Brendan Dwyer, the general manager at La Finca Resort in Spain, talks to GBN about running a golf resort during a global pandemic and the changes that have taken place to enhance the guest experience since he took over the role 18 months ago.
Having joined La Finca in January 2019, it’s safe to say that you’ve probably experienced something of a rollercoaster start to your time at the club. Can you give us an idea of what the last seven or eight months have been like operating a Spanish golf resort in a global pandemic?
Initially it was all about investment in the product, change of culture in the company and reorganisation of the team at La Finca Resort. Like all new ventures, it takes up to six months to take effect and we started seeing positive results in terms of hotel operations, improved service, global revenues, online reviews, and social media engagement. Everything seemed positive and resort strategy came good in all departments. We finished 2019 well and achieved the best results in the last five years, with a very positive GOP outlook for 2020. Q1 in 2020 provided the best results in 10 years for the company, but it all came crashing down within three days from March 14. We had a 70% cancellation of all business on the books from Europe-based tour operators for the coming months during that weekend. We immediately put in place a ‘re-book mechanism’ to direct the business to the latter months of September to November 2020. We inevitably closed the hotel and resort on March 17 and, being Irish, it was one of the darkest St Patrick’s Days I had ever experienced!
What capacity is the resort currently operating at? Are all your staff back at work?
We re-opened the resort, golf, spa and hotel on July 30 and operated during August with 60% of our staff base. We achieved just under 45% occupancy in August, and September is forecasted to be 30% plus. Our prime objective of re-opening was to regain visibility in the marketplace and enable our well-deserving staff return to work and gain a work/life balance in these very uncertain times. We had a successful summer and were again awarded the Trip Advisor Best Travellers Award 2020 for our staff´s commitment and attitude towards our guests. This is testament to our core values here at La Finca Resort.
What measures have you put in place to ensure the safety of your guests and staff?
We have followed all government and regional government health and safety guidelines set out for the hotel and tourism sector. All protocols and contingency plans were formulated and set forth before reopening for the operation for guests and staff alike. We have increased our spend and assumed extra costs for the cleaning and management of the hotel and installations throughout the resort.
Although La Finca has no golf members, how busy have the courses been and has Spain experienced anything like the golf boom currently happening in the UK?
The golf courses themselves have had a significant decrease in terms of volume of people playing each day. Only through golf tournaments have we managed to gain acceptable revenues and provide adequate services at the golf clubhouse. While there has not been a golf boom in Spain, a resurgence in the sport in the UK is very positive for the game and, in time, Spain will see the benefits when European travel resumes and golf groups start to travel here to La Finca Resort again.
The three golf courses at La Finca – La Finca, Villamartín and Las Ramblas – are currently in the middle of a three-year course enhancement project. Can you explain a little bit of background to the courses and what work is being undertaken?
The three courses have undergone an extensive enhancement project, including renovation of all the bunkers and investments on all the greens. We have also undergone a major restoration of the 16th Hole on La Finca, making it even more challenging and enjoyable to play on. The club currently ranks 42nd in the Top 100 Courses list in Spain – where would you like to see it ranked once all the works are completed?
I would like to see La Finca and Las Ramblas rated inside the top 40 courses in Spain, with a possibility of breaking into the top 30 going forward. La Finca Resort is a project in motion and huge strides have been taken over the last 18 months, including €6m invested in the resort which should enhance our position in the coming years. La Finca has evolved from a ‘golf hotel’ on the Costa Blanca to becoming a resort that caters for well-travelled people looking for a lifestyle experience, exclusivity and experiences through golf, gastronomy, spa and sport. Not to mention a tranquil environment in which to gain balance in a turbulent world.
In addition to first class golf, food and wine seem to play a big part in La Finca’s upgraded hospitality offering – is that something that is close to your heart?
My ten years of experience in sales and marketing with Hyatt taught me that people look for experiences not only through a product. This was my major challenge at La Finca – to raise and elevate the product to become a positive experience for our guests and offer more, not less, through our offering.
Our renovations at the hotel, new chill-out pool environment, redesign of the spa, new restaurant concepts and menu engineering at the hotel outlets, along with the new Bodega wine tasting experience, Frijolino Mexican/Italian fusion restaurant, Misto Paella and Brasserie restaurant, plus La Finca Sports which caters for our clients who want to achieve better fitness and nutritional levels, has brought the La Finca Resort experience to new operational levels.
La Finca had the honour of winning ‘Best Golf Hotel in Spain’ at last year’s World Golf Awards. What do you think caught the judging panel’s eye?
I believe that a calculated marketing strategy, sales distribution, and much improved visibility in the marketplace, along with obvious product investment and guest experiences, has brought La Finca Resort into an improved marketplace limelight.
Has the pandemic provided the opportunity to make other improvements to the resort, if so, in what areas?
Our owning group, Quarra, has continued to make funds available throughout the confined period we experienced from March to July this year. We mainly focused on further investment in the hotel and resort restaurant outlets, improvements on certain holes at the three golf courses, and completing the opening of new sports facilities on the resort. This included the La Finca Resort gym, improved tennis and paddle facilities, plus the improvements at La Finca Spa.
Given the issues surrounding Covid-19, and the likelihood of travel within European countries being impacted for the rest of the year at least, are you focusing your marketing efforts on 2021 and beyond?
The abrupt decision taken by the UK Government to add Spain to the list of countries that were not deemed secure to travel to this summer basically ended our 2020 season and, from that point onwards, we began to focus on 2021. The summer season supported by the Spanish national market ends in September, and we have manged to secure additional business though golf tournaments, local leisure markets and professional football teams like Villarreal, Levante and Sevilla who all were preparing for the next La Liga season. This has enabled La Finca Resort to remain open until mid-October.
Are you confident that golf travel will bounce back once quarantine measures are lifted or will it take a vaccine to be found before we can hope to return to pre-2020 levels?
Our hope is that a vaccine will come into the global stream and be made available to the public in Q1 2021. This will bring some confidence and tranquillity into the leisure market and facilitate air travel again for the European traveller.
I am sure that La Finca Resort, with its newly renovated hotel, golf, spa and gastronomy offering, can entice back our loyal customer base, along with increased market share through a sound marketing strategy. It is our objective by 2022 to reach those promised heights that 2020 showed us are possible before the pandemic hit our business, but most importantly that the world finds a solution and regains its balance, so we can all enjoy the wonderful sport of golf and manage our clients’ expectations and experiences at La Finca Resort.