Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

How high has the bar been raised for travel advisors, tour operators, cruise lines and hoteliers?

"If you're very good, you're invisible," said Serge Dive, CEO of This Is Beyond, the organizer of travel industry hosted-buyer shows Pure, LE Miami and others. "You have to be remarkable."

When I spoke to Dive at Pure in Marrakech, Morocco, earlier this month, his definition of remarkable did not reference amenities or design but rather how owners and managers view the objective of their business. For consumers, heartless consumption is a thing of the past, he believes.

"They want purpose, not a fly-and-flop," he said. "They want to believe that their vacation has helped the greater good. There are still a lot of people who don't give a damn, but an increasing number want to fight for causes and do great things, and they vote with their dollars."

Dive continued: "In some ways, marketing is dead. The world is radically transparent, and what you say to promote yourself is no longer enough."

Empathy and caring, he said, must be evident in interactions with every stakeholder, from suppliers, employees and customers to the planet itself.

This is not to say that luxury is dead. Nor did I see evidence at Pure that travel companies are paying any less attention to service, guest comfort or the joys of the material world.

If Dive is directionally correct -- and he has a good track record for identifying trends -- there is a prototype for the enterprise he describes: the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland. Its very existence is testimony to the power of purpose, radical transparency, empathy and caring.

Purpose, in fact, was Zita Cobb's first consideration when she conceived of the hotel. An eighth-generation Fogo Islander, she left home to pursue a business degree and career in finance. She was successful. At 43, the company she worked for as CFO merged with another, and her share of equity enabled her to retire.

She returned to Fogo Island, population 2,244.

Cobb wanted to make her home community both culturally and economically resilient, and she saw hospitality as a means to that goal.

She must have suspected that her hometown would not strike most hotel developers as a likely spot for success. To get there requires flights to Montreal; Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Gander, Newfoundland, before boarding a ferry. It rains 140 days a year on average, and snow falls for 60 more.

The property does not have a spa, a detail which one hospitality consultant told her would doom the project.

So why do guests now pay $1,500 a night to stay there?

Cobb was driven by a singular purpose, and to fathom it, one must understand travel's true sixth sense: a sense of place.

Sadly, that phrase, "a sense of place," has all but lost meaning. It has morphed into a hackneyed travel trope, a go-to marketing cliche. But despite its habitual abuse, Cobb's project demonstrates it still can have profound meaning.

The Fogo Island Inn is built to have as much Fogo Island in it as feasible. If something can be sourced on the island, it is. If not, it will be purchased as nearby as possible.

Go to the property's website and click "rates" on the drop-down menu. The first thing you'll see is a box designed to look like the nutrition label on food packaging, but the heading says, "Economic Nutrition." It's an exercise in radical transparency that not only shows how gross receipts are spent but where, geographically, the money ends up: 65% stays on Fogo Island, 13% remains in Newfoundland and 19% goes elsewhere in Canada. The remainder?

"The rest of the world."

I spoke to Cobb at Pure.

"Everybody [at Pure] wants a unique product," she observed. "All you really have to do is focus on your community. There is only one Fogo Island. Nobody on this planet could make anything like it."

Pure is a mix of one-of-a-kind, location-specific lodging and experiences, and a good number of global brands with multiple locations, from Aman to Belmond to Four Seasons, which tout not only where they are but their brand attributes. I asked Cobb whether Fogo Island Inn, as a brand, could be exportable, or was it too Fogo Island-specific?

Underpinning her property's particulars and specific geographic coordinates is a business philosophy that could be applied elsewhere, she said. And next year, within the same nonprofit organization that runs the Fogo Island Inn, she's planning to launch an economic institute focused on what she calls "asset-based community development."

Answering five questions provides guidance to a company hoping to succeed in a local-centric enterprise: 1) What do we have? 2) What do we know? 3) What do we love? 4) What do we miss (that's been lost to modernity)? 5) What can we do about it?

"If you answer those questions," she said, "you'll end up with a Fogo Island Inn."

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