Fishing where there are no fish

Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Many industry friends, upon retirement, began the "give back" phase of their lives, throwing themselves into philanthropic or nonprofit work, often in areas that had some relationship to travel.

A former executive who was mentoring hospitality students in a poor community lamented to me that it was a shame one must delay until retirement the depth of satisfaction he was feeling.

Rather quickly, that appears to be changing. Millennials are leading the push to add meaning to travel, and a Tourism Cares/Phocuswright study undertaken last fall showed that demand isn't limited to the young. I'm coming across more and more examples of projects that, from the outset, aim for high levels of social impact mixed with quality travel experiences.

Last month, I visited one such enterprise whose thoughtfulness and ambitions impressed me. Pacaya Lodge and Spa is well situated above Laguna de Apoyo, a small but deep volcanic lake in central Nicaragua. The nearest village, Catarina, is one of a string of "los pueblos blancos" (white villages) known for strong artisan traditions.

Across the lake, one sees the colonial city of Granada, as well as the contours of Mombacho, a dormant volcano that's a multiplex of tourist attractions: jungle hiking paths, a coffee plantation, zipline canopy tours.

About 10 years ago, David Allman, an Atlanta real estate developer, wanted to give back by devoting time and resources to a project that would help a poor community. He connected with the nonprofit Opportunity International, which provides microfinancing for projects in developing countries.

Opportunity International differs from many nonprofits in its business-focused orientation.

"For many groups, the pattern is: raise donations, spend donations, raise donations, spend donations, with no end in sight," said David Kone, the organization's executive director in Nicaragua. "Our focus is on helping people reach their potential within a marketplace."

Donors are not donors; they are investors, and have ownership alongside those they finance.

However, the path forward for microfinancing in the area was not clear. "You want to teach a man to fish, but what if there are no fish?" said Pacaya board member Don Greiner. "It wasn't initially obvious what we could finance here that would help."

Looking more broadly at Nicaragua, the group identified its "gifts" as agriculture and tourism. In the region immediately surrounding Catarina, however, most farming was subsistence, and tourism was small in scale.

The opportunity to create opportunity, it appeared, would rely on new enterprises and training. Local farmers were encouraged to become equity partners in a yucca processing plant that also provided guidance for crop management and increasing yields. And a high school was started with emphasis on agricultural best practices and a hospitality and tourism curriculum tied to the development of an upscale lodge where students would get practical experience. Oklahoma State University's agriculture and hospitality schools helped design the academic programs.

Pacaya Lodge's development required a $4 million investment by Opportunity International. Local communities were invited into the planning process, and when the lodge opened in March, everything, from the art and furniture in the rooms to the saltshakers on the restaurant tables, was both locally made and available for purchase. Excursions are offered to nearby studios, where guests can take painting or ceramic lessons from the artists whose work hangs on their walls.

The property is managed by experienced professionals whose job is not only to run a profitable 26-key resort but to train students in everything from accounting to housekeeping, with all students getting experience in every department.

An added benefit, said front desk manager Ricardo Merlo, is a sense of national pride. The management team is overwhelmingly Nicaraguan, many of whom wanted to put their previous experience at five-star properties to work closer to their families.

Indeed, some of the staff bear remarkable pedigrees. F&B manager Bismark Hernandez worked at El Bulli in Spain, as well as other Michelin-star restaurants in Europe. General manager John Morel opened upscale properties throughout Latin America.

Additional expertise comes from Solimar International, a consultancy with deep experience in social-impact tourism, which was retained to provide guidance for branding, marketing and sales.

I asked board member Greiner what sort of return on his investment he expects.

"For social investments, you're willing to take low return to no return," he said. He did consider that the lodge might eventually be sold, but that would be a long way off, and any new owner would be required to retain the educational components.

The hope is that the hotel and yucca plant will fully fund the high school. The return Greiner desires most is that the project is "wealth producing" for the local community and that the model can be replicated.

Pacaya Lodge is only one social-impact model among many, but it addresses many common goals: alleviation of poverty, education, supporting communities, job creation.

Important as these social elements are, they won't be enough to guarantee success. Pacaya's potential is significant, but it must also deliver on its promise of a five-star experience. If it doesn't, no amount of goodwill can save it; if it does, it may do for Catarina, Nicaragua, what El Bulli did for Roses, Spain: put it on a traveler's map.


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