Two Spanish Strategies: Gran Melia Fenix & El Bulli!

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PART I – Gran Melia Fenix

The two Spanish phoenixes I’m going to write about in this two-part article is the result of a great coincidence. The first one is Gran Melia Fenix and the second one is the El Bulli Restaurant, both of which happen to be in Spain.

It all started when my wife and I decided to steal out of our hustle-bustle life to have a quiet time for ourselves, just the two of us, and decided on Madrid, Spain as our destination.

Two factors made our trip in Spain very enjoyable: the first relates to my love Tapas, and the other was getting a reservation at Gran Melia Fenix where we experienced the cliché ‘home away from away’.

And Gran Melia Fenix is the first Phoenix

(‘Gran’ in Spanish means “great”; ‘Melia’ is “a nymph, a minor goddess of spring and stream, in Greek myth & a popular Spanish female name”; and ‘Fenix’ is “Phoenix, a long-lived mythical bird that dies by fire and comes back to life once again from its own ashes & in the modern usage, a thing of unsurpassed excellence and beauty”. In case of our hotel, we choose the modern day usage, as this hotel is excellent and beautiful.)

Hotel Gran Melia Fenix Grand Dome

So we had a wonderful stay at this great goddess of spring hotel which was excellent and beautiful — the namesake phoenix. My lovely wife strongly believes that the success of a trip inland or abroad depends on the hotel we stay at and the restaurants we have our dinners at, more important than the beauty and antiquity of the tourist spots that we actually make those trips for. So she is always very choosy about the hotels we stay at and it’s very hard to impress her, believe me. And when she chose Gran Melia Fenix, it was quite obvious that it was one of top three best hotels, though not the best of the best, in Madrid.

Since its opening in 1953, Gran Melia Fenix has been visited by such most prestigious guests as The Beatles, Bill Clinton, Queen Noor of Jordan, David Beckham and Cary Grand. So, the less prestigious guests like me and my wife and the likes of us are certainly made to feel more important sleeping in the same rooms, walking in the same corridors and eating at the same tables as the more prestigious ones! (Just kidding? You bet!) Besides, it has been an elite member of the most prestigious The Leading Hotels of the World, with about 430 member hotels worldwide, an organisation that accepts only the best of the best hotels in the world as its members.

Brand Strategy Notes:

Gran Melia can use the “heritage strategy” in both it’s marketing and as part of the hotel experience for it’s guests. Of course, it can afford to do so because it does have a great heritage and a ton of noteworthy names that had resided in it from time to time. However I must admit I feel like there is a missed opportunity here. Although there is a video on it’s website (see above), tucked away under the media page and a wall with the plaques of famous names to have checked into it, again hidden away in the lobby, Gran Melia does not really capitalize on it’s heritage.

I would suggest really focusing on the heritage strategy. Creating a focused message based on the glitz and glamour of it’s past residents, it can create a compelling reason for people to come from near and far seeking that “glamour” experience and in the process it can command premium prices. Instead, Gran Melia is competing with other hotels on prices, it’s terrace bar and other mundane attributes!

After a bit of relaxation and washing off of the exhaustion of the jet-lag after checking in, we changed into our casuals and had a quick tour of the hotel. It was impressive with its huge domes and well-kept hallways. The stairways and lobbies were very wide, clean and shiny.

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The lounges were impressive, too. We had a bit of a trouble to have more pictures taken because we were without our two daughters who are self-proclaimed adept ‘photographers’! Anyway, I tried to have as many selfies as possible, mostly outdoors.

We were told that the signature restaurant Epoque served the excellent Mediterranean cuisine, under the supervision of Chef Miguel Martin and Chef Blas Perez Edo, the recepient of the Best Chef in 2004 by Madrid Chefs’ Association. The Dry Cosmopolitan Bar, by Javier de las Muelas, we were told, has become a leader in cocktail mixing in Madrid. A fan of Fenix has gone even further to name this bar the “Vatican” of the cocktail mixing in Madrid. Could be an over statement, but then as we did not try anything there, it would be wise not to make any comment on it. There are also the The Terrace of the Dry Cosmopolitan Bar by Javier de las Muelas, the Lobby Bar and the International Buffet, and of course, the lounges where you are treated with snacks and drinks.

