Ecolodges and small sustainable boutique hotels like the ones of the Cayuga Collection have a unique capacity to provide authentic experiences to their guests. At the same time, they protect the environment and help the local communities where they operate. Is this differentiating factor in danger of being “copied” by the big brands?
A year ago we had coffee with travel journalist and influencer Wendy Perrin in New York and I told her about the experiences that our guests have the chance to enjoy at the Cayuga Collection hotels, resorts and lodges in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. She was intrigued by the concept of “Experience – Learn – Connect – Relax” that we developed and is planning to come visit us with her family soon. Taking surfing lessons, visiting the local school, enjoying ceviche cooking lessons and the “rain forest medicine hike” are some of the activities that are part of their potential agenda.
Discussing the industry in general, she then asked us if it bothered us that more and more big and mainstream brands start to use the vocabulary that used to be exclusive to us such as unique, authentic and experiential.
At first we did not quite understand what she was referring to, but after a bit of research, we realized that big hotel chains are trying to convince their guests that even though they are staying at a 150 to 250 room hotel, they can now easily connect to local culture and traditions. From our own experience running hotels that average about 20 rooms, we know how difficult it is to create authentic experiences for groups larger than six to eight people at any given time.
Even if you are really good at what you do (and we have a lot of respect for the hospitality work that those chains do), it will be really hard to deliver on the promise of authenticity and uniqueness for up to 400 guests per week. Chain hotels are built on the promise of brand standards and making sure that there are no surprises. In order to connect with locals where there really is no standard and there might be plenty of surprises contradicts what made those brands successful in the first place.
An important factor in getting this right is the employment of a local workforce. We still see a lot of expats employed at the branded resorts here in Costa Rica. In a previous blog, we asked if you would prefer to be greeted by a local or an expat manager and the overwhelming majority preferred a local manager. The people make the difference and there is nothing like meeting a person that has grown up in the town that you are visiting.
We have been working with locals in Costa Rica and Nicaragua for almost two decades. They work for us in all positions at the hotels and lodges or we take our guests to interact with them on tours, dancing, soccer games, school visits, art and music presentations and culinary experiences. Guest love the experience and comment how special it was through our guest feedback forms and through TripAdvisor reviews.
So, we wanted to find out for ourselves if it was possible to have an authentic local experience at a big name branded resort. We checked into a well-known beach resort in Costa Rica with a brand promise of a “local” experience. We were surprised to see that most of the managers were foreigners, there were imported plastic water bottles in the rooms, and Canadian salmon among other exotic products were served in the restaurant.
We see that it can be attractive for big brands to include the words “unique”, “experiential” and “authentic” in their advertising. But, like with everything in business and in life, it is necessary to walk the talk. So the answer to Wendy – a year later – is yes, it bothers us. Not that other hospitality operations strive to provide local and authentic experiences; it’s that they are not able to do it, yet lure their guests into believing that they can.
We are curious. Have you come across a larger brand that does this right? We would love to hear from you. Contact us through our website.