Entrepreneurs, MBAs, real estate developers, and well-traveled parents of four, Chitra and Roman Stern create hotels and residences in Portugal based on their own experiences. They understand customizing stays for traveling families can create differentiation and that is what they have been doing since 2010 with Martinhal Resorts.
Today, there are four affordable luxury hotels (684 rooms) and soon a residence/hotel coming to the emerging family-friendly Park of Nations neighborhood in Lisbon.
Personalized service is what drives loyalty, not points, Chitra said. For example, among many services focused on kids is Martinhal’s Baby Concierge service, pre-arranging anything that’s needed for a family coming with their infant or toddler, from baby gates, cribs, potties, thermometers, special food, formula, bottle sterilizers and more. It has “screen-free” kids programming, as well as services that give the parents a break, too.
“In this world of brands, having a niche is important,” Chitra said. “Being business strategy buffs, we understand the need to find unique positioning… Mass products are about cost efficiencies and a niche is about creating a set of unique differentiators.”
So far, Martinhal’s differentiators are proving successful and profitable, according to Chitra, who was born in Singapore, is of Indian heritage, and lived and studied in London before marrying Swiss-born Roman and relocating to Portugal in 2001. The last few COVID years weren’t easy, but 2022 has been a very good year for business, she said. “People pay more to have that level of service. And we have a reservations team that actually speaks to you, and answers emails, which a lot of places don’t have anymore.”
The family market is more than a niche positioning for Martinhal, Chitra implored. “We’re not paying lip service to that segment. We go that extra mile in this niche, and I think that’s what makes a difference in profitability. It’s getting people to love your product because you’re providing good service, not because you have loyalty points… It’s giving excellent service year in, and year out, and building on those service levels. We keep adding layers based on the experience of the past year.”
The four owned Martinhal properties in Portugal that make up the collection include Martinhal Sagres Beach Resort, Martinhal Quinta do Lago in the Algarve, Martinhal Cascais and Martinhal Chiado Family Suites in Lisbon. The fifth property, Martinhal Residences, opens in 2023 in Lisbon’s contemporary Park of Nations neighborhood. It’s the Sterns first branded hotel residence development with hotel suites and apartments on offer to buy. At Martinhal Residences there will be 152 units – the first four floors are set to operate as a Martinhal hotel with 77 accommodations, while the top 10 floors comprise 75 residences for long-term stays. Units are for sale and almost sold out, according to Chitra.
The Sterns developed their first project, Sagres, from scratch. It includes 12 houses that were sold and released back into the rental pool. But then opportunities came from buying existing projects that had gone bust or were repossessed by banks. The upcoming Residences was, again, developed from scratch. “We react to what the market conditions are, taking opportunities that exist in that particular time and place,” Chitra explained.
Looking ahead, Chitra said the focus is on getting the Residences in Lisbon open and then it’s a matter of being presented with the right opportunity. “Another hotel in Porto would be interesting, whether it takes the shape of branded residences or serviced apartments,” she said.
More generally, the Sterns might do a couple of more residences because they see a lot of people moving to Portugal for the lifestyle. “Portugal is behind cities like Dubai, New York and Miami in terms of branded residences. There’s more room for that here,” she said.
A true believer in what Portugal has to offer the next generation, and because of the interest from international families to relocate there, the Sterns have also launched Lisbon’s first international school – United Lisbon International School – that offers the full American curriculum to further meet the demands of those looking to put down roots in the destination.
While Portugal’s Golden Visa program is now under scrutiny by government leadership, the Sterns are trying to capitalize on the ongoing plan that allows residency and eventual citizenship in the Schengen Area through the purchase of real estate for €500,000 [U$520,000 in Lisbon]. In fact, the Martinhal team has been going as far as to help organize meetings for legal, residency, and school admissions for the school.
“Our investors, many of who are choosing to relocate to Portugal for its lifestyle and business opportunities, have been able to capitalize on the benefits of the Golden Visa Program to date,” Chitra added. “Martinhal Residences has attracted both residents and Golden Visa investors and has continued to qualify since the restrictions which came into effect in January 2022, as it is a branded residences that has a commercial license with residents living in luxury serviced apartments. As this program is now being reevaluated, we encourage buyers on the fence to start the process as early as possible.”
Chitra added, however, that it is important to bear in mind that this is just one of many attractive visa schemes on offer that encourage foreigners to the destination. “We feel confident in the conscientious approach the Portuguese government is taking to adapt to the demands of both locals and foreigners,” she said. “We are excited about the recent announcement of a new visa that allows digital nomads to settle for a certain period in the country, especially as Martinhal Residences is being designed to cater to the digital nomad. Our combination of hotel suites and luxury apartments can be used for short or long-term stays. Additionally, this landmark building with a green façade is already located in Lisbon’s emerging hub for digital nomads and tech entrepreneurs.”
Further broadening their scope, the Sterns’ hotels already accommodate extended stays and they also sell villas and adjacent houses that are returned to the rental pool. For example, Martinhal Chiado in Lisbon has 36 apartments with full kitchens and washer/dryers, and naturally includes a Kids Club. Long-term rentals there start at €37 [U$ 38.5] per night, based on a six-month stay.
Being a couple that works together can be treacherous for a relationship, but Chitra said with complementary skills sets, they manage very well. “We love the fact that we are building something together,” she added. “And this way, we’re both completely aware of each other’s priorities, and therefore, there’s no argument when it comes to one person having to bear more responsibility at home or playing tag – we’re very good at that. It all has a lot of benefits, and we’re still married 22 years later – so we love it.”
For the record, the children range from age 20 to 11. “It’s physically exhausting with young children and mentally exhausting as they grow older,” Chitra joked. But in the next breath, she mentions how much she and Roman have learned from her kids, and better understand the requirements and stress points of traveling with a big family.
Both Chitra and Roman are in the big strategic decisions about new development projects and whether they fit the portfolio. “We’re both MBAs. So, we don’t have to explain much to each other. We both have finance backgrounds, as well,” Chitra said. “By and large, he’s the CEO of the Martinhal companies and I’m CEO of the operating companies. In other words, my husband is in the future and I am in the present.”
Chitra also has to act as CFO, CMO. “I am the face of the companies and Roman is the one who absolutely pushes me forward.”
Being the one who runs the day-to-day business, Chitra said that the past two years were “very tough.” But she quickly adds that 2022 has been a good year for the hotel company. “I’m not saying there are no challenges such as rising costs, energy bills, etc. But Portugal continues to be a great destination. As a country, I’m very happy to say 2022 will close even better year than 2019.”
Planning ahead, Chitra echoed hopes for better immigration policies to attract more workers. She is paying higher wages, especially for multitaskers, but generally speaking, she suggests worker productivity and efficiency in Portugal need to improve.
The Sterns continue to invest in their properties and have been working for a long time on more energy-saving devices and equipment. “We just need to get even better at that without reducing the quality of services for guests, and that’s the hard part.
But for entrepreneurs like the Sterns, the challenges are welcome. “We love learning – it’s about lifelong learning,” Chitra said.