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In Madrid we were outdoors more of the time and so we ate wherever we saw a restaurant that looked decent and had a drink whenever we felt thirsty. The city of Madrid had a lot to offer and the location of the hotel made it even more convenient for us to trot out the moment we felt a bit of relaxation in our well-kept room. We, however, decided not to visit the bullfight rings as a token of our sympathy to the animals and our support to RSPCA & ASPCA. We are non-vegetarian and eat meats of all kinds; however, we believe, slaughtering an animal for food, a natural process, is entirely different from killing the same animal for sport and pleasure. (I didn’t mean to offend anybody who think differently in regard to this sensitive issue.)

It was our second outing, just the two of us, and so the number ‘two’ has more significance in this article — only the two of us, having two beautiful daughters; visiting two world class hospitality centres in the same country, and writing it in two parts!

By now you must be wondering where the second phoenix, El Bulli, fits in this, except the simple fact that it’s in Spain.

I’m coming to that right away.

When we first announced our decision to take a trip to Spain, just the two of us, the entire family was excited, and as I mentioned earlier, my two daughters were very cooperative. My dad, equally excited, suggested that we should have dinner at the world class ‘El Bulli‘ at least once when we were in Spain. He urged us to make an online request for a table reservation immediately because, according to him, getting a table was like getting a free ride on a space craft to the Moon. He said he had heard so much about this gastronomic restaurant from our friendly neighbors from Spain when we lived in Addis Abeba, the “New Flower” of ancient Abyssinia (the capital city of modern Ethiopia).

To come back to the issue at hand, I was taken aback a bit, for my dad didn’t know about the closure of that legendary restaurant some three years ago. And when I broke the ‘distressing’ news to him, he was silent for a while and then started asking questions beginning with all the ‘wh’ words. I patiently told him that El Bulli had run into losses and had to be closed, as a restaurant. The next set of questions was even sharper and more challenging because it was directly related to my profession: logo designing, branding, brand building, marketing, etc.

I had had a feeling all along at the back of mind that my dad did not approve of my making Branding and logo the most important aspects for any business to succeed though he had never contradicted me openly. Now it was proven that he did disapprove that business strategy, and now that he had got an opportunity to blurt out his views on the uselessness of Brand and logo, he was determined not to let the chance slip away through his fingers. So, this time the volley was not of questions but of missiles, programmed to directly hurt me the most and to make me accept my defeat. I saw it coming and I was prepared. (Like father, like son, you see.)

He demanded to know why a restaurant of that repute did not have a Brand Image, why its “so-called” Brand Image did not save it from drowning, who was responsible for the losses… and there were countless number of missiles in his arsenal and I patiently defused them one by one with the knowledge I had personally gained in Branding and Marketing sectors and also from what I had learnt from the analyses of other marketing experts.

However, I had had to tread gently because the one I was dealing with here was not only my dad but, rather more importantly, also a member of the old school whose members actually stick to their guns and fight tooth and nail to make their side win (though their teeth are wobbly and the nails are frayed… LOL). They try to win over their opponent at least with the butt of the gun when it’s not possible through the barrel, to kill the opponent’s pleasure of winning, if not the opponent himself.

So, I slowly and softly explained the situation, occasionally getting a bit cracked up myself when it came to explaining the success of branding and marketing even while El Bulli was incurring losses.

I will give you the details of that heated discussion, rather an argument, in the next part of this article, making it more interesting and informative for you to enjoy.


PART II – El Bulli Restaurant

El Bulli — the world class gastronomic restaurant ‘closed down to be opened up’ is our second phoenix.

