PORTUGAL - Tourism
CEO, Vila Galé Hotels
Gonçalo Rebelo de Almeida, CEO of Vila Galé Hotels, has a degree in law from the Faculty of Law of Universidade Lusíada.
Gonçalo Rebelo de Almeida, CEO of Vila Galé Hotels, talks to TBY about Portugal as a tourism powerhouse, innovation, and more.
To what do you attribute Portugal’s role as tourism powerhouse and how has Vila Galé accompanied and contributed to this status?
For some time now, Portugal has been one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Europe, winning a number of international awards and gaining tremendous recognition from travellers. I think this is due to various factors, such as the warmth and friendliness of the people, the quality of the gastronomy, the cultural diversity, the immense historical heritage that can be discovered, the beaches, the sun and sea and the nautical activities, the golf courses, and nature tourism. But it also has a lot to do with safety, the climate, the quality of the hotels, and good accessibility. At Vila Galé, we try to ensure that our offer enhances all these aspects. So, we try to have hotels in great and diverse locations – on the beach, in the countryside, in the mountains, in cities, in historical areas, many of which are classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, such as Porto, Évora, Coimbra, or Elvas. We also strongly promote gastronomy, as we also produce wines and olive oils: Santa Vitória, from the Alentejo, and Val Moreira, from the Douro. In the hotels’ restaurants, we try to favour local products and the most traditional dishes. And we disseminate various aspects of culture, as we focus heavily on themed hotels. For instance, we have a hotel dedicated to poetry, Vila Galé Collection Palácio dos Arcos, where all the rooms and common areas have poems by Portuguese-speaking writers. Vila Galé Collection Braga reveals the city’s history. Vila Galé Collection Elvas highlights the Portuguese fortifications scattered around the world and Vila Galé Serra da Estrela is dedicated to mountain myths and legends. We are keen to integrate our hotels with local communities and heritage. This also involves restoring historical properties that were unused and falling into disrepair. Our portfolio includes, for example, a hotel‚—Vila Galé Albacora—that resulted from the recovery of an old fishermen’s quarter. In turn, Vila Galé Collection Palácio dos Arcos was an old 15th-century palace that we also renovated and Vila Galé Collection Braga emerged after the conversion of an old São Marcos hospital, dating back to 1508.
What is the importance of innovation for Vila Galé and why do you think that combining agrotourism, gastronomy and hospitality has been so successful?
Innovation is one of Vila Galé’s strategic pillars and a constant investment in all business aspects. Regarding the management of internal processes, we have been developing tools to accelerate digitalisation and dematerialise procedures using the internet and mobile devices, for example, in the areas of housekeeping, room cleaning, or building maintenance. We have also implemented the paper-free policy whereby we seek to reduce to a maximum the use of paper both among teams and in contact with customers and suppliers. With this in mind, we created the My Vila Galé platform, completely online, where we provide clients with access to various services such as checking in, viewing restaurant and bar menus, booking reservations, and checking the spa menus. Since smartphones are virtually in everyone’s hand, we thought this would be a strength and an added value for our services. By focusing on innovation and technology, we achieve efficiency and productivity gains; we free the teams from boring and repetitive tasks, giving them more time to contact guests and making their work more interesting; we gain real-time analytical capacity, since everything is digital; and we achieve increasingly better levels of client satisfaction. In this way, we also fulfil two major company objectives: on the one hand, to have an increasingly sustainable operation, and on the other, to accelerate the digital transition. In addition to procedures, we naturally also seek to be innovative in the products and services we offer our clients. And that involves combining gastronomy, agrotourism, and hospitality. As we have our own wine and olive oil brands—Santa Vitória and Val Moreira, as already mentioned -, which we produce on properties where we have hotels – Vila Galé Clube de Campo in the Alentejo, and Vila Galé Douro Vineyards, in the Douro – it would make perfect sense to associate all these aspects with the experience we want to provide. Also, because they are products that are highly sought after by those who visit us, that complement the stay at a destination, and also differentiate it.
Collection São Miguel, Collection Tomar, NEP Kids, Monte do Vilar. What marks 2023 as a year of pivotal importance for Vila Galé Hotels?
