Big interview

growth both domestically and abroad, Escarrer and Meliá – like so many other hotel groups – have had to weather something incomparable. With Covid-19 halting international travel and successive lockdowns plaguing Europe and parts of the US, in the first nine months of 2020 company revenue fell 69% compared to the same period in 2019. In the third quarter last year the group was losing around €34m a month. At the time of writing in mid-March, roughly half of its hotels are still closed. “It’s been challenging to handle the crisis from a short-term management perspective, in order to minimise the impact of the pandemic on our people and our values,” Escarrer says. Given the fact that almost two-thirds of Meliá’s business is outside of Spain, Escarrer has been steadfastly monitoring outbreaks in myriad countries since the pandemic began, communicating with stakeholders and hotel managers to cope with travel restrictions and national lockdowns. All the while he has been firmly keeping an eye on developments in Spain, where 140 of his hotels are located.

After a tumultuous year, it would be

understandable for Escarrer to be downcast. Quite the contrary. In fact, the development and distribution of vaccines in his native land has been welcome news and he is “very confident” that Spain will experience some form of recovery this summer. “We still need to remain cautious since the virus

will be with us for a long time and there is still a great deal of uncertainty,” he says. “[But] I’m confident that the worst is over, and that, along with the vaccination process, we have learnt what we need to do to guarantee safe travel moving forward.” Meliá’s international remit is altogether more

complicated. It remains something of a blessing and a curse, the CEO says. The downturn in the US and Canada has been damaging, but it can offer a distinct advantage once citizens resume travel to hotels in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, with Chinese hospitality recovering at a remarkable pace, an influx of Chinese tourism in (and from) south-east Asia is a tantalising prospect. “The impact, and the reaction and management of the pandemic, has varied from one country and continent to another,” Escarrer says. “Certainly, the impact to our business has been less severe in countries such as China, where our hotels recovered similar levels of occupancy and RevPAR to those seen in 2019 in a relatively short space of time. On the other hand, Europe as a whole has been strongly affected, as our reaction was not as quick nor as tightly coordinated as it could be in China.”

Hotel Management International / Escarrer is no stranger to a crisis. He took over as

sole CEO of Meliá in 2009, just as the repercussions of the financial crash were being felt around the world. It was a time for calm, agile leadership, and the kind of worldly prescience that seems to run in the family.

Family business It was Escarrer’s father, Gabriel Escarrer Juliá, who leased the initial Meliá property in 1956, aged just 21. The Altair Hotel in Palma de Majorca was the first of several local hotels that benefitted from the island’s developing reputation as an idyllic tourist destination. In the 1980s Juliá expanded his portfolio, Hoteles Mallorquines, across the Spanish mainland, transforming it into the largest hotel chain in the country through a series of bold hotel acquisitions. During that time a young Escarrer had plenty of

time to learn from his old man. At 14 he worked as a receptionist in one of Meliá’s properties and saw first-hand how his father dealt with his employees. Working from the ground up, he says, was formative experience. From then on, he has done his utmost to live up to his father’s abiding mantra: “Put the customer first.” “My father has been my best teacher and I have always profoundly admired and followed him,” Escarrer says. “Even more so now that I am able to understand the enormity of his work, creating our company.

“He used to lead by example, and I must say that I truly enjoyed witnessing first-hand how he dealt with his employees, often on first-name terms, assessing their work and sharing his advice. He conducted himself in a kind but firm manner that earned him enormous respect. He was definitely a visionary and was right about many things.” The company has since expanded far beyond the Balearic isles. Currently it owns and manages 370 hotels in 40 different countries. The group remains firmly committed to

international expansion, particularly in southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, and Montenegro and Croatia in the Balkans. South-east Asia, particularly Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are also targets. In total, 54 hotels are currently in the development pipeline, including the new Paradisus Playa Mujeres in Mexico, the Gran Meliá Chengdu in China and the ME Doha in the Middle East. Has it been hard, then, to maintain Meliá’s traditional values during periods of international expansion and modernisation? The question elicits something of a verbal slap on the wrist. “Just the opposite,” Escarrer says. “One of our long-term values is innovation and, thanks to that, in the 65 years of our history we have always been able to reinvent

Opposite: Gabriel Escarrer Jaume’s calm, composed leadership is helping guide Meliá through the recovery period.

370 Meliá Hotels International 13

Hotels owned and managed by Meliá across 40 different countries.

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