Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola Resorts

Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola Resorts

Marc van Loo and Isabelle Lacoste founded Loola eco resort in Indonesia in 2000. Since then they have been finalists for or won just about every award in sustainable tourism for their community run beach resort, which focusses on offering activity holidays and CSR experiences for company groups, school groups and more. Jeremy Smith spoke with Marc van Loo about the lessons they have learned along the way.

JEREMY: Loola’s focus is on holidays for families and groups. What specific challenges does this bring as you work to be as responsible and sustainable as possible?

Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola ResortsMARC: As teacher-owners, we set out to be a resort that would be ideal for young and active people, and we thought it would be wonderful to conduct education in the way we feel it is at its most powerful: outdoor education, so we always had schools (and active families, such as our own) in mind as a primary market segment. We have only 14 rooms (6 classical chalets plus 8 aircon rooms in our 2 eco villas) but then we have 300 beds in dormitories, so if we were to behave as a typical hotel and book, say, singles and couples, we could not sustain our operations (we employ 50 purely local staff to run the resort, F&B, and most importantly, our (community) programs.

To book a group is just as much work as booking a couple, so, with minimal admin staff in Singapore it makes sense to have few bookings but make each booking count.

This business model worked beautifully for 14 years, with school groups making up 80% or more of total turnover, allowing us enough income to fund all the upgrades we wished to make at LooLa. All the marketing was word-of-mouth, i.e, we didn’t have to do any (which suited me fine as sales and marketing does not really excite me – see also our ancient website!).

This marketing-free business model rain into problems with international events such as the Indonesian haze, some terrorist scares in the region, and an earthquake on Kinabalu (4000 km away) which left a few students and teachers dead. These events, which largely started to kick in around 2015, severely affected school trips, slicing at least 30% off turnover.

We realised that we had to actively reach out and diversify our customer base. Fortunately, this is not too difficult, since there is a great hunger for meaningful trips amongst general youth groups, such as football or rugby clubs, church groups etc. We also realise that there is a great appetite for CSR trips amongst companies, but they are being held back by the lack of executive style accommodation, so we decided to offer our CSR programs independently of LooLa (i.e we offer them to third party trip organisers who can choose their own hotels but do the CSR event with us).

Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola Resorts

JEREMY: How do you ensure that your CSR trips have the maximum impact on those taking part? Too often people go on these sort of trips, and then go back having ticked a box, but with no real legacy of impact on their organisation’s operation.

MARC: There’s two sides to this question: we need to make maximum impact with our guests, but equally important, with the local community.

Here is how we try to achieve this. We use our 50+ full-time staff in Indonesia, who themselves are natives, with almost half hailing from our own village. The idea is that they check with the local community (villagers, schools, orphanages) what projects they are interested in, while preparing them for the financial and time constraints our clients face. Once the locals are enthusiastic and on board, we inform our guests that we have ready community partners.

In our experience, once the local community is genuinely happy with the CSR projects, the client will be happy too.

To make sure that things are well communicated between all parties, we ask our staff to get both parties to interact, get to know each other first, and talk through the project before embarking on the execution.

In our experience, once the local community is genuinely happy with the CSR projects, the client will be happy too.

On our part, we make sure our guests know that occasionally, during such interactions, the local parties may change their mind and suggest other projects, and we encourage our guests to go with the flow and see if things can work out on the spot, as such attitude leads to full ownership.

We also have made it part of our quality control measures that our staff facilitators always send photos of the events, and collect testimonials from the villagers, and every guests always gets a detailed feedback form.

It won’t come as a surprise to you that this process isn’t perfect yet, but I guess that, equally well, it won’t come as a surprise to you that progress is constant and steady. The vast majority of guests are very happy with the experience, and we constantly act on the feedback of all stakeholders to further enhance the experience.

Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola Resorts

JEREMY: What sort of projects do the villagers propose? Have any of their requests surprised you and maybe changed the sort of experiences you offer guests as a result?

