Monthly Archives: November 2020

The rain in Spain falls….

As we kind of expected, the sun DID stop shining this week and for the last couple of days it has been chucking it down, making it difficult to venture out at all. Not because we are ‘whoozies’ – I mean, come on, I grew up in the UK and we are used to rain – but Marbella is just not cut out for this amount of water to fall, which means, always, that the roads turn into rivers, and driving or walking is more or less impossible. But that’s good (got to keep positive), it means that we have had a chance to catch up with all sorts of exciting things, such as draining the pool and then allowing it to fill up again and repeating, some housework, which Jan always enjoys, and even some regular bits of work and so on.

I have also been spending more time than usual on my social media watch each morning; partly as there is less urgency to get going when it’s raining, and partly, of course, as things in the three countries that I mostly watch, are not exactly improving. In addition to all the depression, though, there are always some interesting and non-Covid or Brexit topics which I like. One that I have been following over the last few days, and which I think in the early days of writing this blog I commented on before, is how many new words have been added to our vocabulary over the last few months, and don’t we all now use these as a matter of course and many times a day: lockdown, Covid, social distancing, ‘curve is flattening’, furlough, ‘take a test’, hand-sanitizer… I am sure there are more (remind me please!), plus I have been keeping hold of a few new ones: optionality, presenteeism, randomness, bloviate and, today, my absolute favourite, snollygoster! Snollygoster!!! It actually means, and you know where I am going with this, ‘a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician!!!!’ Fabulous. The others are obvious or I can’t quite remember, but this one is going into my own ‘library of favourite words’ to add to ‘discombobulated’ (i.e. how most of us feel at the moment) and ‘pantwettingly [awful]’ (same comment!) which I have mentioned before.

So the ‘snollygoster in chief’ in the UK has announced that the country will continue to be in some form of lockdown for a bit longer (at least that is what I think he said, it is not always clear!), but over Christmas everyone will be able to get together (up to a point) and socialise for the five day holiday period before, presumably, going back into another lockdown soon after, when all the numbers are sure to shoot up again. Call me a heartless cow if you like, but I just don’t get this whole Christmas thing …. of course everyone would love it to be normal, but wouldn’t it make sense to just postpone it for a few more months and then make Easter or something into a bigger event? Just saying…. we, ourselves, will be hiding down here in Spain and treating the whole period just the same as every other day (although I do hope to receive a few presents!!).

Maybe I am just in a bad mood today (although I don’t really feel that grumpy) but another thing that I am getting mildly irritated by (or was until I read one thing on Twitter which I will show you next), is Maradona dying. It is, of course, very sad. But in the scheme of things, is it really such a major headline? We Brits do love to celebrate people when they die (and also love to put the boot in when they are alive!), and forget sometimes what they were really like (Princess Diana anyone? I still remember being stunned by all the emotion on her death when, let’s face it, she had been pretty unpopular for many years before that!). Maradona is another one – short (sorry, nothing wrong with being short, but you know what I mean), dumpy, drug-taking, cheating and (in the UK, where all the excitement is) an ‘Argie’ as well. But now he will be turned into a saint. For those of you too young to remember him, he was, supposedly, one of the greatest footballers of all time, but I didn’t really agree…. until I saw this (and even if you don’t like football, it is worth a watch!):

This morning, for the third day in a row, the rain has been sheeting down again and I spent longer than usual on my social media watch, before making myself do some ‘hard training’ without actually setting foot outside the house – having got used to all of our walking and now playing tennis again, I had almost forgotten how to do it, especially as I have slightly gone off my Bollywood app – I think I have gone as far as I can now with it unless I get the chance to put all my routines into proper use (i.e. a film or something equally modest) – so instead I did four rounds of the 7 App that I was using during lockdown – the exciting thing about that (and I am really struggling to find anything to say that is ‘really’ exciting’) is that I can now do lots of ‘star’ jumps and running-on-the- spot sessions without my knee hurting. Another exciting thing is that according to the App, doing four sessions put me into the ‘Olympic athlete category’ which I felt was pretty good for a woman of a certain age (albeit rubbish)! The reason that I am mentioning this, though, is to show that even without any equipment or going outside, it is possible to do a pretty good training in your own living room or wherever!

Talking about dancing and being of a certain age, too, a friend posted on his FB page this morning a fab dance routine which I just had to share since it demonstrates, again, that even us older generation can still strutt-our-stuff (and it’s not Jan, by the way) – just click on ‘Watch on Facebook’ if it doesn’t show up properly:

So apart from looking at social media, videos and messages, and doing the exercise routine above, and Jan running in the pouring rain and coming back completely soaked again, that takes me pretty much up to date – actually the last few days have been a bit like the old ‘lockdown’ of the Spring, without actually being locked down; we have been watching too much news and will walk to the supermarket later (if it ever stops raining) in order to get our steps up, and that will be it. The only other thing that I wanted to mention is that I am a bit intrigued about how ‘well’ we and pretty much everyone else we know have been (all fingers and so on crossed) – I don’t mean Covid, but usually by December, I have had at least two or three colds and a few sore throats – not this year! It could be that we have been here in the fresh air rather than the polluted city… but might it also be due to wearing masks and keeping our distance? I kind of think, at least in my case, that irrespective of whether we ever have a vaccine, mask wearing is going to continue to be a way of life. I will be interested to hear what others think!

More soon!

