If hospitality is the open-arm embrace of the other, and hostility is the fear-driven, spear tip at the throat of the other—both words linked, etymologically, all the way back to the proto-Indo-European word ghóstis—enemy, guest, stranger, host—then today, more than ever, those of us in the hospitality industry have an important choice to make: do we choose winner-take-all business plans or do we open our arms ever wider in the hopes of doing good and making the world a better place?
Personally, I’m all for doing good. And what I love about this industry is how easy it is to learn from other operators who are truly innovative and visionary. Meet a handful of individuals who are at the top of my list to ‘borrow’ from, inspired by their efforts, success and care and concern for others.
Ben Pundole & Tansy Kaschak
My two years collaborating with Ben Pundole on hotel projects around the globe—Bodrum, Reykjavik, Playa del Carmen, Toyko, Los Angeles, Singapore and Abu Dhabi—were amazing. I’m still learning from Ben, an industry pioneer who first programmed unique experiences for Ian Schrager’s boutique hotels, and later was one of the earliest voices championing the elimination of single use plastics from hotels. Conversations with Ben and his life/business partner Tansy Kaschak during their recent retreat to Baja California helped me realize that ‘responsible hospitality’ is the way forward.
“Sustainable, eco-conscious hospitality,” says Ben, “is a term that has been overused and diluted. The times call for a new type of hospitality, one that is both socially responsible and environmentally sensitive across all aspects of an operation, taking into account environmental needs as well as local needs and greater diversity. And where we must, as responsible operators, nurture others, embracing not only our guests, but even more so our neighbors and staff.”
In order to lean into this new, more responsible hospitality, one starts by posing the right questions. “We must ask ourselves first,” says Tansy, editor-in-chief of A Hotel Life, an award-winning travel platform, “how can we be more involved with the communities we operate in, through ways that better these communities and the lives of their residents? With that goal comes a golden opportunity to inspire guests to do good.”
Walking the talk, Tansy has subtly repositioned A Hotel Life to help her readers travel more thoughtfully, gently educating in a way that won’t make any one feel guilty staying in a hotel, no matter how modest or luxurious. Ben, after many years with Edition Hotels, recently co-founded ALARA Hotels, a hospitality consultancy agency that is currently word-of-mouth only, working with a handful of clients who share Ben and his partners’ belief that responsible business practices are the future for the hospitality industry.
“No one’s doing responsible hospitality really well just yet,” admits Ben. But many in the industry who are trying, would do well to follow Tansy’s advice of “while it’s easy to fall short right now–there’s just so much to do—the key is to identify the small changes that you can immediately make that have an impact and send the right message.”
Five minutes with Harsha L’Acqua, the founder of Saira Hospitality, on the phone or in person, and I’m totally pumped up. “I knew at an early age,” says Harsha, “that I didn’t have the patience to go old school like my father, who made his money and then, later in life, while working closely with Mother Teresa, started to give some of it away to charity. I had to figure out a way to do good now. And the answer was to combine philanthropy and hospitality.”
Harsha founded Saira Hospitality in 2015, with the understanding that teaching hospitality skills would have a lasting positive impact on communities around the world where, due to a lack of experience and education, many people were unemployed or under-employed. Her initial business model—to avoid the time and effort fundraising required as well as the lack of sustainability it affords non-profits–called for hotel brands or owners to fund pop-up hospitality schools taught by Saira Hospitality. This model was eagerly embraced and led to early engagements with the Bunkhouse Group and Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts in Mexico, Habitas in Namibia as well as with Virgin Limited Edition, Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, and Autograph Collection in the British Virgin Islands.
The most important lesson she’s learned so far is to listen. “It’s critical to have a mindful approach and not just drop in and give the local community what you think they need,” says Harsha. “It starts with listening and conversing in order to understand what their real needs are—whether it be water, transportation or better health care—and helping with that in addition to providing hospitality job training.” Next up for Harsha is an effort to expand the business model for the non-profit, pop-up schools by tapping into diverse funding streams, including government grants. Simultaneously, she is leading a fundraising effort to establish permanent schools in East London and Cabo San Lucas to provide a lasting impact as well as hopefully alleviate some of the consistent staff turnover that plagues the hospitality industry.
If Tulum is magical, then Habitas Tulum might be the center of that magic. Magic I felt with my first steps onto the property. Whether it was the gigantic Oriental rug overlooking the ocean—yoga at sunrise or an evening concert; the glowing, wood-fired kitchen and a night sky filled with stars; or my fellow guests…it was impossible to pin down. But it’s a magic that arose out of community. After seven years attending Burning Man, Eduardo Castillo & Kfir Levy began Habitas in 2014 to host retreats throughout the year to connect with fellow Burners. Then in 2017, along with their fellow co-founder Oliver Ripley, Tulum beckoned, and the opportunity arose to create a permanent base leading to the first Habitas ‘home.’