Prolog

While we were planning our trip to Spain, my dad suggested we should have dinner at least once at El Bulli and when I told him that El Bulli was closed as a restaurant forever, he was disappointed. Then he demanded to know how a restaurant of such repute could fail to make money and where all that credit given to the Logo, Branding and Market strategy gone. I patiently explained to him the logic behind all this media hype about the closure of El Bulli. And in this part I have given the crux of our heated discussion and my understanding of the situation combined with the analyses and theories of other experts.

The History of ‘The Little Bulldog’:

El Bulli Restaurant Dog Logo

Photo Credit, Photo Credit

‘El Bulli’ which means ‘bulldog’ or ‘little bulldog’ in Catalan, the language of Catalonia, a principality in the northeastern part of Spain with a small part in southern France.

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It all began some time in 1950s when Dr. Hans Schilling, a German homeopathic doctor, came to Roses, a picturesque place on Costa Brava in Girona, Catalonia, on the Spanish side. His wife Marketta had been serving meals even before the hotel existed. And things moved a bit further when in 1961 a minigolf course was installed in that area, and this minigolf was named El Bulli, given after the French bulldog breed called ‘bulli’ the Schillings had.

And the first El Bulli restaurant was opened in 1964, and under the then popular chef Jean-Louis Neichel, it won its first Michelin Star in 1976, a rating given to the best restaurants in the world by the Michelin Tire Company.

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Ferran Adria, the chef who preferred to be called deconstructionist, joined El Bulli in 1983(4) and by 1987 became in charge of the cooking side. Under his leadership, El Bulli won its second Michelin Star in 1990 and again the third one in 1997. In addition, ElBulli had been the No. 1 on the Top 50 best restaurants list of Restaurant Magazine for five times between 2002 and 2009 and in No. 2 position in 2010.

Things began to move faster for those at El Bulli when in 1994 Ferran Adria and his partner, Juli Soler, invited Miquel Horta, a Catalan wealthy businessman and philanthropist, into the business. They used the money they got from selling a small part of their business to Horta for expanding the kitchens and meeting the other needs. Furthermore, Horta’s presence brought in new guests most of whom were businessmen and politicians who made it known to the world that something extraordinary culinary experiments were going on at El Bulli and that the recipes were weird but wonderfully delicious. People made beelines the length of the 100 miles from Barcelona to Roses to have a bite of those dishes of ‘molecular’ gastronomic cuisine!

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And the rest is history until when in 2011, Ferran Adria, announced that El Bulli was going to be closed as a restaurant because it ran into losses.

A phoenix that got burned in the flame of its own fame!

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Brand Strategy Notes:

Now the billion pesetas question is how did El Bulli incur losses. A chef who ran a top world class restaurant didn’t know how to cover-up the losses?

Did not the culinary wizard who changed foams, sands and liquids into globules, who mixed ‘dragon’ cocktails that made the drinkers breathe smoke, who used pearls of olive oil to create a ‘caviare’, who turned hot into cold and sweet into salt and solid into liquid/air, make any money?

Did not the chef cum writer cum teacher cum promoter cum what not make any money in his 27 years of running El Bulli? It sounds strange but the answer is a sour “But he did”. Had he wanted, he would have had more than 40 branches of his El Bulli, but he hadn’t. He pretty well knew that if he had raised the prices by 20%, he would have covered the losses and make a fat buck. But he hadn’t.

What about the Brand Image? What about the Brand Value? What about the financiers who would give their right arm to have even the smallest stubbed tail part of the little bulldog?

El Bulli Restaurant Team Strategy Session

Doesn’t it sound weird that Adria, hailed as the kitchen alchemist, who trained world class ‘scientific’ chefs like Rene Redzpi of Noma and many others of the same calibre who have been making a great name for themselves and spreading their brand images all over the world did not know how to use his own brand image to steer away from ruining his flagship restaurant? Of course, it does.