MARC: In general, if you ask villagers what they would really like most, the top three wish list answers are connected to public utilities and housing upgrades.

Access to reliable electricity tops the list, but we are not in a position to provide this (yet) although we are actively exploring the options of providing small off-grid easily maintainable PV setups, but so far the main difficulty is finding reliable local technical partners who could also do minor maintenance.

Access to water would also be a huge draw, which is why we will be actively research rainwater collection systems over the next year (in our research project on wastewater gardens together with three universities this coming year). On the basis of our own experiments with rainwater collection systems in LooLa, I believe these systems have the potential to be economical on a national level.

The rain gutter pipes and collection drum are cheap, in the order of 150 Euro together. The current financial snag to providing meaningful systems is the 10,000 liter storage tank that villagers would need in order to make the systems sustainable (the 500 liter collection drums only tides them over for 2 days, where 10,000 liter storage could tide them over for 40 days, enough to get round the dry months when the ground water level is so low that villagers have to buy water at a cost exceeding 30 Euro per month, or about 20% of average family income). Those 1000 liter tanks currently cost around 700 Euro but they are vastly over-specified: the plastic is about 1 cm thick whereas 3 mm would suffice for an underground tank. Our current MNC plastic producer, Borouge, is very keen to contribute in this area, and we shall attempt to formulate solutions for that in 2017.

Nowadays, the expectation is: “what can we do that is truly meaningful to the Indonesians, while providing an authentic and uplifting experience for ourselves?”

Housing upgrades is the third most popular request. Asking for roof repair is popular, but we can’t really support that because of safety considerations for our guests. Asking for wastewater gardens is popular, because it eliminates bad smell, lifts social status, and reduces household bills by close to 10% (see attached). This is one of our most popular projects now, because it’s great for our guests and for locals alike. What is especially good for our guests is that we can make the experience almost as long as they like: they can take full ownership over the wastewater garden from start to finish, which could take as many as 4 or 5 days, or we help them doing some of the hard work, such as digging the holes, and they can finish it in as little as half a day, and any time duration in between is possible also. The cost of these gardens is currently about 450 Euro but we hope to bring the cost down through the research project we’re undertaking in 2017 (see attached)

Other popular requests are asking for painting the house (a big deal in Indonesia: if families can afford it, they re-paint there house every year in a different colour). This is easy to do for our guests, so it’s a popular module, and asking for road upgrades in the form of paving. This reduces dust flying into the homes next to the road, and it reduces accidents with motorbikes slipping in the muddy roads. This is also a popular module for guests and locals alike, because you can build as much road as you like, i.e, the project is very scalable.

We are constantly learning from the villagers and I’m encouraging my guests and my staff to keep doing extensive surveys with villagers to get this kind of information. Interestingly enough, our staff has concluded that the problems they have encountered in the past when they did community projects (jealousy amounts villagers, problems with villagers regarding LooLa as the free service man in the village instead of doing minor maintenance themselves) are all the result of lack of communication (‘sosialisasi’ as they call it in Bahasa) so they themselves now spend time with the villagers beforehand to make sure that expectations are fully aligned.

We had to engage local people in a real dialogue to ensure we only do projects that create real local value.

I’ll give you some specific examples where we have learned things. I thought that giving mosquito nets was really important in terms of stopping diseases like malaria and Dengue. Indeed, we did manage to stop those diseases completely in our neighbouring village about 10 years ago, but until today, the villagers don’t really understand that it is the mosquito nets and our policies that have brought this about. They only regard a mosquito net as a minor improvement because they are no longer annoyed by mosquitos when they try to sleep. Part of the reason they don’t understand the connection is because local doctors have the unfortunate habit of calling every fever “malaria” even when it is obviously not. We would like to do this whole exercise again sometime soon, this time well and truly explaining the insect disease cycle and how anti-disease policies can succeed in keeping these diseases at bay, but this will take cooperation with the local health department who, to put it mildly, is not always super-competent (the previous chief of health thought that malaria was brought on by wasps). Work in progress.

