Learn from constructive feedback — We are always learning from experience and take feedback seriously, both the good, to enhance an already popular offering, and the bad to evaluate and make improvements. The feedback process loops back into guest experience.

As part of my series about “How To Create A Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back For More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chitra Stern.

Chitra Stern is the CEO and Founder of Martinhal Resorts and Martinhal Residences in Portugal. She is a passionate entrepreneur and real-estate & hotel developer at the forefront of today’s family travel and lifestyle trends.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up in Singapore and went on to do an engineering degree in London, a chartered accountancy qualification with Price Waterhouse where I worked for 6 years and finally an MBA at the London Business School.

During my MBA, I spent many a weekend in County Cork, Ireland with my husband Roman Stern, where I had my first exposure to the hotel world. There was a small boutique hotel being renovated and expanded and Roman was representing his family’s interest in the project. He also got an opportunity to work ona real estate project in Zurich Switzerland, where he is from, and where we earned our first capital.

Around the same time, we did assess various business opportunities. 1998 was the time when Google had just come on the scene. The internet business models were taking off. My first business venture was called Cybermeals, a digital start-up, a cross between Netflix and Uber Eats. However, 1999 was not the year for this business as we were well ahead of our time — smart phones did not exist at the time and logistics management was totally different.

A group of Swiss and German investors showed us some opportunities in Croatia and Portugal. This was in 2000 when Croatia had just come out of a war and Portugal opened our eyes to amazing new opportunities. It had been part of the EU for 14 years at that time and Lisbon had just held the World Expo in 1998. The EU infrastructure funds were just kicking in — capacity at airports was increased, connectivity across the country was improved and Portugal was an undiscovered gem in western Europe, with 900km of beaches. I had just gotten married, and had the ethos of Roman and I being able to do anything. So, we moved to Lagos in Portugal in 2001 and started our first business in the garage. It was not just a gut decision, we had the data. At that time British travelers were coming and the Irish were beginning to. They were mostly coming for the beaches, but the food, wine and culture were totally undiscovered. It was a hearts and minds decision.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

This sounds a bit cheesy but it was really meeting my husband and business partner! We have such complementary characters and approaches and it is amazing that we got to be business partners as well. This is one of the most challenging things for entrepreneurs — to find a business partner and one that has complementary skills for the business. I always advise young entrepreneurs not to stay as “sole founders” as it is a long, tough ride and it is good to do it with a partner. As business success requires different skills to come together in a team, find business partners/ team mates who are not the same as you.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first started out at Price Waterhouse in London, even though I had spent 3 years in university in London, I was still used to my Singaporean formal ways and started calling partners and managers at PW Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so. There were very few Mrs./ or Ms. in higher echelons at that time, by the way. I learnt quite quickly that the work culture in London was very informal and everyone addressed each other by first name! People were staring at me when I referred to them as Mr. Bartlett or Mrs. Henricks. This is quite funny for me, looking back at my 21 year-old self starting out at Southwark Towers, London Bridge! It was my first lesson in local culture in the workplace.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful to many people that helped me in my vision, but first and foremost my husband and Co-Founder of Martinhal, Roman. We are building something together and we have pulled a great team together. Building great teams is one of our mantras. I am also grateful to my early start with female ambition. My family is of Indian heritage and my parents had four girls and two boys. I had the huge fortune that my mother received a university degree in science, and while my father came from a village where girls stopped education by age 13, he was different. My parents were ambitious and believed in education and that was the priority in our family. My father made us dream of being female leaders breaking the glass ceiling, such Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi. The sky was the limit.

Thank you for that. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

When we started with our plans for the first Martinhal Resort in 2002 in the coastal town of Sagres, I wanted to do something with a deeper meaning and positive impact on the local region in this stunning natural setting on Portugal’s Algarve coast. Based on real-life experience, we designed a parent-friendly resort which was not just not a children-friendly resort. Raising four children myself, I realized that many people, us included, could no longer go on the vacations they loved as a young professional couple. This is our differentiator, a parent friendly hotel that still offers an amazing time, but with healthy options for children and their parents. The design is such that parents also want to hang out in these designed spaces as it’s just not a kids club. The success of Martinhal Sagres led us to open three additional hotels and resorts in Quinta do Lago where we have a collection of luxury villas, Martinhal Cascais which comprises hotel rooms and villas, and Martinhal Chiado, a boutique serviced apartment hotel in the heart of Lisbon. We are now taking our unique formula and hospitality background to offer those same families, and new brand followers, the opportunity to make their expat-living dreams in Portugal a reality and to help them make a smooth transition. At Martinhal Residences, we have 160 apartments ranging from studios to 1, 2, 3 and 4 bedroom penthouse apartments and duplexes, ready for completion by summer 2022. The focus is on families and already over 80% of the apartments are sold.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

