Yup. We are still here in Marbs!

My lovely friend Roger (not Federer) sent me a message last night asking if I was OK, since I have been so quiet – that, and a few other comments from friends recently made me decide to brush off my blog boots, and get writing again. Although, having said that, one of the things I have been doing is writing, since I am doing a course on ‘writing novels’ and, blimey, that is tough. Two hours each week on a Zoom call and then a load of homework!

All these years of writing press releases, websites, brochures and so on and now I am finding out all sorts of new things – not least the need to include conversation in every piece of writing (something that I never, obviously, did/do in marketing materials (other than making up quotes for people), and which I find really difficult. So forgive me if I include a few pieces of conversation here today, just to keep my hand in!

Then, tennis; the weather has been fantastic down here for ages now (sorry), so I have been playing quite a lot, a consequence of which is that I also spend a reasonable amount of time with the physio each week, but that’s OK. My knee is holding up, and I have even started running a bit (actually, my writing teacher suggested for one of our tasks last week to take a walk or run on our own and open our minds to what we see around us in order to generate creativity for our writing – something that I taught myself last year when I was out counting show-jumping steps, observing ant-life, hugging trees and so on).

This year, whilst going on similar routes with my running/walking, I have been thinking about and observing different things: why are palm trees so symmetrical? Do they automatically grow like that, or is it the way they were originally planted? Why are there so few butterflies nowadays? When I was a kid, I was fascinated with them (along with various other things), and I could name about 10 different types that could be seen on a regular day in the country. Now, I have really only seen a couple of variations – maybe it’s because we are in Spain (Spanish [butter]flies? I can hear Jan smirking already). Then; the sea, and why we are always drawn towards it; also why does everyone still wants a tan, even though we know it isn’t good for us? Actually that reminds me of the other day, when we were walking on the beach and one of the black guys (is it OK to say that?!) that sell handbags and so on (and I am a sure bet, so they always come up to me) approached and said to Jan ‘Where are you from mate’, to which Jan replied ‘the Czech Republic’, and he responded ‘Ahoj!’. Talk about surprised! It transpired that he came from Gambia and he had learned Czech from the many Czech ladies that apparently visit there….(I’m not saying a word)… Anyway, we chatted a bit (no purchase made for a change) and then as a parting shot he said to Jan ‘look at you, you’re nearly as black as me!’. And it is true. If we stay here any longer, he probably won’t be allowed back into the Czech Republic, if and when we do go….

So, anyway, back to tennis. We spent the last two weeks watching the ATP 250 Andalusia tournament that took place in the Puente Romano tennis centre down the road; it is an annual event (although not last year for obvious reasons) and is usually (a) sold out and (b) hugely expensive, plus (c) it doesn’t normally attract any of the top guys. But this year, with so few other tournaments, loads of them turned out, and we got a ‘season ticket’ for a couple of quid. Fantastic. Highlights included the fact that it was blazing sun every day, which meant that we topped up our tan even more (see above), also that we bumped into various Czechs that we knew during the course of the event (you might ask how that is possible, but basically every time Jan hears someone speaking Czech he jumps on them and starts a conversation, with the result that we have become friends with quite a lot who live here, and we also sat (by complete coincidence) right next to one of our good friends from Prague, who came down to support), and then the final, which was magnificent (one of the top Spanish guys, against the new ‘young-Nadal’) who was urged on by Jan throughout the whole match (below one of the videos that our friends took of us on Spanish TV – and if you can hear someone shouting out ‘vamos Jaume’ that was him).

https://t.co/UAehzOeh1S?ssr=true

Oh, and I almost forgot (how could I?) Bjorn Borg there to present the prizes. Bjorn Borg!!! Of course, younger people reading this might ask who he is (the boys standing in front of us said it to each other and a rather grand elderly Spanish guy next to us surprised us by leaning over and saying ‘he’s a f… ing legend boys!’)… Sadly, he was one of my heroes (45 years ago… kill me now).

Moving on, but I will come back. There has been quite a lot in the media recently (I have really, really, tried to keep away from it, but haven’t always managed) discussing whether it is the vaccine rollout that has reduced the numbers in the UK, or maybe it was more the very strict lockdown for the last God knows how long. Sitting here, we would say that lockdowns have as much effect as the vaccine – in Spain, the vaccine rollout has been slow, but due to the ongoing caution (particularly the social distancing and masking) the numbers are very low… with the result being that we have been living a ‘new normal’ life for sometime now – as can be seen from the video – so far, there have been no spikes in cases, despite the quite big crowds at the tennis… but everyone here, as I keep on saying, is very well behaved, especially when it comes to masks.

This time last year, all the talk was of lockdowns, masks and when/what/how it is all going to end. This year, well, most discussions seem to be about vaccines. The UK, due to some dubious jiggery-pokery by BJ and his merry-men (imagine our surprise) managed to get hold of many more of those than anyone else in Europe, with the result that they have managed to get at least one dose into a good proportion of the population; the Czech Republic is struggling (seems like we will get other countries hand-me-downs and a large batch of Sputniks), whilst Spain is toddling along, doing a reasonable number each day. And yet, the talk is still of vaccine passports – Saga Holidays must be doing a roaring trade, since in most countries anyone under the age of about 70 is still waiting. I do get it that the older and vulnerable need to be protected, but if we are to get life back to normal, and, in particular, the economy, it seems to me that it would be good to get some of the people that drive such things protected soon!.. Just saying….in the meantime, though.. this made me giggle

Finally a footnote. I heard from a friend (actually closely related to Saga Holidays but for different reasons) that a certain Pat Cash had arrived in Puente Romano for a few days. I am afraid I have to go now…..!

Is it really a year??!

Next week it will be a year since we headed down to Marbella, just before everything kicked off and I started my 100-day stretch of daily blog writing. I know that at that time, even once the reality of our tough Spanish lockdown hit us, we really only thought it would go on for a few weeks; I don’t think anyone, even the many scientists and other experts that we all listen to would have dreamed that one year later the world would still be ruled by and obsessed with Covid….but here we are.

Down here in Marbella, we toddle along, living a very ‘normal life’, but despite that we still spend an unhealthy amount of time monitoring both regular and social media – although not to the extent of last year. Jan tends to troll about on Facebook putting the world to rights, but that is because he is mostly concerned with what is happening in the Czech Republic (he has kind of given up on the Alicante ladies, who really only talk about the vaccine nowadays (at least those that are still here, the impact of Brexit having forced a lot of them back to the UK), plus he is single-handedly trying to support the airline industry by responding to the many mad comments on FB about people flying and spreading the virus when, from our own experience, we would say that flying is probably one of the safest things you can do right now – if you disregard the possibility of dying from boredom on arrival at one of the UK airports where, the other day, people had to wait 7 hours to go through passport control??!!!!), whereas I tend to go ranting on Twitter, where the British contingent, especially the anti-Brexit and anti-government lot that I follow, are more active.

The UK, as everyone knows, has been been putting its whole focus on vaccinating anything and anyone that moves, and is proudly publicising the number of people that have received their first and second doses of the vaccine in the corner of every news programme’s screen – don’t get me wrong, the vaccine roll-out (by the NHS I might add) has been incredible, and clearly it is working amazingly well, judging by the drop in cases on a daily basis, but the idea that that is due to anything that the quockerwodgers (sorry, I do like this word but I think I need to abbreviate it to ‘quockers’ from now on) have done is whipping up a lot of fury amongst my Twitter friends.