In order to make the mosquito net donation interesting for guests as well, in the sense that they have something to do, we thought it was a good idea to let guests build beds, so that villagers don’t have to sleep on damp mattresses on the floor. But we discovered not long after that most of these beds ended up as firewood, so the locals had accepted the beds mostly to humour us but they had no real interest in them. Again, this drove home the point to us that we had to engage local people in a real dialogue to ensure we only do projects that create real local value.

For the wastewater gardens, I was convinced that the main driver for local enthusiasm was the fact that they could save up to 10% of household income. But once we started to survey people’s attitude about these gardens, we discovered that the main driver was the smell reduction and the resulting lift in social status. It furthermore turned out that many people had not understood that it was safe to drink the water, because we had failed to do ‘sosialisasi’ beforehand. Now that our staff does explain the systems carefully during the installation, it appears that everyone is drinking the water and is enjoying the financial savings. We shall find out more once the universities will start their in-depth local surveys in 2017.

Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola Resorts

JEREMY: Fascinating to hear about how you have learned about the villagers expectations and managing and meeting them. I imagine you just have similar situations with guests, especially if they too expect villagers wishes to be one way, and discover they are another. How do you approach this and balance guest expectations with villagers needs?

MARC: Things have changed enormously for the better if we consider guest behaviour over the last decade. There used to be a fairly widespread attitude amongst guests along the lines of “we must help these poor people” (placing themselves subconsciously “above the locals”); “we want to teach them how to …” (implicitly assuming that the learning will only be one way instead of a two way street); “here’s what we want to do (e.g, paint an orphanage), can you deliver please” (not interested at all in what the locals might actually like); “why don’t you have a foreign instructor on site?” (implying that Indonesians/locals aren’t able to do the job).

This attitude has almost completely disappeared, for a variety of reasons: attitudes at schools have completely changed because many teachers have seen first-hand the enormous value that a good community service trip can bring to all stakeholders, while society at large has become more considerate and mindful of the perspectives of neighbouring countries.

So nowadays, the expectation is: “what can we do that is truly meaningful to the Indonesians, while providing an authentic and uplifting experience for ourselves?”

Also, nowadays our expertise in advising our guests is universally respected, and guests are open to the kind of advice such as this: “on the first evening, meet with the local party you will be engaging with, introduce yourself, and let people know that you have the energy, as well as a bit of money, to do a program together that you would like to be as meaningful as possible to your kind hosts. Let people know that there’s a few projects you had in mind, but that you’re open to change the project, as long as this suits everybody. Our staff will be there to facilitate such discussions and will make sure that the outcome remains feasible and realistic for both sides. Don’t be afraid to ask whatever it is that you’re not sure about – ask questions to the local people as if they are your own friends”.

Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola Resorts

Groups that have the time and the confidence to step into the unknown like this always have spectacular experiences: they feel they have taken full ownership over a process that was intensely meaningful to their hosts -and therefore to themselves.

We have found a very uplifting truth, which is true for just about everyone, regardless of their background or age: if you give people an opportunity to do something good and meaningful for another person, people rise to the task with gusto. All you need to do is make it easy for them to get started.

We have found a very uplifting truth, which is true for just about everyone, regardless of their background or age: if you give people an opportunity to do something good and meaningful for another person, people rise to the task with gusto. All you need to do is make it easy for them to get started.

So these days, even though technical mistakes are still made from time to time (some materials missing, the local party may not always turn up on time, both parties have interpreted agreements differently), both parties have been cautioned not to expect perfection in project execution: we ask all parties to focus on the process instead, and to commit to doing their best to make the experience a success, and to take misunderstandings that may arise in their stride – it’s all part of the experience!

If guests sign up to this attitude -as almost everyone does these days- things always go right.

Using transformational tourism to deliver authentic CSR (and win lots of awards): interview with Marc Van Loo from Loola Resorts

JEREMY: We’ve looked at the community, your guests, and your own experiences and what you have learned. I am interested to step back now and look at the industry as a whole, and what you think it is getting wrong and right, and what from your experiences over the years you would share in terms of advice to others looking to emulate your success?