Hospitality in Crisis (11)

PRAGUE MARRIOTT HOTEL

 I have had a very long relationship with the Marriott Hotel in Prague, from when it first opened and I kept my car in its carpark, to the many different client events that my agency organised in its conference centre or I attended, to some of the best Sunday brunches ever in its restaurant.   Years ago, when the hotel opened its ‘World Class fitness centre’ in the basement and my trainer took up residence, the hotel pretty much became my ‘second office’ in Prague – most mornings I would head to the gym first thing (which, when I was super busy, was at about 6.30 in the morning, and at that time you would see heads of many big companies there; it was probably the best place for business development!) and then organise any meetings that I needed in the centre of town to take place in the hotel’s coffee shop or bar (for breakfast, obviously!). 

I last visited just a couple of days before everything started to go crazy, at the beginning of March.  At that time, the hotel was in the middle of a massive expansion and reconstruction programme which the GM, William Boulton-Smith, and everyone involved with the hotel, was getting increasingly excited about.   With all hotels suffering horribly during the past nine months, I wondered what had been going on in this landmark hotel in Prague, and therefore spoke to William to find out more (and since I am now locked down in Spain again, the following is in the form of a written interview!).

JW: How did you manage the period from March to the end of the first lockdown in the CR?   

WBS: We were essentially closed for the whole of the first lock down but we continued work on the expansion plans that were started in 2019, with the end of the works planned for next January/February. On reopening following the first lockdown, we got creative with new ways of generating business, such as operating a takeout coffee service from our new ‘Artisan Corner’ and offering our premium meeting spaces to individuals and businesses looking for a professional environment to work in, outside of their own office.

JW: I think you stayed open throughout the summer (both the hotel and all restaurants)?   Did you have to slash prices, and what sort of occupancy levels did you have in the hotels, especially compared to normal?  Was it possible to stay profitable during that period or you were just ‘keeping afloat’?

WBS: Prices certainly went down during that period, although in our view there was no point in slashing prices dramatically since we had just invested so much in the hotel. Instead we focused on improving and heightening our health and hygiene processes and made these the cornerstones of our operations. Occupancy ranged from 7-15% throughout Prague, meaning that if we had lowered our prices we would have had more work for the same money, with higher costs. There was no long-term benefit in this, especially as we are geared towards the business segment and we realised we were unlikely to capture a large slice of the local leisure markets. To ensure continued income we tried to develop our business in a creative way. We opened our new Artisan Corner, and our restaurant and meeting spaces presented us with the opportunity to keep up a steady stream of business, but with further waves of the virus potentially coming in the future we knew that we had to establish a ‘New Normal’ hotel experience that focuses on high standards of cleanliness. We need to entice guests back by ensuring that they feel confident about staying in our hotel, since trust plays such a key role in the visitor experience at any hotel, even under normal circumstances.

JW: Now that the country is in lockdown again, are you trying any new things?

WBS: We continue in much the same way as before, with our main focus on health and hygiene: we are striving to be the most modern and up-to-date hotel in Prague and our global “Commitment to Clean” initiative continues to guide our operations, since this focuses on enhanced cleaning and hygiene protocols at all Marriott hotels.

JW: How do you feel about the whole situation?  Will the hotel survive if the lockdown continues past Christmas?

WBS: We probably won’t find out until the beginning of 2021. Obviously hotels that are part of bigger international brands have a big advantage over smaller, domestic chains. The Marriott has a loyalty programme that includes around 130 to 140 million people worldwide, which is a massive number.  45-60% of our visitors to Prague are people with a loyalty programme card and these customers provide us with great opportunities, both now and in the post-pandemic era. The main advantage is their loyalty to the brand, which is one of the reasons behind our strength in the market. Our main worry is how the smaller, independent hotels will ride the storm. Hotels with 30 rooms can be serviced by only a few people – for example by a single family – but larger ones need a lot of staff and incur other added costs. Such hotels will face problems. Small Czech hotel chains do not have many tools at their disposal to keep their businesses going and many of these have already closed their doors, as have other businesses in the hospitality sector: the number of empty shops and small independent shops, particularly in Prague, seems to be growing by the day.

JW: I know most of your marketing has been carried out centrally, and you are, of course, a well-known brand.  But since I believe you mostly target the American market will you be changing your strategy as and when things get back to normal?  How do you keep staff morale going?

WBS: We will have to adjust our strategy and focus on areas and markets where we can see that travelling is relatively easy and commonplace. There will be lots of new opportunities, and we are studying all the options. The biggest challenge facing Prague is airlift; developments in air transportation will be crucial for the return of tourists. If airlines are unable to fill planes, we cannot hope to return to the 2018/19 numbers for at least the next 2-3 years. In terms of staff morale, the most important thing is keeping them informed. You have to communicate with them, explain the situation, and be honest. Everyone knows the challenge facing the industry, and if they are informed about the impact on the business they are supportive and want to work with you to make things better.

JW: Do you ever feel like just closing the doors and giving up?

WBS: That is not in my nature. You have to fight but stay true to your principles. The hotel industry as a whole has to take responsibility for its own destiny. We need to implement new solutions to bring customers back when restrictions are lifted. This means putting hygiene and cleanliness first, while keeping our service standards as high as ever. Nobody can guarantee a COVID-free zone, but we must do our best to minimise the risks for everyone staying in the hotel. Making sure that customers feel safe and secure is more vital than ever across the entire hospitality sector. I firmly believe that people will return to the hotels which served them well during these difficult times.

