Water bungalowsWe read in the hotel press lately that a traveler’s focus has shifted from the hotel product to the hotel experience. It can sometimes be difficult for hotels in certain locations to provide such experiential travel, but for resort hotels and island destinations it is now almost a basic requirement. When these experiences connect guests with the environment and have an element of doing a “good deed”, the chances of creating an indelible memory and a loyal guest are even better.

A family client of mine owns two of the best hotels on the island of Curacao, the Avila Beach Hotel and the Lion’s Dive Hotel. The Lion’s Dive originally was a small hotel that catered to scuba divers and has grown over the years to a full-service beach resort hotel. Ocean Encounters is the PADI Dive Shop located at the Lion’s Dive. Each year representatives of the hotel and the dive shop attend the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA) Show in the USA. A few years ago, they met people from the Coral Restoration Foundation, based in Key Largo, Florida. The Foundation are leaders in the study and implementation of various methods of preserving and regenerating coral reefs, which have been deteriorating globally from warmer ocean temperatures, overuse by coastal tourists and residents and pollution of ocean waters.

After visiting the Florida operation of the Coral Restoration Foundation, the Curacao team established a coral restoration foundation in Curacao, and Ocean Encounters has taken the lead in “farming” coral seedlings to help restore the shallow reefs surrounding the east end of Curacao. The coral pieces are “grown” for three to six months, and when reaching a size of about one foot in length they are “planted” in the nearby reefs.

On a recent visit to Curacao, Robbin Vogels of the hotel family and Pol Bosch of Ocean encounters took me on a tour of the underwater plantation. As Pol explained, there are two things that can stunt the growth of small corals, one of which is algae. He gave each of us a two-inch square of steel wool with which to gently scrub the algae from the six-inch long coral seedlings, which were hanging from a Christmas tree-like structure on the ocean floor at a depth of about 15 feet. For 30 minutes or so we cleaned the algae, which gave me the same feeling that I would have when helping my father weed our vegetable garden 50 years ago.

Because the program in Curacao is relatively small and growing, the “tending the garden” experience is not one that can be shared with large amounts of tourists. But as part of a diving day, Pol has been educating visitors to the critical problem of reef deterioration and letting them be part of the solution. I often confuse what I have seen on dive trips in the Turks and Caicos with what I may have seen in Bonaire or in Roatan, but the coral farming experience in Curacao is one I will never forget.

The experience reminds me of one of my favorite stories about philanthropy. A very high tide comes and leaves thousands of starfish stranded on the sand under the hot sun, where most will die. A woman is walking along the beach and she keeps bending over, picking up one starfish after another and throwing them back in the surf. Coming from the other direction is a couple taking a walk on the beach. When they reach the woman, they stop and tell her, “You are wasting your time. There are thousands of starfish out here … what you’re doing can’t possibly make a difference.” The woman bends over, picks up one more starfish and tosses it back into the surf, and replies, “I made a difference to that one.”

By Andrew Cohan

Andrew CohanAndrew Cohan, MAI is Managing Director for Horwath HTL primarily serving the Sunbelt States and the Caribbean Basin, based in Miami. Horwath HTL has been operating for 100 years in the hospitality consulting space with expertise in valuation and feasibility studies, resort hotel and resort real estate consulting, asset management and tourism and leisure consulting. A seasoned hospitality professional with extensive real estate, marketing and account management skills in North America and Latin America, Andrew has consulted for projects with leading branded management companies such as Canyon Ranch, Six Senses, Montage, Auberge and Alila. He has extensive experience in the wellness and sustainability space, especially as it pertains to resort properties. He especially enjoys working on ground-up projects, teaming with land planners to determine the optimal resort configuration to fit market demand with destination and site attributes, and helping land owners assemble their development teams.