Heavenly design in one of the world's most dramatic neighbourhood

5 min read | BY NICK BONNEY

The hills that rise high above Rio de Janeiro have been synonymous with lawless street crime and intimidating favelas. However, our negative perceptions are all about to change – especially if five star design hotels such as Vila Santa Teresa have anything to do with it. 

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Ever since opening their doors in 2017 we have had so many questions to ask the team behind the 7 suite hotel. Camille Chungunco is the sales and marketing manager at Vila Santa Teresa and our first collaborative partner on the South American continent. Her insights into the hotel and accommodation industry are fascinating and educational.

Having lived and worked in over 7 countries across 4 continents in the last decade, Camille is obsessed with discovering innovative ways to communicate and experience the world. Her role is to manage the curation of marketing campaigns, digital content, social media and public relations in addition to pricing strategies and revenue management.

We learned a lot from our time with Camille, head of marketing and sales at Vila Santa Teresa]

We learned a lot from our time with Camille, head of marketing and sales at Vila Santa Teresa]


Could you tell us a little about your guests and how do you connect with them?

Since opening in the beginning of 2017, we’ve seen an eclectic mix of travelers come through our doors. As our brand and communications matured, and became more targeted, so did our guests. Today, we predominantly attract adventurous European couples and experienced Brazilian travelers that range anywhere from 35-55 years old.

Most of our clientele come from referrals and word-of-mouth marketing. We have found that nothing is more influential than a review by a trusted source. Which is why we focus on partnering with digital influencers and luxury travel agencies that have their own loyal audience that is in-line with our guest profile.


It’s exciting for us to be able to share our story through the lens of the brand, history and guest experience.
— Camille Chungunco, Vila Santa Teresa, Brazil

Guests these days have so much choice of where to visit and where to stay. How do you stand out in the crowd? How do you truly connect with your audience? To me it’s more than just great reviews and pretty pictures on a website. It’s an authentic story you develop and share. Do you agree with this?

Definitely. As mentioned, the majority of our guests had heard about us from a friend, a finely curated collection of hotels or a digital influencer. In the first year of business, we invested heavily in inviting luxury travel agents, Brazilian and international hoteliers and influencers to discover the property, its history, unmatched service and indulgent experiences that no other hotel offers in the city.

We have a very particular market who live and love the idea of a ‘glam lifestyle’. Our whole approach to marketing is making sure we keep them in this mindset. We use influencers and their blogging and Instagram channels to do this.

How did you start building a following and community with an influencer marketing strategy?

We have always been in a fortunate position as the Monteiro de Carvalho family (owners of Vila Santa Teresa) know a lot of people. These people are often very famous themselves and have their own audience. By having all of these trusted sources recommending our hotel has made it relatively easy to attract people to stay here.

We’re lucky enough to get three or four requests a day from influencers so we don’t need to even reach out. Brazilians are also among the most connected in the world. They are always on their phones and are crazy about Instagram and Facebook, so this strategy works well for us especially considering we don’t have a very big marketing budget. However, this comes with some downside as most of our influencers are Brazilian but most of our audience are from abroad. This is why ratings in TripAdvisor and Booking.com are also such an important part of the strategy.

The exchange of free accommodation for free influencer marketing works well for us. A lot of the influencers are bloggers, photographers and models, so they see the benefit of this ‘scene’ and being here to capture and promote it. Once you set up a strategy like this it almost takes care of itself.

We are currently speaking with an influencer who will be a resident ambassador. She has three high-end clothing brands and will come each month to photograph her range with our backdrop. Normally we only have influencers visit once but with her it makes sense to collaborate together more regularly.

Rio is one of those “one-off” destinations where global travelers may only come too once in their lives. We want to be a destination where our audience think of staying at our hotel before they even consider Rio. Then it doesn’t really matter where it is in the world. That’s what we aspire to do.

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We knew that the guest experience would be the most crucial part of how we would develop a relationship with new guests who find out about us from a trusted source. We are focused on curating a total 360-degree experience that would go above and beyond expectations. No request is too grand, no indulgence is spared.

Our team acts like your own personal concierge that will arrange anything from a romantic candle-lit dinner under the full moon, outdoor massage under the shade of century-old mango trees, a bespoke tour of the city’s most traditional bars or a personal shopper to access the most exclusive artist ateliers.

We are focused on curating a total 360-degree experience that would go above and beyond expectations.

While our guests do enjoy the sea, sand and sun that Rio de Janeiro is famous for, they yearn for an urban oasis like ours where they can be pampered and have their senses delighted by our exclusive on-property experiences. Because of the range of activities we offer, many guests choose not to leave the estate gates or choose to have their entire Carioca experience curated by Vila Santa Teresa.

– TIP – 

Provide a book for guests to write about their experiences during their stay as not all great reviews have to be online. The Vila Santa Teresa have made a beautiful feature out of their guest book by the front entrance of the hotel.

It might be a little ‘old school’ but it adds to the authentic experience. This small gesture will make guests feel like their comments are worth listening to.

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Can you please tell us briefly about the brand and the story of Vila Santa Teresa? Where do you want to take it from here?

Vila Santa Teresa was first built in the 1970’s as the residence of one of Brazil’s most influential families. Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, the fourth generation of the Monteiro de Carvalho family renovated their family home to share this unique property and its story with the world. Long-standing members of staff remain in service to maintain and embody the spirit of our private luxury home.

Today, Vila Santa Teresa is an urban oasis where guests are treated like family friends, invited into one of our seven suites. We wanted to create an environment that was both familiar and thrilling. Looking to the future, we plan transform the other properties on the estate to augment the cultural experience of both the guest and the residents of Rio de Janeiro.

