Interview with Nigel Hack, Founder of Madrid & Beyond

Nigel first came to Spain in 1992. After 3 years here he went back to his native country, the UK, only to realize that what he really wanted was to establish himself in Spain and to set up a travel company with a difference. He was convinced that the time was ripe to reach out to the discerning traveler offering more adventurous cultural experiences in Spain and thus, Madrid & Beyond was “born”. That was in 1998. Now, almost 16 years later Madrid & Beyond has established itself as Spain’s foremost specialist travel company catering to travelers seeking unique, authentic, exclusive, local experiences.

Hi Nigel, thank you very much for taking time out for this interview.

It’s my pleasure.

OK, let’s get started… After having traveled half of the world and with the opportunity of having a successful career in your own country, why did you decide to start a new life and business in Spain?

Well, I first came here straight out of university with the idea of learning Spanish for a year before returning to England to pursue a career in education. It was only after I returned to England after those first three wonderful years in Spain that I realized that I had to return. Whilst I had been very happy teaching history for the second and third year in Spain, my enthusiasm for a life in the classroom waned back in England, and I pined for, well, let’s just say I longed for a long list of intangibles that I missed about Spain. So if not teach, then what to do… I was young but had traveled widely both before, during and after university. Travel had become part of my DNA… I had no business acumen nor experience but I had always been Mr Organizer even as a teenager and happily arranged several trips overseas for my history students. So, I kind of figured out that my ideal job would be to arrange travel in Spain…

“In Spain there’s now a greater sense of liberty than elsewhere and people are generally not judgmental. A live and let live attitude still pervades. Most cities provide a good-vibe feel… totally safe. As I’ve discovered much more recently, people are incredibly child-friendly too…”

More than 20 years later, what is left of the Spain you first fell in love with?

Hmm, good question! But for me it’s probably a shorter answer if I tell you what has gone, never to return, because to be honest, Spain hasn’t changed that much… I think it’s we as individuals who change… especially as we take on responsibilities, raise families etc.

So, where was I? Yes, Spain is still pretty much the same but what’s gone is the peseta and the very, very affordable way of life. The old boys who recount tales of the Spanish Civil War have mostly gone… the “black” widows [widows who only wear black as a sign of respect to their deceased husbands] whom I only see in very rural areas these days…. The wild abandon that seemed to characterize the night…. Although what would I know? I’m in bed most nights by 11pm! Oh and the makeup of cities… until the 1990s it was a fairly homogeneous country… 99% Spanish… so anyone tall, or blond or simply foreign looking got plenty of attention… Now it’s much more cosmopolitan and multiracial… I don’t know the exact figures but I think about 15% of Spain’s population now was born overseas. Anyway, it’s become more European… good in many ways of course but I do enjoy visiting smaller towns and rural areas where the modes of the Spanish way of life remain truly ingrained.

Madrid & Beyond founder Nigel Hack
Madrid & Beyond founder Nigel Hack

What have been the positive and negative aspects you’ve encountered for both living and setting up a business in this country?

Gosh… again I could talk for a long time on both but I’ll keep it short… First of all, the negative… taxes for the business! For the day-to-day, not so much… but the quality of television leaves a lot to be desired (compared to the UK) all the films are still dubbed! Most depressing of all right now is the corruption that seems ubiquitous for those holding in public office.

Positive… well, Spain is friendly and welcoming so it’s easy to become part of wider groups of friends, participate in all sorts of sport, social events etc. It’s very all-encompassing. There’s a greater sense of liberty than elsewhere and people are generally not judgmental. A live and let live attitude still pervades. Most cities provide a good-vibe feel… totally safe. As I’ve discovered much more recently, people are incredibly child-friendly… so a great environment for raising children.   Should I say more?

How about the positives for setting up a business?

Ah yes… I guess I’m just fortunate that it’s worked. More importantly, I’m just grateful to have the team around me that I have. Yeah… even you Jorge!

Thank you Nigel…  You´ve spent a lot of time traveling across of Spain, from your point of view and based on your broad knowledge of the country, what are the “must-do things” anyone visiting Spain should experience?