JW: What special things do you do to stay ‘positive’?

WBS: Sometimes it’s important to just take a deep breath. I try to accept the situation as it is without becoming fatalistic and without losing hope, because one day this will all be in the past. I am determined not to slow down, to keep striving to make things better until the situation is over. At the moment I am busy looking for new ideas and ways in which we can improve our business in the future. I also try to keep in touch with some of our regulars to find out how they are doing and to strengthen the bond between us. On a more personal level, exercise is a great way of staying positive. There is a nice 50-60km route that I enjoy cycling, which always clears my mind. I also try to get out on the golf course as much as I can.

JW: Is there anything else that you think could be useful to others reading this blog?

WBS: Right now, the world needs innovation, adaptability and creativity. We have certainly had to adapt our operations, and creative thinking has been all-important: opening up a takeaway coffee service from ‘The Artisan Corner’ coffee shop, for example, or moving away from a buffet breakfast to ‘A la carte’. As the Artisan restaurant is now closed, we have put our chefs to good use and asked them to come up with a fresh breakfast concept that takes inspiration from a dinner style of service. This has been really well received: prior to lockdown, we started to attract non-residents for breakfast at the Marriott. The same goes for brunch: we serve brunch course-by-course at the table, with dishes either arriving together or separately depending on preference. Guests had to be encouraged to try this new brunch concept, but when they did they immediately fell in love with it. All of a sudden, brunch had been transformed into a proper family lunch. With people no longer having to constantly leave the table to get food, the experience is much, much more sociable. It also meant guests tried a bigger variety of dishes, instead of sticking with the same old things.

JW: Are there any offers that you would like to include for readers of this blog?  

WBS: I would definitely suggest that readers take a look at our residential package, which we recently introduced as part of our ‘Winter Charity’ promotion. This package includes parking, breakfast, and a donation per night to the Salvation Army to support those without homes during the coming winter months. The Marriott is constantly striving to support local communities. We recently gave a donation of over 70,000 crowns to SOS Czechia, the fundraising initiative led by Člověk v tísni. Although like every hotel in the country we are struggling with the closure of our business and reduced revenues, we are grateful that our position within the Marriott International brand gives us the possibility to keep helping those in serious difficulties. Our website has all the latest information about our other exciting offers, and I strongly recommend that readers take a look: www.marriotthotels.com.

For many people (including me!) the Prague Marriott Hotel is a focal point in the centre of Prague, and it is hard to imagine that whole area of the city if it were to fail.  I decided to feature it here, even though I have never worked for it (in fact I used to work for the Kempinski (as was then) just around the corner!) as I think that it is easy to feel that the ‚big guys‘ will be OK and we need to support the small local companies (which, of course, we have to do too).  The fact is, though, that just as with the Puente Romano in my previous blog, these big hotels  need the local community now more than ever, as if they fail, then the rest will likely tumble around their ears. 

Sand-walking and endless other forms of excitement

Most mornings recently, after lying around and doing my social and other media trolls, I have been heading off to the beach to walk on the sand. Now I know that those of you in Prague, especially, will probably say ‘oh what a drag for you’, but actually it is really blimmin’ hard work, as I am doing what my physio asked, and that is walking barefoot for as long as possible in quite deep sand in order to strengthen my knee muscles. When he first suggested this I said, gaily, that I could do it ‘standing on my head’ (not literally, another of our weird English expressions….) because it sounded so easy. And it is not at all!! After about 20 minutes I am dripping with sweat and in a state of collapse, which is not great when you consider that I then have to walk all the way back up our hill to get home.

It also involves quite a lot of concentration, which is not always my strongest point, especially when I have my phone in my hand! The other day, whilst chatting away at the same time as walking, not only did I go straight past my friends setting up camp on the beach for the morning, but I also continued right into the sea since I had got to a part where the tide had come in further – and it was only because it was freezing and made me jump that I avoided becoming a first line of a thriller – you know the ones where a man (it is usually a man (at this point Jan will probably say that that’s because a lot of men live with women!)) was last seen walking out into the sea and either pitches up some time later with a new identity, or turns into a nutcase and becomes a serial killer or similar… I know. I have a funny taste in books…!

The other reason why I am doing the sand walking as well as my usual training regimes, is that I have been putting on a bit of weight over the last few weeks – to say that that has incensed me, would be an understatement, but those of you that have read my earlier blogs will know that this is one of my lifelong battles. Actually I read an article the other morning in the Czech media that said that according to a recent survey, something like 60% of people asked said that they had gained weight during lockdown (plus there was a lot of talk about various psychological problems and addictions caused by it), and I am not surprised. It is just so difficult to stay disciplined day after day, especially when there is not a lot to do – in fact, against my better judgement, I decided to try one of those ‘fasting’ diets for a while (the one where you have eight hours of eating and 16 of fasting, on the basis that if I stayed in bed for long enough and then went walking and training, the sixteen hours of fasting would be easy. So it was, but by the time they were over, I was so hungry that I had to eat everything I could lay my hands on for the other eight hours and in only four days I managed to put on a kilo. Great. I know, of course, (and I can hear Vlad the Impaler in my ear as I speak) that at the end of the day it is all about calories in and calories out, and it doesn’t really matter when they go in.. just that more go out. For me, though, being a ‘woman of a certain age’, I either have to eat dust all day and exercise hard, or eat a bit more and/or exercise even harder. So here we are, back to the dust.