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Vila Santa Teresa is only one of the privately-owned properties on an estate that spans 20-acres across an entire mountain. Our vision for the future is to transform the estate’s colonial mansion into a cultural center that will exhibit the history, art and artefacts collected by the family throughout generations. On the other side of the estate, we envision building a fully-serviced spa retreat oasis that focuses on four pillars of wellness: nutrition, movement, personalized treatment plans and environment.

Vila Santa Teresa has a unique history to share through an paralleled aesthetic and quality of service.

Where did the vision for the brand come from? Who is in charge and who oversees the creative direction of the brand and brings it all to life? You clearly appreciate and understand good design and branding but what does this really mean to the Vila Santa Teresa?

As the brainchild of Eva Monteiro de Carvalho, an experienced hotelier and entrepreneur, Vila Santa Teresa aims to redefine how contemporary Brazilian design is experienced. Between Eva at the helm of creative direction, her sister Leticia Monteiro de Carvalho, heading interior and event design, Vila Santa Teresa has a unique history to share through an paralleled aesthetic and quality of service. It’s also why the whole interior design and decorating are consistent. It’s coming from one person, one mind.

A lot of Eva’s knowledge and experience has come from the family actually living at the Copacabana Palace for a period of time while they were growing up. The Copacabana Palace is known for having extreme five star service. Eva then used this knowledge to set up her on consulting business for other hoteliers advising them on how to provide a better guest experience and service.

Then one day, Eva felt she had enough experience to open her own hotel. So she “let’s just transform the house we grew up in”.

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You are such a new business with great success already but was it risky building a brand like Vila Santa Teresa on a hill high up in Rio? It mustn’t have been easy. What have been some of the biggest hurdles you faced in creating and sharing your brand with the world?

Indeed! Although the Santa Teresa neighborhood has a growing reputation as Rio de Janeiro’s up and coming bohemian art district, it is not as visited as Rio de Janeiro’s most touristy Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon districts. From the beginning, we have had to educate our guests about Santa Teresa’s exceptional gastronomic universe, charming cobbled streets and artist scene.

Since Vila Santa Teresa is off the beaten path, we knew that we had to create unique experiences that would take advantage of the city’s culture and estate’s exclusivity. This began with a spa, pool lounge and bar, which extended into a full-service restaurant and then to curating personalized excursions and itineraries across the estate and around the city.

Since Vila Santa Teresa is off the beaten path, we knew that we had to create unique experiences that would take advantage of the city’s culture and estate’s exclusivity.

Once thought as a disadvantage, our guests now seek out the elevated, private position of our property, where the only sound to break the silence is birdsong and the swaying of trees in the wind. A very different experience from the hustle and bustle of more touristic areas with swaths of tour groups and the noise of a city that never sleeps.

Our ideal customer is looking for a retreat. They are happy to spend the whole day by the pool and only go down the hill for dinner and drinks.

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I’m particularly interested in the role a brand plays on the guest experience - before they arrive, their stay, and after they leave. How it informs the tone of voice, the feeling, the story and connection with the guest. What makes it authentic and not just a carbon copy of a trend. Can you tell us a little bit about what this means to you?

We understand that the customer journey begins far before they decide to stay with us. Therefore making sure that our digital profile is accurate and that it makes a lasting impression is crucial. Once a guest decides to stay with us, we help them curate their desired experience by sending over a “menu” of the experiences that can be arranged to build excitement.

An advantage of having only seven suites is that we are able to provide highly personalized service to each guest, designing a special dietary menu if required or preparing a warm bath upon return from a day of sightseeing. Time and time again, our returning guests designate their love affair with Vila Santa Teresa to the ever-changing experiences that delight the senses.

To maintain the intimate connection with the guests even after their stay, our team constantly innovates on ways we can commemorate their experiences with us. For example, we have sent a card, bottle of champagne and Vila Santa Teresa photo frame to a couple who got married at the hotel on the date of their first wedding anniversary.

An advantage of having only seven suites is that we are able to provide highly personalized service to each guest

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How important is it to remain at the forefront of global / or local trends ? Or do you ignore trends and do it ‘your way’?

While there is a necessity to stay on top of current trends to understand what incoming guests expect from a certain caliber of hotel, I’ve also seen how following this strategy can shrink innovation and creativity. Especially for a boutique and independent hotel, where the guests are attracted to bespoke experiences not necessarily tethered to global lodging experiences.

The beauty about having an independent establishment is the freedom to test and try new ideas that would augment guest and staff experience.

The beauty about having an independent establishment is the freedom to test and try new ideas that would augment guest and staff experience.

‘Design hotels’ and now ‘lifestyle hotels’ have become popular terms around the world. Do you consider the Vila Santa Teresa a 'design’ or ‘lifestyle’ hotel? A ‘lifestyle’ hotel is often about the experience you are offering your guests. How you give them a sense of place. Is this something you consider and place importance on? Or do you not put a label on it?

Does Vila Santa Teresa value design? Yes. Is it a design hotel? No. We don’t put labels on our own flavor of guest experience because there is nothing quite like it. It’s in a league of its own, where traditional values of classic hospitality and upheld together with the values of sustainability (yes, we have an organic garden and all the eggs served on property come from our own chicken coop!)

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Any final advice for other hoteliers (or travel businesses) you’d be willing to share?

Figure out the story or the feeling that you want to impart and then infuse every aspect, no matter how trivial you think it might be to emanate that story or feeling. The key is creating a unique sensation in the heart of your guests, a sensation they will never be able to recreate outside of your establishment.

For example, at Vila Santa Teresa, the family’s rich history, customs and practices are honored and shared with our guests. Suites are named after the family members that grew up in them but they’ve been fully refurbished and dishes are based on long-time family recipes with a modern twist.

Discover Vila Santa Teresa for yourself.

Special thanks to Camille and the entire team at Vila Santa Teresa.