HONOURING PLACE AS A HOTELIER & HUMAN

On being asked by Regenerative Travel to speak about the theme of place, and how we as travellers, as hoteliers, as stakeholders across the travel industry, can honour the places we visit, work and live.

 

I am a British-Trinidadian hotelier, based in Colombia, where I have been for the past seven years and where I run two small hotels. One on an island  - a B Corp and member of Regenerative Travel - and one in the city of Cartagena, which is aspiring to join both. Since 2020, I am also the Standard Bearer for hotel membership at Regenerative Travel, which means that I define the criteria by which properties can become members of the group, a collection which promises to travellers to connect them with ‘a vacation that meets their values’.  

“Place is integral to tourism. In tourism, almost all issues can ultimately be traced back to human–place interactions and human–place relationships. Sense of place, also referred to as place attachment, topophilia, and community sentiment, has received significant attention in tourism studies because it both contributes to, and is affected by, tourism.” (Taken from Sense of Place and Place Attachment in Tourism by Chen, Hall & Prayag.)

 

At Regenerative Travel, we have defined a hotel that honours place as one that is harmonious with its surroundings, promoting and enabling practises which are respectful of, inclusive of and sensitive to the local people and its immediate natural environment. Our hotels are welcomed by local people and provide economic and professional opportunity to them. A hotel is not regenerative if it is a vacuum where guest activities within its confines would otherwise be prohibited or offensive to local customs and culture.

 

We have some marvellous properties which embody the principle of honouring place. Here are three to whet your appetite: 

 

The Samara Private Game Reserve in South Africa. For more than two decades, Samara has actively restored 67,000 acres of land to regenerate a landscape degraded by conventional farming and not typically visited by tourists.  As a result, they are building a new economy and providing new opportunities, without contributing to over tourism and while giving visitors the chance to discover something truly off the beaten track. With a consideration for both people and nature, Samara has launched a Tracker Academy with a local college, a partnership with a local orphanage and has reintroduced wild cheetah into their ecosystem.

 

Gangtey Lodge in Bhutan, was designed to feel like home rather than a hotel. Modelled as a Bhutanese farmhouse, traditional architecture blends into the landscape, with a colour scheme that reflects the traditional vegetable-based colours used in Bhutanese homes.  The entrance is reminiscent of that of a monastery, with art painted by local monks. Not just through activities then - which have also been developed in partnership with the community - but also through the very spaces guests of Gangtey Lodge inhabit, are they immersed in the Bhutanese heritage of spirituality and history.

 

At Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in Nepal, the staff is largely from the local community and most have been there for several years. Clearly empowered and with the knowledge that they are as much a part of a guest’s experience as the surroundings, they themselves are the advocates for how responsible hotels contribute to and become part of community, and how travellers can catch a glimpse of authentic local life, not through forced entertainment but by simply walking and talking with staff, gleaning tidbits of local history and culture in the most authentic, genuine and real of settings.

 

Since becoming a member of the Regenerative Travel community in 2019, I as a young hotelier have had the opportunity to observe and learn from these practises of my peers and incorporate what I can into my own operation. 

 

When I first met and listened to other member hotel founders talk about their process, their studies, their commitments before laying their first brick, it gave me pause. I had most certainly not gone about building a business with the honouring of place as its central tenet. I had arrived in Colombia and very overtly set about building a beach club that was inspired by my experience living in and travelling the Mediterranean. I would tell anyone who asked that the idea behind Blue Apple Beach was to serve good french rosé, food that you couldn’t get at the other island resorts in Cartagena, and international music. I had arrived in a city I wanted to call home and was set on creating a part of what had been my home, right there. Was I the brash conquistador - ignorant, insensitive, inconsiderate?

 

Probably. 

 

But was there an unintended silver lining to my actions? Well… I’m a member now after all. 

For that, I am grateful to Regenerative Travel  for their nuanced approach to responsible travel and hospitality. It is this nuance which has allowed me to learn from my peers while also recognising - and celebrating - something that we were getting right. I am no academic. When I started my business there was no budget for a study. But something that happened from the first moment, was that right there, in the touristic jewel in Colombia’s crown, our two properties have been patronised by Colombians. For many of my clients, a weak currency, low local salaries and visa issues make international travel difficult with high barriers to entry.  Yet why should a taste of the international be beyond their reach? Stepping into our properties teleports them across oceans and borders, for the price of a glass of french rosé. Many say to me ‘When I am there, I feel like I am a million miles away from Cartagena.’ 

 

This year, we were the first mainstream venue in our city to launch a series of regular LGBTQI+ events - something I very much borrowed from open London culture. The first was not a financial success.  A regular client of mine, in his 50s, who came out only five years ago, told me beforehand: 'Querida, you must understand, being openly gay in our society is now tolerated, but it is not celebrated. We do not want to be in your face.’  To support us, he came to the event anyway. And when he saw young people in their 20s and 30s cavorting in drag, dancing, dressed in everything from feathers to leathers, not giving a damn about what anyone thought, he came to me and wept. ‘This is how I wish it had been for me.’ he said. 'You must continue, so that this becomes normal for all of us.' Our last edition of the event was one of our busiest days of the whole year. No academic study would have led us down this path, but I feel we have given something to our community that is meaningful and I hope, spreads beyond our business. 

