2013 has been a challenging year for many in Spain but one sector that has really bucked the downturn is tourism. Overall visitor numbers are up significantly and here at TotallySpain.com we have seen our numbers increase too. As we approach 2014, Ken Baldwin & Belen Encinas, the founders of Totally Spain, talk us through the past 12 months.
You founded this company 13 years ago. What has changed and how is Totally Spain in 2013?
We started Totally Spain in the Basque Country in early 2000. We began as a small niche travel specialist offering custom travel to the Basque Country & Northern Spain and while we’ve grown over the years, Totally Spain is still very much a niche travel specialist except that now we customise travel throughout the whole of Spain and Portugal. We, along with our staff, have travelled the length and breadth of Spain and Portugal over the years and we continue to do so. We feel that we have our finger on the pulse and by regularly attending the major and small regional travel trade fairs within Spain and Portugal, we keep very up-to-date.
In the past if you wanted to tour a country and you wanted everything included you had to take a group tour and of course that committed you to a fixed itinerary and timetable as well as hotels that you might not otherwise have booked. Also, it meant having to travel with strangers. Nowadays many people want to travel independently, stay in the hotels of their choosing and have a multitude of services and special highlights included just for them. It takes a lot of time to arrange. It’s not just about booking hotels and car hire anymore. It’s much more complex than that. And that’s exactly what Totally Spain does.
2013 was a very good year for Totally Spain. Possibly our best to date. The profile of our clients has changed with more and more seeking to include a whole new variety of experiences in Spain & Portugal. Our custom trips are now much more complex and the range of services we offer has expanded greatly. For example we’re currently finding a huge interest in Gastronomy tours and also in Genealogy tours. We organise lots of trips for clients tracing their Spanish and Jewish heritage.
What would you highlight about the last 12 months? And what would you like to forget?
Well it was great to see so many visitors coming to Spain this year. Record numbers have been achieved, up 4.5% based on the latest data, though the troubles in Egypt and Turkey will have been partly responsible. For us at Totally Spain, the highlight has been the number of clients who’ve really wanted to get out and see the real Spain. People are getting more adventurous and more interested in all aspects of this very big country. It’s great to see people exploring Northern Spain and other gems like the region of Extremadura which have so much to offer. Also the Alentejo in Portugal and Central and Northern Portugal too.
Like many people in Europe we suspect, we would like to forget Spring 2013. It really was so wet and cold. Most unusual. Still, many clients braved the elements and enjoyed their time here but I would hope Spring 2014 is much more settled…
How has the business evolved in the past year? Any new ventures? New routes?
Well, we’re always keen to spread the word about Spain and Portugal and this year we’ve made a big effort to be more active on social media for example on this blog and on Facebook and Twitter. We’re not doing it just for the sake of it. We’ve really tried to produce quality articles for the blog with content that would be useful to anyone thinking about travelling in Spain & Portugal.
This year we have seen our business grow significantly in Portugal. Many clients from the US & Canada are now combining travel in Spain with travel in Portugal. We’re very keen to encourage this as Portugal is a fabulous country. We will be adding a lot more Portugal product to our program especially the lesser know areas such as the stunning Alentejo, Central Portugal and beautiful Northern Portugal and the Douro. We also have more clients nipping over to Morocco while holidaying in Andalusia, so we’re keen to do more there. In fact, we’ll be spending Christmas and New Year travelling there so watch this space.
Cantabria is our home base and this year has been an interesting one. Lots more people are discovering the delights of this region and Northern Spain. There is an incredible emerging gastronomic scene starting to take hold here which food lovers should keep an eye on and we are keen to promote. We’re also very excited that the Sailing World Championships are taking place in Santander next September. Bound to be wonderful.
Any special trips organised in 2013?
There have been lots of special trips this year. We’ve handled quite a number of large families who’ve come to Spain to trace their roots and some of those trips were quite emotional for them. Plenty of honeymoons too that were extra special. We also received some very touching feedback from several groups from the United States who felt we made their trip truly unforgettable.
Most complicated trip or itinerary this year?
Trips of a lengthy duration can be complicated as they usually contain a lot of different services. Also it’s not just the planning and organising of the trip. We also provide our clients with detailed, personalised documentation that we mail to them and that takes a lot of time to put together too.
Gastronomic trips can be very complicated. Small gastronomic group tours visiting lots of wineries where all of the meals are included can be challenging. It’s so important to have variety in the restaurants and the menus. Choosing every lunch menu and every dinner menu and making sure that the group is not repeating dishes takes a lot of time. Also catering to special dietary needs within that group – vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, celiacs and kosher – it all takes a lot of planning. Still, we’re used to this and it’s part of what makes our service at Totally Spain unique.
