Interview: From the cowboy '90s to the COVID '20s, moving to Prague then and now

Dutch businessman Bert van der Maas founded the Czech Republic's first relocation agency; we spoke to him about how the industry has changed.

Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas

Written by Elizabeth Zahradnicek-Haas
Published on 25.01.2021 10:56 (updated on 26.01.2021)

In 1995 Bert van der Maas was living in the Netherlands with his Czech wife, Ivana, when she was approached by several Dutch companies seeking to expand their business in the Czech Republic. Twenty-five years later the couple has made a career out of helping companies settle their employees here. As one of the first relocation companies in Prague to focus on home search and immigration issues, van der Maas and his International Business Support team pioneered the concept of relocation as a paid-for service. As the company celebrates a quarter of a century in business, we spoke to Bert about the changes he's witnessed and what's next for the relocation industry during these turbulent times.

What were the '90s like for companies that wanted to relocate to the Czech Republic?

In the late '90s, the perception of and accessibility to the Czech Republic were quite different. We focus on corporate relocations, so our clients were typically companies that send employees to the Czech Republic. Those companies were initially trying to expand into former Eastern Europe, so they were either setting up a business or establishing a joint venture with Czech companies. Most of the people coming over were in management or finance.

I remember that back then the company relocation package sometimes included hardship allowances, where you got additional financial compensation because the destination country was considered a difficult place to live!

That typical client must have changed and evolved over the years.

What we see now is that a lot of people are relocating to the Czech Republic because of language skills – a service center where language skills are required – or specific technical expertise. Expertise that either can't be found on the Czech labor market or sectors that lack experts in a specific area. For instance, a lot of IT people who come in have very specific expertise. Of course, there are still traditional higher-level management types, but a lot of people relocating these days do so because their company is offering an international experience to its employees, as part of a training development program.

How has the landscape changed in the past 25 years to make life easier for those incomers?

Initially, rents were extremely high in Prague, so it was a seller's market, where landlords could dictate the conditions for lease agreements, etc. Nobody would accept those conditions anymore and over the years there is much better accommodation to be found in either apartments or houses. The real estate market is much more professional than it was in the beginning, contracts are better, communication is easier, that has changed a lot.

Kaiserstein Palace - IBS office exterior. Photo by Radim Miech.
Kaiserstein Palace - IBS office exterior. Photo by Radim Miech.

Now that you see the popularity of the Czech Republic as a destination, there is quite a demand in certain segments of the real estate market and it is once again a challenge to find accommodation, but it's not comparable to the beginning. In general, the professionalism in the market, not just real estate agents but international schools, banks that have expat centers, insurance companies, language schools, there is much more on offer and it's much more professional.

No matter what, the Czech Republic just seems to be an evergreen destination for expats. Why is that?

From the perspective of companies, the Czech Republic remains an attractive location because of its stability. When we started it was not yet part of the EU or Schengen Zone, it is now, so accessibility is excellent (if we forget about this year!). It is in the center of Europe, so the connection to other EU member states and the whole of Europe is very good. Infrastructure is very convenient, which makes it a plus for companies.

From the perspective of an employee who is staying for two or three years, Prague and other Czech cities (because expats aren't just moving to Prague anymore) are easy to navigate. If you compare Prague to another capital, London for instance, people living there for two or three years still don't understand the public transportation system! Here, you relocate, the city is accessible, and within a couple of weeks you feel at home because public transport is excellent not complicated and that's for the whole city. And everything is there: restaurants, culture, it's all manageable.

In terms of the country's attractiveness to foreign investors, what has changed?

When we started actually, there were no incentive programs for foreign investors. The government thinking was 'if they would like to come to the Czech Republic they can, but if they don't want to, fine with us.' That has changed. The Czech Republic recognized the importance of attracting foreign investors very quickly, so that made it a very popular destination. The Czech Republic now actively supports investors or foreign companies that want to come to the Czech Republic, CzechInvest, for instance, is doing great work supporting companies. When we started a lot of companies were deciding between Budapest and Prague and I think that still is the case. But Prague wins because of stability, infrastructure, and certainly its political situation especially in recent years.

Have certain policies alleviated the red-tape of the immigration process?

Immigration has indeed traditionally been a bottleneck and is always complicated and takes too long, and requires too many documents. But that has changed in that the Czech Republic implemented a fast-track program for highly-qualified key and scientific personnel, which better facilitates the hiring of foreign employees, and supports hiring internationally. Now companies that are not able to find suitable expertise in the local labor market can bring those people in from other countries, so they can expand their business or set up a service center for a large region. I think that's really part of why the Czech Republic is such a successful relocation destination

IBS founders Bert and Ivana van der Maas.
IBS founders Bert and Ivana van der Maas.

People and companies still face challenges coming here. Can you elaborate on those?

Speaking from my own experience, the language continues to be a challenge. When we work with expats who stay for two or three years, we tell them to be realistic in their expectations. Everybody starts to learn the language enthusiastically and after six month the enthusiasm dips because they start with the grammar and realize there is much more to it than with other languages. But learning the language can also be an advantage. I mentioned companies choosing between Budapest and Prague. If you are an IT company recruiting in Russian-speaking countries or Ukraine, then language is an advantage because it's much easier to learn Czech for a Russian national than it is to learn Hungarian.

