Torel Avantgarde is a boutique hotel in Porto, Portugal, with 47 rooms, each one of them named after an avant garde artist or thinker.
It’s a popular place for visitors during normal circumstances, but how are they doing now during the pandemic? We connected with Torel Avantgarde Resident Manager Gonçalo Coutinho to chat about how things have been going at the hotel and where they’re headed.
Shiji: Tell us about Torel Avantgarde.
Gonçalo Coutinho: Torel Avantgarde is a 5-star hotel opened on September 9, 2017, so it’s our 3-yearold baby. They say it takes at least 4-5 years to get cruise ship velocity for a hotel so we were still on the way there. We’re part of Torel Boutiques Group. Our idea is to have hotels that are more than just a room key but have a narrative behind them.
For instance, our hotel is all about art. All of the rooms are named after avant garde artists and thinkers. People who Tell us about Torel Avantgarde. were way ahead of their fields like Einstein, Zaha Hadid, Van Gogh and Mozart. We also embrace our Portuguese identity. We’re the first 5-star hotel in Porto that has entirely Portuguese furniture, design, and architecture. The idea is to embody the Portuguese way of doing things, mixed with the avant garde.
It’s all about having 47 different experiences within one hotel. Every room is different – the color, carpet, beds – you can have many different experiences in one hotel.
Shiji: How has COVID impacted the business?
Coutinho: Because we are relatively new, facing this pandemic while still growing was challenging in some ways. In the beginning, as everyone, we were caught by surprise. Fortunately, our group is small enough that when we want to make decisions as a group we are much faster than, say, bigger groups with 20, 30, or 100 hotels. Even though a lot of hotels were sitting and waiting to react, we started right away doing something. We needed to do something quickly to escape the wave.
We were one of the first hotels here to bring new measures for our staff, like masks before they were mandatory and also offering them to guests. There were a lot of little things we changed before they were mandatory by the government.
And later on, we were the only five-star hotel that kept their doors open here during the whole pandemic. We believed there was a way that we could stay open as a hotel. We wanted to share the message with our clients, suppliers, and staff that we are resilient, and that it was possible for us to still be open, safe and secure for guests to come and relax in this crazy time right now.
Shiji: What has been your COVID strategy?
Coutinho: Of course, we had lots of changes. We had to restructure the company. We had to understand the number of people we needed for this new reality but, regarding staff, we tried not to change too much to protect our people.
We always wanted to be active on social media. Other hotels were not as active, just waiting to see what happened. So we entered strong on doing what others were not doing. We started campaigns and the first thing we did was to create a “total flexible rate” allowing guests to book in advance with the option to cancel through the day of the checkin. This was one of the most important things. The strategy needed to be about flexibility. If there were more restrictions the next week, we’d have to accommodate.
The reservations department prefers everything on the books to be paid of course, but we took a leap of faith believing that even if some guests cancelled, most wouldn’t.
And this meant we got more reservations in doing this. This helped us through the summer.
While other hotels weren’t very active on social media, we were able to double our Instagram followers. We had 8-9,000 followers on Instagram at the beginning of the pandemic and we’re now at 18,000 and hope to reach 20,000 by the end of the year!
During the pandemic, people were online more so it became easier for us to connect with people on social media. If you promote something on Instagram now, it’s more likely for more people to see it now than it was a year ago. So in the end, this was the correct strategy for us.
Shiji: Have there been any other successes?
Coutinho: We believe people can have fun, a great experience, feel at home and be safe with us. We want it to be a home away from home. We were by far the five-star hotel with the most occupancy in the city. From June to October we were at above 70% occupancy, even though our average price dropped a little to adapt to the market. This was due to losing our American market this summer which makes up almost 40% of our market pre-COVID.
The biggest success we had was to always be open, to keep the employees working with us and to gain influence in the city when it comes to Instagram and other social media. People started to believe in us.
Shiji: Beyond Instagram, how has technology been a part of your COVID plan?
Coutinho: Contactless payment is one of the things we strongly recommend our guests use. We accept other payments, too, but we encourage contactless.
We are also developing a paperless workflow for our group for both the environment and for health and safety– less unnecessary contact with guests. We still want some contact with guests. For our small boutique hotel, it’s what’s right. We understand the advantages of technology but we need a balance between the two. So we will have tablets where you can do payments and check-in without old school paperwork.
Shiji: How will the guest experience evolve post-COVID?
Coutinho: Guests have been much more sensitive to all the aspects of the hotel. In the first month or two of COVID we had more reviews that were sensitive to little details and our rating started dropping. So we had to act promptly. Now guests are not only looking at the room cleanliness but the cleanliness of common areas, if the receptionist is using a mask, if the key was disinfected. Lots of small things that guests are now taking note of. We’ve learned a lot about this and have had to take quick action to improve our measures. Our reviews are great now, thankfully, and we’re glad to get this additional information from guests.
Shiji: What do you think could help improve
guest experience in the future?
Coutinho: There’s always room for improvement. If you look at COVID as a silent war, in all wars there are a lot of technological improvements. It’s the same now. People are looking for solutions to improve safety and improve the guest experience without the human contact.
In the future guests will want to know more about what the hotel is doing for their safety, what’s happening behind the scenes. That could help reassure them. It would be great to have solutions in the rooms on an app that could be interactive or let you know how many times the room has been disinfected, staff members changing masks. People will feel more comfortable.
I think the role of technology here can be to inform people. Now we have covid and in the future we don’t know what we’ll have. One thing people learn is we depend on each other a lot in what we do on a daily basis, so it’s like a butterfly effect. We have this tendency to think about ourselves and not others, but this pandemic has made us all think more about others.
Shiji: And what does the future look like for Torel Avantgarde?
Coutinho: We do predictions on a weekly basis. The board has weekly meetings with us to see the number and how things are evolving and look at what the rest of the world is doing now. In the future we need to do the same as the beginning. It will not be from zero to one-hundred in two seconds. The growth of tourism will not be no flights one day to all flights the next day, it will slowly build back up. We have to adapt as there’s no measure that’s one size fits all. This month one thing may work and next month another strategy will be better.
In the beginning for example we wore gloves and provided gloves for anyone who wanted them, but then the health administration here in Portugal said gloves weren’t to be used, only masks, so we had to pivot.
This article was originally written by the GX Spotlight team. It has been moved here as part of the Shiji Group family of hospitality technology brands.