For some time, the potential for development in Portugal has been seen by those eager to harness the benefits that Portugal brings. For decades the tourist hotspots of the Algarve have been built upon and expanded, however it takes a visionary to step out of the box and see the possibilities where others do not, and Chitra and Roman Stern could definitely be said to fall into this category.
In an interview with The Portugal News, Chitra Stern spoke of her passion for Portugal, for the Algarve and for education and how she and her husband have worked over the past almost two decades to realise their dreams and business aspirations, often succeeding where others predicted they would fail.
Originally from Singapore, Chitra moved to London at the age of 19 and initially worked in engineering before moving into finance. In 1998 she took two years to complete an MBA and from here she and Roman began to move into the world of entrepreneurship.
“We were burgeoning with ideas”, explains Chitra, “At the time we were looking for business opportunities, this was when Google and Amazon were just beginning and we were exploring looking at a business model that now would be considered to be a blend of Uber eats, Netflix and Amazon.”
But it was a trip to the Algarve in 2001 that focused Chitra and Roman on the potential of the region. “Nobody talked about the Algarve really then, they would talk about the south of France or the south of Italy but we found an amazing destination, with wonderful people, where English was widely spoken and where there were white sandy beaches. The fact that Portugal was already a member of the EU also meant that finds for infrastructure were already coming through too.”
Describing the Algarve as a place that simply “felt good” she and Roman moved to Lagos and from their basement begin to look into possible business opportunities.
“We took a leap of faith, we were young, enthusiastic and felt invincible, “says Chitra with a smile, and it wasn’t long before they found the project that they believed they could move forward with.
“We found a project in the western Algarve and saw the immense beauty there,” this project would later come to be known as the Martinhal Sagres Resort, which has become a reference in luxury family tourism. However not everyone was convinced about the viability of the project initially as Chitra recalls: “People thought we were mad doing the project, we were like mad scientists, experimenting, creating and innovating.
“Not being from a hotel background allowed us to see things in a new way and also gave us the courage to have plans for new innovations. Creativity certainly always needs a bit of madness.”
The Martinhal Resort, which opened in 2010, gave guests something different, a luxury setting where every member of the family is welcomed equally.
“We needed a differentiating product, I was actually pregnant with my first son when we signed the contract for the land and when he was born we saw our travel ambitions change as we were now a couple with a child.”
This vision to step away, not only from traditional luxury tourism but also into an unexplored area of the Algarve, set Martinhal apart from the rest and demonstrated the vision of both Chitra and Roman in looking beyond the traditional.
Martinhal opened during a global economic crisis however, the work put in by Chitra, Roman and their team allowed them to prove that they were able to grow a business in some of the most challenging financial times, then giving them options to further expand their brand.
“We were able to prove that there really was a luxury family holiday market but this is a hard business to make money in. We built our team and our brand and to be able to keep our talented staff we expanded, we needed to scale.”
So from the initial five star resort of Martinhal Sagres, the team then went on to open and develop more resorts in Quinta do Lago, Chiado in Lisbon and a further hotel in Cascais.
The success in the hotel and tourism industry gave Chitra and Roman a number of skills that they were then able to transfer into other businesses, while Chitra was invited to also take a place in the Committee of Portugal IN, a special task force created by the Prime Minister’s office to further enhance foreign direct investment in Portugal. While on this committee and conducting analysis, she found that one of the biggest issues in attracting foreign investment to Portugal was a lack of international schools, especially in Lisbon.
“When looking at building a network of investment you need to have schools to attract talent. We found that there were lots of options in Cascais but there was nothing central for Lisbon and then the opportunity to purchase the former Universidade Independente arose, which was certainly a case of kismet.”
Branching into education may not seem to be an obvious move from hotels and tourism, however with four children of their own and deep family traditions of education for both Chitra and Roman, this move seemed a natural one.
“We had already moved to Lisbon to diversify our interests into other classes of real estate to look at developing when the opportunity arose,” explains Chitra.
“But while we had experience in development we brought in the experts to help launch the United Lisbon International School.
"We went ahead and bought the building and perhaps we were a little naïve at the time, but we recognised that the school of the future has to be very different from what we see in other countries, we needed to think outside of the box"
Apart from rebuilding the school, they have also worked to future proof the project by buying surrounding buildings to allow the school to expand without having to move locations and to also allow for other businesses to develop in the same zone, and so the Education Hub was born.
“We put our money where our mouth is and our school is ready for 750 kids, complete with two science labs, two art rooms, 3D printers and 6,500sqm of space for sports facilities.
“Opening the school in the middle of a pandemic was always going to be hard but we had dialled back our expectations and were hoping to welcome 80 students initially, however when we did open we actually had 150 kids already,” said Chitra.
Opening a luxury hotel in a global financial crisis and a school in a global pandemic and lockdown are challenges that Chitra has embraced “I always like to look on the positive side”, she adds.
“I still see possibilities here in Portugal, I have been here for 20 years and I still see many opportunities. I think after this lockdown people will be re-evaluating their lives and priorities, and as people realise they can work anywhere, then why wouldn’t you choose Portugal?
“In 2010 I first coined the phrase that Portugal was “the California of Europe” and it still has all the benefits that I saw back then. Portugal is the most open, liberal and tolerant place I have ever lived in and the world really is your oyster here.”
As for future projects, Chitra remains focused on the Education Hub, however if her past is anything to go by and her motto of “I will work until the day I die”, is to believed then it would be worth while looking out for what she has up her sleeve next.
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