We are always thinking about families and what they are looking for. We started by offering hassle-free vacations for families, to now offering a hassle-free Golden Visa investment opportunity in an exciting and emerging neighborhood in Lisbon — Park of Nations. As hotel branded residences, it ticks a lot of boxes for foreigners looking for the convenience of having their property managed by a trusted brand and providing access to incredible amenities without worrying about the maintenance. I’m also proud that Martinhal Residences is the newest development in the contemporary Park of Nations neighborhood, which offers the best of riverside living, similar to Battery Park City in New York, Canary Wharf in London or SoMa in San Francisco. We’ve taken inspiration from some of the greenest eco-cities and neighborhoods in the world and have worked with the world-famous Portuguese architect Eduardo Capinha Lopes who has imagined a spectacular ‘green’ and leafy façade that will be a future landmark in Lisbon. With families in mind, the residences have spacious living areas, balconies and have stunning views of the Tagus River and neighboring park. I am excited about the facilities which will be available to residents and hotel guests, including indoor and outdoor heated pools, a gym, outdoor playground, a Martinhal kids’ club and a restaurant. We chose Park of Nations as it’s the new, exciting hub to watch in Lisbon, especially for residential living given it’s close to Lisbon’s airport and benefits from having extensive walking paths along the river, access to parks and open spaces, vast pedestrianized areas, top restaurants, museums and more. Park of Nations is undoubtedly the most multi-generational family-friendly district in central Lisbon.

What’s more, it was important to us to think of the bigger picture about what families need when they relocate and that is, having access to excellent education. A dream of mine for a long time was to build an international school and world-class campus and so we have done exactly this. International education is now available at the nearby United Lisbon International School that we founded and it offers Kindergarten to Grade 12 and follows the American international curriculum. Launching a school at the height of the pandemic (September 2020) was stressful and a challenge, especially as we quickly had to reimagine virtual programming. But today I’m encouraged that the school has over 300 students enrolled from 35 nationalities and our two younger kids are also enrolled there. We’ll be introducing the International Baccalaureate for students starting September 2022.

As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?

Following a crisis, family travel has always experienced a boost in demand as people seek to reconnect and prioritize spending quality time with their loved ones. Health and safety will continue to be paramount and travel and hospitality companies will be wise to keep stringent hygiene practices in place in order to restore confidence as travel slowly resumes. It’s also evident that having ample space and privacy will continue being in demand in the coming years, therefore companies may look to invest in more diversified accommodation options beyond a hotel room or suite. Our resorts have benefited in offering a range of hotel rooms and spacious villas with their own amenities such as gardens, swimming pools, full kitchens etc, yet benefiting from the access to our luxury resort services. This allowed us to use our spaces differently during the pandemic and cater to long term stays effectively. Flexibility is key. We know that anything can happen globally which can impact our travels last minute, therefore companies that can adjust quickly to meet customer demand and offer flexible rates and booking policies, are poised to succeed. As our guests return, we expect that on-demand touchless services will continue to be expected for ease, but we also want to reconnect with them in-person and make travel personal again! The key thing is to adapt to what they are looking for; in our case, they want outdoor activities, the flexibility of having in-room/in-villa dining services, and they are looking closely at health and safety protocols. As an example, at our Kids Clubs in our Algarve resort, Martinhal Sagres, we’ve focused our programming outdoors, offering everything from stargazing, surfing lessons, kayaking excursions and cycling tours along to Cape St. Vincent, among many other activities, while keeping our groups small. With regard to health and safety, we abide by all the guidelines of the Portuguese Tourism Board’s stringent requirements through the “Clean & Safe” stamp and take every step to ensure our guests’ health and safety. That has been our priority since before the pandemic, but now and in the coming years even more so.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

The perfect vacation is really one where I can spend quality time with my family, seeing and experiencing new cultures and environments and one where I can totally relax as the program is organized upfront! I love traveling to cities, walking a lot, learning and eating good food! I love taking our parents and other members of our families — I love big groups!

Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We’d love to hear about it.

