Q&A with Chitra Stern, CEO of Martinhal

Q&A with Chitra Stern, CEO of Martinhal

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Owner and founding board member of Martinhal Family Hotels & Resorts, Chitra is a passionate entrepreneur and real-estate & hotel developer, working alongside her business-partner and husband, Roman, on their projects in Portugal. They have had 4 children during the process of building up their businesses.

The family-owned group is at the forefront of several key trends, and Stern has years of experience working in family travel. FTA recently chatted with Stern about what Martinhal has in store for the future, as well as her insights into the family travel industry at large.

First, please tell FTA members a little bit about your organization and mission. 

Martinhal is an award-winning collection of luxury family hotels, resorts and residences across Portugal, from Lisbon to the Algarve. I launched the brand with the opening of our flagship resort, Martinhal Sagres, in 2010, in a stunning natural setting on Portugal’s Algarve coast.  The success of Martinhal Sagres led us to open three additional hotels and resorts in Quinta do Lago where we have a collection of luxury villas, Martinhal Cascais which comprises hotel rooms and villas, and Martinhal Chiado, a boutique serviced apartment hotel in the heart of Lisbon. We are now taking our unique formula and hospitality background to launch Martinhal Residences where we have 160 apartments for sale, ranging from studios to 1, 2, 3 and 4 bedroom penthouse apartments and duplexes, ready for completion by Fall 2022. Our mission is to focus on families by taking the hassle out of traveling with kids. Through the launch of our new hotel branded residences, we’re applying our mission to serve families who decide to move to Portugal and help make their transition smooth.

Please tell FTA members about the various unique challenges you’ve faced when it comes to marketing travel amid the ongoing challenges associated with COVID-19 and its regularly emerging variants.

The last two years have been challenging for all sectors of the industry, but the Portuguese government acted quickly and the vaccination roll out has been efficient. Right before the summer (May 2020) we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and felt ready to market ourselves again as Portugal’s borders reopened but it wasn’t straightforward – cases started to spike again, curfews were reintroduced and once again the process of booking trips was too complex and uncertain. This impacted our summer and our international marketing efforts, but we were able to attract the domestic market and visitors from neighboring European destinations who were drawn to our spacious villa accommodations. Additionally, Portugal was one of the first countries in the EU (April 2020) to introduce Clean & Safe certification, and subsequently joined the European Tourism Covid-19 Safety Seal in June 2021. We are stringent in following the government guidelines as the safety of our guests is our priority. We continue to make this clear in our marketing efforts.

In terms of offers, we also pivoted quickly to promote our spacious villas for mid to long-term stays. In Portugal, we were among the first to capitalize on the work-remote trend during the early part of the pandemic. We catered to families who had lockdown fatigue and those who simply had the flexibility to work – and home-school their kids – from anywhere. In fact, Portugal was recently ranked as the best country in the world for remote work by travel metasearch site Momondo (managed by KAYAK).

It was around this time that I was getting ready to launch a new school venture – United Lisbon International School (more on this new project below). We started promoting virtual lessons since we opened September 2020. Now we’re shifting to promoting our programming in the classroom, to great success, as we have world-class facilities on offer. Interestingly, among the top two markets we’re attracting is the U.S., with over 25% of our enrollments being American students.

In 2022, Portugal is on the road to normality and our big focus is to encourage families to rediscover the joy of taking a cultural city break to Lisbon, staying with us at Martinhal Chiado Waratzahich is right in the heart of the city and from where they can discover the best that the city has to offer, from learning about the local culture, trying new and interesting foods to enjoying the city’s vast history and contemporary sites. We also encourage guests to discover Martinhal Cascais from where families get the best of both worlds – access to Greater Lisbon’s stunning coastline and the great outdoors, as well as the opportunity to explore some of the area’s most interesting cultural attractions such as the picture-perfect town of Sintra, the charming fishing village of Cascais and more, while being close enough to Lisbon’s city sites.

What are some of the most effective actions you’ve taken or ways you’ve found to work around these challenges in order to continue to attract visitors amid the current realities of the world?

We introduced dedicated Long Term Rental offers with competitive rates across all four hotels and resorts; starting from 37 EUR per night, based on a 6 month stay, in the heart of Lisbon at Martinhal Chiado. We met the demand for serviced villas and apartments that are outfitted with amenities including full kitchens, washer-dryers, gardens, balconies and many with private swimming pools. These offers started off being in-demand among domestic travelers during the height of the pandemic as families looked for a change of scene, and they continue to be booked among those who have increased ‘work-remote’ flexibility.

We also offer, and continue to have, Flexible Rates, which gives our guests confidence to book, knowing that there’s a free cancellation policy with 100% refund, available throughout the year.

Are you optimistic about travel for 2022? Please discuss your feelings on this front and what makes you feel this way?

COVID-19 and the virus’ new potential variants will continue to pose a threat, and as we’ve entered the third year of the pandemic we have to continue acting cautiously. That said, the pandemic has revealed the importance of science and technology for the well-being of global populations and the advancements made have been remarkable. Portugal too acted quickly and efficiently, and the government set an example in how to handle the pandemic. Portugal is among one of the top 3 countries with the highest vaccination rates, which should provide peace of mind to families looking for a safe, international destination, especially when traveling with children. So yes, I am optimistic about the return of international travel! Now that children are getting vaccinated, parents can plan their vacations more confidently. Looking at our upcoming inventory, we’re starting to see the return of a normal booking pattern, where our peak holiday weeks (Easter, Summer etc.) are rapidly selling out.

You listed one travel trend as “Multi-Generational Trips,” can you tell our readers about that?

As grandparents and parents have missed out on so many family celebrations over the past nearly two years, multi-generational stays will be an increasingly popular way to bring the family together to mark milestones this year. Private settings such as villa experiences will continue being prioritized. We’ve already seen the demand increase for our larger private villas in Martinhal Sagres, Martinhal Cascais and Martinhal Quinta do Lago, where families are celebrating long awaited family reunions.

When it comes to family travel in 2022, what’s your one big piece of advice/wisdom? 

My advice to other hospitality brands is that we need to stay flexible and adapt to our guests’ needs and concerns. For example, we expect that on-demand touchless services will continue to be expected for ease, but we are also eager to reconnect with them in-person and make travel personal again! Having four children myself and after many months of virtual learning, working from home and multiple lockdowns, it is arguably more important than  ever to seek out quality time with family, experience a new culture and above all have a much-deserved relaxing vacation where safety isn’t a concern. If a guest chooses to stay in a Martinhal Resort, we can tell you one thing is sure, our team takes care of every detail to ensure families have a personalized stay – one where parents can look forward to fully relaxing and enjoying their cappuccino with the foam still on it!

Anything else you want people to know about the work you’re doing?

The pandemic gave families the time and opportunity to reflect on their lifestyle choices and it made moving abroad a reality for many. We’ve been seeing the growing demand among American families who have been relocating to Portugal because of its lifestyle – its stable government, access to nature and outdoor activities, relatively low living costs, affordable healthcare and education and its welcoming people. Recent stats show that new residents in Portugal from North America increased by 12% year-on-year (2020 compared to 2019). Responding to this demand and seeing the need for expat families, I was driven to fulfill a long time dream of mine which was to launch a world-class school. As mentioned earlier, in September 2020, I opened the United Lisbon International School and today it has over 300 students enrolled from 35 nationalities. We are fostering an environment of multiculturalism, offering education that matters tomorrow, integrating smart technology into the learning environment with state-of-the-art facilities. We will be growing in a few years to 1,000 plus kids.  We teach children that “Being United” as a world is a key to solving global problems.

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