Incredibly there are now a lot of people saying that BJ ‘has done a great job in difficult circumstances’ but let’s not forget about the huge number of people that have died and are still dying, that various of the quockers have been taken to court in the last few weeks on corruption charges (and lost), and that Brexit is slowly but surely destroying British business; in fact, on this morning’s Twitter troll I read an article that said that one in 20 households in the north of the UK are now destitute, and 4 million children are at risk of starvation!! In the UK?!! How is that even possible?

forced quarantine or prison arrest?

Meantime in Spain, where the vaccine has been slow to arrive but is now gradually being rolled out, the numbers of cases and daily deaths are now so low that nearly every region is more or less back to normal (except, of course, for the compulsory mask wearing and social distancing….). Despite that, it seems that Spain is still deemed to be a ‘high risk country’ by the rest of the world, which, is really only based on the total number of deaths that the country has seen (most of which were, of course, this time last year) and the very bad PR that the Spanish government has clearly been doing (do I see an opportunity? Yes I do!). In fact, last week there was talk of the UK adding Spain to its list of ‘high-risk’ countries; ie that travellers arriving from Spain would have to go into the ten days of ‘prison arrest’ (i.e. a stay in a hideous airport hotel, where they cannot go outside their tiny box room, will have three meals a day deposited outside their door, and pay something like Euro 2,000 for the pleasure!) that the UK has brought in for some other far flung places (quite absurd, and you have to think that it is, as usual, a political thing rather than anything to do with people’s health).

“It’s a complicated time for needle phobics.”

Incidentally, whilst everyone here is keen to get their hands on a vaccine (well, not literally, more to get the vaccine into their arms), and there is a lot of negativity in the Spanish media about the slowness of the roll-out, you do have to wonder whether, if the case numbers in Spain are falling so quickly with only a small amount of vaccines having been given (relative to the UK, anyway), the vaccines are even necessary…. since the social distancing and mask wearing that Spain seems to favour over and above everything else, seems to work just as well…… Ooof. That should get a few people going…..

And then there is the Czech Republic, which has very easily knocked the UK off the top of the league of the most hopeless quockers and managers of the crisis in Europe, if not the world, and now, when most countries are getting back to some sort of normality, it has gone into three weeks of ‘tough lockdown’, the numbers are still rising and the Prime Minister stated today that ‘he doesn’t know what they will do after this lockdown is over’. We all have our own ideas as to why it has become so bad, but the article that I was sent by a good friend in Prague the other day, pretty much explains it – here for anyone that would like to read it.

https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/28/europe/czech-republic-coronavirus-disaster-intl/index.html

And if you don’t want to read it, here is my own brief summary – no-one in authority has a bloody clue what to do and no-one not in authority believes them anyway.

Over here in Marbella, we have been quite busy with work (Jan), some writing (me), lots of cleaning and ‘sorting’ (ME!) and lots of watching of tennis; mixed feelings from me about Nole (our near neighbour, in case I didn’t mention it before :)) winning again in Australia, since I do feel that it would be good for the game to have some new winners (and I gaily told a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago that ‘I am sure that the Russians will win everything this year’ – hahaha.. what do I know!). Jan was, of course, ecstatic, and has barely shut up about it since. I have also been playing quite a lot myself, but having managed my knee quite well (by my impatient standards) I managed to pull a muscle in my back a couple of days ago, so am now back to hobbling. Honestly, I am getting very fed up with getting old!!!

On that subject, mind you, I must say I am happy that I am not younger and managing a business (as mentioned before, with a load of employees and no help from the Czech government I would, for sure, have gone bust by now). I spoke today to a musician friend of mine today who has gone from travelling the world and making a huge amount of money each day to staying at home and wondering when he will ever earn anything again. In fact, he is busy looking at ways that musicians can work together to make sure that the whole music business (whether classical, jazz, pop, whatever) doesn’t just collapse forever… his words ‘can you imagine that kids today may grow up never knowing what it is like to go to a concert or an opera, or to stand in a stadium and watch a rock band?’ are horrifying to contemplate. Of course, the quockers (in the UK in particular) will say that everything will be going ‘back to normal” once the vaccine roll-out has been finished… but that assumes that all of the musicians, orchestras and others involved in putting on such a show are still in business. Bloody Hell.

Thinking about that, and scrolling about on social media a couple of days ago, I found this link, which I thought was worth including here, since it shows just what those youngsters will miss if the rock world (apart from all the other musical worlds) collapses (OK, I am a sad old rock-hanger-on, but even if you don’t like the music, appreciate the setting and excitement!). And note, incidentally, that whilst the song was deemed to be a ‘glam-rock anthem’ at that time it was meant, in fact, to describe the coming of an apocolypse……:

https://fb.watch/3GIOXAKQEQ/

Will we ever see such an event again? It is hard to imagine.

Sorry if I have gone on a bit but having struggled to write a blog for a while, I suddenly had an urge to splurge it all out! Who knows when that will happen again!!

Overcoming slothness

I have had a few people emailing me recently to ask how we are as ‘I have been so quiet’. And it’s true; I haven’t written a blog for a while (at least not this type of blog), nor have I been very good at keeping in touch with people. Apologies.

General slothness

I pondered what had caused my ‘writer’s cramp’ over the weekend whilst I was half-heartedly going through my social media (the ‘half-hearted bit is a clue!); basically, really, I think I have sunk into some sort of lethargy (my late Mum would call it ‘sloth’) whereby I can’t really be bothered to do anything much. I know I am not alone though; everyone that I have been in touch with has said more or less the same, and I think that most of us are just fed up with the whole Covid situation; the constant lockdowns, unlocking-downs, restrictions, changes in restrictions – if you are following as many different countries as we are, then it is nearly impossible to know what you can and can’t do in any specific place, nor what you are required to do if you plan to leave where you are or turn up somewhere else. So the best thing, really, is just to do nothing at all, see what happens and hope that whichever snollygoster (def: ‘a shrewd, unprincipled person, often a politician’) is in charge, they have some idea of what to do next!!

Incidentally, I do know that I shouldn’t complain and there are many, many people living a much more difficult life than we are, let alone those that have been sick or have lost someone – I am amazed that I am still seeing posts on FB and Twitter asking people if they know of someone that has had Covid or died (is there anyone that doesn’t??) We, ourselves, barely know anyone in the CR, in particular, that hasn’t had it, and sadly, just now, we know of five people that have died (one close friend).

But, anyway, my slothness…. it’s not that I have been completely doing nothing; some days I have been pretty busy with all my usual training, cleaning, walking, dancing and so on, plus the sun has been shining, we are able to go out and about, and I have been playing fairly regular tennis with no real knee trouble (and that, alone, is a reason to be cheerful!). But I am definitely suffering from a lack of ‘drive’ – living without any real urgency about anything that we are doing is very strange, and for sure, even though the lockdown here is much easier than it was last year, we are finding it all much more difficult this time around.

