Future Hospitality

E33: Honoring Every Destination Through Regenerative Travel with O’Shannon Burns

November 21, 2021

Dustin Myers: O’Shannon, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast today.

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Dustin Myers: Awesome. Well, first off, maybe for those who aren’t familiar with Regenerative Travel, maybe just give us an overview of what that is and what you guys do there.

O’Shannon Burns: Sure. Yeah. I always like to start with describing the concept of regeneration from my perspective, because one of the things that we get a lot of questions about at Regenerative Travel is what’s the difference between sustainability, regeneration, green, et cetera. And the concept of regeneration comes from other industries and spaces, especially in the agricultural and buildings spaces. The idea is that when we generally think about greening something or making it more sustainable, a lot of times we kind of think about it from the perspective of doing less bad, of trying to make something that’s problematic better. And the idea of regeneration is that we actually have to completely take a step back and embrace a more holistic approach where we’re really re-imagining what our place is in the world as humans and really returning to a mindset where we’re participating in nature and really understanding our role on the planet in the context of this broader ecosystem.

So one of my title at Regenerative Travel is Ecosystem Steward. And one of the ways that you can think about this is kind of moving away from the idea that we need to engineer everything and that we actually can more act as a steward where we are acknowledging that many things are happening in the ecosystem and thinking about how in our particular role we can really nurture that so that every part of the ecosystem can be more successful.

So like nature, the travel sector is incredibly complex. It’s always a little bit, I think, crazy to even call what we all work in as sector. The travel sector is built of so many different industries. And so I really think that this application, this mindset, this change in thinking really serves the travel sector in particular because none of us are really in control of what’s going on from our particular spot in the industry.

So that’s kind of how I think about the concept of regeneration and Regenerative Travel. Regenerative Travel, the company, was founded by a hotelier named David Leventhal. David owns a hotel in Mexico called Playa Viva, and he collaborated with a company called Regenesis to ideate and design and build the hotel concept. After Playa Viva was built, David often had guests saying to him, “I love what Playa Viva stands for. I love that when I come here, I know my vacation aligns with my values. I love that I’m doing much more than going on vacation. I’m supporting your work to create positive social and environmental impact. But I don’t want to come to Mexico every year. Where else in the world are there incredible hotels like yours?” And that really sparked the idea for David to look for other properties around the world who also were really trying to change their communities for the better and the travel industry for the better.

Yeah. So that’s what we’re focused on at Regenerative Travel. And although we really are at our core, a collection of hotels, a collection of small independent hotels, because Regenerative Travel has become such a buzzword over the past two years, we often also find ourselves kind of in these conversations in the industry about what Regenerative Travel is. And we’ve realized that we do want to really do what we can beyond the collection to shift how our industry thinks about regeneration. So we also think a lot about how we can kind of spur that sort of systemic change within the industry.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing that. And I think it’s so important to, when you’re kind of defining and shaping a new industry or a new concept, like Regenerative Travel, to make sure like the definition is that everyone’s kind of on the same page and speaking the same language because otherwise it can get very convoluted as I’m sure you’ve found as you guys are trying to build this idea. People have different concepts or ideas or perceptions about what that term means. So I think it’s really important, like you said, to try to find that with good guard rails.

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah, I agree. And I mean in the travel industry and sustainability in general, we don’t have one standard or a couple of standards that really we all come around and understand. I’ve been really inspired over the past couple of years in how the concept of regeneration has resonated both with industry stakeholders, and honestly with travelers, which has been really inspiring too.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah, definitely. So I would love to hear a little bit more about how you got into Regenerative Travel too, and this idea and how you kind of met the team and got engaged there and what that looked like.

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah. So I feel like most people in the travel industry kind of come in sideways or have some unexpected root in. I have a background in sustainability, climate, and conservation, and I worked at National Geographic for a decade. Half of that time, I was on the nonprofit side of National Geographic collaborating with the hundreds of explorers that Nat Geo would fund each year to do field work. At that time, National Geographic’s Travel Business was really exploding and they were looking for people to join the team who had this deep network with Nat Geo explorers and had worked on some of the nonprofit programs. Because the goal with the travel program was to really reflect the work that was being done at National Geographic to immerse people in that work and also to have National Geographic explorers and photographers join the trips.

So I started out in tour operations in the travel business, and that’s really where I learned everything that I know about travel. The Nat Geo Travel Business was so diverse. So I got to work in a lot of different segments of the travel industry while I was there, including supporting our National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World Program, which was also a hotel collection. I also, while I was there, saw a lot of these systemic issues in the travel industry. And again, we had some fantastic partners that I got to work with there who also were quite cognizant of some of the damaging effects that tourism was having. And so I created Nat Geo travel’s sustainability strategy and then started working with our team to implement that.

And so, yeah, I had spent a decade at National Geographic and I was just really ready to do something new. And so at the beginning of 2020, I left Nat Geo and I’ve always been really interested in these models for sustainability and regeneration. In the tourism sector, there are so many different ways that we can and need to change the industry to move toward more regenerative models from the way that destinations are governed to how tourism efforts are funded, the data that we all look at and benchmark too. But one of the ways that I think we can really make a change here is by looking at business models and the travel industry. And so that’s really what first connected me with the very Regenerative Travel team and why I was interested in joining the team because it really is a collection of hotels who are out there doing the work. And the goal of Regenerative Travel is to create a community so that they don’t feel so alone in that work and they can share best practice and we can also support them in ways that small independent hotels might not be able to access resources otherwise.