 

Sometimes, in our zeal to respect everything local, we can deny people the joy of discovering something new in their own backyard. As one client (who had travelled overseas) said to me once: ‘Imagine if you Londoners could only eat English cuisine. You have honoured us by giving us - locals - something to which we didn’t have access before’.  

 

Through my experiences on the ground, making mistakes, correcting mistakes, sometimes getting things right without meaning to, I have learned the importance of context. Of nuance. And of timing. I have learned that there are definitive principles that can guide us as we move about the world, but that the most important thing is humility. To continually ask: ‘Am I doing this right? Is this still appropriate? Can I do more?’

 

In my position as Standard Bearer for this company I have now had countless conversations with hoteliers about diversity and how they portray it in social media. Properties that are respectful, supportive of their local communities, that pay fair wages and run non-profits alongside their businesses, might realise that they’ve never put a photograph of a local person as a client on their website or their Instagram. We can honour a place, we can honour traditions, customs and culture. We must also honour people, their aspirations and opportunity, not within the context of our expectation for them, but the context of our expectation for any person. 

 

 Yes, I still serve French rosé.

 

But... we’ve also developed a supply chain assessment tool that enables us to better support our local community economically, purchasing local, sustainable products wherever we can.  Through this, we have discovered talent and expertise on our doorstep. And what of that talent? So many of us working in leadership in tourism are new arrivals - misplaced, immigrants, foreigners, outsiders. One of the most notable aspects of our industry, whenever I attend a conference or these days, a zoom call, is how much of the tourism experience is owned and operated by people like me, who have imported themselves into the place they’re now calling home. 

 

For me and for any conscious hotelier, it’s something that requires careful and considerate thought. 

While we are training local people to take on our top managerial roles and all of our deputies are from Cartagena - we currently have a motley crew of immigrants that make up our management team. Hungarian, British, French, Venezuelan, American. At first glance, this goes against every best practice I promote - why is local talent not running the show? Are we just a boutique version of those big hotel brands where the manager is always a french man in his 50s?

 

Rather than immediately fire our managers, all of whom have lived in Cartagena for several years and are entwined in the fabric of our community, I stopped to think. 

 

We are a relatively new business.  Our local team members (most of whom came to us fully untrained) clearly enjoy their engagement with foreign managers and could not be prouder to count foreigners as friends and colleagues, to develop international peer networks, to be able to debate whether Hungarian wines really can compete with the French. For the moment, I believe that the international environment we have created serves our local team by exposing them to different professional cultures. I am also committed to ensuring that we create continuous growth opportunities for them. We are transitioning to B-Corp to ensure our commitment to them in the long term. 

I left my last job because I didn’t feel a sense of ownership. Arguably, as a well remunerated employee, even after 8 years, I didn’t deserve ownership. I had given my time in exchange for a salary, but I had taken no risk, paid no capital. In the case of tourism, though, our income, our success depends on the natural and human resources of where we are. How can we ensure that they’re benefitting equitably? I might be good at what I do, but Cartagena and the island I work on are a big factor of our success. After all, no one was visiting a beach club in East Anglia

I have spoken to other hoteliers who share my thoughts, and who would like to incorporate local employee ownership structures into their businesses, into their legacy planning, or even hand over the hotel entirely upon retirement, but who are cautious of the risks involved (especially after 2020) not wanting to burden their staff financially or operationally, without properly preparing them and equipping them for the task. To this, I do not yet have an answer. 

Of course, it is not only through people that we can learn a history and sense of place.

 

Much of indigenous wisdom stems from a deep human connection to and an ancient understanding of, the natural world. Although not an indigenous writer, I was struck by the awe and detail with which Merlin Sheldrake explores the natural world in his magical ode to fungi, the book ‘Entangled Life’. Writing about how his understanding of humanity has shifted with his learnings about nature, he talks about an old professor of his, an ecologist and historian, who studied the ways in which ecosystems have shaped - and been shaped by - human cultures for thousands of years. Professor Rackham, he says “took us to nearby forests, and told us about the history of these places and their human inhabitants by reading the twists and splits in the branches of old oak trees, by observing where nettles thrived, by noting which plants did or didn’t grow in a hedgerow. Under Rackham's influence, the clean line I had imagined dividing ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ started to blur.”

 

As we reflect therefore, and look beyond those ‘colourful cultures’ that we honour for a moment on holiday and that end up as picture postcards on our fridges, we know inherently that the concept of place runs deeper. It is one that considers an eternally interwoven web of nature, community, economy, of human history and ecology. We also know that our own place is an endlessly shifting combination of our home, our town, our country and of course, this glorious planet, and that the wellbeing of all of our places is interconnected and interdependent, regardless of our personal, local or national customs. 

 

Over my short five years as a hotelier and two years in the world of sustainability and regeneration, I have come to believe that to live responsibly, considerately, is simply, to do one’s best, to always to respect and honour everything around us, all that has come before us and to consider who, and what will come after us.  And to apply this whether we are at home or whether we are travelling - definitions that I see becoming increasingly blurred as we move into a new era. 

Take a moment to think deeply about sense of place and how to honour it. And consider this rather lovely definition of ‘place’, from Yi Fu Tuan, the author of “Space and Place” 

 

“Place has more substance than the word location suggests. It has history and meaning. Place incarnates the experiences and aspirations of a people. Place is not only a fact to be explained in the border frame of space, but it is also a reality to be clarified and understood from the perspective of the people who have given it meaning.”

September 2021

Regenerative Travel Summit