April, we’re happy to see you.
I’m sure I am not the only one who felt like March 2020 was a full year of work, and at that, it happened to be the most difficult and emotionally taxing professional year of our lives. And experts say that we’re not even halfway through this crisis. But, now that all of our guests are home safe and our team has finally had a moment to pause and catch their breath, I want to take this opportunity to share what is going on at the Cayuga Collection right now and how we are dealing with the different and constantly changing aspects of this crisis.
I am sharing our story with you so that as a former or potential guest of a Cayuga Collection Hotel, you know what to expect when you contact us in the months to come. We also hope that this documentation of our process may be helpful for owners and operators of other boutique hotels in remote locations around the world that are searching for ideas, guidance, and best practices.
Back to the month that was a year…
In early March, we were following the Covid19 news and were concerned about the impacts of what seemed to be turning into a truly global issue, but never expected the tsunami that came our way – and it came so fast. Every decision we made had to be assessed and readjusted within 24 hours; we went from our contingency plan “yellow” to “orange” to “red” within nine days. After celebrating our best high season in Cayuga’s history, all of a sudden, we were faced with canceled flights, closed borders, travel warnings, quarantine orders, closed national parks & beaches and strong messaging of “stay home for now”.
Side note: One feature of the crisis never made it to Costa Rica though. We still have plenty of toilet paper in our supermarkets.
All of this meant that we had to act and adapt to the new realities fast…the term pivot has been used endlessly over the past month, but I prefer to draw on lessons from nature and referred to the teachings of Mr. Charles Darwin when I personally met with the teams at our hotels over the past few days. This is not about the strongest or biggest players surviving, the ones who make it through this crisis will be the ones who are the fastest to adapt to their new changing environment. The message of evolution and adaptation resonated especially well with our naturalist guides.
On March 15, we decided to take the hotels into “hibernation mode.” For how long? We don’t know yet and that is the hardest part of all of this. Uncertainty makes it very difficult to make definite decisions as we saw when we flew through our contingency plans; a decision that made sense a few days ago became obsolete within hours. And we still had guests at our hotels – some of them stranded by canceled flights and closed borders – so our priority remained to provide those guests with a safe, calm, healthy and comfortable “home away from home” while they also tried to sort through their decisions. By March 30th, our last guests checked out; they were “stuck” at Kura and were very thankful that they could stay with us until the last rescue flights took them back to Europe. To express their gratitude, they treated our entire staff for a round of beers on the last day, but more than that gave everyone a happy moment of celebration amidst all the tough news. Thank you Ann and Richard Collis. And see you again soon.
Right now, we have planned for a “bad case scenario” – no, not worst-case but far from great. Under this plan, we are optimistic that we will be receiving guests again in late fall 2020. In a crisis like this with so many unknowns, it is better to plan like a pessimist but think like an optimist. But of course, we hope to have our guests back much sooner and have planned to accommodate this possibility as well. Once the travel bans are lifted, the airlines reopen their routes to Central America and our guests feel safe to travel again, we have the ability to reopen our hotels within just a few days. We are hibernating, not closed.
So we are keeping a positive outlook and continue to accept reservations for the months ahead with our “Zero Risk – Zero Hassle” prepayment policy that allows guests to pay for their reservation just a few days before arrival. We understand that it is hard to make long term commitments right now. But we evaluate the situation on a weekly basis in terms of travel warnings and restrictions and flight availability and continue to communicate openly with our guests in terms of the probabilities of their travel plans coming through.
The key for us right now is employing and adapting to a very nimble strategy – going into hibernation but also staying ready to open our hotels with very short lead time. We have a request for a buyout at Isla Palenque in June and if the guests are able to come to Panama, we will make sure that they have the best experience of their lives. Here are the reasons we are able to turn around and fully reopen so quickly:
We left a very strong Centralized Reservations Team in place that is able to take reservations fast and efficiently by phone, chat, e-mail or reservations online. In terms of staffing, we maintained very strong “Core Teams” at the hotels. Besides our management teams and a strong maintenance crew, we kept nature guides, massage therapists, specialized culinary staff and guest service specialists on our payrolls. With those teams still in place, we can go back to the same or better guest experience that our guests enjoyed fast and efficiently.
