LISBON Ahead of the curve: What's next for Lisbon?

As Lisbon's business and real-estate landscape matures, what does the future hold? We get the inside track from one of Lisbon’s most innovative hospitality entrepreneurs, Duarte D’Eça Leal.


Ahead of the curve: What's next for Lisbon?

As Lisbon's business and real-estate landscape matures, what does the future hold? We get the inside track from one of Lisbon’s most innovative hospitality entrepreneurs, Duarte D’Eça Leal.

Lisbon's business perspective and entrepreneurial scene Photo Credit: Independente Collective

Tourism, foreign investment and the start-up culture in Lisbon is booming as the global press declare it The city to be.  Its rapid blossoming owes much to the entrepreneurial attitude of its locals, who have been quick to embrace the opportunities that the city now offers. But as the business and real-estate landscape matures, what does the future hold? We get the inside track from one of Lisbon’s most innovative hospitality entrepreneurs, Duarte D’Eça Leal.

Duarte’s story is representative of many of the entrepreneurs leading the country’s evolution.  After studying in the UK and working in finance, he returned to his native Portugal as the European crisis hit.  His response was to partner with his brother and friends to open one of the city’s first hip hang-outs, The Decadente. Fast forward 8 years and his hospitality group, The Independente Collective, has expanded almost faster than Lisbon itself, now numbering 6 of the city’s hippest cocktail bars, rooftop restaurants, hotels and hostels in its portfolio – all superbly located in prime and up-and-coming real-estate locations.   As popular with locals as they are with tourists, the Independente Collective’s projects share a sense of community, an artistic soul and a strong sense of staying true to Lisbon’s laid-back local vibe.

As a local, how have you seen Lisbon shift in the past few years?

Lisbon is going at a ridiculous speed. I am here at the viewpoint of São Pedro, and the horizon is dotted with cranes and you can see where people are investing. There is a huge start-up revolution: everyone from TechCrunch to Bloomberg and Forbes all raving about the conditions in Lisbon. In the pre-noughties, society weighted financial success over culture of life index and a large chunk of our generation – that is borderline millennials and older – were happy to just make money, but things have changed.  People now understand that life is really built from smaller elements such as security, quality of life, housing context and affordability.  All these things need to be assessed, and in this context, Lisbon is a world leader at the moment because it combines all the above. Previously it was lacked the job context where people could make a career as it was predominantly a retirement or holiday destination, but now, with the digital revolution, there is much more scope to work here. More and more people can do their job anywhere in the world and Lisbon is very central. The city is moving forward so quickly culturally and economically that local employers have started seeing the benefit of employing native English speakers to the team as the eco-system gears up to a more international approach. There are so many expats these days, especially young ones from 25 and above due to start-ups like Uni Places, so you are starting to see people choosing Lisbon as a place to progress their careers like never before.  They aren’t just moving here because it is sunny and cheap, but because you can tick all the boxes.

The Independente Collective had a foothold in all the coolest parts of town ahead of the curve.  Where do the next opportunities lie for the group?

My brother Bernardo and I have recently started investing in a student residence branch of the business called Rebel.  We currently have one student accommodation in the city with 40 keys and it has proven really successful, so we now gearing towards having 350 rooms in Lisbon in next 18 months and a 1000 in Portugal.   We are investing in welcoming people, although we also see a big opportunity to offer a service to local people.

Why are you moving away from traditional hospitality?

We are focusing on engaging with a specific segment of society, digital nomads and early millennials, and the social impact they can bring. Most young people are looking to make an impact, to create long-term bonds and friendship, so student housing has to be much more than just a bed, it has to be a hub centered around a flourishing community that they can use their skills to be a part of.  Secondly, the rational was very clear economically.  When I studied in London, halls of residence cost £135 pounds a week and included one meal a day. 15 years on, you can’t find proper student accom under £300 a week.  In Lisbon, real estate value and the rents are rising, so it makes an interesting case to invest in projects with smaller operational costs, where the yields are smaller but numbers can be bigger and structural costs are more manageable. It was time to diversify.

Do you think the hospitality market is now saturated?