“Our mindset from the start was to genuinely care,” says Eduardo, “because it was clear that the world needed to change in so many ways. For us it was not about making money, but creating a platform that disrupts by bringing positive change and sustainability to the communities that Habitas is located in through hospitality.” Habitas has been successful in creating and supporting local micro-economies whether they be manufacturing their modular hotel rooms and offering plant-forward menus that support local farmers in Mexico, or Habitas Nambia buying their bracelets from the Ju/’hoan women and their Myrrh from the local Himba community. Perhaps even more importantly, Habitas, unlike many destination resorts, provides equal pay for equal roles, gives priority to local employment and encourages the use of employees’ native language in the workplace.
Doing good not only amps up the magic, but also helps drive more opportunities. Thanks to their success in Tulum and Nambia, Habitas is about to open two new properties—Habitas Bacalar, a holistic oasis located in a remote location south of Tulum, and Habitas AlUla in Saudi Arabia near Hergra, an ancient Nabatean archeological wonder and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ed Francis, a Clubhouse pal and founder of the London-based hospitality consultancy The Rebel Company, is an example of someone who fell in love in the business as a teenage dishwasher, rose through the ranks and with success has made it a priority to do more. “Two years ago, I realized that it was important for me to make a genuine impact beyond just making money,” says Ed. “And I asked myself, what could I do for my community and the wider world?”
Ed’s answer was two-fold—first with his business and secondly as an individual. Securing clients—like the London-based Nemi Teas, a community interest company—who shared a similar philosophy and were willing to pay a 1 percent invoice surcharge that The Rebel Company matched, enabled Ed to establish The Rebel Foundation. In return, Ed and his team—creatives with strong operational chops—are assisting Nemi Teas, whose mission is to provide employment to refugees so that they better integrate in the United Kingdom, in developing and opening a new café model. “The reality is,” says Ed, “no matter how well-intentioned one is, no one is going to order a shit cup of tea just because a refugee made it. Our skills on the operations side will help make the café work as well as better equip the staff for long-term success in the UK.”
Ed defines purpose-driven hospitality as doing more than you have to, doing more than you need to, and going above and beyond best practices while involving all stakeholders. For Ed, that does not only mean building a more responsible and equitable company. It also means committing time as an individual to ensuring the success of the The Rebel Foundation, which will be launching shortly and aims through education and career mentoring to improve the lives of impoverished young women in India, one-at-a-time, by helping them attain productive careers in the creative or hospitality industries.
Some of us travel to disconnect, others for culture. But if you’re looking for a thrill, there is nothing like rafting Class 5 rapids on the Futaleufú River in Chile’s Patagonia region, paddling in unison with four ex-rugby mates and dedicated fellow adrenaline junkies. I was lucky enough, over two decades ago, to join Eric Hertz’s Earth River Expeditions on one of the early trips down the Futaleufú, at a time when Eric was leading the fight to save this wonderful and wild river from being damned.
“We had lost the battle to preserve the BioBío River further north in Chile,” says Eric, “and the threat of jail-time had chased us out of China trying to save the upper Yangtze. I was determined not to lose the Futaleufú as well. And I just knew that we couldn’t do successful conservation work without being in sync with the communities along the river and their needs.”
Success—saving the Futaleufú and improving the lives of the people who lived along it—became a single effort. Eric’s ‘megaphone’ strategy to bring celebrities and opinion-makers down the river, combined with pioneering one of the first multi-sport, multi-lodge river expedition services, helped spark a much greater awareness of the danger the river and Patagonia itself faced from proposed development. 20-plus years later, the Futaleufú still runs wild and has become a top adventure destination for Chileans, creating new business like locally-owned expedition services and remote lodges supported not only by rafting and kayaking but also hiking, mountain biking and fly fishing enthusiasts. One of Eric’s most cherished wins has been helping to banish the fear of the Futaleufú itself. “Older generations,” says Eric, “viewed the river with terrible fear and avoided it. But with the younger generations, kayaking has become part of their lifestyle as they embraced the river with several even becoming sponsored, world-class kayakers. It helps that the town of Futaleufú is one of the best places in the world to learn to kayak—there’s always great water and so many different types of water to learn on.”
Hospitality is one of the last great face-to-face businesses left standing in the world. It’s impossible to travel virtually, to experience everything the world has to offer through a cell phone screen, or to truly understand the difference you can make without doing it in person. It’s just us, and the other. No matter what side of the equation you’re on—host or stranger, stranger or host, the choice comes down to: Are you willing, or not, to help make the small and large changes required to help others and make the world a more caring, equitable place?