This year will be very important for the brand’s expansion in Portugal. We already have 27 hotels in the country and in the coming months we will open four more, with very different concepts. With Vila Galé Collection São Miguel, in the centre of Ponta Delgada, we will reach the Azores, which was the only tourist region where Vila Galé was not present yet. We had been looking for this opportunity for several years, and it finally came about through a partnership with Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Ponta Delgada. It will be a boutique hotel, which will also result from the rehabilitation of a historical building, where the São Francisco convent and hospital used to be. It has been worth an investment of 12 million euros and will have 92 rooms, restaurants, a bar, swimming pools, and a spa. The theme is the history of the Azores, aviation, and Azorean communities in the world and it is scheduled to open in June 2023. Also, in Tomar, in central Portugal, we are restoring various areas of the former Santa Iria Convent and the Colégio Feminino, classified buildings located in the city centre, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, we will have a four-star unit, with around 100 rooms, restaurant, bar, spa with indoor pool, gym and massage rooms, and outdoor pool, as well as a convention hall with capacity for more than 200 people, in an investment of ten million euros. The theme will be the Order of the Knights Templar and it should open in June, as well. We are also in the process of finalising Vila Galé Monte do Vilar, which is for over 18s, and Vila Galé Nep Kids, a hotel built from scratch with children in mind, with an innovative concept in Portugal. Both are near Beja, on the 1620-hectare estate where we already have the Vila Galé Clube de Campo and where we produce Santa Vitória wines and olive oils. This year, in terms of new units, we are talking about an investment of more than 35 million euros and over 170 new direct jobs.
What impact can be achieved with projects that anchor themselves to historical sites, such as Paço do Curutêlo, São Miguel and Santa Iria Convent?
In Viana do Castelo, near Ponte de Lima, we will renovate Paço do Curutêlo and promote a wine tourism project connected to Vinho Verde wine production. In addition to a hotel with over 80 rooms, it will feature swimming pools, an events hall, restaurants, spa, library, wine cellar and, once again, a connection to the local history in the form of a museum centre. Both this project and the ones in the Azores and Tomar are the result of the recovery of historical buildings, which were almost abandoned, without any use or economic return. And they will have a strong connection to the region where they are located. We believe that following this strategy brings advantages at all levels. It allows us to have totally unique and non-copyable units, we manage to keep alive the history and traditions that give authenticity to each destination, we contribute to preserving the intangible and built heritage. But we also offer different experiences to our clients, who can stay in special places. And we give new uses to venues that were unused, thereby generating more employment.
NEP Kids. What value did Vila Galé identify in a hotel dedicated specifically to children? What is the importance of catering unique and personalized trip experiences to families?
Vila Galé is already strongly connected to family tourism and this public is already very loyal to the brand. For example, in the group hotels, children up to 12 years old are our guests and do not pay for their stay. We also make a point of having daytime and night-time entertainment for the little ones, we have children’s massages in the spas, food designed for children, and a children’s mascot, Nep, inspired by Neptune, which also gives its name to our kids clubs, the Nep Clubs. Under this sub-brand, we have developed the offer for the younger ones, with the launch of a book, an online game, a video clip, and our own merchandising. The opening of the Vila Galé Nep Kids hotel is a natural step in this positioning. We’ve been wanting to have a hotel with these characteristics for a long time, fully designed with children and families in mind. The concept will be totally innovative, as adults can only enter if accompanied by children. In addition to 80 rooms, it will include various attractions such as a carousel, trampolines, climbing wall, slide, driving track, cinema and games room, and even a graffiti zone. It will also have paddle tennis, beach tennis, and multi-purpose courts, a children’s water park, a children’s spa, and even a Treasure Island. We believe it will be very successful and will be another distinctive hotel in our portfolio.
3,750 employees. What is the social and economic impact of Vila Galé? What makes tourism interesting as an engine of development in Portugal and Brazil?
As a company, we aim to have a sustainable economic, social, and environmental impact. This involves action in various areas such as: continually investing in the teams’ training and well-being; reinvesting profits in the expansion and renovation of the units so that they are always up to date; paying the utmost attention to innovation in terms of products and processes; respecting the environment through measures such as energy saving and green energy resources, reducing waste and minimising the footprint; meeting all commitments to partners and suppliers on time; ensuring the company’s financial strength. As the second largest hotel chain in Portugal, with 27 hotels, and the largest resort chain in Brazil, where we have 10 units, we have the responsibility of being an exemplary company that contributes in a robust way to the success of tourism in both countries. From our perspective, as far as Portugal is concerned, one of Vila Galé’s goals is to continue to invest in the country’s inland, where we see many opportunities, by seeking to develop new tourist hubs, generating more opportunities and employment, and contributing to the revitalisation of the cities. Also, because tourism is a very transversal activity, one that contributes to the development of many others, from culture to real estate, urban rehabilitation, transportation, design, restaurants, entertainment, and local commerce.
How do you envision the tourism sector in Portugal will evolve going forward?
As already mentioned, we have very strong arguments to continue to be one of the best tourist destinations in the world. To achieve this, it will be essential to continue to invest in external promotion, to increase awareness in the main source markets, which are already mature, but also to attract new tourists, in countries where we still have room for growth. It will also be necessary to intensify flight connections and quickly resolve the issue of the new airport location. And, finally, we must increasingly invest in training our human resources.
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