Chitra Stern

chitra-stern image

Client: Martinhal Beach Resort


On top of her game

Along with her husband Roman Stern, she was one of the founders of the first 5-star resort in sagres – the Martinhal Beach  Resort  & hotel. An award-winning  businesswoman, Chitra Stern spoke to Essential about the new Martinhal project, revealed the secrets behind her marketing strategy and spoke to us about her four children – “all Algarvean”, she noted in fluent Portuguese, with an Algarvean accent and all.

In 2005, Martinhal had completed its first phase (completion and sale of 50 luxury residences) and the Martinhal hotel was being built. That was 10 years ago. How would you describe this journey?
It's been 10 very exciting years. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears, especially considering what happened after 2007, with the subprime mortgage crisis that was followed by one of the world's worst recessions and banking crises, and we had to construct and open a resort in that time. They were certainly very tough times. I feel a lot of pride and relief (laughs)that we survived and we worked very hard for our project not to go into the hands of the banks. We opened the resort in 2010 against all odds, and we built up a successful business. It's actually our 5th birthday this year since the inauguration of the resort. It's interesting that you mention that because I hadn't thought about it! (laughs)One of the lessons I've learned in my life is never to rest on your laurels. Any successful business person continues to stay paranoid and flexible – you need to react to shocks to the system. It's also very important to have a good foundation and humility. Pride on one hand, but also humility.

Your goal was to create a luxury family resort in an almost untouched part of the Algarve, like Sagres. Has Martinhal met all your expectations?
When we signed the Martinhal contract  I was already pregnant with our first child, and as we planned the layout of Martinhal, it became clear that it was very difficult to go on holiday as a young professional with children. We really felt that there was a gap in the marketplace for a high-end product for families. But you have to be humble. I would say that it has become that and more, because we have learned so much –  even after we opened the resort – about the needs of people, how they use your facilities. We listen very carefully to our guests' comments, not just on TripAdvisor, but also in our own surveys. You have to see what is possible – not everything is.

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It is really a question of learning by doing. We are not there yet and we have to keep going, because the market is dynamic.

You're from Singapore, your husband is Swiss and you lived in London. You have lived in Portugal for 14 years and you have even founded Viva Vino, which exports Portuguese wines to Asia. Do you think we have more to export?
I would say that Portugal is still the most undiscovered country in Western Europe and Lisbon is the most undiscovered capital. There are so many nationalities that are still to discover the Western Algarve and the beauties of Portugal. Last year we had about 14 million [foreign tourists in the first six months of the year]. Spain or Italy have 50 to 60 million tourists a year. I am not saying we're going to grow to that immediately, but this shows potential. If we doubled our figures, and I know it's possible, tourism is one of the largest exports waiting to happen in this country.
Regarding products, I am a fan of Por- tuguese wines, as is my husband. We bought a company with my parents in Singapore (…) because my father is a businessman and he works like this: he sees amazing products and imports them. We're looking forward to the growth of awareness which will naturally lead to more exports… such as the Viana hearts! (points to her filigree necklace)

Martinhal is constantly praised in the national and international press. What is your marketing strategy?
Well, without giving away my secrets… (laughs)I would encourage every entrepreneur to invest in a PR strategy. It costs a lot and you have to do it over a long time. We have to invest in them, get a good PR agent, talk to journalists, fly them here, put them up, take them to lunch and dinner and show them all the great things about Sagres. You need to create stories for them to tell. We've been promoting Sagres since 2002, and if you benefit the area, you will be benefiting yourself. The 2100 articles that have been written about us came with a lot of work and investment from my huge marketing, sales and reservations teams. Again, we do it very differently from hotels: we work on branding and the sales come automatically. Without this awareness, there are no bookings. No bookings, no revenue, no business.

Last year you won the Accomplished Entrepreneur Award from the London Business School. You have a busy family life and you personally manage this huge team. How do you balance it all?
With difficulty (laughs).Whether you're a mother of four children, one child or no children, there's always a list of priorities. I am no different to anyone else and I sometimes feel… oh my God! (said in an exasperated tone)But you have to really look at the things you've accomplished every day and feel good about them. I am a positive person. Luck comes to those who have a positive energy, I really believe that. To stay healthy is a challenge when you have a lot going on, and look to inspire yourself as well as others, because if you lead a team or your family and you are depressed, everything will fall around you.

Your resort is aimed at families. What do you enjoy doing with your children in your free time?
The resort is our place of business, and when I am with the kids I have to constantly stop myself from thinking about business and focus on them. But interestingly, because we run a family-friendly business, focussing on them gives  me great  inspiration (laughs).They do surf lessons, a lot of tennis. We live here, so they have to go to school and study very hard and produce good results. As a family we love to go to the numerous restaurants across the Algarve – the variety is unbelievable! We live in paradise. When we go on trips abroad, my children are always incredibly happy to be back.

What does the future hold for Martinhal?
We will be continuing to improve it and innovate, but we are in the process of expanding the Martinhal brand. We have taken over the previous Monte da Quinta in Quinta do Lago. We have a nice challenge there to build a Martinhal product and grow the business in the next three to five years. We're looking further afield as well to bring the Martinhal brand to Lisbon soon.
The plan is to expand and continue to focus on the sophisticated family market and create nice Martinhals across Portugal.

Text and photos kindly supplied by BPCC Member: Open Media

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Essential Algarve - Nº 91
Text: Ana Tavares