The reinvention of Vila Vita


Eight months after returning to his Portuguese roots to take up the post of chief executive officer at Vila Vita Portugal hotel group, responsible for the Vila Vita Parc resort in the Algarve and the Herdade dos Grous wine retreat in Alentejo province, Luís Fernandes has brought his considerable experience to bear in enhancing a stay at one of southern Portugal’s most enchanting resort properties.

“What we are trying to sell here is the Algarve experience,” he declared enthusiastically.

Fernandes wants Vila Vita Parc to exude an emotional atmosphere more usually associated with that radiated throughout a casa portuguesa – a traditional Portuguese home – while retaining the exclusivity and bespoke luxury that the five-star resort, located in Alporchinos near Armação de Pêra, is rightly celebrated for.

“I think the focus here in the Algarve remains too much on mass tourism rather than cultural and pure experience tourism. Portugal has a lot of tradition, heritage, and culture, and we need to take advantage of this and preserve it,” Fernandes stated.

Hotels and resorts are the best showcases in which to promote a country’s heritage, he added, and to that end, a director of Portuguese hospitality has been appointed at Vila Vita Parc, whose responsibilities include highlighting the very best that Portugal – and in particularly the Algarve – has to offer the visitor.

“People want a return on life experiences,” said Fernandes, who originally hails from Faro, the Algarve’s regional capital, but has worked in some of the world’s most prestigious hotel properties and was a key executive in some of the world’s leading hotel companies. “It’s why they travel to a foreign country – to understand and learn about that culture.”

He noted Portugal’s deliciously varied cuisine; its rich diversity of wines; and its noble, historic architecture as three examples of the country’s fascinating allure.

And capitalizing on Portugal’s key natural assets is an important aspect of Vila Vita’s sales and marketing strategy.

“Our goal is, of course, to sustain the business we already have, but we definitely want to expand into the US market,” Fernandes announced. “Despite the financial crisis, there are still a lot of affluent leisure travelers wanting to explore Europe.”

Similarly, Vila Vita Parc is looking to attract more visitors from the burgeoning Asian market, especially golfers. “The Algarve has always been a golf Mecca, and we want to lure the serious golf hobbyist, those who travel the world playing some of the great golf courses,” Fernandes said. The Middle East remains an important market segment while emerging markets – Russia and other eastern European nations – represent “business to be exploited.”

Meanwhile, guests from Germany, the UK, and Portugal still characterize Vila Vita Parc’s most important client segment.

Having worked in all four corners of the globe, managing a roll call of leading leisure establishments like The Dharmawangsa in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Las Ventanas al Paraíso in Los Cabos, Mexico, and also taking part in creating The Tides and Viceroy hotel brands, Fernandes felt it was time to give something back to Portugal, hence the relocation to the land of his birth.

His considerable international experience has armed him with an energetic American-style, get-up-and-go attitude towards business, and he’s blessed with an ability to empathize quickly with those working around him. An easy-going personality and informal workplace manner endears him to staff wherever he’s based, and at Vial Vita Parc, they’ve taken him on board with open arms.

“I’m delighted with the attitude of people at Vila Vita,” he acknowledged. But he has identified one shortfall since his arrival – a perceived lack of leadership skill.

“Leadership is about inspiration and motivation,” Fernandes underlined, “And one of the things I’ve come here to do is change the staff’s mindset of providing service to a mindset of exceeding expectations through intuitive service combined with great Portuguese hospitality.”

To that affect, the CEO has drawn up a mission statement for the resort that encompasses its overall goals, provides a sense of direction, and is underpinned by four fundamental components: a passion for perfection; memorable guest experiences; extraordinary attention to detail; and Portuguese hospitality.

“When you create a stronger synergy between service and hospitality, you create a ‘wow’ factor that touches the guests. And that emotional connection is what I want in the guest experience.

“It’s also about how you bring out the best in people, but it is not about individual success: it’s about repositioning the resort and moving forward,” Fernandes elaborated.

Continuing, he stressed: “You have to create a culture of belonging, because it’s important to nurture team spirit and self-confidence. If people don’t have self-confidence, they don’t understand the product, nor are they able to sell it.”

The CEO admits that 2009 “was rather disappointing” in terms of occupancy rate at Vila Vita Parc but insists it’s all about “maintaining and sustaining service levels, and the pedigree of the brand.”

His prediction for 2010 is considered: “I’m optimistic. We’ve started to come out of the recession, but can’t take anything for granted.

“I think the best thing is to under promise and over deliver. We don’t want to be too robust. Instead, I think we need to be cautious.

“We have a responsibility to our owners and our employees; to create an energy that will entice people to visit the Algarve and stay at Vila Vita Parc. This place has so much potential, and I want it to be recognized as one of the top resorts in the world.”

New look, new strategy

Re-positioning Vila Vita Parc as one of the top resorts in the world has seen Luís Fernandes, the hotel’s chief executive officer, oversee an ambitious multi-million-euro upgrading project that will see the five-star resort replete with a fabulous new infinity-edge swimming pool and the Oasis Park accommodation entirely transformed to include one-bedroom garden and rooftop suites, more generous bathrooms throughout, and – in a nod to luxury well-being – terraces with outdoor showers and relaxation areas.

“We want to be a bit more modern,” understated Fernandes. Upscale Portuguese design signatures, punctuated with a number of quirky Moorish elements, will include new feather-top beds – “absolutely fundamental to the guest experience” – and the use of the best quality linen made in Portugal. In addition, the very latest in information technology, DVD Internet, TV, and telephone, will be installed.

Separate form the main hotel building but nonetheless integral to the overall Vila Vita Parc experience, The Residence accommodation will also be remodeled to include larger bathrooms, with all guests benefiting from a personalized butler service. Marketed as a hotel within a hotel, The Residence’s two strongest selling points remain the fabulous views over the gardens and the ocean beyond, and its own Michelin-starred gourmet restaurant, The Ocean.

With more emphasis being placed on drawing high net worth individuals to Vila Vita Parc, Fernandes conceded that the resort is shifting its focus away from the family market and instead targeting couples. “We don’t want to be recognized as a family resort, but we are definitely family friendly,” he said. “Our strategy, though, is to attract the affluent leisure traveler.”

Vila Vita Parc’s makeover also sees the nearby Arte Náutica Restaurant & Beach Club enjoy a major renovation to evolve into a totally different beach dining experience. “We want to position Náutica as one of the best fish and seafood restaurants in the Algarve and in Portugal,” the CEO said.

The resort’s other off-site restaurant, Rodízio, located in the village of Porches and currently specializing in typical Brazilian dishes, will undergo a dramatic change, being transformed into an upmarket but accessible pizzeria that will serve both resort guests and the local community.

Longer-term plans will eventually see the renovation of the main hotel building and the construction of new villa suites with private pools. The signature Villas Trevo and Praia are also earmarked for renovation.

Eagerly anticipated is the refurbishment of the Vila Vita Vital Spa facility. Already lauded for its bespoke choice of wellness and beauty treatments, the now dated interior décor will benefit from a bold and sexy now look that Fernandes believes will place it among the best in the country.

“The spa business throughout the world has so many different facets to it, because it’s all about the feel-good factor, and in Portugal the spa concept is slowly evolving to meet this need. This is a component we will be focusing on.

“People love to see new things in a resort,” said the CEO, summing up reaction to the re-modeling programm, “And they are genuinely excited about the future of Vila Vita Parc.”