MARC: Glad you asked this question; it is an important one in this era of Trump and co! I believe that the tourist industry as a whole has an amazing potential to be an engine for sustainable development – but it is currently far too timid in realising these opportunities.

Customers have an ever-increasing appetite to connect with genuine local experiences, so tourism operators can and should exploit this far better.
Tourism operators in developing countries all have the opportunity to follow the “LooLa model”.

Developing the community and the wider environment is not charity. Instead, it is a natural business opportunity for tourism operators:

– offer guests the opportunity to get engaged in meaningful community projects. Since the guests pay for this, it’s a no-brainer business-wise: it leads to better relations with the community, it increases staff ownership and staff pride in work, it gives you political capital when you need it, and it is revenue-positive (you don’t lose money but your clients will be happier and appreciate your initiative which means you will get more recommendations and more guests)

– once you start to plugging your business model into the local community, it becomes automatically possible for the tourism operator to start financing mini-eco solutions such as rainwater collection systems, stand-alone PV energy solutions, and biological wastewater systems. LooLa can afford to do this because it doesn’t cost all that much to begin with (and you have many enthusiastic supporters who wish to help you achieve your goals), it attracts more guests in itself, and, most importantly, once you’ve succeeded in formulating a solution that fits with the local environment, you can then “sell/export” your solution to the community through the (paid) CSR projects you can then offer your guests.

I believe that the tourist industry as a whole has an amazing potential to be an engine for sustainable development – but it is currently far too timid

In other words, you can improve the planet while improving your bottom line. Being eco is simply good business for a tourism operators.

– in general, resorts and hotels could do far more in promoting resource conservation. Rather than just doing the usual “re-use your towel please” stuff, hotels could easily install playful devices that alert people towards their water-use (and hence drastically limiting their own water bills). Moreover, I think that big hotels in hot countries should, for instance, take the lead by boldly increasing the temperature of their airconditioning by a few degrees, and promoting the idea that, while being in the tropics, it’s cool to just go around in light dress, rather than business suits.

Guests will accept such messages. I mean, let’s be honest about it, who likes to be in a ridiculous business suit in the first place? It’s expensive and completely out of place in the tropics, so let’s all go in nice comfortable dress! It’s just a matter of a few big hotels taking the lead for others to follow.

Hotels big and small have a real chance to become champions of resource conservation, and they should use these opportunities, especially since these initiatives will directly benefit their bottom line.

It’s time that tourism starts thinking a bit bigger.

– Working with local people (especially in developing communities) has, ultimately, so many benefits for the business itself (local staff has a real stake, they have far more pride and genuine hospitality than outsiders, and they are cheaper than staff from far away), but there are some important benefits that affect society at large as well:

Tourism operators have a unique opportunity of empowering local people by letting them interact with foreigners, and empowering their community through the community projects you develop.

Unlike other industries, tourism operators have a unique opportunity to monetise community work and could as such, become real local engines of progress. This is especially true because if they are smart, they become very knowledgeable about what makes their local area special, which enables them to take a lead in formulating local eco solutions that really work.

Many big players are waiting for good opportunities to get engaged in sustainable development and amplify promising grassroots efforts, but they are looking for local champions, and I think that few sectors are better placed than the tourism sector. So, fellow tourism operators, let’s do it, and let’s pioneer and power sustainable development across the world!

This interview is the first in a series to mark 10 years of Wild Asia’s Responsible Tourism Awards. To celebrate the anniversary, Wild Asia selected 10 winners from all of its annual awards as the best examples of transformational tourism. Loola was one of those. 

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smithhttp://www.jmcsmith.com
Jeremy Smith is the editor and co-founder of Travindy. He is a writer and communications consultant working for a more responsible and sustainable tourism industry. He is the author of two books, writes a fortnightly blog on responsible tourism for World Travel Market, and provides consultancy to a wide range of companies and organisations, ranging from National Parks to individual hotels and tour operators.

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