In Conversation with Chitra Stern, Co-Founder of Martinhal Luxury Family Hotels & Resorts

Chitra Stern, alongside her husband and business partner Roman, are the founders of Martinhal Luxury Family Hotels & Resorts. In this in-depth interview, we learn more about the much-loved and hugely successful parent-friendly hotels, insights into travel trends, neighbourhood living at The Residences, the United Lisbon International School and more. Read on!

For our readers who are unfamiliar with the Martinhal name please tell us a little more about the concept, the offering, and your journey so far.

When we started evolving our plans for the first Martinhal Resort in 2002 in the coastal town of Sagres, I wanted to do something with a deeper meaning and positive impact on the local region in this stunning natural setting on Portugal’s Algarve coast. Based on our own experiences, we really thought about the details and the settings. Raising four children myself, I realized that many people, us included, could no longer go on the kind of holidays we enjoyed as a young professional couple. This became our differentiator, a parent-friendly hotel that offers memorable experiences with imaginative and healthy options for children and their parents. We didn’t want to be another hotel or resort with another kid’s club. The success of Martinhal Sagres led us to open three additional hotels and resorts; in Quinta do Lago where we have a collection of luxury villas; Martinhal Cascais which comprises hotel rooms and villas; and Martinhal Chiado, a boutique serviced apartment hotel in the heart of historic Lisbon. With Martinhal Residences, we are now taking our unique formula and hospitality experience to offer those same families, and new brand followers, the opportunity to make their dreams of living in Lisbon a reality and to help them make a smooth transition to life here. At Martinhal Residences, we have 160 apartments ranging from studios to 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-bedroom penthouse apartments and duplexes, ready for completion by October 2022. The focus is on families, and we are proud to say already over 80% of the apartments are sold.

Martinhal Residences opening Autumn 2022

You noted that being a working mother helped you to develop the concept – if / how do you think the venture would have been different if you had not been in this position?

We identified a gap in the market over 20 years ago and knew what our guests and travellers, in general, we’re looking for because we could empathise with them. It is an interesting question and I am not completely sure whether we would have pursued this strategy if we had not gone through that experience. Offering family-centric resorts, with beautifully designed hotel rooms and villas in the best locations across Portugal, is what has made Martinhal successful and earned us brand loyalty and continued repeat business. In terms of new audiences, it’s also important to expand your market reach and not become reliant on a single market or guest demographic. Companies need to ensure their customers are well represented and have a sense of immediate belonging. In our case, it’s ensuring we’re connecting with families from all over the world and representative of all family models, including LGBTQ parents, single parents, and multi-generational group travel.

We love your ‘drinking a cappuccino with the foam still on’ ethos, please tell us how you help deliver this for your guests.

It was something we often joked about as parents as we went through the experience of having to run after them just as your cappuccino arrived at the table during breakfast. We parents look for these simple luxuries. That first precious sip of your cappuccino with the foam as it is served makes your day as a mother! In all our hotel restaurants, there are dedicated play areas and trained staff on hand but still within sight of parents.

How hotels and hospitality companies’ staff communicate with their guests is crucial, and this expectation is even higher post-pandemic. Guests will remember the people they met along the way on their trip, from the appreciation they receive upon arrival to the attention to detail paid to their needs throughout their stay. As well as our hands-on service, take-up has been strong of our family & baby concierge services — available 24/7 via our WhatsApp account.

And, as a business owner, lecturer, and entrepreneur how do you attain your work-life balance?

Without sounding cliched, I get up every morning full of passion and enthusiasm for what I do. I find motivation everywhere, in my children, and my family. Roman and I are building something together. People say is not it hard to work with your husband. No, we spend quality time together doing what we love.

You do need resilience but do what you love. My children and my family keep me grounded and we always take time out to appreciate what we have achieved together.

As one gets older, the realization is that one must take exercise and look after one’s health more with balanced nutrition as the stress of entrepreneurship can be tough.

