Playa Viva at Responsible Travel Conference at Stanford

Playa Viva was invited to present at the CREST (Center for Responsible Travel) Conference in Stanford this past week. The conference had an all-star line up of speakers and with the theme of “Rethinking Coastal Tourism Development: The Importance of Innovators in Times of Climate Change & Economic Crisis” that brought together an excellent set of developers, operators and NGO’s in this field.

What were some of the key highlights of this event for us?  First, meeting and spending time with Deborah Szekely (read her bio, it is most inspiring), founder of Rancho La Puerta which is celebrating its 70th year of operation.  As a matriarch of the industry, she doled out soulful and thoughtful stories and advice on being sustainable.  One of Playa Viva’s core missions is to “Create A Living Legacy”, spending time with Deborah reminded me of what this legacy might become.  Tecate, where Rancho La Puerta is located had only 400 people when they first started, similar to the 400 folks who live in Juluchuca. Today Tecate has over 100,000 inhabitants and two mayors and many city council members where once busboys, waiters and manicurists at Rancho La Puerta.  Their dedication to education, training and developing their staff has proven to be a strong component of that legacy.

The line up of speakers included excellent talks from oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Dr. David Orr (on greening Oberlin College) and Lisa Curran (Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Roger and Cynthia Lang Professor in Environmental Anthropology).  But one of the real “rock stars” of the event was Chris Blackwell, Founder and Owner, Island Records and Outpost Resorts, Jamaica. Fascinating to hear Chris’ story on signing Steve Winwood Bob Marley, but on a personal note, hearing Chris discuss his battle with his operation team to not put air-conditioning in his rooms was just as interesting. The operator pushed for air-conditioning saying it would lower their ability to rent rooms and reach needed occupancy levels.  Chris eventually relented but only with a policy of renting rooms at $25 less per night for those who did not operate the air-conditioning. We, at Playa Viva, are proud that we could construct and operate with no A/C (this win might have more to do with our being on the Pacific Coast of Mexico over Chris being in more humid Jamaica).

Playa Viva participated on a panel on Innovations in Community Development and Engagement.  Our presentation was well received.  We focused on our background in environmental and community responsibility from Rainforest2Reef.org to Casa Viva Troncones and now Playa Viva.  We then addressed key influencer’s in our community development strategy including Chris Carfi (looking at virtual and real communities and their overlap), Regenesis (history of place and the aspirations of the community) and most recently our work with Verde Ventures and Conservation International on how our community engagement plan addresses the key securities. We addressed three case studies including our work with La Tortuga Feliz (turtle sanctuary), TerraCycle in developing local manufacturing and finally our work with the local salt cooperative in developing Sal Viva. In summary, our key innovations revolved around promoting a local living economy (influenced by BALLE) and promoting a holistic approach. For a copy of the presentation, go to SlideShare or see below.

What would make the conference move from good to great: staying regional, participation from government officials in tourism and more time to work collaboratively and less time in presentations.  To plug a different type of event, Opportunity Collaboration does this well, they have a “no powerpoint” and “no panel” policy, creating a space with plenty of time for meaningful collaboration.  If you are in the sustainable tourism business, we highly recommend attending the next CREST event as well as the Opportunity Collaboration event in Ixtapa, Mexico.

In summary, one of the underlying issues at the CREST event was “can you be both big and sustainable?” Can you develop a large resort and still be truly sustainable.  This was most evident in a presentation by David Butterfield related to his project and work at Loreto Bay.  Conclusions from his presentation: he stated they were way under capitalized ($19 million on a $600 million project), crucial mistakes like the $10 million dollars spent on clay brick design that seemed like the most sustainable policy to begin with but backfired on them for various reasons and finally the fact that they entered with quotes for building homes at $60-68 per square foot that eventually cost $200 per square foot. The reason for this massive discrepancy, scale. That is, it was cheaper to build single homes or a smaller number of units, but due to location and other factors, scale make it cost prohibitive.  So what does that say about that underlying issue of the event, “can you be sustainable and big at the the same time?”

Special thanks to Mark Spalding and the Ocean Foundation for their support of Playa Viva, La Tortuga Feliz and for inviting us to participate in this panel and event.

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