The Brand Image and logo influence of El Bulli have always been there.

In his analysis, Ceaser Garsia, the Asst. Professor at Central Washington University, wrote (quoting ‘Quintanilla & Mitchell, 2008’) that Farren Adria of El Bulli made good use of its (brand) reputation and profited through other business ventures: publication of numerous books published by El Bulli’s own publications, cooking training sessions around the world, a catering service, a hotel, a (franchised) fast food chain ‘fast good’ of three outlets — two in Madrid and one in Santiago, Chile) and collaborations with fifteen multimillion and multinational products, such as Pepsi, United Biscuits, Lays potato chips, Lavazza coffee, Borges, Diageo’s J&B whisky and his own brand of plates and cutlery products and a collection of kitchenwear in collaboration with Armand Basi, the largest brand of any product you can name. In addition, the auctioning of the wine stock in the basement of El Bulli was estimated to have fetched 1 million Euros.

Where did all that money go?

In one of his interviews Ferran Adria declared that he was poorer than the news correspondent who was interviewing him. But that’s out of his choice; not because of the circumstances. He might be eating only a serving of broth a day while making his gourmet guests eat fabulous dishes, but again, he was having his broth of silver grain in a solid gold bowl the size of a cauldron the three witch sisters with one eye and one tooth had their potions brewed!

According to some marketing experts, Ferran Adria’s simplicity didn’t necessarily mean that El Bulli had been doing bad or hadn’t had Brand Value. NO! It was meant to be like that.

Brand Strategy Notes:

The phoenix rising from its own ashes:

Though Ferran Adria, his partner and his brother had given different contrasting statements before the close of El Bulli, they all spoke the same about El Bulli to be closed as a restaurant, but only to be opened on a larger scale but in a different form, perhaps as a culinary museum or something else.

Ferran Adria has had very ambitious plans. In one of his interviews he confessed that a restaurant might use up all its recipes and the gourmets and gourmands alike may lose interest in that particular restaurant sooner or later. However, a foundation, like the Rockefeller Foundation or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will stay forever, serving one generation after another. With this vision, he is currently developing a cooking lab and museum dedicated to the history and theory of cooking, and a culinary wiki, called Bullipedia. He is going to set The El Bulli Foundation to be located on the same site as his former restaurant, El Bulli. There is this ElBulli DNA he’s planning to set up which consists of a team of 40 most creative chef from all over the world who will be working on the creative processes of inventing new good foods in dialogue with experts in other fields.

According to Adria, the visionary, “The vision is to focus on creativity.” and the motto: “Risk-taking, freedom and creativity.”

And the ‘vision’ is expected to cost about 800,000 Euros a year to make it practically possible, with an initial outlay of 1 million Euros, and Ferran Adria, Juli Soler, the long time business partner and general manager of El Bulli, and his brother Albert Adria in collaboration with the Madrid-based telecommunication giant Telefonica, are planning to fund this mammoth project. And the money that didn’t show up there has shown up here!

El Bulli is an example of an “open business model” where the capacity (brand image) of a business is used to create value and capture a portion of that value by selling it to others, according to Ceaser Gracia of Central Washington University (quoting Chesbrough, 2006).

So, I told my dad that El Bulli had enjoyed its logo charm, had generated an overwhelming brand image and brand value, and Ferran Adria and the other big wigs at El Bulli had used El Bulli’s Brand value as a spring board to reach higher level.

After listening to my explanation, my dad first nodded his head (glad it was over), then he shook his head as if he was dazed (worried; Oh, *** not again) and then just walked away to light a cigarette which was a cue that he was contemplating, leaving me wondering whether he would come back to attack me again with his illogical and irrelevant questions, rather missiles, or to congratulate me on my convincing tact! In a defensive strategical move, which seemed more important than any international marketing strategical moves, I fled from home on the pretext of having to run an errand!