The guest experience at each of the Martinhal properties is clearly orientated on ensuring that both adults and children are satisfied at a luxury level. Please elaborate on how you achieve this?

We work hard to enhance the guest experience — whether it’s through offering new immersive programming for kids or a range of new treatments at our spas or meeting the new demands for low-touch services, it’s essential to stay on the pulse of trends and customer demands and regularly enhance guest experiences. This year, we’re excited to expand on our outdoor offerings at Sagres, with an extended kid’s playground, a boules court, a mini-golf course, and a new fitness trail. Our guests already come to us for outdoor activities and want to spend more time outdoors, so we want to ensure we continue to make new additions to our leisure facilities. Additionally, we stay very close to our local community and work with local artists and chefs, who take on residency programmes at our resorts. Through these programmes, we offer masterclasses and special dining experiences, so our guests love that they get to experience Portugal in a personal and real way.

The well-designed spaces with beautiful architecture and the best European brands, as well as art by Portuguese artists on the walls make a big difference to the parents.

How do you ensure that guests receive the same level of service and luxury standards at each property whilst still reflecting each property’s individual identity?

We work on hiring the right people and work on instilling the right values to produce the right culture in our organization — this is the key to success across all our properties. It helped us think outside the box, we recognised we needed people with skills and to love our brand concept as much as we do. Ultimately our great team members are our brand ambassadors. One example I’m proud of is that our childminders at each resort are not third-party caregivers or outsourced staff. Each childminder is hired by Martinhal and has received specialist training and certifications. This allows us to have full oversight in the process and really get to know the people who take care of our youngest guests. We are always learning from experience and take feedback seriously, to enhance already popular offerings, and where to evaluate to make improvements. We are continually working to ensure the feedback process loops back into the guest experience.

Which three words sum up the Martinhal experience?

High-class, family-friendly experiences.

Martinhal celebrated 10 years of operation in 2020 – how does that feel reaching such a significant milestone?

Roman and I have had to make some tough decisions during the pandemic years, and we are proud to have celebrated 10 years of Martinhal in 2020 – 10 years of helping our families make memories. We continued to innovate and keep our hotels going and have our wonderful core teams intact in these choppy high sea waters. The Martinhal brand has always been about its people – the Martinhal Family that works hard, goes the extra mile for each other, as well as our guests, and sticks together.

I have always said that as entrepreneurs, one should celebrate the reaching of milestones, no matter how small they are. This became even more important over the past two years – gratitude and celebration are important for us all, psychologically.

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And what do you foresee for the next 10 years for the Martinhal brand?

We will continue to build on the successes …of the past ten years and evolve our products and programming to meet the changing needs and desires of our loyal family-focused guests while at the same time seeking to expand our market reach by appealing to a wider demographic.

And please tell us more about the other worthwhile projects in which you are involved?

We are always thinking about families and what they are looking for. We started by offering hassle-free vacations for families, and to now offering our first-ever branded residences in Lisbon’s dynamic Park of Nations neighbourhood. It has proved a very compelling offering for not only Portuguese buyers (a huge vote of confidence for our brand) but expatriate buyers looking for the convenience of having their property managed by a trusted brand and providing access to incredible amenities without worrying about the maintenance.

Martinhal Residences offers the best of riverside living, like Battery Park City in New York, Canary Wharf in London, or SoMa in San Francisco. We’ve taken inspiration from some of the greenest eco-cities and neighbourhoods in the world and have worked with the highly regarded Portuguese architect Eduardo Capinha Lopes who has imagined a spectacular ‘green’ façade that looks set to be a future landmark in Lisbon.