(any resemblance to ‘hand-on-cock is entirely coincidental….)

I said all this to my good friend Adam yesterday when I asked him if he was bored (he is in lockdown in London), and he said absolutely not – and that, I suggested, is due to the fact that his work hasn’t been particularly affected (he is an IT wizard) so he is still putting in the working hours every day that I (and lots of my other friends) most definitely am not! Talking about the UK, it seems that with so many vaccines at its disposal, the country is finally managing to get the virus under control a bit; not that that is anything to do with BJ and his merry-men, although giving the vaccine roll-out to the NHS to manage rather than one of their cronies, was clearly a good idea. (By the way, I am going to move on from referring to some politicians as ‘snollygosters’ as I have a better word now; BJ, the ‘quockerwodger’ in chief (‘quockerwodger being a 19th century word that means a ‘puppet-like individual whose strings of action are pulled by someone else’). Love it. But, anyway, as Covid subsides, it will be interesting to see the real effect of Brexit, since no-one, other than my Twitter friends, has been talking about that very much recently.

Just on Brexit though, and I had planned not to mention it (and failed!), I have already had some first-hand experiences of the problems that it is already causing; first some bits that I ordered from the UK failed to turn up as they got stuck in customs in Barcelona and, since they included a pair of boots that I thought I might need for ‘winter in Spain’ and winter (about two weeks!) is now over, they ended up being sent back to the UK without ever getting here (never to be seen again, apparently). And then I had another delivery that did make it through, on which I had to pay something like Euro 45 customs’ duty (on a package that was worth about 10). That’s just my personal experience in the first month, but there is so much other stuff that is mentioned on Twitter, but never makes it to the unbelievably biased English media (the fish that has just rotted away as it cannot now be exported in a timely fashion, even though the fisherman can now catch more of it, the companies that have had to give up on exporting their products and have already gone into bankruptcy as the logistics just don’t work, the empty shelves in the UK supermarkets (and, blimey, I nearly forgot, the closure of Iceland and M&S in the Czech Republic and, soon, Spain, judging by the shelves in those stores here!)…. I hate to say ‘we knew it would be like this’.. but… we knew it would be like this!!

Anyway, I think that is enough politics for now, (although I am seething about the lack of vaccines in the CR and the slowness of the roll-out here in Spain – which is not quite as slow as the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK put it today (their headline that ‘Gibraltar [part of the UK] has already vaccinated 60% of its population whilst [that terrible country] Spain, has only managed 3%….’ made me pretty mad (and I hope I don’t have to explain why….!), since there is not much hope of any of me, Jan or our friends getting the vaccine any time soon… but then, living like we do, does it really matter…?).

Back to my silence on the blogging front; another reason that I haven’t been writing as much has been the normality of our lives right now (well, not normal, but compared with this time last year); in my ‘100 days in Spain’ book, as many of you know, I had endless fun with draining and filling up our pool (something that we are are looking forward to again in a few weeks’ time!), doing my show-jumping steps to the supermarket whilst hunting down ants and hugging trees (I’ve got bored with all of those things now), exercise biking (our poor old bike has given up the ghost and gone to the bike-yard in the sky) and chasing various unsavoury creatures (not Jan) around the house – we have those things to look forward to as well, since it will soon be cockroach time. Can’t wait. But without all of them, (and particularly during my ‘alcohol-free January (successfully completed and now, thank God, over!) it is difficult to find as many funny things to write about during our standard ‘groundhog’ day.

However, since it looks as if we will be stuck here for a while yet, subject to time and enthusiasm, I do plan to get back into regular blogging again, so you may be hearing from me sooner rather than later. In particular, some of our recent ‘social experiences’ in Marbella have been worthy of a blog or two – I will try to try to rally up some energy to write another one soon!

Hospitality in Crisis (V) – The Zuri Zanzibar

Despite most of us feeling as if there is nowhere in the world that isn’t suffering from the Covid Pandemic, and that no-one is feeling the pain more than those in the hospitality industry, there are, surprisingly, a few places and hotels that are relatively unaffected. One destination, in particular, is proving very popular at the moment, and that is the African island of Zanzibar, where the wonderful Zuri Zanzibar resort can be found.

I have been involved with the Zuri pretty much since it was a dream in the owner’s head (and heart). In fact, I wrote the text for the ‘pre-opening website’ based, mostly, on his ideas and drawings (and my own imagination of what is, essentially, some form of paradise). Incidentally, and funnily enough, when lock-down first loosened in Marbella, we visited an art gallery opening (our first ‘social’ event for three months) where a series of photos was on show, all looking very familiar – it turned out they were a series of photos from Zanzibar, some of which had been used on that first, long superseded, website! A small world, as usual.

I have been wondering how the Zuri has been fairing, since we haven’t spoken for a while, but as we hear so little about Africa (or other countries, generally, since every country’s media is so wrapped up in what is happening at home), it is hard to know how each region is coping (other than, in my case, pretty depressing news coming from my former client in South Africa). I therefore thought it would be interesting to talk to the Zuri’s Marketing Director, Andrew Knorova, to find out how things have been going (sadly this had to be by email rather than in person!):

JW: We don’t know too much about the Covid situation in Africa here in Europe, so it would be interesting to know how affected you have been generally in Zanzibar – were there many cases, did the island go into lockdown, and what was the effect of it all on the Zuri – especially in the early, tough days of March-June?  

The beach

AK: The Spring was tough – the entire island was closed to all visitors for around 2 months, and then, once it opened up a bit, we had a very slow start, with just 5% occupancy throughout the island.   We were very lucky to be able to sell our most exclusive villas to our very high-net-worth VIPs, who are usually travelling by private jet (and who could still access the island, whilst the regular airlines were not yet sending any planes to Zanzibar).    The fact is, though, that Zanzibar was not really affected by Covid-19; it had only a minimum number of cases (as far as we are aware) and the official statistics say that only 6 people died in total.   Who knows why; maybe a combination of the local weather, the humidity, and the locals’ strong immune system which enabled them to put up a good fight against the disease.

JW: I know that the whole team came back to Europe for a while in the Spring. Was that as usual (i.e. the closed season) or because you had to close for much longer? I know you were doing a lot of marketing around the fact that Zuri is already suitable for ‘social distancing’ – could you just explain a bit?

AK: Zuri has been running on very high occupancy since day one, so we used the early Covid situation to send all of the possible staff back home to rest and spend some time with their families.   The timing was actually good for us as in May we were supposed to close anyway for our regular maintenance works.  However, by the third month, business had already started to pick up, but it was difficult to get everyone back due to the various lockdown situations around Europe – limited flights, border closures, etc.   And yes, the natural ‘socially distanced’ layout of the resort turned out to be a fantastic benefit for us in this very difficult situation, especially when hotels in other tropical destinations had to close.  The Zuri’s whole design is based on an open-space concept (i.e. everything is outside, in the super-fresh air), and the distance between each accommodation unit, plus the 300 m beach and the other outdoor facilities all combine to make the resort the ideal destination in these Covid times, and we became very popular with guests who knew that they would feel safe in the Zuri, especially with our new ‘Covid-safe’ concept. 

JW: As we are now in winter in Europe, how have you changed your marketing strategy (i.e. are you pushing different things, going after different markets, etc?)

