The Elegant Group – adapting and looking to the future
The Covid-19 crisis has hit Portugal’s tourism industry hard, not least for the Martinhal luxury family hotels Elegant Group owned by Chitra and Roman Stern, but Chitra tells Essential Business that despite the rain every cloud has a silver lining.
Special Report Chris Graeme
The exclusive family friendly Martinhal hotels, resort and residences in the Algarve, Cascais and Lisbon have always represented luxury, family, stylish design and hospitality.
However, with 80 per cent of their guests from overseas and international travel grounded, the group which has the Martinhal Beach Resort & Hotel in Sagres, the Hotel Martinhal Cascais and Martinhal Chiado Apartments, 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 handed to the Government 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 board of Tourism 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 happenings brutal,” she adds.
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”.
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” she says.
“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,” says Chitra Stern.
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 things she has been doing in the short term is preparing meals for home delivery to the residences in and around the Cascais area — particularly Quinta da Marinha which has few restaurants — prepared from the Hotel Martinhal Cascais.
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 and holiday villa rentals may become more in demand with the summer season approaching, for Portuguese families as well as overseas ones — 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. What, when and at what time of day?
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 for the guests” says the entrepreneur.
Chitra Stern admits the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the group’s plan to open up its new United International School of Lisbon near Parque das Nações in Lisbon’s eastern district of the city.
“At the school we have to move forward to try 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 if people have to move from more expensive cities to more reasonable ones like Lisbon with great lifestyles, then Lisbon has everything to offer” says Chitra Stern.
Chitra Stern says that while its 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 rest of the world’s, 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 with July at perhaps 20% of what we’ve seen before, but with the current scenario Martinhal is looking to be open for holidaymakers from July” she concludes.