Lapa Rios best lodge in Corcovado.

The Ecolodge Owner’s Dilemma…

“What is the Exit Strategy?”  Many ecolodge owners around the world have created incredible conservation and tourism projects.  But now what?  Here is the case of Lapa Rios Ecolodge on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica.

The growing pressure to who will continue wilderness-based tourism if ecolodge owners are forced to sell off just land, rather than their lodge-with-land?  And, what indicators persuade sellers the new owners will remain involved with local communities and continue land stewardship?

Running an ecolodge comes with a lot of responsibility.  Wildlife that depends on the conserved land.  Employees that depend on the lodge for jobs.  A community that is supported by ecotourism in general.

In pristine regions around the world several low-impact ecolodges, 20-rooms or less, were developed in the 1980s and ‘90s by earnest first-time developers. From inception, owner developers/operators linked their tourism brand with land preservation and community involvement. The economic scheme: triple bottom line. These early founders want to retire. One of many case studies involves Lapa Rios Eco Lodge.

In 1990, John and Karen Lewis purchased 1,000+ acres of mostly primary tropical rain forest in Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, a global biodiversity gem.  Equipped with few skills but 1960’s Peace Corps confidence, they dreamed to conserve the pristine land and work exclusively with people in their remote community.  No one had much experience, yet the Lewises’ unfair advantage was naiveté plus determination to Make a Difference. Together with their neighbors they built the 16-bungalow Lapa Rios Ecolodge, began to learn hospitality skills and tropical nature interpretation. Success demanded authenticity.

Lapa is Spanish for Scarlet Macaw and gave the Lodge its name.  The conservation of endangered species and biodiversity is a prime concern for the owners and management.

“In the end, we will only conserve what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”      Baba Dioum, 1968, Senegal

By 1999, the Lewises asked themselves, “If we’re no longer here, how can Lapa Rios protect its durable asset and business continuity?” They hosted a three-day conference, “The Ecolodge Owner’s Dilemma: What is the Exit Strategy? Participants were world experts interested in the question. Conclusions: succession planning, passing ownership, required they:

Protect the rain forest asset (1) and find management (2) willing to work with owners to maximize sustainability.

(1) CEDARENA, the national land trust lawyers, helped Lapa Rios collect sufficient baseline data to design the Lapa Rios Reserve Conservation Easement. In 2013 they signed that contract, eliminating future development within the Reserve and preserving the land in perpetuity. The 900-acre Reserve title passes with the lodging business, assigning rites for educational/scientific experiences to the lodging guests and community, only.

Wild Waterfall in the Lapa Rios Rain Forest Reserve.

(2) Lacking Costa Rican experts interested to help run an ecolodge, one conference participant began developing a management company. By 2003, Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality was formed.   The owners of Cayuga, Hans Pfister and Andrea Bonilla, Graduates of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and passionate about conservation and sustainability were wholly aligned with Lapa Rios’ fundamental principles.  They brought solid operating procedures, professional hospitality accounting, human resources management and marketing skills to the table without compromising the vision and feel of the Lapa Rios Experience.

Hans Pfister and Andrea Bonilla helped the owners of Lapa Rios with professional Management.  Now, the Cayuga Collection is made up of 8 sustainable luxury hotels and lodges in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Developing the Lapa Rios Succession further, in 2010, together with 30 Costa Rican stakeholders and guided by ecotourism architect-planner Hitesh Mehta, a 30-year Sustainable Master Plan was created. The plan provides solid goals, timelines and the How To using sustainable design with expanding the revenue stream.

Many conservation-community tourism pioneers have aged to retirement. Most ecolodges are family owned, values driven, small in size and revenue yet large on guest experience. Ecolodge sale packages often include large, exquisite land parcels along with the small business. Ecotourism founders, mostly unconventional, trend toward long-term perspectives. Traditional investors focus on short-term gains. Will this disparate difference with financial outcome be onerous to the future of ecotourism, regardless the good derived from the business’s sustainable mission or benefits gained by the community and natural resources?

20 years at Lapa Rios
Daniel Jimenez (on the very left) with Karen Lewis, co-owner of Lapa Rios Ecolodge and his colleagues “Chevito” and “Mele” receiving the recognition for 20 years at Lapa Rios.

Apart from trained, willing heirs or a management buy out, and in spite of the investors’ growing awareness to lowering environmental impact, few small sustainable businesses are second generation. Will these successful ecolodges be forced to sell out to the highest bidder, or even worse—sell off tracks of wilderness land, to forfeit the business and shun the community?

Now the Lapa Rios Rainforest Reserve is conserved, the lodging operations professionally management, “Turn Key”, plus Lapa Rios newly re-built with a re-imagined, comprehensive design, how do the Lewises locate the right buyer? Around the globe, many ecolodge founders ask: Where are the next ecotourism owners?

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