Contrary to popular belief, the market is certainly not saturated. In many ways, it’s just getting going and I think Lisbon is only just starting to make a name for itself on the international tourism scene. There are a lots of red flags that we need to approach with caution, such as not to replicate Venice and allow the historic centre to become overrun with tourism. Think about this: Barcelona welcomes 38 million visitors and Lisbon currently welcomes 5 million, so there is still a lot of room to grow. The city has one of the largest historical centres in the world, it is 15 km wide and huge swathes of the city were previously derelict, so this movement is just enabling the restructuring of the assets the city has.

It’s great to see that local lisboetas are playing such an integral role in shaping the city’s evolution.  What do you think makes them so entrepreneurial?

We have the DNA for taking risks. We are like the Brazilians that way – not to go into too big a generalisation – but the general attitude is to approach untested premises with excitement, motivated not by the risks but by the opportunities.  Many young entrepreneurs evolved from a climate where unemployment rose to 20%, so they had to decide whether to remain unemployed or start their own venture.  The government helped by simplifying the process  – you can start a company in 1 hour with 1 euro – so people started understanding that taking risks wasn’t just a myth, and you started seeing people jumping headfirst into the market with the simplest, yet most brilliant ideas.

What’s the general consensus about the influx of foreign investors and entrepreneurs?

There are a lot of international newcomers who are bringing a new edge of experience and professionalism to the local market.  The Portuguese haven’t competed on a global level for the last few centuries, so now is a time of great progress for young professionals.  While there aren’t such huge numbers of international entrepreneurs, on average the ones you do see are very successful, so there is a very positive element to it and there are huge synergies to be made by joining different cultures from a business perspective.

What inspired you to open your first projects and would you classify yourself as a pioneer of the hospitality scene?

I moved back to Lisbon in 2009 and we opened our first projects in 2010 when the economy was far from favourable. The label of pioneer is one I have  long rejected but I’m starting to see that it might just fit. We were backpackers, travellers, amateur cooks and we liked welcoming people, we had been travelling for years and had been putting off settling down. When it come to The Collective, we wanted to reinterpret what we thought was the most important trends in hospitality around the world, and we felt as though people were starting to look for different things. It wasn’t just about sustainability, authenticity of product, concept, local knowledge but instead, how do you approach running your business at the core and relate to your employees? This was the key driver for us to get started, we felt strongly about what we believed in and the part we could play in the cultural revolution. Fortunately we were right, it offered USPs that other people didn’t.

Ok, so as something of a pioneer, can you share your insight as to where the next areas of opportunity lie?

It’s a bit of a paradox: in some ways, the areas where our first projects are located are just getting started.  Yes, it is hard to invest Principe Real and Chiado as prices are through the roof for newcomers, but there is no doubt they will continue to grow in desirability. Alternatively, I would look at areas like Intendente, Martim Muniz (Mouraria) and Almirante Raiz – that’s the next it place i’m investing in.

Where do you live?

I live in Campos do Ourique and it’s a place i would never have thought about moving, but in my opinion, it’s amongst the top 3 most London-like neighbourhoods because of its local services.  Lisbon has a huge neighborhood culture but it doesn’t have a big infrastructure in terms of services, so you are always dependent on services outside your borough which is why shopping centres have thrived so well for 20 years.  Campos do Ourique was an aged neighborhood, the housing market was stagnant for a long time, but then independent art galleries, restaurants and shops began to spring up and you now see young people moving there.  The construction quality is very good.  I lived in the heart of Principe Real for many years and never thought I would buy a property in Campos do Ourique, but it got to the stage I wanted something more residential.

What do you see for the future of Lisbon?

What I’d like to see is a bigger involvement with the river from a socio-cultural standpoint.  It is the most untapped resource in the city: It frames 5 kilometres of the city, and if you follow it to its edges, it encompasses 18 km, so we are on one of the largest city-river maps in Europe.  The potential to connect the dots between the city and the towns that sit around the bay is barely explored.  Imagine if we got rid of the shipping containers and built docks and marinas and ignited a strong boating culture.  Like most cities, London included, we have turned our backs on the river, and I’d personally love to see Lisbon embracing the possibilities the river offers.

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