff.
This is The Admiral, a luxury boutique hotel founded by the couple. Situated near the southern coast of Croatia in Eastern Europe, the renovated hotel designed by Horney is as gorgeous as the surrounding coastal setting. The Admiral’s three-story exterior features the region’s classic architecture and white-and-turquoise palette. Inside, the design blends Californian and Croatian elements to create a modern but cozy nautical look.
“The design and décor — we call it coastal boho,” Horney said.
And The Admiral offers more than just a night’s rest in a beautiful room. Guests can join the hotel’s land and sea tours to see historic Croatian towns, stunning landscapes and hidden treasures like a centuries-old fortress. When they return, they can grab a meal at the hotel’s restaurant while enjoying views of the harbor.
Everything about The Admiral — the location, design, services and so on — seems just about perfect. It’s a testament to the daily hard work of Horney and Riff, who make running the hotel look effortless. But establishing a new business in a foreign country hasn’t been an easy journey.
In 2016, the couple traded their Los Angeles jobs for a chance to establish their own business in a beautiful — and more tranquil — location. Horney, an interior architecture design major from Jasper, Ind., was working as a senior designer for multimillion-dollar residences. Riff was running his own nautical clothing line for men. But after several years in Los Angeles, they were ready to escape the fast-paced and competitive life of L.A.
The idea to relocate to Croatia was inspired by Riff’s first visit to the country while backpacking in Europe in 2006.
“I just fell in love with the country, history, people and lifestyle here,” said Riff, a business and tourism development and management graduate from Arizona State University. “And I had always wanted to open a hotel. I always talked about Croatia to Megan. Eventually, we came here together for my birthday in 2015 and she got to see the country for herself.”
When they returned to L.A., they began looking at properties and researching everything about tourism and Croatia. Several months later, they were back in Croatia to explore properties in person.
“When we saw Zaton, we knew this was the place,” Riff said.
They thought the small village, home to just around 800 people, was the perfect oasis away from tourist crowds but still close to popular attractions, such as the larger town of Šibenik and the Kornati and Krka national parks.
“The surroundings, the views and the structure all were something we could work with,” he said.
In January 2016, they began the six-month renovation of the hotel. Horney’s design was brought to life with new paint, flooring, furniture and décor that transformed the hotel’s 14 rooms and two suites. Horney and Riff chose “The Admiral” to match the hotel’s nautical theme, and the business opened in June 2016.
“One of the hardest things was the initial move and remodel,” Riff said.
The couple encountered challenges with sourcing material, finding labor and navigating a different legal system — all while struggling with the language barrier.
“It seemed like we would take two steps forward followed by 10 steps backward. It was very hard to initially acclimate to our new surroundings, especially without any friends,” Riff said. “Eventually this passed and now we couldn’t be happier with our decision, but there are always days that are hard.”
“We’ve had to teach ourselves a lot about running a hotel,” Horney said.
Horney and Riff each do “a bit of everything.” They manage almost all daily operations, from breakfast, reservations, and housekeeping, to marketing efforts and more. Even with help from
a small staff, creating an excellent guest experience is far from a 9-to-5 job.
Since opening, The Admiral has hosted guests from many countries, with most coming from Germany, Britain and the United States. Some guests have become good friends — one will even officiate the couple’s wedding this fall.
With many weekends fully booked during the peak season, Horney said business has been good so far. The hotel has received positive reviews on booking websites and media coverage.
“We just had GQ Britain here, which just happens to be one of my favorite magazines, and that really made me feel like we’re getting recognition for our accomplishments and in some way it validates what we’re trying to do,” Riff said.
As Horney and Riff look to the future, opening another hotel in Croatia might become a new goal. But for now, they’re continuing to learn more and enjoy hotel ownership.
“When you show someone a really awesome vacation, it makes you feel good,” the couple said. “It gives us satisfaction to see people really enjoying themselves and learning about a new culture.”