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What It’s Like to Open a Hotel During a Pandemic


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In the best of times, opening a luxury hotel requires more details than the thread count in the linens. During a pandemic, even more so. How do you balance creating an upscale experience with implementing safety measures to combat a shape-shifting enemy and ever-evolving information? That’s the challenge wine company Gonzalez-Byass faced when opening their new Hotel Bodega Tio Pepe in July in Jerez, Spain.

Gonzalez-Byass has a large presence in the country’s wine industry, with wineries in numerous regions around Spain, as well as Chile and Mexico. However, Jerez is the home—both physically and spiritually—for the wine company. Tio Pepe sherry is its flagship wine, and the one which created the foundation of Gonzalez-Byass in the mid-1800s.

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The new Hotel Bodega Tio Pepe is an ambitious project: located in the city’s Old Town, the hotel integrates into the historic Gonzalez Byass winery, and what used to be workers cottages have been transformed into the collection of rooms and suites. “These refurbished old houses belong to the winery since the 1840s, so they are really part of our family’s winemaking history,” says Mauricio González-Gordon, Chairman of Gonzalez-Byass S.A.

Three restaurants and several bars reside on the property, all meant to highlight sherry, whether through cocktails, tastings, or food pairings. A pool, spa, and other amenities complete the experience.

The Tio Pepe winery receives “a quarter of a million visitors per year,” according to Beatriz Vergara, Gonzalez Byass Board Director and Head of Wine Tourism, and the addition of a hotel seemed like a natural way to enhance visitors’ experiences to the region. As the purported first hotel dedicated to sherry, comprehensive educational programs are offered to guests, including winery tours, seminars, walking tours of vineyards, and more.

Plans for the hotel began three years ago and in March 2018 Gonzalez Byass broke ground on the project. They were rounding the corner on completion—the opening date was scheduled for March 31, 2020—when the pandemic forced a stop on all work. With construction halted, opening plans were pushed back.

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Although a frustrating setback, the boutique nature of the hotel—only 27 rooms, high ceilings, new ventilation systems—allowed them to finish without too much deviation from original plans, says Vergara. In an interesting twist of fate, contactless technology was already planned to play a major role in this renovation of the 19th-century structures, even before the pandemic. Automatic doors open with cards and mobile phones for touchless entry. No need to push an elevator button; lifts are summoned with the same card or phone technology as doors.

The hotel also opted for digitized check-in and check-outs pre-pandemic, which now feel like a necessity versus a luxury amenity. “We are using Sihot.Go!, an application which allows online check-in and checkout as well as online room service,” says Vergara. “In addition all our TVs have an automatic virtual reception service to introduce the hotel and its services.”

However, other new measures had to be quickly adapted in order to make the hotel safe for opening. The cleaning regimen is extensive, and follows protocol outlined by Spain’s Secretary of State for Tourism. Staff need to change gloves and masks between each room cleaning, and all surfaces throughout the hotel must be wiped down and disinfected on a regular basis. Social distancing is imperative. There’s also the issue of conveying hospitality; as anyone who’s dined out recently can attest, people need to be more mindful in how they interact, as smiles are now hidden behind masks.

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Due to the pandemic, certain features of the hotel remain closed. Although the heated pool is open, the spa has yet to start offering treatments. Despite not all the elements being fully operational, welcoming guests still felt like the right move. “This project has been in the pipeline for many years now and was nearly finished when the pandemic hit,” says Vergara, “so it was decided that given our cleaning protocol, digitalization of many elements and physical structure and spacing of the hotel, we could safely go ahead with the opening.”

For now, the majority of visitors come from Spain, but travelers from the U.K., Netherlands, France, and other European countries are starting to make their way over. Vergara expects to welcome more international travelers as more countries get a handle on the pandemic.

While the opening may not exactly be what Gonzalez-Byass envisioned, the mission remains the same. “The Tío Pepe bodega hotel fulfills our wish to offer some of our many visitors in Jerez the possibility to stay within the walls of our winery, in a tranquil setting,” says González-Gordon. “The intention is to facilitate [enjoyment] of our winery in a relaxed fashion, be it tasting unique wines, visiting many of its 19th-century cellars, or just savoring some tapas in one of its shaded patios.” On a broader scale, it’s clear that travel has changed, and that safety is the ultimate luxury.


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