We are also not sitting around and waiting for tourism to come back. Every day we work on hotel infrastructure improvements. Ok, maybe some of us manager or guest service types might not be as skilled in maintenance work like the pros, but it is all about the attitude and working together as a team. All of our staff also engage in regular training sessions. We cross-train and develop skills that we normally wouldn’t have time for. For mid-April, we have the following training sessions scheduled: Decision Making and Emotional Intelligence, “I am Service – Soy Servicio”, and Empathy.
By far the toughest decision during the past weeks was to let go of about 30 to 40% of our current staff at the hotels and at Cayuga’s headquarters in San Jose. We decided to let them go instead of suspending their contracts (furloughing) so that according to local labor laws, they receive solid severance pay. Furloughed employees receive zero compensation for the time they are absent from work and it is often difficult for them to seek other work opportunities if they are still “under contract” somewhere else. This was a tough decision; emotionally we were laying off friends and employees that felt like family but the financial blow of issuing healthy severance payments for almost 200 staff members was also challenging.
The remaining core staff accepted a temporary pay cut of 50%. Up to 75% is possible by law, but we believe that it is too hard on our team to just live with 25% of their income. 50% is hard for sure but doable for a limited time. But what made this even harder for us was the overwhelmingly positive response of the employees that we let go. They were totally understanding of the situation, very thankful for receiving generous severance payments and excited to “come back” as soon as things would turn around. I was very touched by the personal messages that my business partner Andrea and I received from former staff members.
Another series of tough decisions we had to make in the past days was related to guests that had prepaid their reservations with us and could not travel due to the travel ban. The great majority were very understanding of the situation, excited to come and stay with us as soon as they could and rescheduled their travel or accepted a future credit.
I want to thank everybody who has been able to reschedule or accepted credit for future travel from the bottom of my heart, both direct clients and our travel advisor friends who have advocated for this.
When all of this is over and you are ready to take that vacation, we will be there for you. We have adapted, we are flexible, and we will not let you down. And by rescheduling, you have made it possible that we can take care of our staff and their families right now. Thanks to you we can continue to pay salaries and meet our obligations. Our message about cancellations vs. postponements from our last blog was even quoted in a recent Conde Nast Traveller article: “My Holiday Was Cancelled – Why Don’t You Just Give Me a Refund?”
Typically, we are very involved in our communities, but I have to admit that the past two weeks was such a nonstop whirlwind of events, we needed to first take care of what was going on in the hotels before looking outward. It was a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask in a plane that loses pressure before assisting your child. If the hotels are not well, they can’t be of much use to the communities. Now that we have adapted and our plan is set, we are again reaching out to community leaders that we have worked with over the past years to see how we can help the most during this crisis. We will keep you posted on our efforts.
I don’t envy the decision-makers in governments that have to balance the pressure of human lives (flatten the curve) vs. the total shutdown of economies (recession) and what impacts those choices have on communities. In a conversation with the Costa Rican Tourism Minister this week, my recommendation was to keep things closed for as long as necessary to protect human lives. Personally, I would rather see people prioritized over profit and want to do all possible to avoid a second wave of infections that forces us to reenact this whole shutdown process again in a few months, just when we were beginning to pull away from it.
Costa Rica has done a very solid job of dealing with this situation. Thanks to a very good health system (unparalleled in Latin America) and a well-educated population that really care about each other, the way that this small country is dealing with this crisis might be an inspiration for people to visit after the crisis. It is too early to tell how Covid-19 will play out in Costa Rica, but the Cayuga Collection sends a big thank you to all the healthcare workers in the front line that keep us safe and healthy.
We will continue to report on what is going on at the hotels over the next weeks. One thing that I noticed when visiting Uvita, Manuel Antonio, Puerto Viejo, and Monteverde right after the hotels closed was the increased amount of wildlife around. It seemed like they were all coming out to reclaim their space and curious where all the tourists had gone. Our guides are monitoring the situation carefully. Stay tuned for more.
With a virtual hug and best wishes for health, strength and an ongoing positive attitude.
President & Co-Founder of the Cayuga Collection