Boutique hotels offer a unique glimpse of the city through personalized service and an individualized approach to managing their guests— a far cry from the anonymity that comes with staying in larger chain hotels. The pandemic has had an adverse effect on the tourism industry at large, but perhaps no one has felt the brunt of the pandemic worse than these smaller, guest-centric places of refuge, simply due to their size and commitment to hosting travelers with personalized service. Through regulation after regulation, the staff and management had to come to terms with vacancies, closures, and perhaps worst of all, hiding their welcoming smiles behind masks.
Ana Rodrigues manages marketing for the IPBN member company Lisbon Heritage Hotels, a small chain of five award-winning hotels in Lisbon. Each one is placed within historic buildings within the city center, and each has its own way of celebrating the city it calls home. Rodrigues told the IPBN, “The situation is not so good for us, but we try to be present and promote our services while keeping a defined strategy in place. Last year, we closed three of our hotels for a few months and stayed closed through the beginning of this year. For the two that stayed open (Heritage Avenida Liberdade and Lisboa Plaza), it was a process of constant adaptation as we dealt with an unspeakable number of cancellations, and fielded the same questions over and again as our guests were searching for vital information regarding restrictions on travel, testing, and life in the city. Our business decreased by almost 90% so it was difficult. Now, our occupancy is at 20% or less.”
The two locations of the Lee Hotel Group in Ireland have seen similar difficulties. Emma Allen, the Sales and Marketing Manager of the boutique hotel brand's Mespil Dublin location told the IPBN that before the July 19 lift on the ban of non-essential travel hotels have been exclusive to stay-cationers and essential business travelers. She said, “May to October is traditionally Ireland’s high season for travel, but this year no international leisure tourism has been permitted it is purely the Irish domestic market staying in hotels. Only essential international travel has been permitted into and out of Ireland, up until July 19. To date, hotel restaurants could only serve hotel residents for indoor dining and drinking – all other customers were prohibited to dine indoors. It is hoped that from Monday, July 26 the Government will allow indoor dining in restaurants, bars, cafes to those vaccinated and their kids under 18 years. This will be the first time since December 2020.
The 259 rooms in the high-yield revenue Mespil Hotel in Dublin, Allen says, “is typically at 92% capacity during high season. We offer two small board rooms, but our focus is on the bedrooms. We have been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, only opening again on the 2nd of June this year, and only really for essential business travelers. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have gone through periods of being open & closed. Since December 24, 2020, for example, we have been open for essential business travelers only and were delighted to open to domestic leisure guests on June 2, 2021. We are now looking at 20 - 25% occupancy in Dublin. Our Sligo Park coastal hotel, on the other hand, is booming and getting strong bookings from Irish citizens looking for a change of scenery. Everyone wants to be on the coast.”
According to Rodrigues, things are looking a little better for the Heritage Hotels down the road as, despite unseasonably low reservations for August, September is looking better. “We aren’t yet making drastic decisions, but we have made some promotions with special prices for advance bookings and offers on last-minute bookings. We have also created special city/beach packages with our partners that include early check-in, complimentary train tickets to Cascais, beach towels, and free tickets to 20 museums in the greater Lisbon area.”
Rodrigues is positive about the future and has made the necessary provisions for guests to check-in under the new regulations requiring vaccinated travelers to show vaccine documentation or for those unvaccinated to show proof of a negative COVID test within 24 hours’ time. Otherwise, the hotel is obliged to perform on-site testing to fulfill check-in requirements by law. “Our guests are mostly arriving with vaccine documentation, but we are offering the auto-test at the front desk. If it’s positive, the guest will have to repeat the test at a clinic, and if it is confirmed, we have to notify the authorities.”
The rules set forth by the Irish government are slightly different, as Irish hotel guests don’t need to show vaccination documentation. Allen said, “We have [foreign travelers] isolating for five days in our hotels, only allowed to leave their rooms with a negative mandatory PCR test on day five. The test must be administered by a testing center, so we have a separate corridor and exit for those guests to use exclusively.” Again most of these restrictions have now been lifted since July 19.
With the light at the end of the tunnel in sight, both Rodrigues and Allen are staying positive. “People are ready and eager to travel. We always get a surge in bookings within a few hours after the government has eased restrictions,” Rodrigues said. The great pains taken by both establishments to stay clean and safe coupled with the personal touch offered by a boutique hotel should bolster business as we draw near to the end of the pandemic. Allen said, “We are selling a quality product with a targeted design. At the end of the day, it’s the people behind the business that guests remember, and we are here to facilitate that fond memory.”
To book a stay at any of the five Heritage Hotels in Lisbon, click here.