The other way to avoid eating is, of course, to keep away from any source of food or drink, so whilst we are able, we are keeping on the move for a good part of the day. Just now we are unable to go outside Marbella (yup, Spain has got on the ‘making up individual (and, in my opinion, daft) rules on a regular basis’ bandwagon), so pretty much every time we get into the car we see loads of police; this has been even more the case in the last couple of days as there was a murder in the next town along from us during the week, so cars are being stopped all the time (apparently they are looking for a tall, blonde guy, possibly English, and since there aren’t a lot of those around here (tall, blonde or English), hopefully they will find him soon!). Still on the ‘Costa del Crime’ theme, we were chatting to the girlfriend of another house owner by the pueblo pool just today (sorry, yes, it is warm enough to lie by the pool!), who, whilst we were discussing running, said that she doesn’t like running up or down our hill, and I commiserated. However, it has nothing to do with the impact on her knees (as it is in my case) but more because, she said, she was nearly kidnapped last time she ran up it. She actually said it quite normally, as if people get kidnapped around here all the time (although.. maybe they do, we just don’t know about all of this excitement!), but, anyway, it seems that a car with some dodgy-looking characters inside followed her up the hill and then parked just around the corner and lay in wait for her – she, in the meantime, had called her [Columbian] boyfriend who arrived by the car at the same time that she did, so they legged it…. Well. It seems that all of those days of walking to and from the supermarket every day may not have been as safe as I thought (although, to be fair, I am probably less saleable on the ‘white woman slave trade’ market than her).

Other than avoiding the police, kidnappers and tall blonde killers, we have been quite busy doing not a lot, although there has been some tennis for me, running for Jan, and a new sport of ‘counting the cars passing under the motorway bridge’ on our evening walks, on the basis that everywhere is closed from 6.00 pm, so we wonder where all those cars are going. We know how to enjoy ourselves.

I joke, of course, since despite the lockdown here being a lot easier than anywhere else (and a million miles from the lockdown earlier in the year) it is, nevertheless, getting a bit tedious, and for sure once the sun eventually cools down it will be a lot more, but so far we are managing to stay fairly cheerful. I therefore thought that the picture that I saw on Twitter this morning was apt, and a good way to sign off for now. More soon.

Good publicity, bad publicity and no publicity

I had planned to start this latest blog with the words ‘bit by bit the autumn/winter in Marbella is setting in’ since for most of last week the days were much cooler, plus we had a bit of rain. But then we woke up yesterday morning to bright sunshine again and saw, according to my weather app, that the forecast for the rest of this week is for more of the same, so I scrapped that.

One thing about the weather being less good though was that I found it easier to motivate myself to move on with a few potential projects, and some of them are starting to get quite interesting – more on those soon. I wonder, though, if I am the only one that has secretly started enjoying not doing very much – maybe it is just that we have got used to it now, but even though we can go out and about here in Marbella (unlike before) most days I can barely be bothered (especially when the sun is shining!). Once our exercise is out of the way (and thankfully I haven’t lost my appetite for that, otherwise I would have turned into a fat lazy sloth by now) I am pretty happy just sitting about pondering – OK pondering some work-type projects, but not actually doing a great deal. I must say that if I was nearer the start rather than the end of my career, I would be very worried! And that makes me wonder how all of this is going to affect those people that have been furloughed for ages; I can’t help but think that by the time they can go safely back to work, they just won’t want to. We shall see.

Having said that, though, I did have a call with an IT friend this morning who said that he is absolutely flat out as all of his clients want to speak to him, not any of his team, and having to find time to do that as well as managing everyone else remotely AND actually doing the work is proving near impossible – that brought me up short, as of course he is seeing the other side of the coin, i.e. the additional burden of having to manage both his clients and employees from afar, whilst still actually doing the work. I think, at the moment, I would rather be in my shoes than his!

So what’s new? As usual, there have been a few interesting bits on social media over the past few days; first a small article about the England football manager having tested positive just a day or so after a big event in London, and how that news was kept very quiet – in particular, the person writing the article had been at the event and hadn’t been informed. Once upon a time, this kind of news in the UK would have been splattered all over the tabloid papers, but since he is generally regarded as one of the better football managers, I suppose it has all been hushed up (of course, had he patted a young lady’s bottom or something like that, they would still have jumped all over it!).

What hasn’t been hushed up, though, is BJ going into isolation again, having been in contact with someone with Covid – just imagine if he proves positive…. either he will be one of just a handful of people to get it twice, and/or there will be speculation that the first time around was made up. Either way, I think that it doesn’t bode well for his future; particularly as, and apologies in advance for the corny play on words (but Jan will love it), there have been lots of Cummings and Goveings over the past few days, with Cummings, BJ’s senior advisor having been kicked out (sorry, left), and Gove being rumoured to be getting ready to do a leadership coup (and what a nasty little reptile he is).

