Meet Karen Vandergrift, Owner of Estancia Tierra Santa

After leaving the corporate world behind, Estancia Tierra Santa owner Karen Vandergrift created a new life as an innkeeper and organic rancher in the South American country of Uruguay.

Karen discovered Uruguay in 2002 while on a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Crossing the Rio de la Plata by boat, Karen visited neighboring Carmelo, Uruguay, and befriended a professional beekeeper with ties to local farmers.  He offered to show her a nearby property for sale and within weeks Karen had purchased Estancia Tierra Santa, a 100-acre ranch with a rich history—it had once belonged to Jesuit missionaries under the Spanish Crown.  The original house, built in 1830, was in ruins when Karen arrived, but the “bones” of the building suggested great promise. 

Karen had never set out to be a hotel owner.  Her intention was to have a retreat for herself, family and friends, in the natural, unspoiled countryside.  However, as she worked on bringing the glorious buildings back to life, she felt this very special place should be shared with the public. 

Working in the hospitality industry was nothing new for Karen.  Until 1990, she worked for the well-known hotel chains InterContinental and Le Meridien, The Watergate Hotel and The Stanford Court.  However, she left the industry with no intention of ever returning.

With an undergraduate degree in Journalism and Public Relations, Karen entered the broadcast media industry in sales and advertising.  But by 1995, she decided to pursue a long-held dream to study textile design, living briefly in Italy and earning a Master’s Degree in 1997.  She then established Vandergrift Textile Design, producing custom-designed, high-end textiles for interior designers.  Despite achieving critical success (product placement in magazines such as Veranda, Metropolitan Home and California Home and Design), financial success was elusive, and Karen ceased commercial production in 2002.  However, that first taste of entrepreneurship hooked her:  she knew she could not go back to the corporate world.

Given her background in both the high-end hotel and textiles industries, she brought that know-how to the creation of Estancia Tierra Santa as a luxury guest ranch and inn.   As she remodeled the suites, she decorated them with the most discerning of guests in mind:  antique furnishings, oriental rugs, fresh flowers from the gardens, marble bathrooms, and in-room, wood-burning fireplaces are just some of the features guests enjoy.  

Karen opened the Estancia to guests in 2007.  The ranch is both a luxurious getaway and an environmentally-sustainable agricultural business: alfalfa and oats grown on the property not only feed the ranch’s many horses, cattle, sheep and chickens, but are also sold to neighboring farms. Wool from the ranch’s champion Merino sheep is sold to the Uruguayan Wool Cooperative. The ranch also produces most of what guests consume at the inn:  organic lamb and beef, honey, fruit and vegetables.  Karen makes and sells guest soap using herbs she gathers from the garden.  Guests leave with lasting memories of a luxury hotel experience that cannot be duplicated by any large hospitality chain. 

Marketing efforts at Estancia Tierra Santa go far beyond the local sales of wool, meat, grains and honey.  In 2009, the estancia was invited to join the prestigious web-based luxury hotel marketing company, The Kiwi Collection.  Inclusion in the group is by invitation only, ensuring that the quality of information disseminated is un-biased and accurate.   It is a distinction afforded to only few very luxury hotels which offer the best accommodations and customer service in the hospitality industry.

Customer service is a much misunderstood and over-used term in hotels and has come to mean nothing more than greeting a guest by his or her name.  While Karen believes that the basic tenets of hospitality can be learned—proper service during dining, attention to detail in cleanliness and room amenities, etc. — it is only through a passionate desire to please guests that a hotel professional succeeds.  She now believes that while those learned skills are essential, more important is greeting guests as you would in your own home, always with a smile—sometimes a hug—eye contact, warmth and respect.   The hospitality industry is a “pleasure business,”  and the mindful commitment to guest enjoyment above all else is too often forgotten but so simple to remember.

The dedication Karen has for the welfare of estancia guests extends to the local community as well.   In 2006, a pack of domesticated-turned-feral dogs attacked her flock of sheep, killing three-quarters of the herd—31 head.  In Uruguay, many men raise a litter of puppies, train them to hunt and then choose only the best dog to keep.  The others they abandon, many miles out in the countryside, to fend for themselves– the dogs become semi-wild within a season.  Karen decided to confront the problem of over-population of dogs and cats that proliferated in Carmelo and the rest of Uruguay.  Her mission has been to spay and neuter all cats and dogs that she finds wandering on the property, along with donating funds to several local veterinarians who are joining her in the cause.   The culture in Carmelo is gradually changing, seeing the sense in keeping the pet population manageable to protect livestock and to prevent a potential outbreak of disease among dogs and cats.

Estancia Tierra Santa has, in 7 short years, become an integral part of the community of Carmelo and the whole of Uruguay.  Karen’s unrelenting efforts to raise awareness of the country’s vast untapped tourism riches has garnered her attention from both the former president of Uruguay, Jorge Batlle, and United States Ambassador to Uruguay, Frank Baker.  Her commitment to her adopted home is shown both in the lasting friends she’s made among guests and also the members of her expansive community in Uruguay.

For more information about Karen and her company visit her online at: