Coronavirus: lessons and impacts of summer in Portugal

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The beach of Cacela Velha, in the Algarve, in the middle of summer: almost nobody

The beach of Cacela Velha, in the Algarve, in the middle of summer: almost nobody (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

When I asked the courier at the hotel who accompanied us to the room how it had been moving during the summer and he did not hesitate to contextualize, wide-open smile behind the mask, that everything was fine “after the coronavirus”, I soon realized that the animation was the keynote of the moment in that special corner of southern Portugal, where the Algarve meets Spain, the sky is more blue and the waters are warmer.

The facade of the Grand House Hotel: mansion from 1926

The facade of the Grand House Hotel: mansion from 1926 (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

The Grand House breakfast: strategically overlooking the marina

The Grand House breakfast: strategically overlooking the marina (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

One of the eight hotels that belong to the Relais & Châteaux label in Portugal, the Grand House opened its doors last year in the small and charming town of Vila Real de Santo António and shines as one of the best destinations for truly authentic experiences. After closing for exactly three months, from March 15 to June 15, during the lockdown, the mansion reopened to face the heat head on. After summer (which, in the Northern Hemisphere, was from June 20 to September 22), we talked with the German Marita Barth, its director general, about the balance of the most anticipated season of the year in one of the most difficult moments of world tourism.

Marita Barth, the hotel’s general director: “the national market saved the summer”

Marita Barth, the hotel’s general director: “the national market saved the summer” (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

What were the main impacts of the pandemic on tourism?
We closed the hotel on March 15th, when the last customer left. It was a great uncertainty, no one knew what it was and what it would become. We didn’t even know for how long. At first everyone said it would be good to slow down, to live in the moment … I was furious about it! How can I read a book when I have real concerns, with 42 (staff) families depending on the hotel? Life can’t stop like that! With the reopening, I can say: the national market saved August here in the Algarve. Who before did not work with the Portuguese market even had the opportunity to win a new niche. The Portuguese used to spending holidays abroad had the opportunity to see an Algarve that they might not even have in mind. I heard it myself many times: “I thought the Algarve was completely different!”. On top of that, this part of the region, which is authentic, is truly Portugal. The Portuguese rediscovered the Algarve – and they liked it!

The Grand House Beach Club: the Portuguese rediscovered Portugal

The Beach Club of the Grand House: the Portuguese rediscovered Portugal (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

Inside the Beach Club pool: quiet

Inside the Beach Club pool: quiet (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

After the summer, what was the balance of the season?
We had the possibility to experience a unique Algarve, in the heat and without a crowd. It was an emotion, but at the same time an oscillation between the WOW and another sad, unreal side. Seeing the beaches at the beginning, when they should already be well frequented, almost empty, with five people … it’s “nice” (cool) for the personal side, but it’s very bad for business. The people who came here for a holiday in July was the best month they could choose – less movement, the service was more attentive … People happier, relieved, willing to receive. It was so cute to see people coming back!

Pandemic summer = Algarve without crowd

Pandemic summer = Algarve without a crowd (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

Access to Vila Real de Santo António beach: paradise

Access to Vila Real de Santo António beach: paradise (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

But it wasn’t all flowers …
What was really serious for everyone was the fall in the English market. When they opened the air corridor (eliminating the need for quarantine on the return), it looked like a bingo: plim, plim, plim! Reserves started to appear, it was a euphoria, a party! But when they closed again (a few weeks later) it was the other way around – there started to be a rain of cancellations.

View of Vila Real de Santo António, with the marina and the Grand House mansion in the center

View of Vila Real de Santo António, with the marina and the Grand House mansion in the center (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

Close at the hotel mansion: centenary

Close up on the hotel palace: centenary (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

How was the occupancy rate?
We closed August (the main month of the summer) with 45% occupancy – although we expected to be above 70%, before the pandemic, for us it was good at the moment, we were not expecting it. Statistics show that five star hotels in the Algarve maintained this same percentage. With one detail: we do not lower prices. The luxury hotels got together and decided not to go down. This is not an economic crisis right now in our niche. It may be, but at the moment tourists were not coming out of fear, not because of the money. But we made some one-off offers – like, for example, ‘stay seven and pay five days’, because we wanted to encourage people to stay longer.

The hotel entrance: time travel

The hotel entrance: time travel (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

What were the main learnings of this period?
It was interesting, I am analyzing the habits of guests a lot more, today I make graphics that I have never done in my life! I found out, for example, how sensitive tourists are to the news! They directly impacted reserves. We also learned a lot about the human being and his fears. We need to consider the human nature of business, be sensitive to it. Another point: I now know much more about the business than before – I know, for example, exactly what my costs are when we are closed. I also liked to see that during the pandemic there was a union between the hotels in the region for the first time – exchanging hygiene ideas, sales techniques … the sector really got together. That was a great learning experience.

One of the suites at the Grand House: higher than expected occupancy, even without lowering prices

One of the suites at the Grand House: higher than expected occupancy, even without lowering prices (Bruno Barata / Reproduction)

What about plans for the future?
We did not interrupt the news even with the pandemic. In July, we opened our pop-up service on the beach for the summer. Soon we will open a canning shop with a restaurant and a terrace right next to the hotel. In the spring we have plans to open a champagne bar on the rooftop and our Grand Society Club, a club for members and guests with a bistro, cinema, bar, cigar lounge … And the Grand House brand expects to expand across the country! There is still nothing closed, but Porto, Sintra, Comporta… they are all destinations that are on the group’s radar!

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