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’) 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 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!

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