The Evolution of Sustainability in Hospitality

We are very privileged to live and work in Costa Rica.   It is considered one of the world”™s leaders in sustainability.   It is far from perfect and we all know that sustainability is an ongoing process.   You may not be aware that:

–                   Almost 25% of its Territory is protected in National Parks or Reserves.   The Park system was created over 40 years ago.

–                   It holds almost 5% of the world”™s biodiversity in only 0.3% of the world”™s landmass.

–                   Costa Rica has no military and focuses its resources on education and public health.

–                   It has received the honor of being named the happiest country in the world two times by the Happy Planet Index published by the New Economics Forum out of the UK.

Through the work we do at Cayuga, we are considered leaders in Sustainable Hospitality in Costa Rica.   So we are the leaders in sustainability in one of the world”™s most sustainable countries.   This is a great honor, but it also puts a lot of pressure on us and forces us to continuously evolve.     Here is where we see things going in the future”¦

When we started our careers in hospitality in the early 1999s, the focus was almost exclusively on the environment and the revolutionary things we did back then that are standard practice today.   Most hotels today have energy saving light bulbs, an opt-out linen and towel change program, some kind of recycling program and to lesser degree amenities dispensers instead of small individual bottles.

We found that since 2000, things got a bit more sophisticated in terms of helping the environment and a few sociocultural elements made it into the mix.   Pools at sustainable hotels now are treated without using chlorine, treated ” waste” water or ” gray water” is used for irrigation, solar panels are used for water heating, and biodegradable cleaning and cosmetic products have been introduced.   Guests often were asked for contributions (i.e. add a dollar to your bill upon checkout) and some very progressive operations have hired a person who is in charge of sustainability.

The bigger hotel chains and the majority of businesses still are at this stage or finally getting to this stage.   We have taken this to the next level in the last few years and are in the process of really stepping up our game.   The focus now is on combining concerns about the environment with sociocultural elements and focusing on local communities.    This is all about lifestyle choices and there are some tough decisions to be made.   There is also a factor of guest expectations as we know that guests are looking for this new level of sustainability in their hospitality experiences.

We have been focusing on the local component in the sustainability mix for years and consider this element to be one of the most important ones.   The idea is to make a true difference in the local economy, local community and local environment. For example:

–                   We believe that a local staff is an important part of the sustainability equation.   While it is sometimes difficult and requires great levels of patience, the long term results are overwhelmingly positive.   We are proud to have local staff in leadership and management positions across our hotels and lodges and other staff that have been with us close to 20 years making a true difference in the communities in which we”™re located.

–                   We source almost all of our food locally.   With small exceptions such as olive oil, certain spices and wheat products, almost all of the ingredients we use in the kitchen are grown, raised or caught in Costa Rica and most of them within a 200 mile radius of the hotel.   Most of our hotels grow (hydroponic vegetables) or raise some of the food on site (organic pork, for instance).

–                   All organic cosmetic and biodegradable cleaning products are produced locally by young entrepreneurs in the local communities we operate.

–                   We try to avoid imported fixtures, furniture and equipment as much as possible.   A lot of our furniture is designed and built locally and in some hotels, we are currently replacing imported furniture with local products.

–                   Our gardens feature almost exclusively local species of plants that create natural habitats for local wildlife.   We are very careful not to introduce exotic and invasive species due to our proximity to protected areas and National Parks.

Through our concept of Experience ““ Learn ““ Connect ““ Relax, we manage to engage the guests in the local experience as well.   They are not just observers, but participate and interact with our staff and the local communities.   Employees are much more than just ” servers”; they interpret the local culture, flora and fauna and become teachers or facilitators for interaction with the locals.  Every staff member at the Cayuga Collection Hotels and Lodges lives the concept of sustainability through their interactions with the guests.   Some examples of how we interact with our guests include:

–                   Soccer matches between hotels and lodges where we invite guests to participate or cheer on the local team.

–                   Surf sessions with employees during their time off showing our guests the best spots and breaks.

–                   Improvised shore fishing hoping to catch a few snappers that could be shared at dinner time.

–                   Trips to local markets, fairs and community events that help guests understand how the locals live, work and play.

–                   Invitations extended to local artisans to display their products at the lodges and hotels and interact with the guests.   Many artisans can be observed creating their art right on site.

–                   Spanish lessons, salsa and merengue dance lessons, local specialties cooking lessons, coffee tours and tastings, presentations on local flora and fauna and presentations on local culture, tradition and events.

–                   Interaction with local school children and donation of learning supplies.   We encourage our guests during those visits to share part of their culture through music, dance, sports or other presentation.

Through those activities and interactions, guests learn about the area and create strong bonds with the locals.   They appreciate not being confined to a big resort and enjoy the opportunity to connect with the local culture.   If they are able to take part in a sustainability tour, which is a back-of-the-house tour with a manager or guide, typically their overall satisfaction rating with their vacation experience increases exponentially and they becomes raving fans of the Cayuga Collection Hotels and Lodges.

We have not reached our sustainability goals yet.   Sustainability is a process and poses many challenges.   We often get asked to go 100% vegetarian, but our guests very much appreciate the freshly caught sustainable seafood that we serve.   While we”™re committed to working with a local staff, it can be extremely frustrating and the ever growing expectations of our guests in terms of service, amenities and food push us to our limits.   We have almost completely eliminated bottled water from our properties, but once in a while we receive guests that cannot live without it.   Our bamboo straws have become iconic, but they represent a significant cost for us.   Having guests branch out to explore other restaurants in the area, take tours with members of the local communities and buy their souvenirs directly from the local artisans means less revenue for our hotels and is something that any traditional hotel consultant would strongly be against.

But we believe we are on the right track and look forward to continuing to be leaders in the evolution of sustainability in hospitality.   It”™s what we know best.   It is in our DNA.   It”™s our passion.   It”™s why we get up in the morning.  Please contact us if you have an idea or suggestion that will contribute to our efforts. My email is [email protected].   I look forward to hearing from you.

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