Most unusual request from a client
We did have some clients for whom we planned a seaglass collecting trip this year. That was a first. We also recall us having to track down a famous belly dancer with a studio in Madrid for a client who wanted to do some classes. And we were successful. We’ve organised several weddings in the past. One of the most unusual was in the grounds of the Eduardo Chillida Museum (now sadly closed) in the Basque Country. It was very challenging to get the museum to consent and to meet their conditions but we did it in the end. We have some clients booked for next year who have a passion for Gaudi and especially the Casa Mila (La Pedrera) in Barcelona. The specialist guide we have arranged for them is married to a descendent of the Mila Family who commissioned Casa Mila and has expert knowledge about the house like no other guide. I guess you could say that we welcome unusual requests and we’re pretty good at satisfying them. Again it’s what makes Totally Spain unique.
Most satisfying moments?
There were many this year. Every custom trip that goes smoothly for a client is always satisfying for us. We really do take it to heart if a client isn’t entirely satisfied. However, at the risk of sounding corny, we do thankfully please most-of-the-people-most-of-the-time. Positive feedback from clients is always heart warming. Past clients returning to book with us or referring their friends and family, of which we have many, is immensely gratifying.
We´re really satisfied too with the variety of new contacts we’ve made this year in Spain & Portugal. Great people doing great things in their area for tourism. For example, we’re now working with two terrific girls in Lisbon who offer outstanding gastronomic tours in the city and superb cooking classes at a villa in Sintra. There is also a young hardworking duo, two brothers and keen surfers, who are producing top notch white wines at their boutique winery in Cantabria which they’ve now opened up to visitors. And an amazing German lady who does off-the-beaten track donkey trekking for families in the Alentejo. And there are many, many more.
Happiest moment of the year? And saddest?
The happiest moment would have to be the birth of Ana’s baby girl in October. Ana has worked for Totally Spain for over 7 years and we’re thrilled to see her family growing. Though we do miss her in the office.
The saddest moment was the horrific loss of life and destruction caused by the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. It was truly shocking. In that regard we would like to mention two remarkable organisations that deserve support if anyone reading this feels so inclined. They are Doctors without Borders and Shelterbox.
Best cultural moment?
Musically speaking we love the jazz festivals that take place in the Basque Country every July. Seeing Stacey Kent perform in Getxo at the Bilbao Jazz Festival was wonderful. Also while touring in Oporto in Northern Portugal this year we really enjoyed listening to fado played live again. It can tug at your heartstrings especially after sipping a few glasses of delicious port. And we would have to say that seeing the castellers or ‘human towers’ in training in Barcelona, and being invited to form part of the base or ‘piña’ (that’s means pineapple), was a real unique experience. The truth is that Spain and Portugal are vibrant countries. Culturally, there is never a dull moment.
Best meal eaten in 2013?
Wow – this is a tough one and the truth is it’s too hard to choose. We do love eating out and trying different restaurants, and thankfully in Spain & Portugal, it’s still a very affordable luxury. But two off-the-beaten-path meals/restaurants do come to mind so we´ll share them. The first was at the Restaurant Els Caçadors in Ribes de Freser in the Empordá (Girona province). That’s where the Rack Railway that goes up the magnificent Nuria Valley departs. We still have the menu so we can tell you that Ken had the boletus cannelloni, baked duck and mushrooms and for dessert, a balsamic vinegar ice cream all accompanied by a 3 Fincas Crianza wine from Castell de Perelada. He were in good company and it was just one of those great meals. The second was in the delightful town of Ponte da Lima in Portugal at the Mercado Restaurant close to the Roman bridge. Not to everyone’s taste but here we enjoyed easily the best barbequed octopus of our lives served with heaps of fresh vegetables, garlicky olive oil and a Portuguese Vinho Verde. We’d gladly repeat both and happily recommend them to anyone.
And finally, your hopes for 2014?
Firstly we hope that we all get through it safe, sound and healthy. We hope that the outlook in Spain and Portugal will improve especially for young people. Tourism generates a lot of employment in Spain and Portugal – long may it do so! We hope that at Totally Spain we continue to work to the best of our ability. We really do try to keep all of our clients satisfied. And we’re also very proud of the work we do with so many individuals and small businesses involved in tourism throughout Spain and Portugal. Their enthusiasm gives us the confidence and the inspiration to put together exciting new packages.