AK: Our traditional markets, such as the UK, Germany, France or Spain, are literally frozen at the moment.  Instead we are experiencing a huge demand from elsewhere; obviously the Czech Republic, but also Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and some of the Arab countries.  But the trends are changing pretty much every month, depending on each country’s own situation and what airline/charter is able to fly.

Zuri pool

The resort has been sold out for 5 months in a row now – and we believe the reason for this is our new marketing strategy, which gives bookers absolute flexibility (in 2020 we introduced a 1 day cancellation policy, and even if a guest did not arrive on their expected day, they could still rebook within the next 365 days without any need to prove their reason for not coming).  We think that this is the most important issue for all clients, ie to know that they wont lose their money if they can’t fly – it has a much bigger value than the massive price undercutting but non-refundable conditions that some other hotels are using.  Of course it is quite risky for us and brings a massive workload for the reservations team as bookings are changing all the time, but the result is very positive – 90% + occupancy.

JW: Have you had to slash prices and what sort of occupancy did you have throughout the last nine months, especially compared to normal?  And what are you expecting over the next few months?

AK: Prices have stayed pretty stable, even though our competitors reduced theirs by up to 50%. We decided to keep our rates, but, as mentioned above, we adjusted our cancellation policies to make them more flexible.  Our usual 90% occupancy during January and February dropped to 0% in 2020 due to the island closure, but as soon as the government opened the borders again, we went back up to 90% within 3 months.  It’s very difficult to predict how long this trend will last, but even future months looks very promising at the moment.  But, you know, nowadays nobody knows what will happen from day to day!😉

JW: How do you personally feel about the whole situation?  Do you think it will benefit Zuri and maybe Africa generally? Do you have any thoughts about Africa/Asia versus Europe as potential holiday destinations for the future, etc?

AK: Having worked in the travel industry for almost 20 years,  I feel very sad and worry about the future for Europe, where I know that the hospitality situation is critical and taking far too long for it to be able to recover easily.   Even though Zuri is doing very well right now, such situations are generally very dangerous for countries such as those in Africa, where the local people are already quite poor and, in many cases, fully dependent on income from tourism.  When I see how the pandemic is affecting usually economically strong countries such as the UK, USA and others, it is very worrying to imagine how damaging the effect of a loss of tourism can be for third world countries, not just for hotels, but also the locals and the various NGOs and charities in Africa who have ended up without any income.

JW: I know most of your marketing is carried out centrally and through various agencies.   Also that in the past you have been targeting the European and US markets.   Will you be/are you changing your strategy as to your general marketing?  

AK: Just now, the main focus is on direct bookers, and for us, Instagram has turned out to be the new strong supplier of direct enquiries.  We are also seeing that Whatsapp is being used for instant direct booking confirmations.  Right now, we cant be too selective about which market we should focus on, as we have to go with the flow and follow any trend.  Generally, though, we will continue to focus on the same markets that have worked for us in the past – actually Zuri has welcomed guests from about 70 different countries already, and even though the majority of our top 10 markets are frozen now,  there will be a day when they will wake up again and we will be ready to welcome them back 😊

JW: Have you had to get rid of many people?  How are you keeping your staff morale going?

Zuri Garden

AK: Unfortunately even @ Zuri we had to reduce our staff during the critical months of spring 2020.  Nobody knew how long the situation would last and we could not allow “the boat to start to sink”.  However, we managed to bring a significant number of staff back as a reaction to our growing occupancy.   Staff morale, though, is extremely difficult to keep up, especially in Europe, where we were all working for some months on our home-office system.  Then in Zanzibar, the staff is extremely busy with a full resort, and even though they see each other daily,  there is not much time left for fun. 

JW: Have you ever felt like just closing the doors and giving up?

AK: NEVER😊  I have to admit to a few “spring tears”, but, as we keep on saying, there must be some way to get our clients back, and even during the closure we were running communication campaigns for our regular clients and social media followers,  creating some relaxing playlists, offering online yoga and meditation classes, and sharing various recipes from our chefs. The positive and supporting responses we received were absolutely priceless battery charges, that kept us all going. Guests wanted so much to come back soon, and we were determined to find ways to make it happen. The creation of our ‘Covid-safe concept’, the flexible conditions we offered, and the fair flexible/no problem refund approach towards existing reservations brought a lot of them back earlier than we could have expected, and we are extremely grateful to them for their support.

JW: What special things do you, personally, do to keep ‘positive’?

AK: I believe that the travel industry will never die,  and people did, are and WILL travel, regardless of any issues. We have all had a bit of a longer break than usual, but the travel world will come back, sooner or later.   I repeat to my team every single week that we are probably the busiest hotel reservation office in Prague (booking for Zanzibar😊) and even though we work 24/7 and our ‘festive period’ looked like some extra long, super crazy day,  we are happy to be busy and for the demand we are experiencing right now.

JW: Is there anything else that you think people could find useful?

AK: Stay positive, and focus on the good things that the current difficult situation might bring – for example, I have never spent as much time with my family and children as I am now. And its fantastic!

JW: And do you have any offers that you can include for readers of the blog?  

AK: Due to our high occupancy, we can’t really offer any special discounts, but at least anyone that books directly via my Whatsapp (+420730815843) and quotes the “JWA” code,  will receive our famous and complimentary romantic ‘sundowner on the beach’, plus I will try my best to find them a nice room 😊

SMEs in trouble – what can be done?

Clouds over Marbella

Some years ago I was on the board of a company called ‘Superbrands’ which, in short, produces a book of brands that are regarded as ‘truly super’ in their own specific countries. In the Czech Republic, some were the huge multinational brands (Coke, Microsoft and so on) but there were others that were truly ‘Czech’ – the obvious one being Skoda, but others too – Mosers, Pilsner Urquell, Mattoni, etc. It was a fun project, and it would be nice to think that the brands that were chosen then will continue to remain as Superbrands, irrespective of what happens in the world.

A couple of mornings ago, though, I read about one of my suggested ‘Superbrands in the Czech Republic’ from those days, the fashion house Pietro Filippi, which has had to terminate all of its staff with immediate effect by agreement, with no redundancy and no notice period, as it is on its last legs due to the Covid pandemic. Such sad news, but in a country that is giving so little support to employers, particularly owner-run SMEs, not very surprising – I imagine that it is only a matter of time before we hear of many, many others doing the same, whether ‘super” or otherwise.

What is also sad about this particular article is that the majority of the comments at the end of the article were on the ‘side’ of the employees (who, it seems, will get nothing unless they take the company to court – and then, presumably, will still get nothing) and very few on the side of the owners, who have built a really nice company from scratch and are now having to live through the heartbreak of seeing it collapse. The fact is that the Covid pandemic, like most crises, is hurting SMEs in the Czech Republic a huge amount more than the big international companies, many of whom have nearly unlimited reserves, think nothing of terminating people without any compensation (what individual employee is going to take on one of the big guys in court?), and who have the power to push landlords, creditors and others to hold-off or reduce their debt with the promise of future benefits, whilst the smaller guys can do nothing (in fact, in some countries, these big companies are having a huge proportion of their salaries paid by the State, although sadly (for them) not in the Czech Republic).

