Stuart Swycher is one of the hospitality industry’s sharpest talents with an uncanny ability to spot a potential development and make it happen. As chairman of Beltico Group, he heads up developments in the UK, Portugal and Brazil, including Praia D’El Rey, voted “Portugal’s Leading Resort” at the 2008 World Travel Awards. Stuart shares his excellent insights with BTNBTN: What inspired you to build Praia D’El Rey?
SS: I first came across Praia D’El Rey in the late 1980s. Back then there were just a few houses near the sea, no golf course and it was a good 90 minutes from Lisbon. But all I could see were the miles of sandy beaches, the natural dunes and the long hours of sunshine. I could imagine that others, like me, would want to spend time in this place.
BTN: What originally attracted you to the Oeste region?
SS: I had been to the Algarve often during the 1980s, but found it overdeveloped and expensive. In the Oeste region, especially around ?“bidos, I could see the potential to create a really integrated resort that would appeal to visitors, and it was obvious in the early 1990s that the region would benefit massively from the new motorway that was being built.
BTN: What aspects of the resort are you most proud of and why?
SS: I am particularly proud that Praia D’El Rey has set the bench mark for professional tourism development in the Oeste region. We opened the Praia D’El Rey golf course in 1997 and the Marriott hotel in 2003 and we have created hundreds of jobs in the local community. I am also especially proud of the professionalism and high standards we maintain throughout the resort.
BTN: How would you like the resort to evolve?
SS: Praia D’El Rey Golf & Beach Resort is almost complete - we have a few more golf villas and beach houses to sell, but the resort is already very mature with a healthy resales market and the golf course and hotel are running very successfully.
I am looking forward to beginning work on Falesia D’El Rey, a 230-hectare beachfront site very near Praia D’El Rey, where we want to create another world-class golf course, two boutique hotels and some spectacular homes.
BTN: You were voted “Portugal’s Leading Resort” at the WTA 2008 for the second year running. Why do you think you won?
SS: After 15 years, Praia D’El Rey is probably Portugal’s best known tourist resort outside the Algarve, but we never take anything for granted and we are always striving to keep our standards as high as possible.
Our excellent Marriott hotel team also ensures our name is well known by other travel professionals and in the wider industry - it’s a great honour to have won this prestigious award twice.
BTN: How did you first get started in developing resorts?
SS: In the 1970s and 1980s, I owned a London-based law firm that specialized in business and commercial law and one of my clients owned development land in Portugal. I helped him structure his first property deal here and discovered I had a knack for the property business. Apart from developing resorts in Portugal and Brazil, I’m also involved in commercial and residential property businesses in the UK.
BTN: What’s your biggest thrill as an entrepreneur?
SS: Creating something out of nothing. When I look back at the early days of Praia D’El Rey, when there was nothing there and before we built the golf course and the hotel, I get a real thrill out of realizing that now over 250,000 people come to the resort every year, and over 800 homes have been created.
BTN: What do you look for in a potential new project?
SS: You need to balance your grand vision with experience and practicality. Will the visitors really come or is it wishful thinking on our part? Can I and my team create something really special and spectacular here, and will it be sustainable, both in environmental and economic terms? Is there an oversupply already in this region/sector/area?
BTN: What’s your favourite hotel outside of the Beltico Group and why?
SS: I travel all over the world for business and pleasure, but funnily enough my favourite hotel, Claridges, is right here in London, where my family live. I associate it with family events, excellent service, and faultless cooking. It is the epitome of a great city hotel.
BTN: What developments are you working on in Brazil?
SS: Beltico Group has two condominium hotels in the Pipa area, near Natal. We are also working on developing a five-hectare site overlooking the famous Praia do Amor beach near Pipa, where we plan to build 12 Balinese-style homes overlooking the ocean and open to the sea breezes. I am very excited by Brazil’s potential.
BTN: How does this “Perfect Storm” of a downturn compare with those past? And what is your strategy to navigate through it?
SS: Praia D’El Rey has always appealed to the British and Irish markets, but about two years ago, as we sensed the coming downturn, we started taking steps to widen our appeal to golfers and holiday makers from Scandinavia, Holland and Germany to lessen our dependence on the Anglo-Irish markets. As a result we have seen property sales slow slightly but our golf and hotel business is still going strong.
We are prepared for a tough 2009 and have put some building plans on hold until 2010, but we are already a mature resort so our focus is on maintaining our existing market share, rather than creating a business from scratch. I am glad I am not trying to do that in the current climate.
BTN: Do you see the downturn weeding out the cowboys from the professionals?
SS: Without a doubt. Only those with a professional attitude and experience will survive these testing times. In a downturn, quality is the one thing you can count on - quality of location, quality of service, quality of people - and resorts that have these assets will bounce back first.
BTN: What is your vision/definition of the ultimate resort?
SS: For me, it is “barefoot luxury”. I define the ultimate resort by its staff and its attention to detail - everything looks effortless on the surface but they have really thought about how guests want to spend their time, how they want to eat, and how they want to feel.