The second winter under Covid-19 in Brazil is approaching, and among the colorful plateaus of Serra da Mantiqueira, in the state of Minas Gerais, some entrepreneurs from one of the main cold destinations in the country talk about the uncertain year that has passed and their expectations for another high season without any real improvement forecast on the national scene.
In this context, the first question that arises is: How are people living on tourism supporting themselves, if the recommendation is to stay at home? To set up this scenario, HC interviewed four entrepreneurs from different fields in the tourist region of Monte Verde and Gonçalves and talked about the months of uncertainty that came and are yet to come, as well as their impressions of what will remain from this and how they reinvented themselves.
Dancing To The Music
Despite what people think about the difficulties faced in tourist regions, it was a surprise to find that this was not the case. The Serra da Mantiqueira region, in the south of Minas, is one of the favorite destinations of the refined Paulistanos, who escape from their beloved capital, São Paulo, to breathe the fresh mountain air just two hours away. That’s why, during confinement in their apartments, the idea of taking off their masks in a secluded place seemed tempting. This is what Viviane Moraes, owner of the Hotel Portal das Videiras, recounts about the movement that was constant in the months between the two waves of Covid-19: “They presented a recovery plan in which we would open on May 20th with 30% capacity. That happened. […] Monte Verde has been having a lot of movement since the reopening. In fact, there is even a lack of manpower these days.”
Viviane also remembers: “Because Monte Verde became known as one of the safest places in Brazil – there was an entrance control and a lot of surveillance -, people felt safe to come. What we noticed is that, whoever came to the city, they were families that were locked up or groups that were each in their house in quarantine and got together. So, these people wanted security.” Viviane says about the months between May and August.
Before all this movement, however, the city was closed during the first months of the pandemic. From March to the end of May, Brazil went through the almost apocalyptic aura of novelty that proved to be greater than anyone anticipated, in which factories and non-essential businesses closed and homeschooling became the new trend of the time. In the nearly three months of isolation, the hotel business did not stop functioning; despite not being able to receive guests, most of these establishments used the downtime to adapt to the new rules of distance and hygiene, like Viviane did at the hotel’s restaurant. The most famous breakfast in Monte Verde, which used to take place in a gathering space full of tables, is now limited by quantity and time: “Our breakfast tables are 10 feet apart and only six tables are allowed per time, so today I have two breakfast times in which I accommodate the 12 rooms (groups of guests) allowed. […] We hired a work surveillance technician to qualify the team and we bought sanitizers, such as hand sanitizer and a temperature gauge.”
Parallel to this, these were not the only technical reforms that some entrepreneurs in the sector took the opportunity to carry out. Despite the halt of initial plans for 2020 and the drop in profits, many took advantage of this period to take some old ideas from the paper. This happened in the case of the businessman Luis Gustavo, who used the time available by isolation to expand his two romantic hotels in Monte Verde.
This was also what Juliana Wohlers did, who, together with her husband, opened A Pioneira Chocolates, the first emporium of its kind in Gonçalves in 2019, a family business that started in Monte Verde and that grew to become increasingly independent in just two years of existence. That’s what Juliana tells about the growth of the emporium and about the plans to change the name of the establishment, disassociating itself completely from the family business, even though the physical change had already taken place: “We had the opportunity to move to a bigger spot in the the middle of last year, but what is sad is that we only had this opportunity because someone had to lose because of the same reason, the pandemic. […] We had the dream of moving to a bigger and better location, we just didn’t expect it to be last year.”
In this unexpected scenario, however, not everything was sweet for A Pioneira Chocolates, and she remembers the main moments of difficulty and the leap of the cat that she was forced to take to not lose everything. “At first we thought about leaving some things – especially the chocolates, which are perishable – in our brother-in-law’s store (in Monte Verde, which was open at that time). But we concluded that it couldn’t be left there because it could open and we couldn’t. At the time it didn’t pay. […] And that was when we decided to put the chocolate pots in the car, take them to Camanducaia (where they lived), publish them on Instagram and broadcast lists, such as whatsapp, so people would know we were selling takeaways. We leave the physical store closed, but we take the products home to sell there.” Despite this, Juliana emphasizes that the turnover of this period was only around 10% of usual, but that they did everything not to fire their employee, who still works with the couple at the new point.
As well as in Gonçalves, it was not only at the chocolate shop that the financial tremor shook the walls. Despite the positive surprises and some achievements, the worst possible scenario for all these entrepreneurs happened: The closure. And that, even with the support of the city halls in the region, the lack of preparation for a situation of this kind during a high season echoed deeply . “Our season is gone, a hotel cannot sustain itself with 40% occupancy. So in the first phase of the pandemic we fired staff members. Later, this year, we also had another stop, but there were no layoffs because it only lasted a month, and we already knew that when we resumed, we would be back well again. Today we have the same picture as before the pandemic. Although we are only at 60% (of capacity), we managed to keep the same number of employees as before. Did we want to grow? We wanted to. But in 2020 there was a drop of about 20% of our sales.” It reveals Luis Gustavo, further illustrating the ambiguity of the situation, between difficulties and the reforms he managed to carry out.
Dealing With People
With the administrative as the setting and the financial as the lighting, a key piece is still missing from this tourist stage: the script. In this sense, the characters and the various ways of acting within a pandemic context stand out, as some say that what really defines a good establishment is the treatment and relationship between customers and employees, an aspect with the power to build loyalty and future referrals, or destroy a reputation.
With a “well-established business”, Leandro Schultz feels that his restaurant has adapted well to the pandemic world, especially regarding the relationship with the clientele. Since 2012 on facebook, Boteco Villa Amarela, a point recognized even by celebrities in Monte Verde, has been gradually building a successful reputation that only facilitated understanding of the measures during the pandemic. Today, its main means of communication with the public is the restaurant’s Instagram page, which has more than 26,000 followers, where, among other things, safety measures for consumption in the place are published. In addition, unlike the chocolate emporium, the restaurant did not adhere to delivery, using a strategy parallel to the city’s situation: “We didn’t work with delivery, in the pandemic we also don’t work because Monte Verde is a tourist city, so there’s no one to deliver to.”
On the other hand, if in gastronomic tourism dealing with people seems easy, in the hotel sector this relationship is a little more complicated. That’s because, despite hotels and inns being environments of tranquility and rest, breathing is still not completely safe anywhere. In contrast, danger is something very easy to be forgotten, leading guests to also relax from the security measures within the collective spaces of the hotels. With this in mind, Viviane Moraes reflects on the main revolution in her experience as a hotelier during the pandemic: “The reinvention was in the way of approaching the guest.”
She remembers some funny moments that life in society didn’t prepare us for: “A guest was at the end of the room, having breakfast, and sneezed… The whole room stopped to look at him, even though we were scared. That guest was so embarrassed that he must have finished his breakfast. Everyone looked at him not knowing how to act. It’s all very new.” She recalls, laughing, and then recounts embarrassing moments in which she had to deal with denial guests: “We also have to approach the guest regarding the mask because there are people who simply don’t wear it.”
Still in this context, Viviane concluded her thoughts by saying something she learned from adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that she is thinking of taking it forward even when this gray cloud passes: “Guests would talk to us and I would stay away. It’s automatic. Later, we realized that if you have the alcohol gel, the mask and the distance, it works. It works very well. That’s why it’s possible for us to work safely.” Thus, the keywords present in all interviews elucidate the mantra of the “new normal”: safety, awareness and responsibility. The three little words that allowed these professionals to continue working with what they do best, even though the “mass mutation of alligators” has not happened yet.
The article above was edited by Laura Enchioglo.
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