Right now, I, myself, am going through my own small nightmare of a former employee who left to go on maternity leave, and with whom I have had absolutely no contact for the past seven years (other than a lawyer’s letter on one issue halfway through), who is, according to the Czech Republic’s strict labour laws, entitled to ask me to give her back her job at the beginning of this year, or, if not, pay her a small fortune. Obviously I can’t go into too much detail as to how this is or isn’t being resolved at the moment, but having watched my own former ‘Superbrand’ agency collapse and burn over the last ten months (funnily enough there are not many sport or hospitality companies needing marketing just now!) and having had no income at all myself since the start of the Pandemic (and with no sight of anything changing any time soon), I think you would agree that I could be forgiven for saying that she is being ‘heartless’ in her negotiations (particularly as she and her family are not exactly on the breadline), at the very least!

I am often being asked, and it’s a question that is always out there on ‘start-up sites’ and similar, what it takes to set up and run your own business. And I have always said that it is a lot tougher than anyone gives us ‘entrepreneurs’ credit for – my favourite saying, over the years (and, particularly, to Jan!) is that no-one can know what it is like to sit in my chair unless they do something similar themselves; the endless stress of managing clients and employees, the knowing that if one or other customer doesn’t pay you on time you may not pay your staff/rent/yourself, the fact that you might be very good at whatever it is you are actually selling, but you will spend most of your time being the HR, finance, marketing and every other director rather than doing the actual work. It is never easy, and success never happens without a huge amount of hard work and doing without. And now, well, I am sure that there are very few people that would want to be running their own company in this new and difficult world – and maybe no-one will ever want to again. But the thing is, most country’s economies really do depend on SMEs rather than the big multinationals – those guys will pack up and move on at the slightest sign of trouble. SMEs, well, they are unlikely to go anywhere, and the hope is always that some of them, in time, will turn into the Superbrands of the future.

With most of Europe in some form of lockdown now, and the virus still doing its worst, we have to wonder how many SMEs are going to get through this. I already know mine won’t, but I am in the ‘fortunate’ position of slowing down rather than building up. But I heard today that in the Czech Republic last year, 200,000 small companies/individual entrepreneurs filed for bankruptcy and thought that that can’t possibly be true. But, you know, maybe it is….

So what can we do? First I would suggest that those people that wrote rude comments on the article mentioned above (plus any other ladies out there that are preparing to virtually blackmail their former employers into paying them large chunks of money rather than giving them back a job that doesn’t exist anymore), give themselves a dose of reality – small companies rarely have great big buckets of money that their owners can keep digging into in times of crisis. And unless we all want to live in communist countries, where everyone has a job, no-one cares about what they do, salaries are paid by the state, on time and in the same amount each month, employees need to find a way, if they possibly can, to support employers rather than kill them all off. If they don’t, then most countries are going to be looking at the highest unemployment rates imaginable, with all the other problems that that will bring.

Personally, right now, along with trying to support other SMEs that I have worked with or am friends with (through time, money, just being a friend), I am looking at ways in which I/we can try to persuade the Czech government to make some changes to these antiquated and restrictive labour laws – I have time on my hands and ‘know people’ in the right places. So if you have your own story, then please let me know… something needs to be done, and fast.

PS: I know this is a bit different to my usual ‘lockdown in Spain’ rant, but as we in Marbella head into a new lockdown, I suspect that will soon be back!!!

Hospitality in Crisis (IV) – Jan Adamek, JAN Hospitality

Small Boutique hotels in Prague

Ever since its Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia as it was then), and particularly Prague, has been a ‘must be’ place for most of the biggest hotel brands, and the number of major players has been increasing consistently for the last thirty years.  At the last count, there were nearly 50 ‘five star/five star luxury’ hotels in Prague alone, with more planned to open soon, whilst small hotels can be found on nearly every street of the upmarket residential areas of Prague 2, 3, 5 and 6 (after the Revolution, huge numbers of residential buildings were converted into hotels, partly to fulfil the demand, partly as that was where the money was (and the question now, is, of course, how many of those will soon be converted back!)).

Formerly Kempinski Hotel Hybernska Prague

Even during the years of the financial crisis (2008-2009) luxury hotel brands have continued to enter the Czech market – the Kempinski and Rocco Forte hotels being two that suffered the difficulties of opening around that time and, coincidentally, both of those have since left due to the buildings where they were housed being sold.  What was once the Kempinski is now a stand-alone boutique brand, whilst the Augustine, once Rocco Forte, is now a Sheraton (and Sheraton belongs to the Marriott).

With the hotel industry thriving over the past thirty years, many other companies related to the business have also succeeded; PR agencies specialising in hospitality (such as mine), event and wedding organisers, restaurants and others have all benefited from the continual rush of new hotel openings and expansions, so it is no surprise that the many people involved in the hospitality business are those that are suffering some of the most during the ongoing Covid pandemic in the Czech Republic.

In this, my fourth blog in the ‘hospitality in crisis’ series, I decided to talk to one of my partners in Synergy Hotel Consultants, Jan Adamek, and find out what he thinks the future holds for the hospitality industry in the Czech Republic (and elsewhere) after the last ten months of closing, opening, and closing again.  Jan has been working in the hospitality industry for more than 20 years, having trained and then worked as a General Manager (at the five star Hotel Jalta in central Prague) and then, more recently, starting his own agency, JAN Hospitality, which focuses on a whole range of consultancy services relating to the buying and selling of hotels.   He is, therefore, the ideal person to give an overview of what we can expect.

Hotel Jalta Prague

As a bit of background, I wondered how it was that Jan had given up his very good job as a hotel GM to go into the real estate side of the business and his answer was that he had always wanted to have his own company; somewhere where he can be creative and use the many ideas and experiences that he had garnered during his years as a GM and share them with other hoteliers and restaurant owners.  Since the Jalta itself is owned by an entrepreneur who has always had his eyes on expanding his own hotel business, it is no surprise that even during Jan’s work at the hotel, he was involved in hundreds of feasibility studies of existing hotels, either for potential buyers or for the banks and/or sellers too.  And today, as he says, there are not so many experts on the Czech market that have worked inside the business and are also able to work with projections, banks, and large-scale investors.  So began the idea of JAN Hospitality.

JAN Hospitality was established in 2010 and since then the agency has worked on many large-scale deals, whether for the buyer, seller or, in some cases, both.  What a lot of ‚non-hospitality people‘ don’t realise is that the buildings that house the major brand hotels (95% or so in the Czech Republic) are usually owned by someone other than the actual hotel operator, which makes the buying and selling of them a lot more complicated than when buying or selling regular buildings.  What often happens, therefore, is that JAN Hospitality will end up working for both sides of a deal – initially preparing the valuation for the building owners and then helping them to select the most suitable brand to operate the hotel itself, and then working together with everyone involved to ensure that the final deal works for all parties (whether that is a lease contract, management contract or something in between).   This is, of course, different when it comes to the smaller hotels, where the owner of the building may well be the operator of the hotel, although they, too, have their own issues.  