With families in mind, the Residences have spacious living areas, and balconies and have stunning views of the Tagus River and neighbouring park. I am excited about the facilities which will be available to residents and hotel guests, including indoor and outdoor heated pools, a gym, an outdoor playground, a Martinhal kids’ club, and a restaurant. We chose Park of Nations as it’s the new, exciting hub to watch in Lisbon, especially for residential living given it’s close to Lisbon’s airport and benefits from having extensive walking paths along the river, access to parks and open spaces, vast pedestrianized areas, top restaurants, museums and more. Park of Nations is undoubtedly the most multi-generational family-friendly district in central Lisbon.

What’s more, it was important to us to think of the bigger picture about what families need when they relocate and that is, having access to an excellent education. Building an international school and world-class campus unlocks the much-needed flow of Foreign Direct Investment for the country, and so we have done exactly this. International education is now available at the nearby United Lisbon International School that we founded, and it offers Kindergarten to Grade 12 and follows the American international curriculum, as well as the IBDP for the last 2 years. Launching a school at the height of the pandemic (September 2020) was a challenge, especially as we quickly had to pivot to hybrid and virtual programming. But today we are very proud that the school has over 320 students enrolled from 35 nationalities and our two younger kids are also enrolled there. We’ll be introducing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme for students starting September 2022.

In creating the school, we regenerated a former university campus which earned the “Lisbon Prize” at the World Architecture Festival, and an accolade for “the best building in the city” for our renovation of the original 1950s structure. We have also had recognition at the local government level for the importance of this project for the area. Being close to the Park of Nations, the United Lisbon school is in a unique position to enrich student learning through experiences beyond the classroom building on collaborations with local partners and businesses.
The United Lisbon International School is part of a bigger story. It is the central component in plans for the Edu Hub that will create an ecosystem for education and technology where students, innovators, entrepreneurs, educators, and creators can connect in pursuit of lifelong learning.

I have believed in the future of Portugal for two decades and that belief grows every day. We trust that the investments we have made in education will help to create a vibrant and multi-cultural environment in which individuals can flourish and contribute to the continued growth and development of the country we love so much.

Luxury is highly subjective, what does it mean to you?

Luxury is no longer just about the best quality furnishings, facilities, and technology. Many people, especially those who can afford to stay at high-end hotels, already have these in their homes. It is more about how a place makes you feel and the emotional connection with the product, services, and people who create the entire experience. It’s a feeling that your needs have been truly understood and met, from the aesthetics, atmosphere, and across all service points. Together they create a guest experience that is unique to the brand, in our case Martinhal, and the individual property. When done right, when genuine, authentic, and meaningful – however big or small that emotional connection might be – this is what luxury means to me.

As an experienced and accomplished figure within the luxury travel sector, what travel trends do you predict for the next five years?

The main trend we can see is for family and multi-generational travel. I think this broader evaluation and assessment of the importance of quality togetherness has really come to the fore. Covid kept us all apart so now is the time to reconnect and recharge together. Perhaps there has been a postponed family celebration, a wedding, or a reunion that can now take place with travel restrictions easing around the world.

WFA and longer stays are here to stay – having the luxury of being able to work comfortably from anywhere whilst not sacrificing quality time and experiences with family.

The City Break is already back! While we kept our distance during the height of the pandemic travellers have missed the buzz and the beauty of cultured, metropolitan destinations such as Paris, Rome, New York, and of course Lisbon!

Travellers are craving authentic, conscious travel experiences perhaps where they can offset their carbon footprint or participate in unique projects – something the New York Times recently referred to as EduVacation. This summer guests staying in Chiado and Cascais with families and kids aged 7-17 will be able to book their children into the amazing summer programmes we have running with United School Lisbon – from filmmaking and animation to acrobatic gymnastics.

There have been fundamental changes in the way people view luxury travel. There seems to be greater mindfulness and an understanding of the interconnectivity of the world which has perhaps redefined the luxury sector. This is part of our offer we are developing now – across holistic wellness and nutrition- watch this space!

Finally, please share with us your life motto ?

Never rest on your laurels but celebrate your milestones. My glass is always half full!

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