Behind The Green Interview

Hans Pfister | Cayuga Collection | Costa Rica, Panama & Nicaragua

Behind The Green Interview

Hans Pfister | Cayuga Collection | Costa Rica, Panama & Nicaragua

With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, Behind The Green takes it back to BASICS. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from the visionaries and teams behind the world’s leading sustainable stays. As well as inspiring experts that help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT tourism.

Written by Rebecca Woolford

National Geographic World Legacy award winners, this isn’t your average hotel collection…

It was as clear as day. Even if it was through the lens of a video call.

Hans Pfister embodied both energy and warmth. With a big wide smile greeting me, I knew we’d get on well. Connecting with the visionaries behind the world’s best sustainable and regenerative stays, it never gets old to hear stories like this.

Hans is the President of the impressive Cayuga Collection. With 8 independently-owned sustainable hotels across Central America, they’ve been putting people and the planet before profit for over 20 years. Alongside his loyal team, this collection of small eco-conscious hotels provides year-round employment to 100s of local people and protects over 1,500 acres of rainforest.

Discover below how Hans navigates his own travels, why an award-winning collection like his still sees areas for improvement, and what travel ‘done right’ looks like to him.

So, let’s start at the beginning. What was the journey that led you to become the president of a sustainable hotel collection?

“Well I’m originally from Germany and I was lucky to grow up in the area of the Black Forest which initially instilled my passion for the great outdoors.

I landed in Costa Rica back in 1994 which immediately developed my interest in sustainability. I’d studied hotel administration in New York, so when arriving in Costa Rica I was able to bring these 2 passions together: hospitality and sustainability.

With my business partner, we founded Cayuga which is a company that helps owners of lodges and small hotels in far, remote locations. Think of it like a Hilton, but instead of large resorts, we focus on smaller places.

Our smallest hotel is 8 rooms and the largest is 37 rooms. They are intentionally not very big. We look for a symbiosis between sustainability and luxury travel.

I know from my own research that the local community sits at the very heart of your approach, in every location. Why in your opinion must this come first?

“One thing I’ve learned over the years is that nature conservation happens through people. And if people are not happy, or employed, or don’t have enough to eat, or don’t see a future, then it’s hard for them to take care of nature or feel inspired to be part of the solutions.

For over 20 years, people have been our focus at Cayuga. And by ‘people’ I’m referring to our guests, the owners of the hotels, and the employees; as well as the people living in the community.

Local employment is essential for authentic sustainability. I’m not just talking about the cleaners and gardeners but inspiring local people to be the next general managers and head chefs. It’s about creating opportunities for local people right across the board.

In most hotels, people from outside of the local community are often brought in. This commitment to ‘local people’ does require a bigger investment in time and resources, as professionals don’t exactly fall off the trees in these remote areas. But we know that if you focus on the local people first, really magical things can happen.

One young woman who is from the local area started out as a receptionist, today she is the general manager. A gentleman who began as a gardener has grown to become a food and beverage manager. This approach creates a really special and unique experience for our guests too.”

As we both know well, some destinations seem to get tourism right, while others get it dramatically wrong. What does travel ‘done right’ look like to you?

“Travel done right is when the money generated by tourism reaches the right pockets. In Costa Rica, the tourism model encourages money generated by tourism to reach local pockets more so than many other destinations.

At our sustainable hotels, we encourage guests to interact and engage with the local people as much as possible. To get outside and immerse in the culture, food, history, etc. This is in contrast to many large resorts which are often like cruise ships on land, encouraging tourism leakage. And we all know the negative impacts of large cruise liners, but that’s a topic for another day.”

Like many things in life, the definition of sustainable travel is forever evolving. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen, both good and bad, over the last 20 years?

“Back in 1995, I implemented our first-ever sustainability initiative. Back then people were looking at me thinking ‘oh that’s sweet’.

These days I do see a greater respect for what we do and have been doing for many years. Today I’m also seeing more awareness about the topic of sustainable travel which is great. But there is also a lot of confusion about what it means and the confusion is magnified by greenwashing.”

With greenwashing in tourism, how do you personally navigate this unfortunate aspect we are seeing unfold?

“When I see some travel brands winning eco awards out there I think… really? Surely not.

Honestly, I don’t buy into many of the sustainability awards which are now out there. You’ve got to ask how much digging is happening before the awards are given. It’s the same with certifications.

There are only 2 sustainability awards that I’m genuinely proud of, these were from National Geographic and the WTC. We’ve won many other awards, but I don’t pay them any attention. These are the only 2 awards that actually sent people to our sustainable hotels, who took the time to turn over every rock, that went back of the house, and investigated whether what we said we did was what we actually did in reality.”

Tourism leakage is a major issue in which the vast majority of money generated by visitors doesn’t reach the pockets of local people and economies. How does the Cayuga Collection combat this problem?

“When you focus on people and local, all of a sudden most of the money stays in the right pockets. This is baked into our model and our DNA. We can’t be any other way. We’ve done some internal studies on this and it’s something like 90% of the money stays within the country or local areas.

In the past, we’ve walked away from some great hotel opportunities because the owners did not want to go the extra mile to take care of the staff and were not interested in investing in sustainable practices.”

As someone who’s been speaking about sustainable travel for 20 years, how do you navigate your own travels in a climate and biodiversity crisis?

“When I travel I am always on the lookout for opportunities to connect with nature. Firstly, I tend to stay in smaller places that have a lighter impact, often off the beaten path. Second, I’m passionate about connecting with local culinary experiences. And finally, making my travels count.

And the 500-pound gorilla in this industry is flying. When I do fly I always offset. Although it’s not the perfect solution by any means, it’s the least I can do.”

Sustainable and regenerative travel is a forever-evolving journey. Where do you see the biggest areas for improvement for Cayuga Collection?

“Our hotels are all in different remote locations. Each one has its own unique opportunity and challenges. It’s not one single improvement that I see for them all. Let me explain…

One of our places is in a mountain location and we need to improve the wastewater treatment here. So we are looking at how we can update the current system we have in place.

Another one of the hotels is in a water-stressed environment on an island. So the improvements we need to make here are to find better ways to conserve water and reduce our usage.”

What’s next for Cayuga Collection?

“Next up, we are going to celebrate 20 years of Cayuga. And celebrate surviving the last 3 years!

We are very picky about who we work with, and the locations we take on. So although we would like to continue to grow, it will be slow growth. Both in terms of bringing on more locations, as well as growing within the existing hotels.

And look, it’s not about growth for growth’s sake. One of the things coming out of the pandemic was we wanted to double up on human resources. We are really focused on developing our people.”

Thank you for taking the time and space to be here. The good news is you can discover more stories in the Behind the Green series below. Or grow your knowledge and understanding of sustainable travel here.

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