Hans Pfister, president of Cayuga Collection, joined me from San Jose, Costa Rica to talk about sustainable tourism. We spent our time discussing how he does things differently with his group of sustainable luxury hotels. He says, “Fire can be something very useful, but it can also be very destructive. Tourism is the same way.” He urges the hospitality industry and consumers alike to think local, think long-term, and get creative.
I was very lucky to visit one of the Cayuga Collection resorts, Senda Monteverde, two years ago. While we were there, I kept thinking, “this is so different from any place I have ever experienced.” And I grew up in the tourism industry, so that says a lot. We genuinely became friends with the staff, and we relished the moments living in harmony with wildlife and eating exquisite local food. It set the bar high for future travel, and I haven’t been able to find anything else like it.
This led me to reach out to Hans and ask if he would be willing to come on the show and tell me what he does to create such an amazing sustainable tourism experience, while still having a positive impact on the local community, the animals, and the earth. He agreed! And you can listen, watch or read about our conversation below.
5 Simple Ideas to Be a Conscious Traveler:
1. ASK QUESTIONS. Call the hotel that we are thinking of booking. Ask them, “What do you do to be sustainable? What does sustainability mean for you?” If we get a good answer, we can feel comfortable booking. When we’re at the destination, ask the staff questions such as, “How did this place look 20 years ago before tourism? Has it improved? Is it worse?”
2. COMMUNICATE. Share what we find while asking those questions with the people in our lives. Let them know when we find a good hotel or tour and recommend that they use the same one. Let them know when we don’t feel good about what we’ve seen, and recommend that they don’t use that one.
3. TRAVEL IN THE OFF SEASON. This helps alleviate the pressure on communities that occurs when everyone shows up at the same time (e.g. holidays, school breaks). As a bonus, we can usually get good deals during these off times.
4. AVOID ALL INCLUSIVE RESORTS & CRUISES. The money is all concentrated in one place, and often it is not the local community. If we visit a country and move around to several areas, we purchase from various restaurants, we hire local guides, and we stay in multiple hotels, spreading our money around.
5. DON’T FEED ANIMALS OR TAKE SELFIES. A big part of sustainable tourism is the animals. Wild animals don’t enjoy being held by strangers. And when they are fed by strangers, it takes them out of their natural habitat. We should do our best to watch them in their natural element from a distance.
What Should We Look for in Sustainable Hotels?
Hans walked me through how he and his team at Cayuga Collection lead the sustainable tourism industry, doing things differently than other luxury hotels. These are the types of things that we can look for when we call a hotel to potentially book a reservation for our trips:
- local staff only, no expats
- offer 10-15 year growth toward management career paths, with training
- each resort is privately owned and unique, but owners, management, and staff all share the same values and motivations
- innovation contests among employees
- gender equality workplace training with Hillary Clinton’s Vital Voices foundation
- host events to bring staff together such as yoga, beach walks, & socials
- local – the closer the food, the more luxurious, fresher, healthier & more sustainable
- expert chefs train local staff, rather than running the kitchen themselves
- culinary consultants help plan menus, but the local team decides
- honest food, not too fancy but very nice and indicative of the local culture
- exciting vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options
- bamboo or papaya straws, no plastic
BUILDING STRUCTURES & DEVELOPMENT:
- remodel an old resort that has been abandoned and gone bankrupt
- build structures where industry is already happening, dissemble, and then reassemble gently in undeveloped areas
- choose to build a small footprint, such a small bungalows rather than large many-room developments
INFRASTRUCTURE (ELECTRICITY, WATER, ETC):
- local owners and architect
- option to use cross ventilation by opening windows & doors in the rooms, without turning on air conditioning
- solar water heating
- produce some of own electricity
- native plants in gardens that don’t need to be watered extensively
- water saving devices in guest rooms
FURNITURE & ROOM DECOR:
- all furniture sourced locally
- build furniture from trees that have fallen in the attached rainforest
- every chair, mirror, piece of art in the room sourced from local artists, each with its own story
- a lot of up-cycled and recycled materials used in the pieces
- every hotel in the group is different and unique
- biodegradable cleaning products
- shampoo and soap are organic and made locally, offered in refillable dispensers
- no single use plastics used
TOURS & EXCURSIONS:
- stainless steel water bottles instead of plastic water bottles
- really strict policy of not feeding animals
- no animal selfies or touching animals
- small group sizes (no more than 8, but most tours are private)
- tours that support local businesses and showcase local culture
WATCH THE EPISODE:
Closed captioning transcript included in video. Subscribe on YouTube.