I would add cultural difference to those challenges, don't you agree?

Yes. There are very few companies that actually offer cultural awareness training to assignees because they think if you're relocating from the Netherlands, or France or Germany to the Czech Republic, there's not really a cultural difference. That sensitivity of the differences is lacking a bit and I think it does help expats or foreign nationals relocating to learn more about cultural difference.

Being sensitive to those smaller cultural differences really helps and it still surprises me a bit – especially looking at Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain – when it is assumed that the culture is the same and it isn't. 

To give a very practical example, we typically spend the day with assignees and their families, and we go for lunch. Here when you finish your plate, but the others are still eating, the waiter takes away your plate. In the Netherlands that is very unusual because the waiter will typically wait until everybody has finished eating and then take all the plates at the same time so you don't feel like you are being rushed to finish eating and leave. But in the Czech Republic, it's actually impolite to have a person sitting behind an empty plate. Such a small thing but for people arriving who have that experience in a restaurant their first impression of hospitality is misinterpreted.

Kaiserstein Palace - IBS office exterior. Photo by Radim Miech.
Kaiserstein Palace - IBS office exterior. Photo by Radim Miech.

I think there is also this separation between home and work life that is pretty sacred to Czechs.

Yes, exactly. I remember we had a U.S. company setting up a business here in Prague and they wanted to do a team-building or host BBQs on the weekend and were a bit surprised that not a lot of people showed up. In the Czech Republic, the separation of private and professional life is much bigger than it is in the U.S. There, it is great to meet colleagues on a Saturday at a BBQ, in the Czech Republic people are much more reserved about that. If that is not recognized it might lead employers to believe that people are not committed to the company, when that's not it at all.

You specialize in corporate relocations but what advice would you give individuals who want to move to Prague?

In many cases today, instead of a company asking its employee to relocate, relocations are initiated by the individual, and that creates a whole different dynamic. We now see people who want the international experience, who like the change and want to do something different. And that is a significant change.

My best piece of advice to those who aren't connected to a company would be to get a job first. The labor office has an extensive database online, where all companies that are looking for international employees publish positions. Going through that database, seeing what is available, gives a good impression of what types of positions are here and what salaries are connected to those positions.

For individuals, who just want to venture out to the Czech Republic and see what they can land, it has become more difficult. The focus is more on supporting companies than supporting individuals that just want to give it a try specifically when it comes to immigration. Immigration legislation has changed in the sense that corporate relocations are actually prioritized. Getting a job first is also advised due to immigration. If you aren't an EU national, then having employment secured certainly makes the immigration part easier.

What are some of the more complicated situations you've faced as a relocation specialist?

Everything you can imagine. Clients flying in from Brazil and having to change in Frankfurt and even though they had proper documents the Frankfurt immigration police putting them back on a plane to Brazil. We've people invite family to visit the Czech Republic and this was before Schengen, so they'd visit Germany over the weekend and on the way back get stopped at the Czech border because they weren't allowed to enter the Czech Republic. We had a guy arrive at our office with a suitcase, saying "Hello, I'm here, my employer says you're going to help with my relocation," with little more information.

But the Prague floods of 2002, was one of our most challenging times because some of our clients were living in Malá Strana on the embankment and they had to be evacuated.

I think a lot of people won't remember those floods or see it as a major thing compared to what we are going through now. But what happened this year with COVID, things will get back to normal and people will forget about it again. So, looking back on that major catastrophe and how we survived it, that's probably a lesson in keeping positive.

Flooded Malá Strana streets, August 2002. Photo by Míša Šimůnková Vodňanská.
Flooded Malá Strana streets, August 2002. Photo by Míša Šimůnková Vodňanská.

I imagine when you are working in an industry based on international mobility this year must have been a calamity.

COVID is worldwide so, in principle, the Czech Republic doesn't have an exceptional position, things are challenging but companies everywhere around the world have the same problem, so this is being seen as a temporary thing. Projects are postponed in most cases but not canceled. What helps is that during the second wave borders aren't completely closed so for business travel or people that need to relocate there are still possibilities. The lockdown is now much more of an internal Czech measure. But the impact is still tremendous. People who relocated to the Czech Republic are very uncertain about their position, they aren't able to move on to other locations when their assignment ends and everyone is just waiting for things to go back to normal.

What are the long-term implications of COVID for your industry? Any insights from your big clients?

The fundamentals have not changed. The Czech Republic is a nice location, it's easy for employers to find or relocate staff here because people like to move here. What we hear from clients is that investors or projects aren't being canceled but postponed, so once this situation is under control again, we do expect things will slowly get back to normal. We cannot give the same service, there can't be a home search where all of us sit in a car and see ten properties in a day and the real estate agent is there and the owner. We have found alternative ways to help our clients, doing virtual home searches, meeting online, etc. Our clients recognize and respect the limitations due to COVID and have been making the best of it. If we look at our client rating, this year it's higher than it's ever been.

This article was written in association with IBS - International Business Support. To read more about our partner content policies see here.

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