Meantime, in the Czech Republic, the numbers are coming down and there is talk about things opening up again in time for Christmas (although we now hear that they are going to try a new idea of only allowing one person per 15 m2 into each shop…. I dunno. I think I have said this before, but wouldn’t it be sensible for all countries to do the same things rather than individually trying to come up with some new ‘solution’ to the spreading of the virus? This one seems to me to be a bit daft – I was in Aldi yesterday bobbing and weaving around a small traffic jam of two elderly people and a trolley and trying to keep my distance, so not sure how that is going to pan out….). But, anyway, let’s hope that if the lockdown does ease up over Christmas, the numbers don’t go soaring back up again in January and another merry-go-round kicks off.

I know we are all keeping our fingers crossed for the vaccine… but personally I don’t see that making too much difference for a while yet, so just wonder if we shouldn’t be focusing more on other ways to get back to normal… and on that, here is yet another link to an article that was sent to me by Jan the Elder and which I think has some interesting points to make:

https://thecritic.co.uk/where-is-parliament/

Outside of all that is going on with politics, Covid and the weather, we have settled back into our ‘new normal’ routine which, at the moment, includes a lot of tennis (both playing and watching) – my knee is bearing up, so that is great, and Marbella has been inundated with tennis players (Karolina Pliskova seems to have more or less moved in, plus there are Czech kids all over the place), and the London Masters has started. So that’s good – or is it? Just two thoughts on that (for now): one, how is it possible for these tennis players (much as we love them) to travel to the UK from all over and not go into quarantine? And two; does anyone other than people like us (fanatics) find it in any way interesting when there is so little atmosphere without fans (I even fell asleep on Sunday night watching Nadal)? I can’t help but think that unless these sports get back to some normality, they will be doomed – sponsors will drop out, and without income from entrance fees, how will these huge prize money events continue? And if they don’t, then bye-bye all the big names….. hmmmm?

Finally, as I feel I may have drivelled on for a bit too long; it’s not just the Czechs that are pitching up here at the moment, but quite a few Brits too. And what we hear from them is exactly what I said some months ago, and that is that the PR that Spain gets in the UK is terrible – all of those that we have met have told us that they have wanted to come but were scared to – the feeling being that the minute they stepped foot on Spanish soil the virus would jump on them (unlike in the UK huh?). And since they got here they have realised how daft that was. I hope they will keep spreading the word, as Spain needs tourists! But then, don’t we all.

Autumn in Marbella

I can’t believe that it is more than a week since my last blog. Doesn’t time fly and all that. But despite the fact that just about all of us are now in some sort of lockdown, a lot seems to have been happening, not least, of course, the big news from the US.

We watched quite a bit of the first night of voting; I went to bed when it started to feel like ‘deja vu’ and the unbelievable was about to happen: I refer, of course, to June 2016 when we arrived here in Marbella late at night and decided to stay up to watch the results of the Brexit vote coming in. I went to bed at about 3.00 am when it was looking dodgy, but sure that the next few hours would put it right, and then got up again at about 7.00 am only to hear that it was all over and the UK had voted out. I remember that we spent most of that day, and a lot of the weeks and months after in a state of complete shock. So last week, at just about the same point, it did look as if Trump was going to win – and whilst we could just about understand why he got in the first time, the idea that enough people would vote for him second-time around, having seen everything that he had been up to since then, was beyond shocking. Thankfully, as we all know, it didn’t happen. Hoorah for that (and let’s hope that he does, in the end, accept the result!).

The other big news, at least as far as the UK media is concerned, is the success of the Pfizer vaccine (so far), which now seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel – BJ took great pleasure in announcing it at his press conference a couple of days ago, positioning it in such a way that you could almost think that he and his merry men had had something to do with it (actually, they have been very lucky over the last few days to have two such huge pieces of news to talk as that has ensured that no-one has been taking too much notice of the disastrous numbers in the UK just now). Let’s just hope that the vaccine is as good as everyone hopes, and will arrive as expected (the UK apparently has ordered 40 million pieces and hopes to have them by December – blimey, a huge pink pig just flew past my window).

Incidentally, during my now regular morning social media watch (again), I read a very interesting article from the Economist that is all about this Pfizer vaccine. The link is here as it is really worth a read:

I also saw quite a lot of Twittering about a talk that (my) Sir John Major gave a few days ago on the situation in the UK. I say ‘my’ as a few years ago Sir John visited Prague and I was invited by the then lady Ambassador to attend a breakfast with him, along with just a handful of other business people. I wasn’t, initially, that enthusiastic, having never been a fan of Sir John when he was Prime Minister (I was a young and rebellious left-winger at that time!). If you are old enough to remember him, you will know that he was called the ‘grey man’ as he came across very unimpressively on the TV (and the media hated him). His reputation wasn’t helped by him having an affair with another politician, Edwina Curry, who was extremely unpopular (probably because she was a woman, it was that sort of time (looking forward to comments on that!), and no-one could quite understand why (on either side!). However, on meeting him, well. How different was he in person! So charismatic, charming and interesting, I could have listened to him all day (and when he had left and I was saying goodbye to the Ambassador, she said ‘what did you think of him’ to which I responded ‘I think I am in love’, and her answer was ‘Oh don’t worry, Jo, everyone falls in love with him sooner or later!’).