Profits versus people:
Hans shares that profit versus people does not need to be an either/or conversation in sustainable tourism. We can invest in people and grow profits. And Cayuga Collection is showing that this is possible. Step one is that the Cayuga team and their property owner counterparts share common values and objectives around sustainability, people and ethics. This helps with decision making.
He shares that they focus on the long term when it comes to profit. They don’t do quick fixes that result in a quick turnaround with negative long-term impacts. Instead, they make choices that will pay off on a longer timeline.
They invest in local staff, giving them training over 10-15 years, with a specific focus on creating career paths. This is in opposition to a lot of other hotels in the area who will hire expats from Europe, the UK, the US, etc. to do the management or chef positions.
They’ve learned to invest in women and after a slip in equity of male to female jobs in the pandemic, they have worked hard to bring the balance back in place and provide gender equality work-based training. Hans references a program they’re using from Hillary Clinton’s Vital Voices foundation.
Hans also spoke about an innovation contest they ran to reward staff members for creative problem solving and solutions. They invest in gardens with native species that will take a long time to develop (as opposed to grass for instance). Although these take longer, they will sustain the local environment better.
Further Reading on Sustainable Tourism:
Hans Pfister is co-founder, CEO and Marketing Director of the Cayuga Collection of Sustainable Luxury Hotels and Lodges in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua.
He strongly believes in “walking the talk” when it comes to sustainability and is very passionate about customer service in hospitality. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and has been invited to share his experiences at Ivy League Universities. He writes a weekly blog on sustainability topics and is a regular contributor for hospitality publications.
Hans has served on the Advisory Board of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World and is the Regional Vice President for Mexico, Central and South America for the Cornell Hotel Society.
Born and raised in southern Germany, Hans began his career with the European tradition of apprenticeship at a luxury hotel in the Black Forest and went on to receive a degree from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, New York. He has more than 25 years of experience in hospitality in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.
Hans speaks English, German and Spanish fluently, and is proficient in French. He loves to travel the world, eat locally and explore the outdoors.
About Cayuga Collection:
At Cayuga Collection, they are on a mission to break new ground in eco-luxe travel, and enrich the lives of curious travelers, everywhere.
Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality is dedicated to managing and developing small, sustainable luxury hotels, resorts and lodges in Latin America. From their home base in San José, Costa Rica, they’ve proudly led ecolodge and boutique hotel management in Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua since 1999.
The owners of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality are Andrea Bonilla and Hans Pfister, both graduates of the Cornell University Hotel School and dedicated ecotourism professionals.
The Cayuga Collection is made up of 7, independently-owned hotels in different regions of Central America.
- Kura Hotel – a boutique, adults-only hotel high in the Uvita rainforest.
- Hotel Aguas Claras – exuberant wildlife and crystal clear beaches frame this boutique hotel on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast
- Jicaro Island Lodge – hidden away on Lake Nicaragua, this is a nine-casitas retreat
- Arenas Del Mar – beachfront, ocean views, rainforest, wildlife, and Manuel Antonio National Park on your doorstep
- Senda Monteverde – cozy mountain lodge in the cloud forest
- Isla Palenque – a rare place, rich in primary forest with 7 secluded beaches and a sacred history of archaeological significance
- Grano de Oro Heritage Hotel – a turn-of-the-century, Tropical Victorian mansion in San José
Connect with Hans:
The best place to start is with the website:
- Website: CayugaCollection.com
- Email: hans@CayugaOnline.com
- Blog: Cayugacollection.com/cayuga-sustainable-travel-blog/
- Instagram: @CayugaCollection
- Facebook: @CayugaCollection