Pau Guardans’ grandfather gazes down from the wall, his portrait separating the shelves of a wood-panelled library inside Barcelona’s Grand Hotel Central. The luxury establishment was opened in 2005 by Único Hotels, a group founded by Guardans, which added a rooftop infinity pool to a building whose stone entrance still bears the ruts of horse-drawn carts. Francesc Cambó, a Catalan politician and Guardans’ forebear, built it as his home in 1922.
So selling the hotel was a wrench. When Único cut it loose in 2021, it was not only offloading a €93mn asset but severing a family bond. Guardans decided, however, it was time to move on. In Barcelona, one of Europe’s most visited destinations, politics had fostered a deep sense of malaise.
The city’s present mayor, Ada Colau, a leftwing former activist running for re-election this year, had by then been in office for six years. Her vision was of a greener and more inclusive city, which meant reining in the “chaos” of mass tourism and property speculation. But to business people she had cemented a reputation as an enemy of enterprise and growth.
Memories were also fresh of the contested referendum on Catalan independence in 2017 which produced viral images of Spanish riot police beating people trying to vote and the worst constitutional crisis in decades. Two years later came weeks of clashes between protesters and regional police after nine separatist leaders were handed prison sentences, with violence exploding on affluent boulevards such as Via Laietana, home of the Grand Hotel Central.
It was an unpalatable mix for Guardans, whose group sold the hotel to a real estate arm of asset manager Schroders. “Businesses vote by leaving,” he says. “They demonstrate not by standing in the street and shouting. They do it by saying no to the next investment, and to the one after that.”
Único was not the first example of Catalan capital leaving or the last. Since the referendum, which was ultimately declared illegal by Spain’s top court, more than 8,200 companies have shifted their head offices from Catalonia to other parts of Spain. Half of them set up in Barcelona’s great rival Madrid. In the tumultuous days immediately after the vote those rushing to depart included CaixaBank and Sabadell, two of Spain’s four biggest lenders; Naturgy, one of the country’s three biggest utilities; Cellnex, Europe’s biggest owner of mobile phone towers; and Grupo Planeta, one of Europe’s biggest book publishers.