Anyway, if you are at all interested in the situation that the UK is in right now, you might like to watch the video below (it’s a bit long, but worth it).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h93AZirB7rA

So that’s the UK and the vaccine covered. Meantime, the Czech Republic seems to be improving very slightly, due, of course, to the much stricter lockdown that it has been under for the last couple of weeks, and which I understand has now been extended. And here in Marbella – after five weeks of thinking that we are the luckiest people in the world, living a completely ‘normal’ life, with everything so well organised – here we go again on a second lockdown, although, thank God, not as strict as last time; restaurants, cafes, etc, closing from 18.00 onwards, curfew for everyone from 10.00 pm until 07.00 am, and no moving between municipalities. It’s a bit surprising as the figures are so low down here (Andalusia has seen them rising, but mostly due to Granada and Seville), but there we are. Let’s hope it is not the start of something nasty.

So we are back to our former ‘lockdown’ traditions; getting up early, studying everything we can find on social and other media – Jan is delighted that all of his old favourites are back and busy (the Alicante ladies have been thrown into turmoil with this new ‘moving between municipality law as we didn’t really have that last time, and it appears that the divisions between some municipalities are not very clear; apparently there is a popular shopping mall that has its entrance in one and exit in another – imagine the hysteria that that has brought about!) – and then exercise, eating, drinking, walking and occasional ‘worky’ or ‘housey’ things, in no particular order. Jan remains reasonably busy with ‘proper work’ whilst mine is pretty much non-existent, but I am keeping my brain busy with lots of writing – my book of blogs, new and soon to be daily lockdown blogs, blogs about hotels, blogs about pretty much anything I can think of really – whilst the rest of me has been busy hurling itself around the tennis court again (I am up to twice a week now, and knee is coping) and/or walking to the supermarket (yup, we are back to that as, even though we have a car now, the more we can move the better). And if all else fails, there is always the cleaning out of the pool (which, it now being Autumn, is a pretty much daily task) and/or disco/bollywood dancing, although I have slightly lost my enthusiasm for that at the moment. It’s going to be a long autumn/winter I suspect…

Hospitality in Crisis!

With the Covid-19 pandemic causing havoc all over the world, and the hospitality industry and those associated with it being particularly hard hit, I thought I would talk to some of my favourite hotels and restaurants to see how they are coping (if they are), find out what sort of marketing tips and tricks they have been using, and, hopefully, encourage people to visit as soon as they possibly can!

First up, Puente Romano Beach Resort in Marbella, Spain.

PUENTE ROMANO BEACH RESORT

Puente Romano Beach Resort (‘Puente Romano’) has always been one of the biggest jewels in Marbella’s crown, with its beautiful Andalusian architecture, award-winning restaurants, world-famous tennis centre and other ‘wow’ amenities.  Actually, many years ago, when we first realised that we could just about afford to look at buying a property in Spain’s Costa del Sol, we treated ourselves (in order to get used to the lifestyle!) to a stay in this beautiful hotel whilst we went house-hunting.  At one point, having not yet found anything suitable, I suggested that we give up on buying and instead book into a suite in Puente Romano for a week a month for the indefinite future, such was its appeal (and despite it being pretty expensive, I figured that it still wouldn’t cost as much as any potential property purchase!!) 

In the end, after two different visits we found our house, and since it is not so far from the Resort we walk or run past it on a more or less daily basis when we are in Marbella, and often visit one of its restaurants or the tennis centre (which has been home to many different international tournaments over the years, including the GB – v- Spain Davis Cup tie a couple of winters ago, and where, just recently, we were able to watch Novak Djokovic training before he set off for Rome – it’s that good!).    

This blog is not, however, a marketing piece to promote Puente Romano (although that would be very easy!), but since we have spent a good deal of time in Marbella this year (we set off from our home in Prague in the middle of March for a five-day break and ended up being locked-down for 100 days!) and I am telling everyone I speak to at the moment that Southern Spain, and Marbella in particular, is probably the safest place in Europe just now, it seemed appropriate to focus my first blog in this series (Hospitality in Crisis) on an hotel in Spain, rather than anywhere else.

I should just say here that all hotels in Spain had to close completely from 15th March until June 1st, so with the traditional summer holiday season about to get started, I assumed, rightly, that Puente Romano, and its sister Nobu Hotel Marbella (which sits on the same site and is under the same ownership) would have opened their doors up as soon as they were able (in fact, they re-opened on the 2nd June).  The first question I had, therefore, when I met with one of the hotels’ managers, John Thompson, was how things were going now in November, particularly with Spain being a ‘red’ country for most of Europe, and so many of the hotels around the town closed up and silent.  

I asked this a little bit cautiously as I had, of course, expected to hear a tale of doom and gloom – on our daily walks past we had seen signs of activity in the beach restaurant and the tennis club (as above!) but assumed that with Puente Romano’s 186 rooms, suites and 3 villas to fill, and Nobu’s 80 rooms and suites), as well as the fifteen restaurants and all the other amenities, life must be pretty tough – in fact the answer was very different.

First, the management had made the decision that once the Puente Romano opened, it would stay open (only closing if the Government demanded it).   A risky strategy in view of its high operating costs, but, on the other hand, a good signal to the outside world, particularly when so many competing hotels are closed.   It ensures that the hotel’s ‘regulars’ can be confident that if they book something for now or in the future, they don’t need to worry that it might yet get cancelled and they could have a battle on their hands to get their money back.  It also means that those regulars that are ready to travel continue to visit (both from inside Spain as well as abroad).  The hotel has also attracted new business from customers that might not, previously, have chosen it, but who have found their own regular hotels closed (despite the restrictions for most travellers into Spain, not everyone has stopped coming, and Puente Romano has been gaining a lot of new business from Scandinavia – hopefully, with the rule being that it is much more difficult to gain a customer than to lose one, these may now be new regular customers that the hotel has won over).