According to Jan Adamek, at the start of 2020 (ie pre-Covid), there were cca 22 4 or 5 star hotels being built/near to completion in the Czech Republic and 57 existing hotels under refurbishment/reconstruction.   I wondered whether those that were in the process of being built had continued (or will continue) to completion, or whether they may be sold as is, and Jan’s view is that they will probably be completed, but, of course, there may be some delay.  And as far as reconstruction works are concerned, whilst it looks as if some hotels have put the works on hold, others actually started their reconstruction works during the first lock down – in some ways, one could say that lockdown was a ‘good’ time’ to carry out such works, since usually the bigger hotels try to keep open (in order to satisfy their regular clients and keep their market share) during any reconstruction, and try to do it one floor at a time or similar.   The Intercontinental Hotel Prague (which is due to be operated as the Fairmont Golden Prague Hotel by Accor) started its complete reconstruction right at the start of the first lockdown, and so it continues, as did the Marriott, who had started before the pandemic, but continued throughout lockdown and up until completion (see my previous blog).

For smaller, owner-run hotels, the whole situation regarding reconstruction is always complicated, as it is much more difficult to close part of a relatively small building without inconveniencing the guests staying there, and to close-down completely is difficult – especially in a city like Prague, which is a tourist destination pretty much the whole year round (or was!).   However, whilst carrying out reconstruction work makes sense right now, smaller hotels may not have the financial means to do it and/or any bank may not be willing to offer a bank loan.   Plus, of course, the lack of construction workers in the Czech Republic generally, makes it even more complicated when there is a bigger demand for them but a much smaller workforce.  For that reason, just now there are a lot of small, boutique hotels looking very sad and unlikely to survive the next few months.

Cesky Krumlov

Despite a good summer, when the Czech Republic was operating pretty much as normal (except Prague, Český Krumlov and other destinations that rely on international tourists who did not appear), just now the Czech Republic is back in lockdown, so one has to wonder how much longer any of the hotels are going to be able to survive.  Presumably the big brands will eventually bounce back (Prague is always going to be a hugely popular tourist destination), but there are hundreds of small boutique hotels around Prague and outside in the country and I wondered what Jan thinks the future holds for them, and whether they are likely to survive or sell up? 

As far as the big brand operators are concerned, Jan agrees with me that they will definitely survive although some operators may change or move around.  But the owners of the buildings may well be in trouble, with reduced rents necessary and very little government support (plus hotel leases often include special clauses that require them to pay a percentage of their income to the owner – so no income, no percentage).   Jan expects that we will see many hotel buildings changing hands over the next 2-3 years.

So far as the outlook for the smaller hotels are concerned, especially outside Prague, Jan’s answer was quite surprising to me, since he expects that at least two third of them will be OK.  His feeling is that whilst hotels in Prague, Český Krumlov, Brno, Ostrava  may be suffering, there are other areas of the Czech Republic that have had bumper years – mountains and water destinations (e.g. Lipno lake) – since many Czechs have travelled around the Czech Republic a huge amount more than they would normally, taking breaks from the city in the countryside and their holiday this last summer and Christmas in the mountains.

Having said all of that, Jan’s general feeling is that once the Covid situation is under control and we move into the ‘new normal’, the whole hotel market in the Czech Republic will go through huge changes.   Far, though, from crashing and burning, it sounds as if it is going to get very interesting; I told Jan that I had read that one of the big Czech billionaires had put a huge amount of money to one side in readiness for buying hotels once things go back to normal and I asked him what he thought about that and whether it was a positive sign that those ‘in the know’ feel sure that the hotel business will bounce back.  Jan agreed that we should assume that soon there will be a lot of opportunities for those with money to buy a good hotel property in a great location.

I also asked him whether he was ready to take on anything, or whether he will be selective?  He responded that it is always important to understand why an owner wants to sell and then to prepare a market value report and be able to discuss with the owner the market selling price – especially now, when a lot of nice hotels are not having results good enough to be sold for their  best price – for those, he would recommend that they take 12-18 months with good management in place (and his team is able to propose the right managers), and then start the selling process once they are back on their feet, with better financial results.

Key in all of this is, of course, the future potential occupancy of an hotel, its average daily rate, and any other income and profit, as well as its location and the condition of the building.   Plus, in the present situation, it will be key to know which employees are still involved and working as they are a big part of what makes any hotel successful.

Finally, and with my marketing hat on, I asked Jan what he would be doing to survive right now, if he was a hotel manager, and how he would plan his strategy for the future.   Many of his answers, dare I say it, apply to all businesses, not just hotels.  His suggestions:

  • Digitalisation of everything possible
    • Putting a lot of effort into marketing, especially social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
    • Improving customer service and CRM (customer relationship management)
    • Re-thinking their target audience – for example, in the past, many of the hotels have focused on the US and Asian markets – and for the immediate future, more focus is going to have to be put on Europe
Formerly Rocco Forte Hotels the Augustine

What Jan also mentioned is the importance of hotels making make sure that their offering and target audience match – i.e. how the hotel itself looks (the product), who the hotel is marketing its offer to (does the target audience match with the look of the hotel) and is that target audience actually the clientele that the hotel actually ‘wants’ to attract (there is no point in marketing to, say, the high-end luxury market, if the hotel doesn’t look very nice, or is super-modern and more likely to attract the younger and, in some cases, less affluent groups).    It all sounds obvious, but, as with so many things marketing, many campaigns go astray due to forgetting these three key points.

So that’s it; the coming months are going to be very interesting for the Czech hotel industry, and whilst we can expect that a lot of the smaller operators may sell up, there is obviously a lot of money out there waiting to grab any deals.   And the big guys; well, as I have said, we can expect them to bounce back pretty quickly – all may not be doom and gloom in the hospitality industry.

Happy New Year?

I keep starting to write another blog and then I realise that each time I do, it turns into more of a ‘mad rant’ than anything else. But today I decided that the only way to get over it is to get everything off my chest (for any non-native English speakers reading this, that is not what it sounds like) and then move on – apologies in advance if it is all a bit much!

So, first, Brexit is done and all of us Brits, wherever we are, can revel in our new-found ‘sovereignty’ – something that, it seemed, was the only thing that really mattered to those that still supported it (clearly nothing else did, since no-one that I have read, spoken to or heard from has been able to name one other ‘good thing’ that has come out of Brexit). The terrible scenes of lorry drivers stuck in Dover during Christmas (God, how sad was that) are clearly going to be repeated as and when any European lorry driver can be persuaded to even attempt to drive there again, whilst each day (in between the horrific Covid news) we are hearing more and more examples of things that are not as they were in the UK (satellite UK TV failing in Spain, high levels of customs’ duty on Amazon products bought online and being exported from the UK, supermarkets running low on all products, nothing posted from the UK arriving at its destination, Tesco increasing the cost of everything in their UK stores by at least 10%, etc, etc, etc) – and it’s only January 7th!!! Unlike many on Twitter, I am not yet saying ‘Brexiteers, I hope you are happy with what you have done’ but I am finding it difficult. Sadly, and with no doubt, the next six months will be enough ‘punishment’.

