Jemma Markham is the owner of La Torre del Visco, a 17-bedroom Relais & Châteaux hotel in Spain's Matarranya region. She tells Janet Harmer why not having a hospitality background has been an advantage
Describe the style and setting of La Torre del Visco. We offer relaxed, unpretentious luxury and concentrate on the things that matter to us in life: the countryside, comfort, good food and wine, and warm, friendly service. The hotel is located in a hidden river valley reached via 5km of mountain track, away from the worries, noise and stress of daily life. We offer the Spain tourists never see.
Why did you decide to open a hotel in Spain after many years' experience working in the world of corporate publishing? As great travellers throughout Spain, we realised that the British or French concept of charming, comfortable hotels in the countryside offering good cuisine simply didn't exist 20 years ago. We set out to create the sort of place we would have
liked to have found ourselves.
How difficult was it as a British person to establish a hotel in Spain without prior hospitality experience? It wasn't difficult at all. What is relevant is having a very clear idea and criteria for the project. Although I had no direct hospitality training, there is no better grounding, I believe, than coming from "the other side of the fence".
The management skills acquired from years in the publishing sector were perfectly applicable to hospitality: patience, planning, logistics, attention to detail, design skills, marketing knowledge and, above all, experience of dealing with people.
Coming from a different background also confers the advantage of a fresh approach. Rather than being conditioned by the conventional view imparted at hotel schools, we offer an experience which has less emphasis on etiquette and ritual.
What are the challenges of working in a remote location? With no deliveries to the door, planning is essential. However, sourcing from the surrounding medieval villages is great fun. Empty roads are a pleasure to drive on and there are few normal constraints in terms of opening hours - you can always find the owners "above the shop".
The Matarranya produces excellent lamb, kid, rabbit, wild boar and pork, including the famous Teruel cured ham. Our own 100% organic home farm produces most of the fruit, vegetables, wild mushrooms and truffles for the restaurant as well as our own high-quality olive oil from 2,000 olive trees.
How is the current economy in Spain impacting business? The incomes of the core La Torre del Visco customer base have not been greatly affected. But it has made everyone more demanding in terms of the price/quality relationship, so we need to keep up with investment and improvements.
One of the most noticeable effects is it is now easier to recruit staff in the area. Many have moved away from the cities in favour of the rural world, where the quality of life is perceived as greater on a restricted income.
Where do most of your guests come from and how do you promote the hotel? Our Spanish customer base has been consolidated over the 18 years we have been open and is largely through word
of mouth, but our membership of Relais & ChÁ¢teaux (R&C) is essential in terms of global marketing. Being a member of R&C also helps to recruit staff in terms of the prestige, pride and training provided by membership of the association.
Do you ever employ British staff? Yes, along with many other, mostly European nationalities. They must have an initial functional ability in Spanish and be committed to improving their level rapidly, and integrate with the local community for the duration of their stay with us.
What do you need as a British national to open a small rural hotel abroad?
Patience and perseverance to deal with the local bureaucracy; language skills, and a desire to integrate and learn about cultures and traditions; not to indulge in utopian bucolic dreams. It isn't all sitting on the terrace chatting to guests, watching a beautiful sunset or the sun coming up at dawn. There is a lot of hard graft and many long hours; and something clearly different from the numerous small rural hotels and B&Bs run by expatriates that already exist.
CV - Jemma Markham
After completing a history degree at King's College London and working for a year with the British Council, Markham travelled to Madrid in 1973 for six months to learn Spanish.
She has remained in the country for 40 years, during which time she worked in publishing and as the co-owner of Turner bookshops.In 1993 she turned her back on the corporate world and bought La Torre del Visco with the intention of creating a small, charming hotel and restaurant in a remote setting.