Wellness means something different to everyone. To some it’ll be about getting a dose of pampering with the holistic Ayurveda treatments at our resort spas, while to others it’s about the simplicity of bonding with their family outdoors, taking in clean air and calming views. Perhaps it’s both. What I do know is that after many months of virtual learning, working from home and multiple lockdowns, it is arguably more important than ever to seek out travel experiences that allow families to reconnect with nature, with each other and to engage in activities that encourage screen-free play. In Portugal, and with Martinhal, it is easy for families to stay busy outdoors, enjoying everything from surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, hiking, biking, trekking, tennis, horse-riding, padel tennis — the list goes on! A bit of “me-time” is also essential — massage is one of my favorite relaxation hits and we have this service in all our resorts. We are beginning to look deeper into working with professionals in nutrition, burn out to help our guest families onsite to nip problems in the bud before they become bigger problems.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Know your customer and connect to new audiences — I saw a gap in the market over 20 years ago and knew what our guests were looking for in a family vacation. Offering family-centric resorts, with beautifully designed hotel rooms and villas in the best locations across Portugal, is what has made Martinhal successful and earned us brand loyalty and repeat business. In terms of new audiences, it’s also important to expand your market reach and not become reliant on a single market or guest demographic. Companies need to ensure their customers are well represented and have a sense of immediate belonging. In our case, it’s ensuring we’re connecting with families from all over the world and representative of all family models, including LGBTQ parents, single parents and multi-generational group travel.
  2. Enhance the guest experience — Whether it’s through offering new immersive programming for kids or a range of new treatments at our spas, or meeting the new demands for touchless services, it’s essential to stay on the pulse of trends and customer demands and regularly enhance guest experiences. This year, we’re excited to expand on our outdoor offerings at Sagres, with an extended kid’s playground, a boules court, a mini golf course and a new fitness trail. Our guests already come to us for outdoor activities and want to spend more time outdoors so we want to ensure we continue to make new additions to our leisure facilities. Additionally, we stay very close to our local community and work with local artists and chefs, who take on residency programs at our resorts. Through these programs, we offer masterclasses and special dining experiences so our guests love that they get to experience Portugal in a personal and real way.
  3. Strive to deliver excellent service — How hotels and hospitality companies’ staff communicate with their guests is crucial, and this expectation is even higher post-pandemic. Guests will remember the people they met along the way on their vacation, from the appreciation they receive upon arrival to the attention to detail paid to their needs throughout their stay. Besides the personal connection, we’re also encouraging guests to communicate their everyday needs via our family & baby concierge services — available 24/7 via our What’sApp channel.
  4. Instill passion in your team — This is the key to success, it helped us think outside the box, we recognised we needed people with skills and to love our brand concept as much as we do. Ultimately our team of great people are our brand ambassadors. One example I’m proud of is that our childminders at each resort are not third-party caregivers or outsourced staff. Each childminder is hired by Martinal and has received specific training and certifications. This allows us to have full oversight in the process and really get to know the people who take care of our youngest guests.
  5. Learn from constructive feedback — We are always learning from experience and take feedback seriously, both the good, to enhance an already popular offering, and the bad to evaluate and make improvements. The feedback process loops back into guest experience.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Four years ago, I was approached to join a Special Task Force on foreign direct investment reporting into the Portuguese Prime Minister’s Office, and we worked alongside the Ministry for Economy and Tourism, government departments and Portugal Global to help develop foreign direct investment. I was the only foreigner on this team and it is clear that I was being asked because I lived here, invested here and I wear Portugal on my sleeve. One of the weaknesses I identified is that there were no international schools in central Lisbon. I discussed it with Lisbon City officials as we believe in education as one of the key drivers for change. Mayor Medina said ‘absolutely‘. There was an industrial building lying empty, we saw a real estate opportunity and I began to scope out connections in the education sector. We sourced finance and engaged with the International School Services in Princeton, New Jersey, which evolved into the perfect partnership. We opened in September 2020 and while it was tough given the pandemic, we opened with 150 students when our target was 160. Today, United Lisbon International School has over 300 students enrolled from 35 nationalities. We are fostering an environment of multiculturalism, offering education that matters tomorrow; integrating smart technology into the learning environment with state-of-the-art Science Laboratories, Art Rooms, a technology Maker Space, a modern library and 70,000 sq ft of outdoor play and sporting grounds. We will be growing in a few years to 1,000 plus kids. We teach children that “Being United” as a world is a key to solving global problems.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Education of children is one of the solutions to help resolve various global issues. If everyone who can afford to in the developed world could donate a dollar a month towards the education of children in the underdeveloped world, “What a wonderful world it would be!” Let’s call it The Dollar a Month movement!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

On Instagram follow me @chitrastern and my enterprises @martinhal @martinhalresidences and @unitedlisbonschool. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn here: www.linkedin.com/in/chitrastern/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!


  • Savio P. Clemente

    TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor

    Savio P. Clemente, TEDx speaker and Stage 3 cancer survivor, infuses transformative insights into every article. His journey battling cancer fuels a mission to empower survivors and industry leaders towards living a truly healthy, wealthy, and wise lifestyle. As a Board-Certified Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC, ACC), Savio guides readers to embrace self-discovery and rewrite narratives by loving their inner stranger, as outlined in his acclaimed TEDx talk: "7 Minutes to Wellness: How to Love Your Inner Stranger." Through his best-selling book and impactful work as a media journalist — covering inspirational stories of resilience and exploring wellness trends — Savio has collaborated with notable celebrities and TV personalities, bringing his insights to diverse audiences and touching countless lives. His philosophy, "to know thyself is to heal thyself," resonates in every piece.