Meantime, the situation in the UK with the virus (more than 50-60,000 new cases per day??? And 500-1,000+ deaths??) is terrifying and awful, and just when we think ‘it can’t get any worse’ it does. How much longer this government stays in power remains to be seen, but despite all of their chaos and corruption, it seems that there are still some people that think that BJ and ‘Hand-on-cock’ are doing ‘as good a job as is possible in the circumstances’. Can I just say here that that is complete and utter bollocks. The circumstances have been no different in other countries – here in Spain (and yes, I’m off again) which was so awful in the Spring, the situation is way different – everyone wears masks, everyone keeps their distance, the lockdowns are reasonable, and the figures, contrary to what the UK media would have us believe, are very low. We ourselves have been enjoying playing tennis and running on the beach, going to restaurants for lunch, shopping in the New Year sales, and generally living a relatively ‘normal life’, even though the virus is still out there, just as it is everywhere else. But it is all so well managed. If only the UK (and some other countries) looked around at how things were done elsewhere and followed them, perhaps things would be different…. but no, they obviously think they know best. Which leads me nicely to the Czech Republic.

Prague in winter time, view on snowy roofs with historical buildings.

It is hard to believe that in a population of just over 10 million, and that had so few cases earlier in the year, something like 8% have the virus, and the way it is going, the amount infected will probably hit a million fairly soon (and that’s just those that have been tested!). How??? Every time we call or email someone, we hear about another bad case (and, sadly, I now know five people that have died), and yet there have been several lockdowns, the one now, in particular, being pretty tough. I still wonder, a bit, about the weather (not so much whether the cold makes the virus worse, but more that here, where it has mostly been pretty warm this winter, everyone still lives a good part of their life outside, which is not so easy in the cold of the CR/UK), and also the pollution (the CR being known for its pretty bad pollution in the winter). But it sounds as if it is also the behaviour of so many people that still don’t believe that the virus is as bad as it clearly is – my old boss, C, told me about his neighbours inviting them for a Christmas drink and then asking if they will mind that the son is joining them and he is Covid positive…. my doctor told me about his son driving with a few friends to the mountains and the girl in the back seat ‘just mentioning’ that she has the virus, is that OK? – oh God… it’s enough to turn anyone to drink!

Except.. not me! Having eaten and drunk everything in sight during the lead-up to Christmas and the New Year (and I am not at all sure why, since we treated both those days pretty much the same as any other day), and managed to put on 3 kilos (no, life is not fair), I am now back to (a) a diet, (b) a full-on exercise regime and (c), most importantly, a dry January – six days done and dusted. Hah. And yes, it is extremely bloody boring and depressing, to the point that I am just accepting that every day is going to be grim, but it is not going to last forever. And generally behaving like a grumpy old bag.

I should just say, here, that I wrote all of the above last night, as I had originally planned to send it then, but just when I was thinking to wrap it up, boom… things got even more incredible with total madness kicking off in Washington.. and I am sure I don’t need to explain what that was! I don’t usually talk about the US as three countries to monitor is enough, plus I don’t know so much about the politics there… but for God’s sake… as someone wrote on FB this morning (yes, I’m still monitoring social media like a fiend), we all said on New Year’s Eve, ‘Thank God 2020 is over’, but now, having had a ‘free seven day trial’ of 2021, I think we would probably like to go back to it!

Here in our little sunny bubble, though, our Groundhog-day life continues in its own strange way. The virus remains relatively under control, although there has been a ‘big breakout’ of 17 cases of the ‘new variant’ in the town next to the border with Gibraltar (due, no doubt, to the many Brits that have been using the Gibraltar airport as a way to sneak into Spain without the relevant papers and tests. – the thing is, though, that here, where the cases are so low, a ‘big breakout’ is 17, and that causes the whole town to be locked down…. take note BJ).

We ourselves dressed up a bit on New Year’s Eve, and since then we have been doing all of our usual things (without the booze (me!), and not too much sun-bathing so far!), plus Jan has been busy with work and I have been doing quite a lot of ‘serious’ writing and looking at a few interesting projects. But, really, on the work front, it is pretty much one step forward, two steps back – but that’s how it is for most of us I guess. And, let’s face it, January is always pretty grim. Things for us now, though, might get a bit interesting, since to continue the crazy 2021 theme, we have just heard from a friend of mine that ‘severe snow storms’ are expected on the Costa del Sol. And since down here in Marbella, everything comes to a standstill if there is a bit of rain, I can’t imagine what will happen if the snow storms hit us – as if we needed any other sign that the whole world has gone completely bonkers…..

I will be back again soon… assuming we don’t get invaded by aliens, disappear under a massive snow drift, or disappear into a swimming pool full of nice red Rioja…. now there’s a thought…

Merry Christmas!

I keep meaning to write another blog, but then another day of near normality (here in Spain I mean) goes by and I realise that, even if I make a few things up, I still don’t have a lot to say! Must be the blogging version of ‘hitting the wall’, but hopefully that will soon change. Of course, I could talk about the fact that tomorrow is the deadline for the UK to ‘agree a deal’ with the EU (like that’s going to happen, and as if it will make much difference now, since the UK is fast going down the toilet) or the terrible Covid situation in both the UK and the CR, or how much I hate Boris Johnson and his merry men, but that would all be terribly repetitive and boring of me.

I also thought to talk about how lovely it is down here in Marbella, but then Jan, who loves to tell people every time he gets onto a Zoom call or similar (which is quite a lot at the moment) that he ‘has just come in from the pool’ or that he has to go ‘as we are going to the beach’ reminded me that these comments haven’t always gone down well (imagine my surprise!) so I thought maybe not. I would just say that it is kind of weird to be getting into the Christmas spirit when it is warm and sunny – it’s probably the only time of year that I actually like the cold and snow of Prague – this must be how it feels to be in Australia.

Actually, anyway, we are not really getting into the Christmas spirit that much since, as it is for everyone, it is a very different Christmas this year – for us, it will be just another day, as mentioned before (except for the presents, as also mentioned), no visit to the UK to see family and friends (the first Christmas ever that Jan won’t see his kids), almost as important for him, no carp (unless we can find it here, but I have to say I am not trying too hard!), and an even bigger battle than usual not to drink and eat too much. And then it will be the New Year and everyone will be holding their breath to see what that is going to bring.

For sure, we will all be hoping that the vaccine will be available and used for enough people that we will be able to get back to some normality (and for that to happen, that the vaccine stops those that have had it from still being able to catch the virus (asymptomatically) and give it to others that haven’t) and that enough people that haven’t had the vaccine learn to live with it still being out there (personally, I suspect that mask wearing and keeping our distance will continue for a good while yet).

For us Brits, I suppose that we are all hoping that Brexit won’t be the almighty disaster that it looks like being (and because I, personally, think it will be, that there will be a revolution that ensures that BJ and the others are tried for their sins, and that the new government gets us back into Europe as soon as feasibly possible) and that everyone else in Europe looks at what happened in the UK and supports the EU enough to ensure that there is never a Czexit, Spanxit or any other ‘xit’ for the next forty years. And for everyone else – that we all stay healthy, as wealthy as possible, and as wise as we have learned to be during these pasts nine months.

I’ll be back soon – blogger’s wall permitting. For now, wishing everyone that has read this blog, commented (all my best friends, as well as Roger (you know who you are, who I barely knew before, but who has unfailingly commented on Linkedin and spurred me on after each post!), bought the book, or hasn’t read it but liked the photos on Facebook, a lovely Christmas and let’s look forward to a much better New Year in 2021!