So whilst occupancy rates have been nowhere near what they would normally be for the period July 1st to end-October (although, unbelievably, the Resort had more Brits than ever in July!), the management has ensured that the staying open strategy has made sense, and unless there is another lockdown (which looks unlikely for Andalusia, with relatively low case numbers) the next couple of months up until Christmas, should continue to go in the right direction.  

So far as the restaurants are concerned, the fact that there are guests in the Resort ensures that they are not suffering quite as much as some of their ‘stand-alone’ competitors (in July, the hotel was busy ‘re-launching’ many of its restaurants whilst others in the town stayed closed… many for good); in any event, guests of Puente Romano right now are actually preferring to stay put and eat on site rather than head out into the Old Town or port, as would be the case during normal times.   But still, restaurant life is not easy, and Puente Romano and its range of restaurants is working hard to attract the locals (whether Spanish or expat), since just being open (even with reduced prices) is not enough – people’s perceptions have to be changed or enforced (all the restaurants are open, they have all the necessary safety procedures in place, they are not as expensive as people may think, etc), and this can only be done by getting the customers in to see for themselves. 

Puente Romano has, of course, a lot of advantages over others, since it is so much more than ‘just’ an hotel and it has a lot of different ways to attract visitors – even the fact that it is right by the beach gives it a marketing opportunity that others don’t have – you can’t fail to notice the restaurant that looks right out on the sea and one of its pools on the water’s edge.  What is interesting and relevant for this blog, though, are some of the ways in which it has kept its brand(s) out there, particularly during the period when it was completely closed and now, with a significantly reduced marketing budget.   These have included:

  • Adjusting its marketing strategy rather than sticking to the ‘same old, same old’; in general, Puente Romano’s focus is to offer customers more of a ‘staycation’ than a vacation, so in addition to the obvious attraction of the rooms all being very much self-contained, the marketing has been pushing the world class sports facilities (coaching by Djokovic’s brother anyone?), amazing ‘Six Sense Spa’, the variety of different eating outlets (helped by having one of the area’s top restaurants, Nobu Marbella, and its famous chef on site), all with a view to showing guests that there is something to be said for choosing a place where they can comfortably stay safely within the Resort’s own grounds and rarely venture out (other than to its beach).
  • Social media – has played a big part, especially when the Resort was closed, and has focused on giving visitors to its various sites ‘free information’ (always a good tactic to keep people returning) with tips for healthy living, eating, fitness, all provided regularly by the hotel’s in-house teams.
  • Whilst all of its traditional PR stopped whilst the hotel was closed, rather than staying that way once it was open, it actually stepped up its game by bringing in a full-time PR person from July, (Grace, one of the most impressive PRs I have met for a long time), who has been busy getting creative, launching a new ‘Ambassador programme’ for some of its celebrity guests, putting on special events in the restaurants and elsewhere to keep the locals visiting, organising media visits and so on.    
  • Using its own ‘PR people (Puente Romano employs various locals that it calls its ‘PRs’ who are freelance ‘influencers’ with far reaching fingers into different nationalities around the Marbella area, who are able to bring guests to use both the hotel and the restaurants on a regular basis
  • Events – as the team said, it would have been easy to stop the special events when things are so slow, but, again, with a focus on getting people into the Resort/its restaurants at any opportunity, they have been prepared to ‘bite the bullet’ and, actually, by bringing in sponsors from outside (there are still companies that are looking for promotional opportunities, even if they don’t have such big budgets anymore) they are running most events at least break-even if not a profit.   In fact, with a charitable element being an important part of most of the hotel’s events, the feeling is that it is more important than ever to be raising funds for local charities.

Having said all of that, life is by no means easy for Puente Romano and it would only need another lockdown or similar for things to get very difficult.   But as a marketing person myself, I find it very encouraging to see a ‘hotel’ that could, one might assume, have ‘rested on its laurels’ and just closed up until things improved, or at least reduced its offer, and instead stay open and put a lot of its focus on marketing more rather than less in order to make it all work.   Hopefully that is some food for thought for others.

You can find out more about Puente Romano Beach Resort on http://www.puenteromano.com. Prices at the moment are significantly reduced and the weather, as I go to print, is still, as would be expected on the Costa del Sol, beautiful and warm!

Lockdown here, lockdown there…

Well blimey. These last few days have been pretty grim outside of our own little bubble here in Marbella. The CR lurches from restriction to restriction, with the number of cases increasing every day and a new Health Minister being sworn in just a few days ago (and who would want that job eh?), whilst the UK has been getting more and more complicated and out of control (I had planned to say ‘where’s Boris’ again at this point, since he has barely been seen or heard of for weeks (I even wondered if he had got another dose of the virus (one of the reasons he disappeared last time, the other being a new baby, and surely he couldn’t have had another one of those, although knowing his track record, no-one would be that surprised…….??!!) But then he popped his head up last night and bang, the whole of the UK is off to lockdown (although in true BJ style not quite yet… they will give everyone until Thursday to party like mad, spread the virus as much as possible and then close it all down).

Sadly the UK isn’t the only one; even Germany (and frankly, wouldn’t most of us like to go and live there with Mummy Merkel, the only European (world?) leader that actually seems to know what she is doing) is seeing its case numbers soaring and they too are back into lockdown, along with France and some of Spain, plus others are following suit day by day.

