Hans Pfister, president and co-owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality, a Costa Rica-based company that currently manages eight hotels in different regions of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, brings over 20 years of global experience in the hotel business. A frequent speaker at sustainability conferences, Mr Pfister shares his insights on how to develop a sustainable luxury hotel, make it stand out and make it thrive.
Hotelier International: Sustainability has been such a buzzword the last few years. Do you feel it’s falling out of fashion as a given property’s selling point?
Hans Pfister: Sustainability shouldn’t be used strongly in your promotional message. You should be doing the right things, and you can certainly tell a story about them, but you shouldn’t go out and say: we’re a sustainable property. When you say you’re sustainable, it’s dangerous because there are always areas where you are not.In our case, sustainability being in fashion or not doesn’t affect the performance of our hotels. That’s because sustainability is not really that important to guests in their decision-making process. Once they’re at the hotel, they appreciate it; it’s an added value. But when they’re making a decision on where to stay, it’s not in the top five decision-making factors. People are more interested in location, activities, price, food and service. Regardless, we’ve done sustainability in the early 1990s, and we’re still doing it now. And, frankly, whether it’s in fashion or not, I don’t care.
HI: Can you think of any revealing moments you’ve had recently that made you realize you’re doing something right with your sustainable journey?
HP: There are two things that I’ve noticed over the years that make me think we’re doing the right thing. The first has to do with conservation. I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I see a lot more wildlife than I did then – more scarlet macaws, agoutis and forest turkeys. Private reserves and conservation activities are really having an impact. What’s even more important and what makes me get up every day with a smile is to see the development of the people. To see a receptionist promoted to general manager, to see someone who has worked in construction at one of our properties become middle management. When I talk to our employees, when I hear their stories, I know that’s what it’s all about, seeing how their lives get better. Another thing: There are a lot of people trying to copy us, and that’s good. For example, ten years ago we started offering sustainability tours at our properties and now a lot of hotels in Costa Rica are offering such tours to their guests. Also, we created a position of sustainability coordinator at Lapa Rios, someone in charge of sustainability at the hotel. Now many hotels have that position, too. That’s a good thing because overall it moves us all in the right direction.
HI: If you could start the endeavor again, what would you do differently and what would you repeat over and over again?
HP: One of the things that we’ve done right is making sure we work with the right projects and the right owners. For example, we’ve been working with the owners of Lapa Rios for 15 years now and that’s definitely a great fit. The owners are committed to sustainability, to the community, to conservation. They have the right values, and we’re all on the same page. And that is the case with all of our current clients. Over the years though we got involved with some projects where either the owners didn’t have that commitment to sustainability or it just wasn’t the right project. What I would repeat over and over again is our focus on human resources. We’re a people company. We talk to each other. We respect each other. We spend money on training and developing people. That’s something that has worked very well for us. As for what I would do differently… I’d make us more tech savvy. A lot of how we do things is old fashioned. There are easier ways if you apply technology. It’s partially due to our locations in remote areas and in a country that’s not that developed technology-wise. That’s an aspect where we have a lot of room for improvement, and we’re working on it right now.
HI: What is your biggest dilemma and challenge as founder and torch-bearer of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality?
HP: It’s not easy to pick out that one thing, as there are many challenges. Something we’ve tried to do in the past two years is to remove Andrea (Bonilla, the other owner of Cayuga) and myself from everyday operations. But we’re probably still too involved and not taking a strategic enough role in the company. We’re still dealing with things that we really shouldn’t be dealing with at this point. For example, I’m running all the marketing at Cayuga, all the social media campaigns we do. And really, I shouldn’t be doing this anymore. Don’t get me wrong, we’re hoteliers at heart, we love to take care of the client, to fix this and that. But at the point our company is right now and where it’s headed, we should refocus our attention on the more strategic big picture.
HI: What advice would you give to hotel owners and developers looking to boost their performance while keeping a green focus?
HP:Invest in people. Offer training, boost motivation, give rewards. For example, we do training sessions where we bring all the employees to San Jose for two days of intensive workshops. But it’s not training people how to clean a room or do check-in. It’s about more general advice they can apply in their work lives. This year we did a day called “Cayuga TED Talks: Expand Your Horizon,” where we invited seven people to talk about completely different things in 40-minute presentations. One was running an adventure race, another discussed healthy nutrition, yet another talked about finding your inner self. Hopefully these presentations get our people thinking and inspire them to make the right decisions on a different level. We find that these events have a huge impact on motivation, performance and development of our staff.