Mark Henderson had spent 30 years consulting for hotel managers looking to take their property to the next level, and until Tuesday he thought he had seen it all. That was the day he met Karen and Carl Dunworth — the owners and operators of a 24-room motel situated off the interstate — to talk about hotel ecotourism.
Mark had seen the motel many times while driving to work. It was a one-level property built in the 1930s, surrounded by weeds, with a roof that looked like it could cave in at any moment.
Mark was intrigued that the owners of that property wanted to talk about ecotourism. He was skeptical, but also knew any hotel was a good candidate for ecotourism with a little effort, which could open up a whole new pipeline of revenue.
“Welcome, welcome,” Mark said with a smile as they walked in the door, shaking their hands. Carl wore a pair of jeans and a Korn t-shirt with unusual stains of questionable origin. Karen had a business suit two sizes too big. Both stunk of formaldehyde.
They sat down and stared at Mark, expressionless.
“So, I hear you guys want to get into the ecotourism game?” Mark said when neither spoke up.
“Yeah, we heard there’s big money there, and right now all we get are truckers,” Karen said.
“Our hotel is great,” Carl added. “It’s got beds, and blankets, and windows.”
“We think we should be attracting some higher-end customers,” Karen continued. “The kind that don’t leave a gallon of acetone in the sink or try to smoke in the shower to avoid setting off the fire alarm.”
“Well, I’ll try to help. As you know, I’ve got a lot of background in the hospitality industry. I believe any hotel, no matter your location or level of service or—” he looked at both of them “—general upkeep, can be transformed into an ecotourist’s dream location.
“Though I do have some concerns. I heard you were shut down in August for rats?” Mark asked.
“Yeah, we fixed that. No longer a problem,” Karen said.
“Then I see, according to county records, you were shut down in September for black mold,” Mark added.
“Fixed that, too,” she said.
“Then in November you were shut down for rats again.”
“Look, it hasn’t exactly been a great year, but that’s why we want to get in the ecotourism racket,” Karen said. “So hurry up and just tell us how to squeeze money out of these hippies.”
This would be a challenge, Mark realized.
“Ok well first of all you’ll have to treat ecotourists with a little more respect than that,” he said. “For one thing, we’re not talking about hard-core environmentalists here. A 2012 TripAdvisor survey found that 71% of travelers planned to make eco-friendly choices in the next year. You could take advantage of that.”
Karen shrugged. Mark continued.
“Basically you have three ways to attract ecotourists,” he said. “And I recommend doing all three of them to maximize your chances.”
1. Ecotourists Want Hotels That Are Green
“The first thing ecotourists are going to be looking for is whether your hotel is green,” Mark said. “They want to know if you’re environmentally responsible.”
“Oh yeah, we’ve got way too much trash,” Karen said.
“We could burn the trash,” Carl offered.
“The last time you did that we got fined by the county,” Karen said, turning to Carl. “Don’t do that again.”
“Right but this time I’m just going to go behind the Subway—”
Mark held up his hand.
“OK, I think we’re getting off track here,” he said. “There are things you can do without spending that much money, or in some cases any money at all, to make yourself more green. You can stop using harsh chemical cleaners, for example, or you could inform your guests that you won’t clean their rooms every day. They have to request it.”
“Well, we don’t do housekeeping anyway, so check that box,” Karen said.
“They’re always complaining about dirty towels!” Carl added. “The towels have only touched people that have showered. Theoretically they’re the cleanest things in the hotel.”
Mark decided to try something different.
2. Ecotourists Want to Connect with Nature
“Nature is big with ecotourists,” Mark said. “These people are staying at hotels not because they want to order room service and watch TV, or because they want to go shopping. They want to experience the natural beauty around them. So a great way to attract ecotourists is to showcase nearby parks, or the local wildlife.”
“I could show them the rat den,” Carl said.
“No one wants to see the rat den,” Karen replied angrily.
“Because they’re rats, Carl. And they’re in the basement, not in ‘nature.’”
Mark shoved a few brochures across the table from some other hotels he had consulted with.
“I’m thinking more along the lines of a guided tour,” he said. “I mean, your hotel is just five miles from a pretty incredible park I didn’t know existed. It’s got some rare birds you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Why not have a section of your hotel’s website devoted to that, and rent a van to take guests out to the park on a tour to see if you can spot some of the birds? You could even put together a local bird guide for the tourists. Birdwatchers would come from all around the world to your hotel if you play your cards right.”
“Our guests hate birds. They complain all the time about hearing them in the walls,” Karen said.
Mark decided to move on. “Ok, well, there’s one other way you can pull in the ecotourists,” he said.
3. Ecotourists Want to Connect with Local Culture
“Beyond wanting a hotel that is environmentally friendly and to experience nature, ecotourists also want to connect with local people and cultures,” Mark said. “So help me out here. Are there any cultural events that happen in the vicinity of your hotel that you might be able to showcase?”
“We have some local poetry jam sessions,” Carl said.
“That’s just you in a bar, annoying customers,” Karen said. “And way too many of your poems are about irritable bowel syndrome.”
“Well you’ve got to have some local talent,” Mark said. “This area is known for its good bluegrass music, so why not book an act one night a week and advertise that on your website to attract guests? Maybe you could also serve some food from area restaurants that really represent the local cuisine.”
“There’s a KFC two blocks away,” Carl said.
“Look, I’ve given you guys three really great ways to turn your hotel into an ecotourist’s dream spot,” Mark said with a sigh. “Anyone can do it. Now I want you both to agree on at least one thing to make your hotel ecotourist-friendly. Or at least some way to make it more green. One idea. Go.”
Karen made a face. Carl looked at the ceiling. Thirty seconds passed.
“I still have some green lead paint in my basement I can use to make us look more green,” Carl finally said.
“Finally, a good idea out of you!” Karen said, hopping up out of her chair and then turning to Mark as she put on her coat. “Alright, this has been great but we’ve got to get back. The health inspector is supposed to come today and we’ve got asbestos hanging out of our ceiling. We can’t afford to pay you, by the way.”
“I suspected as much,” Mark replied.