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'It's Not Easy Being Green'

By Hans Pfister
September 2012

Kermit the frog gets quoted quite often for this famous line. And although there really is no other way than being green, I do sometimes identify with him quite strongly. Running sustainable lodging operations in remote destinations can be quite challenging.

In 2013, Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality will celebrate its 10th birthday as a hospitality management company managing upscale hotels, resorts and lodges in Central America, all with a strong focus on sustainability. It has been 10 very fulfilling years, filled with challenges and drawbacks. When we started, we had one client and now our portfolio boasts nine projects in Costa Rica and Nicaragua (with several new ones on the drawing board). So business is good, but often at a high cost and wearing our owners and managers at a stronger pace than normal.

While our way of operating is not that different from typical hospitality management companies, there are some differences that make the work a lot more fun and rewarding, but at the same time a lot more difficult and complex. My first job out of Cornell was to open a Hampton Inn Airport hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica. Wow, that was easy. Full set of operating manuals, GM training in Memphis, standardized rooms – cookie cutter is the word!

This is very different from our current reality. Our smallest hotel has six rooms and the largest has 40. Average daily rates range between $135 and $400 and staffing levels range from 12 to 90 employees. Yearly sales range from $350,000 to $5 Million. Some properties are located in the middle of tropical rainforest or on remote islands; others are more resort-like on a beach, or urban hotels with air conditioning and a fine dining restaurant. Some of our owners are pure philanthropists and others look very much at the bottom line results. Standardization is hard to achieve with so many differences.

As often in hospitality, the food and beverage operation is the most difficult, especially from an economic viewpoint. Running a restaurant for a six- or nine-room hotel without being able to draw on customers from the outside is hard. Doing this in a remote location where you have to bring things in on damaged dirt roads or by boat is even more of a challenge. Training the local staff and maintaining quality levels consistently over time has been one of our biggest headaches. We did it, but again, what was the price that we paid for in terms of managerial wear and tear?

We have a very strong commitment to hire predominantly local staff. Due to strong educational and local cultural challenges, this has been a real test of patience. But we have also seen that, in the long term, this strategy pays off. Bringing in expats from abroad might get the job done, but it is not sustainable and has not proven to work in the long term, especially in the more remote locations. One the most rewarding experiences is to see a young woman start out as a receptionist and move her way up to General Manager. Or a housekeeper who formerly survived from hunting wildlife and came full circle to become a nature guide and understand the delicate balance of nature. Our hotels are full of success stories where local men and women with minimal formal education have risen to serve the most demanding guests. Their authenticity and genuine way of sharing their culture is what our guests most positively comment on.

I often get asked if it is cheaper to run a sustainable hotel or if costs are actually higher. I think it is about the same, with a small tendency to be a bit of a higher cost structure. While in some cases not offering air conditioning or TVs in the rooms may represent savings, the use of biodegradable and organic cleaning and cosmetic products is much more expensive. We buy locally and try not to import food. But often to support local farmers and pay for organic products might be more expensive. In some cases we produce our own biogas, but at the same time buy biodiesel instead of fossil fuel.

Global warming and climate change have dramatically changed things. We have been faced with an increased amount of natural disasters in the past years, which is mostly due to the remote and “highly immersed in nature” aspect of some of our hotels. During the rains of hurricane Katrina, a landslide almost took down the restaurant and lobby of one lodge, flooding in Lake Nicaragua threatened the infrastructure on the island eco lodge, increased lightning during storms heavily damaged infrastructure at a beach resort, and small tornados devastated the forests around some lodges and resorts. On top of this, we often deal with being cut off from the outside world, having to cross rivers with harnesses and pull vehicles out of ditches. While this might be “the adventure of a lifetime” for some of our guests (believe it or not, they love this stuff), it is a big strain on the operation.

So, while it is not easy being green, there really is no other way. Please don’t get me wrong, I am NOT complaining. I could not go back to the traditional hospitality industry anymore. Sustainability is no longer a trend. It is a way of life. We have been involved in sustainable hospitality for almost 20 years now and while many were belittling us before, we are now getting a lot of recognition. In 2010 and 2012 Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality won the Conde Nast World Saver Awards and we were invited to speak at the Distinguished Dean’s Lecture Series this fall (2012) at the Cornell Hotel School. Many of our hotels have won not only sustainability awards, but have gained recognition as the best hotel, resort or lodge in its region.

Despite the economic crisis of the past few years, our hotels, resorts and lodges continue to outperform the local competition by a wide margin and we have been able to attract the best local talent for our hotel operations and corporate positions. In a recent visit to Costa Rica, Cornell Hotel School Professor Jan Katz pointed out the apparent relationship between high levels of guest satisfaction and the pride instilled in employees of being part of a sustainable business. We agreed to do further research on this matter in the months to come.

One thing is for sure: Without the total commitment of our managers at the hotels and our corporate Cayuga team, running sustainable lodging operations at the highest level of client expectations would not be possible. A special thank you to all the young men and women who believe in the model and inspire others in their foot tracks to make the world of hospitality help make a more sustainable world – although it is not easy. But that is okay. We don’t need easy. Kermit has been around for many years and continues to leave his mark.

Hans Pfister is the President and co-owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality. He brings over 20 years of experience in the hotel business in all capacities from trainee to General Manager. Born and raised in Germany, Hans' career began with the European tradition of apprenticeship as an introduction to the industry, rounding out his education and training with a degree from Cornell's School of Hotel Administration and experience in various properties in Europe, Asia, North- and Latin America. Hans is a frequent speaker at sustainability conferences and was invited to share his experiences in the field of sustainable hospitality at the Harvard Business School and the Cornell Hotel School. His company won the Conde Nast World Saver Awards 2010 in all categories on a worldwide level in the category of small hotel chains. Hans is a member of Cayuga Hospitality Advisors’ Ecotourism / Sustainable Tourism Services Group.

Reprinted with permission from Cayuga Hospitality Review.  All rights reserved.


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