Another easy question! I think it differs for everybody but let’s just run with the first few things that spring to mind… let’s aim for ten… OK, in no particular order…

Meet as many locals as possible… More specific… Ok…
Tour of the Gaudi monuments in Barcelona (better with a good guide)…
“Do” the Prado Museum in Madrid….
Go out for tapas in Madrid or Sevilla
Go to San Sebastian for amazing gourmet experiences and much more
Spend some time in rural Andalucia… Ronda and beyond!
Eat chocolate and churros in a typical churreria
Take a high speed train
Learn more about flamenco and bullfighting… sorry, that’s a little evasive but … Is that it?

One more…

Ok… Go to watch Real Madrid or Barcelona… especially if you’re a family.

Have you seen a shift in the reasons people give for coming to Spain?

Not recently although the fame of Spanish food, tapas and general lifestyle attracts more than it did when we first started. The Basque Country and San Sebastian in particular are more popular now than ever before.

Nigel and his son enjoying the Barcelona Carnival
Nigel and his son enjoying a parade in Barcelona

Thanks to your profession and position, you’ve been able to visit and stay at most of the best hotels around Spain. Which ones are your favorite, including one or two “hidden gems” outside the mainstream hotels?

For a small hotel, I have to choose Fuente de la Higuera in Ronda. It sounds cliché but you’re made to feel part of the wider family… For a luxury hotel, the Finca Cortesin is a personal favorite of mine whilst I should also mention some of the amazing rooms at the Arts in Barcelona.

Gastronomy is one of Spain´s main strengths in attracting discerning travelers. What would you say are your favorite products/dishes? Is there anything you miss from your native country in this aspect?

First of all, I don’t miss any “British” food per se but I love Asian food and it’s not always so easy to find outside of Madrid and Barcelona. In Spain, my favorite dishes used to be meaty and seafood dishes, such as suckling lamb; seafood stew, grilled giant prawns, chorizo and jamon iberico of course, but these days I’m a vegetarian so I focus more on the vegetable and rice dishes, such as a properly made paella, the Valencian fideuá or a bean stew. And I could eat or drink gazpacho and salmorejo till the cows come home!

Continuing with gastronomy… What places (bars, restaurants, cafes) in Madrid can you recommend that you would only share with a close friend (and, of course, everyone reading this blog)?

For bars, in the historic part of town I’d got for Casa Lucas or Matritum. Near our office [commercial center of Madrid], Le Cabrera is great for a drink after work or in the summer months, on the roof terrace of the Mercado de San Antón. I now live out of the center so I miss special places like La Venencia which dates from another era.  For restaurants, the best meal I had recently was at Sagardi en Euskal Etxea. I’m looking forward to dining at Ten Con Ten early in the New Year.

I can imagine that many of your prospective clients ask you about the current economic situation in Spain. What would you say to those who might be reluctant to visit Spain during these times of economic difficulties?

To be fair, I can recall two or three travelers who were a little reticent about coming to Spain, but that was during the time when “the pain in Spain” was on every front page. Their concerns were suppliers going out of business after they had booked their trip. Paradoxically, the crisis years in Spain have been our best years at Madrid & Beyond. Whether that is a measure of our luck or abilities, or an upsurge of discerning travelers coming to Spain it’s hard to say, but my message to everyone is the same as before… Prepare to have one of the best vacations of your life!

Looking ahead 5 to 10 years, what do you think will be the next big changes and trends for discerning travelers coming to Spain?

Experiences. Everyone will be requesting experiences. Many do now, but it will be the buzz word of the immediate future. Good news for us! As for apps and technology, I have no idea… for me it remains ALL ABOUT PEOPLE.

“Paradoxically, the crisis years in Spain have been our best years at Madrid & Beyond. Whether that is a measure of our luck or abilities, or an upsurge of discerning travelers coming to Spain it’s hard to say, but my message to everyone is the same as before… Prepare to have one of the best vacations of your life!”   

Anything else you would like to add?  

Just a quick word of thanks to all those travel agents we work with around the world…. Thank you for entrusting us with the trips of your clients. We will continue to strive to provide them with the best possible experience of Spain; its culture and people.

Again, thank you very much for your time and good luck in 2014.

You’re welcome. I hope the readers find my answers interesting and that they’re useful for them.

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