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Tourism Resilience Case Study: Millers of Frigiliana, Andalucia, Spain

To mark the 18 months point since Covid rocked our worlds, this blog is an inspirational case study that showcases an example of how thinking outside the box has kept one small, independent hotel in southern Spain afloat.

Of particular interest is which of the survival strategies are set to remain a part of the main offer as travel moves into 2022.

Sharing positive wins and lesson learnt from small business owners who have faced the same challenges as you is a great way to feel less alone as we move forward into the post-pandemic travel era.

So, let’s get started!

Tanya, thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I am totally inspired by the new products, add-ons and strategies you have created at your beautiful hotel during Covid. Before I ask you more about that, could you tell us a little about yourself and your property?

Sure, my name is Tanya Miller and I have always loved travelling and spent some time working as a tour leader. My father managed hotels in the UK so I often worked with him, and then I went on to study hotel management. When I began working independently, I started with restaurants. I then moved to Peru and set up restaurants there. I did that for years but decided to move back into the hotel industry when I moved to Spain.

I bought two old buildings in ruins in a place called Frigiliana in southern Spain, about an hour east of Malaga. It took two and a half years to restore it before I could move over with my children.

Now, we have a small boutique hotel with seven units and lots of communal areas right in the middle of the old town. I manage it myself and do most of the work alone because staffing was always problematic when I was managing a hotel back in England.

That’s great, seven units sounds like a super manageable size. Can I ask why you chose Frigiliana to set your place up?

I was one of the first people to set up a small boutique hotel in Frigiliana and everyone asked me why at the time. I love Frigiliana and I just presume everyone else will too. It is close to the coast but is surrounded by mountains to the north, so the hiking opportunities are endless. It is also an hour from Granada where my boys’ father lives, so that of course influenced the decision.

When I first set up the hotel, there was only one bigger hotel nearby who worked with coach tours. Now there are quite a few boutique hotels springing up everywhere, as well as Airbnbs, because Frigiliana has become quite touristy in the last 10 years since I have known the place. There are 18 different nationalities at the school that my children attend. I did consider setting up a lodge or a hotel in the countryside, but everyone advised me to go to the town. As a single Mum, I do have a great social life here, so it was the best decision.

Right, that makes sense. Who were your main target audiences - nationalities and group type - before Covid, and now?

That has always depended on the time of year. During the summer months we work with an awful lot of Spanish people as most people either have a second home near the coast, or they want to escape there from cities such as Madrid, Seville, or Grenada. So, in the summer, definitely Spanish people – couples and a lot of families.

Out of season we try to target more towards the Scandinavian market, and the British. We do try to gear more towards active holidays and not just people who want an escape to the Costa del Sol. We work to get people to come who want to venture more in land and learn a little bit more about the local area and culture, as well as those who love hiking.

I am English, but we don’t try to be a British hotel. We try to reach out to everybody who fits those criteria about wanting to see and experience more. We are also pet and child friendly. The setup is attractive for those who are looking for a home away from home who don’t want to be in a big hotel and who want something more discreet with personal service.

Right now, in the context of Covid, we are mainly working with Spanish customers. We have some foreigners coming back towards October/November time, and also some people are already booking for next year.

Quite a few months back you offered cookery classes at your hotel. They were sell outs! How easy was it for you to organise and actually carry them out during Covid?

Yes, right. We started doing them every two weeks during Covid and they were targeted at the local market, people who were not looking to stay at the hotel. It was intended to become an additional revenue stream to replace the cancelled overnight stays.

I got a chef in especially for the classes, and because we have such a great open kitchen, it worked really well. I did have experience of doing this in the past, but then the idea was to sit down as a group after the meal and enjoy eating together. The difference was that, during Covid, the participants took their food home to share with their families. It was a huge success, and we finished this season with a Masterchef barbecue party afterwards with a prize for the best chef.

We will definitely offer the cookery classes again from September onwards once the summer season has dropped off.

You also started a shop! Tell us a little more about the products that you stocked and how it is going now?

The online shop was also an idea I put together during Covid. I thought why not, let’s give it a try and see if it boosts sales. I was hoping that people from the street would pop in as they walked around the old town. I sourced some products that were locally made and that no one else stocked. I didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes. Working closely with the local community became so much more important during the pandemic that I also wanted to do my bit to help support people who had lost their jobs for example. Everything we stock is made locally, is organic, and small enough for someone to take home with them when they are travelling. For example, we have a selection of Japanese hand creams that are made here by a Japanese lady, plus a selection of jewellery and candles for example.

