15 Lessons Learned in 15 Years of Managing Sustainable Luxury Hotels & Lodges

On May 2nd, 2003, Andrea Bonilla and Hans Pfister launched Cayuga, a company dedicated to managing sustainable luxury hotels and lodges in Latin America.  15 years later, here are 15 lessons learned and an insight into what has worked and what could have been done differently.

It is all about the people.  Always and foremost.  No matter how great the installations, no matter how fancy the food.  Without a great staff, no hotel can make it.  Everything you hear about “treating your staff well so they treat your guests well” is 100% true.   We care about our people and we love engaging with them. We truly believe that our staff should be treated as well as our guests.  And this comes with a great reward   Happy Employees = Happy Guests = Happy Hotel Owners.  Read more here.

Life is service – the one who progresses is the one who gives his fellow men a little more – a little better service.”  We are in the service industry and it comes down to just that: service.  We are passionate about serving others and we find joy in this. Service is what we are here to do.  It makes all the difference in the world.  If you don’t find pleasure in serving others, working for Cayuga is not for you.  Read more here.

No competition?  We’ve found that nobody else that we know of offers what we offer: Management Services for Individually Owned Sustainable Luxury Hotels and Lodges.  Why?  Probably because it is “damn hard” ” and a big chunk of our compensation is emotional and comes from watching people grow, seeing communities develop positively and forests regenerate.  Read more here.

Loyal Staff members.   This makes all the difference in the world.  Jorge Arrieta has been with us since day one 15 years ago.  He has managed Lapa Rios and Arenas del Mar and is now in charge of opening new hotels like Isla Palenque in Panama.  Maria Jose Castro has been with us for almost 12 years.  She went from “intern” at the Harmony Hotel to Cayuga’s Performance Director leading the managers of some of the region’s most prestigious operations.  Loyal staff = strong pillars = amazing results!   Read more here.

It does not feel like work!  We don’t remember a day when it felt like work.  A meeting feels like a family reunion and a work trip feels like a fun school field trip.  It is a fun project. It is doing something that nobody else has been able to do.  It is working with wonderful people.  It is travelling for work to the most amazing places on earth.  It is never the same routine – every day poses new challenges and opportunities and we hardly ever find ourselves sitting in an office.  It is innovating and treading in new places constantly.   Read more here.

Dealing with Disappointments.  Getting slapped in the face is part of doing business.  But for every time something doesn’t go quite right, there are 20 times that things turn out amazing.  Yes, we have been let down by some staff that we trusted, that we have invested in and that we thought would embrace our vision and mission.  We have also failed in some ventures, but have stepped up to the plate and moved forward. But that is life.  We keep the motivation alive by remembering all our many success stories and seeing them in action when we visit the hotels.  Read more here.

Construction.   Why did nobody teach us this in Hotel School?  The life of a hotelier is at least 20% of the time consumed by dealing with construction or some kind of renovation.  We had to learn it the hard way.  Oh, and add to this.  Construction on islands, in remote tropical rain forests and under pouring rain.  Read more here.

Awards.  They are great for the ego, but they don’t pay the bills.  We have won several very prestigious awards in the past years.  And we are very proud of them.  The Conde Nast World Saver Award in 2010 and 2012, the Travel & Leisure World Vision Award in 2010, the Green Hotelier Award in 2016, the National Geographic World Legacy Award in 2017 and the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards in 2018. In the end, it is about getting it right every single day with our staff, the communities and with our guests.  A raving review from a guest about our service and our work in sustainability and an “I will certainly come back or recommend you” is the highest level award that one can get.  We will continue to work hard to win our guests every day.  Read more here.

It pays off to tackle “tough” environmental or social issues.  To name a few of our most impactful actions, we’re proud to employ our staff year around and not just in high season as many other hotels do.  We are excited to work with our partner Sean at Dock to Dish to make sure we get sustainable seafood right.  We are proud to have eliminated plastic bottles and straws from our organizations for over seven years and continue to find ways to reduce the use of single use containers every day.  Read more here.

Food is everything.  We’ve learned that one of the most important aspects of our guests’ experience is eating and drinking.  Especially when we operate in remote locations where there are no alternatives.  While we may not be able to compete with the haute cuisine of more sophisticated culinary nations, we can certainly find the freshest local ingredients, make sure they are healthy (organic, hormone free or grass fed), and prepare them in a simple and authentic way.  Serve them in amazing settings with a smile et voila. It works.  Read more here.

We’ve had to accept that our hotels and lodges are not right for everybody.  We have asked people not to stay with us because we were sure that they would not enjoy the Cayuga Collection Experience.  It might have cost us money in the short run, but it works in the long run.  We even created a list of eight reasons why not to book a Cayuga Collection Hotel.   Read more here.

When you travel for business in remote areas of Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Panama, be ready.  Border crossings can be long and nerve-racking.  Patience is indispensable.  Be ready for the unexpected.  And bring the right gear.  You might have to cross a river with water up to your waist or climb through a mudslide that just took out part of a road.  Read more here.

Our biggest error?  Taking on projects that did not meet our standards or where we didn’t see eye to eye with the owners on our core values (for example: sustainability and quality issues).  As our long time employee Jorge always says:  “Everything is negotiable, not our values.”  Read more here.

Wishes for the Future?  That “mainstream” tourism and hospitality is not a “fad” and understand that sustainability does not only mean energy efficiency and recycling plastic bottles and aluminum cans.  It goes way beyond those things.  We hope to see more of a people focus and more consciousness around everything we do that has to do with tourism.  Read more here.

A Partnership.  There is nothing better in business than a working partnership based on trust, mutual respect and sharing a good sense of humor.  We are lucky to have this between Andrea and Hans and it has made all the difference.  Here’s to many more years…

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