And finally; a nice and cheering, non-Christmas video to wrap up, and that encompasses a lot of my favourite things – music, dancing, lovely clothes, beautiful colours in a sort of ‘bonkers’ way – link below:

https://fb.watch/2sXKbNRRBE/

Going home for Christmas? No chance of that!

This morning started with my usual ‘sand-walking’ training, partly as my legs were tired from playing tennis yesterday and they needed to get moving, and partly to make the most of still being able to walk on the beach, despite it being nearly Christmas! Christmas! It won’t be long before it will be a year since all of this craziness started. God. What a thought!

Anyway, whilst walking (and taking some pics since it was such a gorgeous day), I pondered the fact that I haven’t been blogging as much as usual, and wondered whether I should keep it going, despite the fact that I am already halfway through my second ‘book’, which will, when it is finished, be called ‘Second Wave’. No prizes for guessing what that is about…..

Anyway, you now know that I have had my first lot of blogs published – ‘100 Days in Spain – Diary of a Lockdown’ – and that has actually kept me pretty busy for the last few weeks, plus now that all the marketing is starting, it is getting pretty exciting; actually, according to Facebook this morning, the Amazon link to the book has been viewed something like 200,000 times in the last week (if I believe it.. not really sure that I do!!), although unfortunately not all views have turned into sales (!). Some have, though, (and thank you to those that have bought!), and hopefully a few more will; I will probably give most of the proceeds to charity anyway, since this is not going to be, nor was it planned to be, something that will keep me in the style that I want to be accustomed to forever, but it has all been a lot of fun!

I discussed the second book with my friend Adam the other day, saying that I was finding it a lot more difficult to write entertainingly when life here has become pretty ‘normal’ and there is less ‘excitement’ – OK, not really normal in the old sense of the word, but a lot more than it was earlier in the year. Adam’s view was that I should be less honest (I have tried to write exactly what is happening each day without any ‘artistic license’) and that a few odd exaggerations thrown in might liven things up a bit, but I am still not sure I want to go down that road. Especially as, since we were discussing it, I remembered quite a few snippets of activity over the last couple of weeks that anyone reading this might find interesting (and if you think I have made up any of the following or exaggerated it, do let me know!).

So instead of talking about what is happening on Twitter (my old friend Jan the Elder of the rock-hard bum fame suggested the other day that I read too many ‘activists’ on there, to which I responded that I hardly think that my Sir John, Alastair Campbell et al could hardly be called activists, but I suppose it depends on where you stand on everything), or the politics in the UK (or the CR for that matter), I thought I would give a bit of an update on some of the other things that I have been banging on about lately.

First of all, you may remember that I mentioned earlier in the year (in the days when I could run, sigh) that I was jogging up the mountain track one morning and I heard what I thought was a pack of wild dogs in the near distance – I never found out what/where they were, but I read an article earlier this week about the problem that Spain has with the increasing number of wolves in the mountains, due to (guess?!) the Covid-pandemic. Not that the wolves have brought the virus (before anyone gets excited), but because they are usually controlled and culled, and that is not possible at the moment. So if I had been planning on running up the mountain any time soon (and I am not, sadly), I probably wouldn’t now, although ever since I read a book by Jodi Picoult called ‘Lone Wolf’ I have been slightly fascinated by them; not enough, though, to want to meet a pack of them out strolling one morning.

Next, the cigarette ends and flying mattress. We did believe that that had resolved itself, as, as I think I mentioned at the time, an elderly lady (Czech, of course – we are gradually being surrounded by Czechs who either fled here during Communism (in her case) or who have fled here recently to get away from the Covid that still seems to be raging in the CR) appeared at our gate the afternoon after we found it on our balcony and claimed that it was hers, alluding to the fact that she lives in the house just behind ours (not that that necessarily explains how a large mattress flew out of a window and landed on our balcony about 100 metres away… but….). Anyway, it now transpires that that house is actually empty, and no-one that we have asked has ever met an elderly Czech lady around here (only an elderly lady with a Czech… me!!) – so that remains a mystery, particularly as the fag ends have started appearing again and we are now at a loss to know where they are coming from.

And then there is the situation with the near-kidnapping; I mentioned to one of my friends on the Pueblo that we had been told this story, and her view was that it may have been a bit of a ‘cry for help’ and that it was the girl’s boyfriend that had, in fact, kidnapped her in the first place, and now she is being kept here as some sort of sex slave (now, I know that you think I am exaggerating on this point, but you never know down here in Marbella!!). Anyway, despite the fact that I run very little risk of being sold off to anyone nowadays, I am being a little more wary about walking around in some of the more deserted streets around here, especially now that it is getting a lot darker!

The other intriguing thing is the ongoing search for the tall, blonde man that ran down and killed a young guy in the next town from us. Every time I go to the tennis club at the moment, there is a large police roadblock outside, and the majority of cars are stopped and searched (so far, not mine, but it seems that they are only stopping men). My presumption is that they know that the ‘killer’ is lying low in the mountains up from the tennis club and they expect him to make a run for it at some point, which is kind of thrilling in a nasty sort of way. But you know how it is when you see the police – you always feel guilty, and each time I go past them I wonder if they will pull me over and surprise me by finding someone hiding in my boot or something. I mentioned this to Juan the hairdresser yesterday, whilst having a bit of a chop, and he looked at me sadly and said ‘you know, Jo, this is Marbella and every evening there is something being kidnapped, stolen, brought in or shot at’ – so, really, who knows with any of this!

Other than dodging kidnappers, walking on the sand, avoiding police roadblocks and generally trying not to talk about Covid (or, even worse just now, Brexit), life here has been fairly normal for the last couple of months, although that is not to say that we wouldn’t want to go back to Prague again some time soon (just now we could, of course, but then we might not be able to come back (Spain has been talking about stopping anyone from coming in from outside… so far not, but you never know). I’ve given up on all my weird and wonderful fitness regimes and now go to the gym in the tennis club every other day as well as doing two days a week of tennis training (still not able to move that well, but loving being able to wallop a ball around nonetheless), plus I have found (through the Czech ‘mafia’ here (I wrote that jokingly, but then reflecting on what I have been saying earlier, maybe it is not such a joke…!)) a fantastic new Czech ‘leg doctor’, who has already improved my knee considerably, so that’s good. And, even better, the work is slowly starting to trickle in again (for me, Jan continues to be busy), so I think the days of hysteria may well be over. But who knows.

In the meantime, and for the first time ever, we are preparing for Christmas in Marbella. Usually at this time of year (well, actually, most times of year) there are all sorts of religious processions going on on a more or less daily basis (to coincide with the endless bank holidays they have over here….) but not this year. The Marbella town council has, however, gone all out to make sure people feel Christmassy, with all sorts of expensive decorations all over town (did I say that slightly bitchily? Maybe…. but, you know, with so many people in dire straits down here (as everywhere) I am not sure that spending a blinkin’ fortune on planting row upon row of poinsettias along every road, and lighting up every tree, road sign etc is really the right thing), but maybe I am being a bore. Will try to be less so next time!