It is just enough to have something for people to look at when they are checking in and checking out. One lesson I learnt though was that everything needs to be locked away! Unfortunately, one guest came down in the night and helped themselves to what they wanted. I didn’t have cameras in place and also didn’t want to start with that, so now the shop is only available during check in and check out. I will continue to stock the shop, as well as promoting the items for sale on Facebook and via our own website.

Great! And more recently you added Bell Tent hire onto your offer. This is a great example of thinking outside the box in reaction to current consumer preferences and travel trends. Did you partner up with an existing Bell Tent supplier to be able to offer this service? Has it required a whole new marketing strategy to reach these new target audiences?

Yes, the bell tents! This additional service is called Millers Glamping and I made the small investment and bought the bell tents myself. It is marketed towards people who live in the area, who may have family coming to stay and need an extra bed, or they want a slumber party, or a children’s party or a hen party. We go and set the tents up for them and we collect them afterwards, or we also offer a click and collect option at a cheaper price. It has only just really been launched, but some bookings have come through and I already have a handful of happy customers. This new project is intended to support the physical hotel offer. It also satisfies my love of being in the countryside and it means we have something to offer the people who want to be more out in nature and not in a town.

Is there anything else you have done to keep income coming in and to build resilience for your business?

The other option we started during Covid was to offer full afternoon teas. They were offered to local residents and were only available on a pre-order basis. I did look at creating a coffee shop, but it wasn’t worth the investment to have to comply with regulations like disabled toilets and sound proofing. So now the afternoon teas are also for guests as well as for the public when they book in advance and come in small groups. It has been a huge success and that offer was included in a TV programme on Canal Sur from Andalucia. As we come out of the summer, we will definitely continue with the afternoon tea offer.

Which of the new services and offers do you think you will continue to offer in the future Post Covid?

All of them! The glamping, the afternoon teas, the cookery classes, and the shop! They all complement the main product in their own ways.

We also started walking groups. At the moment, people are not keen on going walking in groups with people they don’t know, but I am super excited about expanding this offer further as we move forward.

I decided also to start to create some guidebooks that include our local trails, and we will offer those for sale. I intend to continue to do that too as time moves on.

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from the last 18 months?

The biggest lesson I have learnt is to accept and deal with what is going on and just give the ideas that come to me a go and see what happens.

After Covid hit, the first thing I did was to go over all my accounts and look at what I could reduce and where I could save. I contacted my electricity provider for example and managed to access a more affordable tariff. I also looked into everywhere where there might have been support available. The town hall were offering a lot of information, but you had to go there and get it. I took a Covid loan and that gave me a safety net and now I heard that it might be possible that the interest already paid might be refunded.

I did everything I could to keep on top of the business, not letting anything go to ruin, but at the same time I was always trying to think outside the box and work out how to stay afloat. Like everyone in the same situation, I just couldn’t let the business go down the drain.

And finally, what is the biggest challenge facing your destination, and how are you involved (or intend to get involved) in working to overcome it?

Doing promotions within Spain has definitely been the biggest challenge. Andalucia as a region were quite quick and good at creating the 25% residents discount for stays of 2 days or more, as well as the free insurance for travellers visiting Andalucia, so promoting that out to people has been a challenge. Reaching out to other parts of Spain too, I hadn’t done before.

It was also a challenge to make sure that we published the right amount of detail for our customers, about being a safe hotel and a safe destination to visit. We comply with the details of Andalucia Segura, all the protocols are met, but of course getting this information to people in the right way has been challenging.

Sure, how much information to share, and doing it in a timely manner, has been a challenge for everyone in the industry. Is there anything else you would like to share before we close.

During all this time, we have been working hard on promotions, and also a new website that will be ready within the next few weeks.

I have taken the time to take courses on marketing and to learn as much as possible about how to move forward and what I can improve on.

I also think it is important to keep up with the competition, and I have also focused a lot on partnerships, linking up with other businesses in other villages and towns. I have been doing walks in-between villages and trying to set up new routes at the same time as trying to work proactively with our neighbours where possible. I am trying to share where I can. Some people can do promotions, some can’t. So, it became important to us to try to combine helping someone else in the community. We do the promotions and we both reap the benefits. That has been a really rewarding experience.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview Tanya! It is superb to hear how many new projects you started during Covid, and that you intend to keep them going as we move forward. I look forward to an update on how things are going soon.

Tanya Miller

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