With foreign travel on freeze and summer abroad cancelled by the COVID -19 pandemic one of the most successful Irish run hospitality businesses in The Canaries takes the pulse on the challenges ahead. Travel Times meets Dubliner Geraldine McFadden.
Geraldine is a dynamic travel industry veteran, formerly a destination rep for Club Travel, among other tour operators, who created a unique accommodation product on Lanzarote, based on what she was missing when holidaying with her own family. Aqua Suites Lanzarote, a bespoke 4- star boutique style hotel in Puerto del Carmen, caters equally well for families, singles and older holidaymakers. Initially Geraldine was advised by tour operators that her concept wouldn’t work on Lanzarote, where she has lived for years. However, Geraldine proved them wrong and in the past four years Aqua Suites has soared to reach the number two property out of more than 1,300 hotels in the Canary Islands on TripAdvisor ratings.
Geraldine, when will we start to travel again?
I would love to welcome guests back by July-August, but I’m not optimistic. I think summer is gone and a best case scenario will be later on in September and a comeback in October. None of the advance bookings from September onwards have been cancelled and summer bookings are deferred to June/July/August 2021. Everyone is praying for some miracle, like the vaccine coming on stream quickly. Lanzarote is 90 per cent dependent on tourism. Unlike other Canary Islands we have no other source of income.
What is the Spanish government telling you?
Their regulations are quite extreme. We’ve been told common areas must be closed off, with only 30 per cent capacity allowed in the bars and restaurants. There are suggestions about putting up (plexiglass) barriers between tables, but I am opposed to that. Our floor area is large enough for adequate physical distancing between tables. The last thing we want is to make guests feel like they are in hospital or prison.
How will you make your guests feel safer and more secure?
Our 67 rooms all have large balconies, overlooking the pool and most of them are in the sun all day. Ever before the COVID 19 outbreak quite a lot of guests without children were using their balcony sunbeds, rather than staying by the pool. Poolside sunbeds will be properly distanced from each other, staff will politely ask guests to stagger their time visiting the pool and other amenities to avoid crowding. That can be done in a friendly way without spoiling anyone’s fun.
Which changes will returning guests notice at your hotel?
A constant emphasis on health and safety. Staff will be highly visible, reminding everyone about hand washing with hand sanitisers positioned throughout the building. I only hope face masks will not be obligatory in the restaurant, but we don’t know yet. Aqua Suites has always been a non- buffet hotel. Breakfasts are cooked to order and one of our big selling points is the high quality of the food on the a la carte menus. I was never an advocate of buffets. I think the big all-inclusive buffet hotels will have huge problems keeping guests apart and stopping them standing over the food.
What major problems do you envisage whilst introducing the so called ‘new normal’?
We have plenty of seating capacity in our restaurant and we will also use the restaurant bar area for dinner. Our bar is very large. I think the hardest thing will be to keep the social distancing while guests chat and enjoy themselves over a few drinks. A lot of our guests are Irish and love to have the craic together. The gastronomy in Lanzarote is very diverse, with a wide offer for all tastes and of course – great paella and local tapas.
Once we start travelling again how will holiday maker choices change and will that impact your hotel product?
We lost some business after the growth of family themed cruises; I believe those guests will come back to us, due to fears of an outbreak aboard a ship and not being able to get off. I can’t see families taking long haul flights to theme parks in the US for a long time either, certainly not before a vaccine is made available. A smallish hotel like ours that is so family friendly is sure to benefit. Our bedrooms are spacious and the family ones have a separate connecting room for kids.
Does Lanzarote have an advantage over other sun destinations once holiday travel resumes?
Definitely because flights are relatively short and people will return to what they know; that makes them feel safe and secure. Lanzarote is the most popular Canary Island with the Irish; they know where to go, they have their own favourite places and attractions. There were only five deaths from the coronavirus here. The island has handled the crisis very well and that will be a big plus for Lanzarote when holiday bookings resume.
What was it like when the pandemic struck?
Everyone went into panic mode and of course it was scary. Suddenly hotels were confining guests to their rooms and some people moved from them to Aqua Suites. Our guests couldn’t leave the hotel, except to visit the supermarket, but we kept our restaurant and bar open. Guests were still on holidays and the most important thing was to continue making that holiday as enjoyable as possible for everyone. They were so thankful to our staff and said they would never stay anywhere else again but with us. We are sure to have created some new business out of this crisis and I am hopeful about the future long term.
Geraldine McFadden was talking to Isabel Conway for The Interview
Some interesting wine and culture recommendations from Ed Finn following his recent trip to Lanzarote in 2019
Lanzarote’s Award Winning and Oldest Winery
El Grifo is the oldest winery in the Canaries and among the tenth oldest in Spain. They keep some grapevines from the 19th century, which ripen on the mountainside and are hand-picked one by one. The fire, the wind and the rock create the extreme conditions from which these wonderful wines of character are created. Don’t miss a visit here for some unique award winning wines.
All Hail César – Lanzarote’s Most Famous Son
César Manrique (1919-1992) was born in Lanzarote. Painter, sculptor, architect and multidisciplinary artist, he studied in Madrid and after exhibiting across the world for many years, lived in New York during the 1960s when it was a global artistic centre. Two years later he came home to Lanzarote and set about his most ambitious personal project. César used the island itself as his canvas and enlisted the use of his artistic ideas to protect its environment. His love of his home and enormous personality did the rest, In 1978 he was awarded the World Prize For Ecology And Tourism. “For me it was the most beautiful place on Earth and I realised that if people could see it through my eyes, they’d think the same” quote, César Manrique
Los Jameos del Agua
The first Centre of Art, Culture and Tourism created by César Manrique and one of the best examples of his vision of harmony between art and nature. He used part of a volcanic tunnel to create a natural auditorium of extraordinary beauty, along with a palm garden and an artificial lake. Also here is the “Casa de los Volcanes” museum (one of the most important research centres in the world)