Meantime, Southern Spain is turning into ‘the place to be’ as it seems that half of the Czech Republic has pitched up here in the last few days (even the Prime-Minister’s ex right-hand man passed through last week). It is no surprise, therefore, that most of our Prague friends have also legged it (or are planning to) – Adam is in Madeira, St Rostya is off to Dubai, Irena (my co-ex-puffer) went to France for a while (from the UK), kept on delaying returning and is now locked down for who knows how long. Then Jan’s friend Eva (the actress) is in Sicily (depressed, what actress wouldn’t be?!), whilst his footballer mate arrived here a couple of days ago, and a few others have asked us to look for places to rent over the coming months. Bloody Hell, Jan, the social secretary, will be in his element! By the way, one of our friends asked me to tell him to wear some sunscreen; don’t worry, he does… he just has that kind of skin – at this rate, as Uncle Christopher pointed out, when we do eventually get back, people may well have to ‘take the knee’.

On a similar Czech theme, and as mentioned before, there is a ‘Challenger’ tennis tournament taking place down the road from us at the moment and every day when we have left the beach after exercising we have popped our heads through the hedges to watch whoever is playing, and apart from a load of young Spanish, the rest seem to be mostly Czechs as well. We had hoped to go and support one of them ‘officially’ in today’s final since Jan has now hooked up with a Czech coach who offered to sort us out with tickets, but then he got knocked out (the player not the coach!) so we went off the idea. Meantime, in my own club, where I have now managed four training sessions without any knee problems, hoorah, most of the courts have been filled with kids from the Karolina Pliškova tennis academy, plus she herself pitched up again earlier in the week … soon we will have to head back to Prague to get away from all these Češi!

Seriously, though, I think we are very, very lucky to be here just now, and I feel very guilty writing all this fluffy stuff when everywhere else is so awful (although who knows what might happen next in Spain, since there is now some talk here, too, of locking down more, but we are not yet sure if that means everywhere or just certain areas). For now, though, we are making the most of the sun and outdoor life just in case (and encouraging anyone reading this to think about coming down and joining us before it’s too late).

It’s not just the Czechs that are turning up here in their droves though; quite a few of our British friends that have houses around us have been arriving, supposedly, in the beginning, for a few days to ‘get away from it all’, but now to stay indefinitely. Since, as mentioned before, Jan can barely walk down the road without stopping to chat to whoever he sees, irrespective of whether he knows them or not, we seem to be collecting a lot of drinks and dinner invitations (albeit, don’t worry, super-socially-distanced!). Last week we had dinner out with an English couple whom we last saw when they were leaving for a trip to Australia, and who regaled us with various stories, including their 24 hour non-stop flight back, with only their own ‘packed lunch’ to eat and entertain them (God, imagine that!), then yesterday we had drinks with the amazing sports photographer that we met at the gallery opening after lockdown and who would normally be travelling the world just now, but instead is grounded with very little to do. He has just launched a new website which he said he has been planning to do for years, but only now had the time (and if you like horses, like me, take a look.. amazing!):

www.poloartimages.com

That reminds me of one thing I meant to mention, and that is how many different things we have been doing to entertain ourselves, both during our 100 day lockdown here and more recently, just in case they are of interest to anyone else about to do the same. As I have said many times, my own work has dried up pretty much completely (and here I must just rant a bit, not for myself so much as everyone else in this position – furlough seems to me to be a good thing for some businesses, but what about the owner-run small companies, the service suppliers (yes, it is awful for hotels, restaurants, airlines, shops etc just now, but what about all the PR and advertising agencies and others that work for them?), and the actors, musicians, sports people, sports trainers and other self-employed), so I have been self-generating new projects, as I have mentioned before and I am sure I will mention again.

As has Jan (who, actually, stays relatively busy (bloody lawyers eh)) and who is now pondering taking an online course in cookery (I know, staggering!, although he did go off the idea a bit as he thinks that it may not be macho enough for him. I pointed out (and apologies in advance, just in case!) that most chefs that we know or who are ‘TV celebrities’ or both, are usually ‘tough guys’ (Gordon Ramsey anyone), womanising lunatics (no names) alcoholics (same applies) or just regular nutcases (or all of the above), which cheered him up and got him back on course).

I’ll be talking about all of this and more in the coming days, since the weather is changing, the fag-ends have stopped, and all the other entertainment we had at our disposal earlier in the year (cockroaches, noisy neighbours, whipping sticks etc) seems to have disappeared. In fact, life in Marbella is relatively normal (hopefully I am not speaking too soon)..!

Having said that, there was quite a big demonstration in the town a couple of days ago entitled ‘RIP Commercial Marbella’ and I am not completely surprised. I have mentioned before how many of the small and family-run shops and cafes are closed up now, and each time we go there the number increases. Even the churches are deserted (possibly the disinfectant mats at the entrances puts a few people off, along with the taped up pews….!). Seeing all of this and the lack of people (even though in the main town there were a lot more locals out and about) I can imagine that there will be quite a battle if the central government or Andalusia imposes any further restrictions down here … we shall see. They have, though, ring-fenced all of the different provinces for this weekend (bank holiday on Monday… again… the Spanish do love them!) so hopefully that is the way that things will continue for the meantime. Time will tell.