Back in 2011 I worked with branding agency Winkreative who had been approached by property developer José Antonio Uva. Winkreative were tasked with helping communicate his vision for the transformation of an estate in Portugal’s Alentejo region. The estate, São Lourenço do Barrocal had been in his family for over a century and was to become a destination for modern country living. This journey was just beginning —the estate was standing in ruin—but it would culminate in the opening of the hotel at the start of 2016 five years later.
The back story
Bought from the King in 1820 the estate was a self-sustaining home to a small rural farming community, but it now stood derelict. It is set in a vast and beautiful landscape near the fortified hilltop town of Monsaraz and alongside the Alqueva dam. The grounds are peppered with rounded rocky outcrops barrocais, olive trees, wild flowers, vineyards and long-horned cattle. The region has seen settlers since neolithic times, a number of stone monoliths stand within the grounds. It’s fair to say this place has history and a story to tell, one of family, culture, community and harmony with the landscape. It’s past, in a way became the brief for its vision for the future.
At the heart of the estate the ‘Monte’ the old village centre would be transformed into a hotel and some of the surrounding estate would be carefully divided into plots of land for private residences. Future owners of the plots would need to agree to a carefully considered vision for a harmonious community inspired by a visit to the Sea Ranch in California. There would be no picket fences, no enormous white villas, the land would remain open. Buildings would be hidden amongst the trees and stone outcrops each property would be carefully positioned to have an uninterrupted view. Architecture would follow a guiding scheme developed by Pritzker prize winner Eduardo Souto de Moura.
To create the hotel the existing ruined buildings were painstakingly restored, original terracotta roof tiles sourced from all over the country. Vaulted arched ceilings and walls were repaired by a team of Portuguese craftsmen who lived on site for the duration of the build. Converted interiors would be transformed, oil pressing rooms into event spaces, a disused bakery into a winery, store rooms became spa and bar.
What was previously the village street would become a row of hotel rooms and family cottages. These all opening out onto the same central cobbled road. The interior design would incorporate a blend of carefully curated Portuguese antique furniture, local ceramics and textiles. Contemporary lighting design and hand crafted beds and desks came from selected collaborators. The best of the old and the best of the new. The intention was not to be boutique and fashionable but to be authentic, honest, homely, welcoming and unique whilst still being luxurious. The best it could possibly be whilst remaining true to it’s surroundings.
Beyond the main street area a new building would be constructed for the restaurant. The seasonal produce for the menu would come from an ambitious walled vegetable garden surrounded by olive and lemon groves. The swimming pool and stables sit between the hotel and the garden. As well as relaxation, activities and learning would be an important part of the hotel experience. Feeding mind, body and soul, ‘Do-lecture’ style events are planned along with workshops, retreats and festivals.
Like José’s fond childhood memories of visiting the estate, São Lourenço do Barrocal would become a place for families and friends, somewhere they would want to return to.
Website phase one
The purpose of the first version of the website was to introduce the estate and set out the plans for the future. A new identity was created by Winkreative alongside a beautifully illustrated book about the estate for potential investors. A series of films were made by Graham Clayton-Chance to tell the story and capture the spirit of the region, showcasing the crafts, landscape and the people. There were also interviews with local producers and architects John Pawson, Eduardo Souto de Moura and landscape architect João Gomes da Silva. This initial exercise was used to help secure funding from the European commission and ultimately got the project underway.
Five years later
José approached us to help build the next generation website in preparation for the opening of the hotel. A full hotel website that could now take bookings. The main challenge was that it was April and the extensive construction works wouldn’t be finished and ready to photograph until December. So we worked closely with José to build a site structure that reflected what the hotel would become. With only one example room constructed it required a degree of imagination to picture it. We carried out card sorting exercises to define and work out how to organise the content. We pretty much sketched out every page of the site in order to understand what was important and what could be left out.
Tech behind the scenes
The booking engine and PMS (property management system) would be a large focus of our research. A booking engine is required to take the transaction and communicate between the website and the PMS—where the bookings and customer profiles are stored and the day-to-day activities of running a hotel are managed.
We used one of our other clients InsightBee to carry out research on the booking engine and PMS market. The report we received surfaced all the key players and helped us refine our search for the right partner. What we found was that the PMS and booking engine don’t necessarily need to be from the same provider. There are some very large established systems out there that have been around for a long time and are embedded in many hotels operations. Many of them are showing their age, bloated with features, overly technical and built on old frameworks. There are surprisingly few new players out there and the off-the-shelf booking systems we shortlisted still allowed for little or no customisation. They often look dated and somewhat detached from the experience of the main website. Few were responsive and often loaded a separate mobile experience which looked nothing like the main website.
It was important to us that there would be a seamless and responsive flow from the room pages right through to the completion of the booking. After long calls with a number of suppliers we found Portuguese company Guest Centric were able to supply us with an API allowing us to design and build the booking process as we saw fit. We chose to build the site on Zend Framework allowing us to build a multi-language custom CMS and easily integrate with the booking system API.
We also designed and integrated a Shopify e-commerce shop to be integrated within the main site so they could sell all the products that had been carefully sourced and used throughout the hotel.
With our structure and technology defined we created a visual design system that gave us variety and flexibility in our layouts. For a site with many pages it’s important that not every page feels the same but that there are some underlying rules to tie everything together. A modular approach to each page allowed us to do this. We had to complete the build of the website whilst the hotel was still under construction, so it was ready to go live as soon as the first rooms were ready in time for the Experiences show in December. Over 50% of the site contained placeholder images and content that represented our best guess as to how it would be in the end. The imagery we used helped to define the art direction of the shots and act as a brief for the photographer.
Open for business
Since the site’s launch in December 2015 the hotel is now fully open and the site has steadily blossomed in pace with the change on the estate. It’s great to see it flourishing as new video, images and sections are added.
The site will continue to evolve over time but right now it needs time to settle and get in harmony with the pace of life in the Alentejo. We hope the experience reflects the reality, as a place where life is calm, beautiful and thoughtful.
“Every Interaction has a very good combination of state-of-the art web design and a narrative, journalistic approach. They know how to tell content-driven stories and how to put it into a technologically-advanced website concept.”
– José A Uva, Owner, São Lourenço do Barrocal
“Every Interaction has been the most valuable partner regarding our website’s UX & Design, delivering us smart and thoughtful solutions for all the everyday challenges that come up in the demanding luxury hospitality industry. They are trustworthy partners and part of our team – we hope to keep working with them in future projects.”
– Susana Lourenço, Marketing Director
View the case study | Read more about São Lourenço do Barrocal