As someone who was born and raised in the Philippines, moved to Spain to study and work, and has now been living in London for the past 7 years, I’m always curious about others who call many places around the world home. “I was born in Switzerland, lived and worked in Spain, UK, USA and France for several years, before moving to Portugal, now 20 years ago,” says Katya Bauval, Director of Sales & Marketing at VILA VITA Parc, the award-winning luxury hotel in Porches. “I’ve lived in big cities such as London, Washington DC or Lisbon, but at heart, I am a small town girl and appreciate quality of life. This is what Algarve and Portugal in general offers above all, quality of life! It’s still affordable and one of the most beautiful countries in Europe with marvellous and hospitable people! I love being able to leave work after a long day and still go to the beach or the pool and enjoy LIFE!”
I speak to Bauval about my recent visit to VILA VITA Parc. I have fond memories of watching the sunset from the clifftop resort, the waves playing with the sand below; the live music that floated across the property; the burst of flavours from the many dishes we sampled at the hotel’s restaurants. “VILA VITA Parc embodies all that is Portugal: from the Algarvean-Moorish architecture to the cobblestoned pathways, design elements, such as local Porches Pottery, Vista Alegre porcelain and glass, or Cutipol silverware, SamPedro linens and towels, the guest amenities like Claus-Porto, or the authentic Portuguese hospitality, everything we do here is to remind the guest that he or she is in Portugal,” she explains. The Sybarite speaks with Bauval about her journey in hospitality and what it takes to run a large, successful hotel in today’s climate.
- Did you always know you would be working in hospitality?
Not really. I grew up in Spain, of a British mother and a Belgian-Maltese father raised in Egypt, so I always was exposed to a mixture of cultures and languages. You could say that I had a very worldly upbringing and I knew that I wanted to use this advantage in life! It was actually when I just finished my final year of university in the UK, still undecided about what direction my life would take, that I went to visit a very good friend that was doing her internship at the most prestigious hotel school in the world, Ecole Hotelière de Lausanne in Florida. It was then that I decided that I wanted to get into hospitality, and working in hotels seemed like the perfect job. Shortly after, during that same summer at a dinner party at my parents’ home, the conversation about my future arose and I ended up being introduced to the General Manager of an iconic hotel in Seville, who eventually became my first employer and whom I still consider my mentor and godfather in this industry! You could say that I was in the right place at the right time. The rest is history.
- What does a typical day in your life look like?
No two days are the same! Which, by the way, is what I love about my job. The first thing I do when I wake up is go through my e-mails and social media. Shortly after arriving at work, I meet with my Sales & Marketing team to discuss the line-up for the day, and right after, we have a Heads of Department meeting to review the daily operation of the resort. The rest of the day is a typical day for a hotel sales person with lots of phone calls, internal meetings to set the marketing and PR strategies, meetings with partners and clients, and hosting site inspections and events. And in normal times, it would involve some travel around the world to promote our beautiful products. Today, most of this has gone virtual or digital, so we have had to adapt to these circumstances. For example, we now do most of our meetings with partners virtually and we have accelerated our digitalization process for a lot of the marketing actions, as well as pushed even further forward with social media channels.
- If a guest asked you to whip up an itinerary for a day-trip from the hotel, where would you send them?
Depends on what their interest was, but for a taste of the culture in the Algarve, I would recommend visiting the towns of Lagos and Sagres or Costa Vicentina towards the west, or Faro and Tavira towards the east. Each of these locations also has great restaurants and cafés, small traditional shops and streets to wander around and soak up the Portuguese way of life. If you wanted to see beyond the Algarve and had a bit more time, I would recommend a day trip up to Herdade dos Grous, our vineyard and organic farm in the Alentejo, just over an hour’s drive from the resort.
- When it comes to dealing with the challenges brought about by the pandemic, what are the key things VILA VITA Parc did to prepare itself to ride this difficult wave?
VILA VITA Parc was the first hotel in Portugal to put together a COVID-19 contingency plan in March, shortly after the pandemic was announced, while the resort was still open with guests in-house. Rapidly, we created a “crisis team” which worked hand-in-hand with a medical consultancy firm to draw up measures, always following the local and international health authorities’ recommendations. On the 19th of March, the hotel closed for 3 months, and during this time, we worked arduously to create a plan for the reopening on the 16th of June. Most of the 750 members of staff were brought back one month prior to the opening to be trained with the new measures. We created the VILA VITA Health & Safety Charter and we also received the Safe & Clean stamp from the Portuguese Tourist Authorities and was first resort in Portugal to receive the APCER – COVID-SAFE certification in September.
- Where is your favourite place in the resort to take a break and relax?
The Algarve benefits from a very mild climate all year-round, allowing visitors to take advantage of the outdoors. For me, just walking around the resort’s lush subtropical gardens—which make up more than two thirds of the 54 acres at the resort—and offer spectacular views over the cliffs towards the ocean, is relaxing and soothing to the eye and soul. The grounds are perfectly maintained and manicured by a team of 40 full-time gardeners, that always have a ‘bom dia’ and a smile for you.
- If you had to pick one dish, one dessert, and one cocktail from any of the resort’s restaurants and bars, which three would you choose?
For dessert, the ‘Carob, Almond and Carrot’ dish at Atlantico restaurant—it encompasses all that is the Algarve in one dish. For the cocktail, I would recommend the Serra Sour cocktail, which was created by one of our barmen with 100% Algarve ingredients—‘medronho’ spirit, honey and cinnamon syrup, organic lemon juice, and drops of chocolate bitter—and is one of our signature cocktails.
- The resort is massive! How does the staff ensure that they are always able to deliver a personalised experience for guests?
It’s all about having a great team and communication at all levels! It’s the reason why a lot of our guests return time and time again. We are very fortunate to have a great team of professionals, passionate about what they do. We have a robust and continuous training programme for our employees, which includes the implementation of Leading Hotels standards, complemented with a lot of emotional intelligence, to help anticipate guests’ needs and exceed expectations.
- VILA VITA Parc has something for the whole family. How did you go about planning the resort’s layout to accommodate for spaces for groups and children and also quieter nooks for adults?
The sheer size of the resort—54 acres—allows for this distinction, and the fact that we have a ´horizontally´ designed resort, with different buildings offering a variety of accommodation from rooms to suites, apartments and private serviced villas; lots of green spaces with 7 several pools—one for adults only—and three beaches. We have an adults-only oceanfront building, The Residence, with an infinity pool, where our two-Michelin Star restaurant is also located. Our 11 restaurants offer a great choice of casual to fine dining, with different options of cuisine and ambience for families or adults. While the resort has always been considered as a family-friendly resort, due to its location on the Algarve coast and its facilities and services, it also offers seclusion and privacy for couples looking for romance, golfers, foodies, wellness seekers, villas for ultra-luxury private travellers. This combination is actually one of our strongest unique sales propositions, as opposed to other resorts on the Algarve and the Mediterranean that focus their strategy on either family business or adults-only retreats, we can do both very well!
- Are there any upcoming events that the hotel is hosting that you’re really excited about?
Probably the most exciting news is that on the 23th-25th October, the Algarve will host a Formula 1 race at the Portimao Race Track for the first time ever. We are proud to be a part of this event which will be followed by motor enthusiasts all over the world. Apart from that, VILA VITA Parc organises several events throughout the year, such as the Oktoberfest at the Biergarten or the Fine Wines and Food Fair, but with the pandemic, unfortunately, many of the 2020 events have had to be postponed or cancelled.