The Covid-19 crisis has hit Portugal’s tourism industry hard, not least the Martinhal luxury family hotels, part of the Elegant Group, owned by Chitra and Roman Stern. But despite the rain, “every cloud has a silver lining”, says Chitra.
The exclusive Martinhal hotels, resorts and residences in the Algarve, Cascais and Lisbon have always represented luxury, stylish design and hospitality.
However, with 80% of their guests from overseas and international travel grounded, the group, which has the Martinhal Beach Family Resort Hotel in Sagres, Martinhal Cascais Hotel and Martinhal Chiado apartments in Lisbon, is, like all of Portugal’s hotel groups, feeling the pinch.
Founder Chitra Stern believes that it is time for the government to start opening up the Portuguese economy “in stages”, while taking all the precautions necessary to continue containing the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
As such, the entrepreneur, who has regularly advised the Portuguese government on overseas investment, was one of the signatories of a petition from nearly 200 business and association leaders, warning of the risk of a total collapse of the Portuguese economy.
“The initiative came to me from the Cascais Tourism Board and we are definitely grateful for the steps the government has taken to control the spread of the virus,” she says.
“Both the numbers of infections and deaths in Portugal have been thankfully low and the government leadership has been great, but, from a business perspective, what is happening is brutal.”
Chitra Stern points out that even if the government opens up the economy, Portugal is tied up with the situation of the airports and drastic flight reductions, which has resulted in “such an unfathomable problem”.
Hospitality may have to be reinvented
Chitra Stern freely admits this is an “extremely difficult time” for the Elegant Group, with effects that are quite different from the last recession.
“There is no doubt that those who are able to look beyond the problems and address the paradigm shift will survive, and brands are important in these times too,” says the entrepreneur.
“I actually believe that in times like these, precious family time is even more valued and appreciated. It won’t be easy but, with business acumen, hotels and resorts like ours have to look forward and hospitality may have to be reinvented.”
Chitra Stern says businesses in hospitality need to look at the assets that they have now to see how they can be adapted. One of the things the group has been doing is preparing meals at the Martinhal Cascais Hotel for home delivery in and around the Cascais area, particularly Quinta da Marinha which has few restaurants.
Plus, a lot of the group’s inventory is in villas rather than standard hotel rooms and, in the post-pandemic phase, as things get back to normal, the emphasis may still be on social distancing with holiday villa rentals likely to become more in demand by Portuguese as well as overseas families, when the airlines eventually get back to capacity.
“I think there will definitely be more demand for places like Portugal that have less density and yet lots of properties to holiday in that provide space and that is what we have with non-standard boutique properties,” she says, adding that it is about reorganising the business and automatising some processes.
In addition, the crisis provides a good opportunity, if a forced one, to examine what exactly is adding value and what is not in the business and services provided.
The Elegant Group is looking to reopen its hotels at the start of July, but if the virus has a second wave in the winter, they will think again. “We can’t answer all the questions right now, but we can look to the future and what added value we can provide to our guests,” says the entrepreneur.
International school moving ahead
Chitra Stern admits the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the group’s plan to open its new United Lisbon International School near Parque das Nações in the eastern district of the city.
“We have to continue doing our job to have our school ready for the community by September 2020, while continuing to work on the rest of our Education Hub for the future,” she explains, adding that the school will start with a lower number of children than anticipated, with 60 students from the original number of 150 available seats so far subscribed.
“Distance learning may well become more common in the future and if we do have a second wave of the coronavirus, we’re prepared and set up for that.”
Portugal – an attractive move
Chitra Stern strongly believes that Portugal is and will continue to be an attractive place for investors, entrepreneurs and professionals and their families to move to, not just because of the climate, enviable security levels, attractive tax regimes, fine food and wines, and endless sandy beaches and stunning landscapes, but because the Portuguese are so hospitable, welcoming and tolerant.
“When you see how well we dealt with the pandemic compared to some other countries, this question of lifestyle becomes even more important now. Movement will continue and people may decide to move from more expensive cities to more reasonable ones like Lisbon with great lifestyles,” says Chitra.
Chitra Stern says that while it’s too early to say if Portugal’s summer is effectively cancelled, she believes and hopes that Portugal’s economy, in line with the rest of the world, will be open by the start of season, with July, August, September and October still in Martinhal’s sights.
“We’re not banking on anything near what we would expect to see, but, with the current scenario, Martinhal is looking to be open for holidaymakers from July,” she concludes.
By CHRIS GRAEME
Article originally published in Essential Business – www.essential-business.pt