by Stefanie Stüting
Barely an hour’s drive south of Lisbon, a new polo destination will make its mark on the sporting map next year. Here we speak to Stefan Maria Gast about this new European epicentre of sport and find out how he is making a great polo vision come true in Alentejo, Portugal.
What does your dream of a new European polo centre look like and what exactly are you planning in Portugal?
I was fascinated by the huge demand from all over the world for a polo destination with the ideal climate that would enable it to be fully active and functioning all year round as well as being easily accessible to all within the safety that Europe offers. So I started looking for the perfect location that ticked all these boxes and found it here in Alentejo, Portugal. In the autumn of 2020 we will open a new, exclusive Polo Club right here which will become the home and hub of the international polo community.
Historically, Portugal has not played a role in global polo.
Not yet. However, there are many reasons why this hasn´t been a decisive factor in the Polo Club we´re planning. For example, over the last four years Portugal has become much more cosmopolitan, having experienced record levels of immigration. More than 20,000 Brazilians alone, most of them of high net worth, have chosen to live in Portugal. Due to the size of the country and the climate, polo is a sport enjoyed actively all year round in Brazil and repeatedly, whilst in conversations with polo experts there they expressed concerns over security in South America both from a safety and financial perspective. They were often inquiring about a location in Europe that offers the right infrastructure and year-round playing opportunities that are currently available in Argentina and Brazil. We are now reacting to this demand.
Yet two attempts to set up a Polo Club in Portugal have already failed in the past.
Yes, that´s true. Two attempts failed about 12 and 8 years ago for good reason. In both instances developers sought to build, what was primarily an ambitious real estate project with a polo club as a “nice to have” add-on, similar to a golf resort. They were destined to fail because the developers in question didn´t have a true understanding and passion for polo at all. Our approach focuses primarily on polo. We will add apartments and villas but they are not the focal point of the project from the outset.
The club is also to become a winter location and training base for the European and international polo elite.
Yes, we will have a polo club in the Alentejo that is active all year round and provide an ideal location for keeping the horses in the winter. In addition to hosting polo clinics and tournaments at medium and high goal level, beginners and polo players who are new to polo will find the perfect introduction to the sport here.
Polo is in most cases also always a ‘family affair’…
Totally. That´s why our Polo Club will benefit from its unique location, endless beaches and its proximity to Lisbon. This is an area that is currently regarded as an absolute insider tip by investors as it´s a destination that ticks all the boxes for everyone. Including those with children.
The icing on the cake – amongst this dreamlike paradaiscal scenery you are also planning a boarding school.
Yes, we are going to set up and build an international boarding school which will offer a high school degree for university entrance. Naturally the students will be taught internationally in all school subjects and at the same time they will have a connection to the Polo Club. They will grow up alongside polo and be very likely to really get into the sport. This is where the next generation of Portuguese polo players will emerge and in eight to ten years´ time we will have a new elite of players. That’s all part of building a Polo Mecca.
The Alentejo is currently experiencing a meteoric rise. And at the same time it is almost untouched.
This area has an infinite amount of land and vast expanses of nature that are totally unique in Europe. In addition to the main Polo Club, there is also plenty of space for private polo activities. The enchanting region of Alentejo has the largest area of undeveloped land in Europe as a result of its history. We are therefore making good use of a unique window of historic opportunity. And then of course, there´s the weather as the region offers optimal climatic conditions all year round, some of which are even much better than in the well-known polo hotspots in Argentina.
Have there been any critics of the project?
We welcome criticism. We´re not afraid of it. In fact, the more, the better. After all, constructive criticism opens ones eyes to potential opportunities as well as possible mistakes and enables one to assess them realistically. Fortunately we have also learned from the mistakes made from the first attempts to found a Polo Club in Portugal. At the same time, criticism is always a question of competition and differentiation. It is about nothing less than having the foresight to see and seize an historic opportunity. And naturally, great visionaries always incite many questions. In our case, in ten years’ time the critics won´t be saying: “If only you´d had the courage to follow your dream“.
The Polo Clubs in Mallorca and in Sotogrande follow a similar approach, namely to be a year-round polo destination in Europe.
Yes of course, Mallorca and also Sotogrande on the Costa del Sol have become important polo destinations in Europe. But at the beginning of 2019 a law was passed in Mallorca, regarding the regulation of water consumption which will jeopardise any further polo activities on the island in the future as it will be difficult to irrigate the polo pitches regularly. I hope that at some point the law will be rescinded so that polo activities in the Balearic Islands will resume. This is my sincere wish for the polo world in general and also to those who have already done a lot for this sport in Mallorca. However, the new water restrictions place an enormous question mark over Mallorca as a potentially serious polo destination right now. In Sotogrande, the beautiful Polo Club has a long and successful history, but I also feel it has passed its peak and I doubt we will see further visionary action with regards to polo in that area going forward.
When and where exactly will the Polo Club in the Alentejo open its doors?
The exact location will be officially announced in January 2020. However, I can reveal that the club will be located in the area between Alcacer do Sal and Comporta and that we are planning to open it in the Autumn of 2020. We already have received registrations and important requests for polo horses from Central Europe which will be stabled here in Winter 2020 and whose owners will play throughout the whole winter on the fantastic polo pitches here in the beautiful Alentejo. With its chic lounges and gourmet restaurant, the clubhouse will be an elegant, relaxing social hub for the polo fraternity at large.
And are there also plans for accommodation?
That’s correct. In addition to an exclusive hotel complex, we also offer villas and small chalets in the polo area. It will be a total work of art, which will blend in seamlessly with its local natural surroundings, wildlife and people. The first step, will be the construction of the entire Polo infrastructure. With great attention to detail, we will concentrate on creating a small paradise for the most important players in the sport – the horses. This is why we are planning the first SPA for polo horses, amongst other things.
Do you think you are in the right place for such a real estate project?
Yes, with absolute certainty, because there will never be a better time. We are in a region that is on its way to becoming the new ‘Hamptons’. You only have to look up who is planning and has already started projects in and around Comporta over the next few years. It all began with the collapse of the Espirito Santo family empire and its subsequent expropriation by the Portuguese state, which only released the family estates for sale onto the market three years ago. Vanguard Properties, which this year was able to acquire the ‘Herdade da Comporta’ estate and will invest 730 million euros in developing their property portfolio, was the first off the starting block by entering the big real estate game. Right after that comes the Discovery Land Company, which last summer bought the land from Costa Terra and invested 510 million euros in resort and villa investments. There are currently a lot of new real estate and tourism projects along the 43 km long Atlantic coast that will be built in the next 15 years. The ‘Ferrado Comporta’ project in Troy with an exclusive resort known as ‘Rosp Corunna’ with three hotels, villas, apartments and a golf course are just two of many other projects planned in the area.
You have already built the legendary Campo Bahia World Cup quarter for the German national team (the later 2014 World Champion) in Brazil in 2014. The challenges there were much more complex and difficult than they are now in Portugal.
Yes, that is indeed true. We realised Campo Bahia in Brazil in just eight months, despite the fact that we had to work through very detailed coordination processes with DFB and FIFA . Campo Bahia was a sensational success and gave the German national team – the future football world champion – the spirit for victory. I am always particularly interested in realising goals and projects that have a deeper, sustainable and meaningful value. Es wurde „das beste WM Quartier aller Zeiten (It became “the best WM quarter ever”)“ Wolfgang Niersbach. This is particularly the case with the new Polo Club in Portugal.
Who are the investors behind your project?
The entire project is being financed by private capital, investment funds and banks and will be completed in February next year. We are currently still open to private investors who share our vision and understand the incredible potential that is emerging in this region.