And so I’m really interested in how we can work together with all of the hotels to really demonstrate best model of regenerative hospitality, not just in the individual places where their hotels are located, but really zooming out and showing that this is something that can work anywhere in the world.

Dustin Myers: Yeah, that’s really, really cool. I’m curious how you go about adding resorts to the collection and what are some of the common themes that exist between all of the properties.

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah, great question. We definitely seek out properties that we think are a good fit for the collection. Actually some of our newest members, have come to us and said, “How do I become a member of Regenerative Travel?” Again, I think that really speaks to the fact that there is definitely a need for this in the world and that it’s very difficult for consumers to find experiences and feel confident that experiences they’re booking will align with their values, but there’s also a real need for this in the hotel space where, again, if you’re an independent hotel who’s really out there on your own, trying to figure this out, we find that those hotels who are doing something pretty different are the ones that come to us and say, “I want to be a part of this. I want to learn from other hotels. I want to share what I’ve learned so that people don’t make the same mistakes.” That’s really the essence of what the community is all about.

But as far as kind of how we determine if a hotel is a good fit for the collection, we always say that first and foremost and most important really is understanding if there’s an alignment and values between what we’re doing and what the hotel is doing. So we actually start most of our kind of vetting or onboarding of new hotels with a call with the owner or general managers, senior team to really understand what their values are, why they’re interested in Regenerative Travel and how they want to learn and grow.

We do also have a self-assessment that we have every new hotel fill out. And it’s a combination of questions, making sure that they meet our minimum criteria, but also again getting them in the headspace of really evaluating their own performance, how they think that they’re doing on a range of different standards that we have and identifying the areas where they want to again grow or do better. And then once you’re a part of the community, all of our hotels collect 29 different data points on an ongoing basis. And that’s really how we’re able to create a culture of accountability within the community.

Jeremy Wells: That’s really interesting. It’s obvious you guys have very high standards for what you want as a property as a part of your collection. Just out of curiosity, have you ever had to, and you don’t have to tell us which property, but have you ever had to decline someone from joining for any reason? And what did that look like if so?

O’Shannon Burns: Yes, we have. One of the things we always say is that regeneration is aspirational. So I say yes, we have declined properties, but I would say that we more have just reflected back to them where they are on their journey. And of course, having this brand, we have to hold a certain standard that we feel is necessary to be called a regenerative resort. But one of the things our team has been working on over the past six months is how can we also support those properties that maybe aren’t quite there yet, but want to get there. So we’re really interested in that as well and thinking about how instead of a decline, it can be a, “Here’s where we see that you’re at and here are some of the things that you might need to work on to qualify to be part of the collection.” And any hotel who doesn’t meet our criteria currently, we definitely welcome them to come back to us when they feel they meet the criteria.

Dustin Myers: That’s really good. It’s not just a no, but it’s like, “Here’s how you can improve. Here’s kind of a path forward.” I think that’s really cool. Do you have any examples of properties that have implemented strategies that you could share with us?

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah. I think this is the most fantastic part about my job is, again, having these conversations with hotels and hearing about what they’re doing, and I find so often actually that the hotels themselves, they don’t realize how inspiring their work is until you kind of had that conversation with them and tell them, “I haven’t heard about other people doing this,” or, “Wow! It feels really unique.” And so I think there’s kind of a couple of areas where you would classically think of sort of regeneration conservation sustainability in the hotel context.

So of course, in the building design, we have so many properties innovating on building design. One property that recently joined our collection, Gangtey Lodge in Bhutan. I love the way that they talk about their approach to designing the hotel, which was really that they wanted to get away from the feeling of a hotel. And instead, have you feel like you were coming to somebody’s home in Bhutan. And so every architectural detail there, they really took inspiration from traditional Bhutanese farmhouses. So there’s this amazing harmony with the landscape that Gangtey Lodge has kind of some of the architectural elements nod to monasteries that the color scheme at the hotel is all vegetable-based colors that are traditionally used in Bhutanese homes. The art has been painted by local monks.

So again, really thinking about how the hotel building itself can embody the place where it is, so that when you go there, you feel like you’re uniquely in that place. And then yeah, again, obviously many of our hotels are engaging in some really impressive conservation efforts. Another hotel that recently joined the collection, Samara in South Africa. I love their story because they are in a part of South Africa that is not actually a traditional safari destination that you would think of. Instead, they’re located in a part of South Africa that has for many years been an area where conventional farming has taken place.

And so they purchased 67,000 acres of land there and through the hotel operations have really been looking at how they can regenerate that landscape and that approach is very multi-pronged and community-based. So they’re not just looking at rewilding, planting native vegetation, they’re also looking at why people in this area have become so dependent on conventional farming and how they can help build resiliency so that they are not dependent on that anymore. And actually during the pandemic, they’ve started farming the land regeneratively as well. So kind of an ode to the roots of the place, but again like really shifting the perspective on how farming can happen there.

But I also get really inspired by some of like just basic nitty-gritty things that are happening at some of our properties. Like I said, in 2021, we started requiring our properties to collect data. And over the past few months, our property, Tranquilo Bay in Panama, has been posting on social media about what they’ve learned in the process of collecting this data. And it’s incredibly inspiring and also eye opening to how a regenerative property really does make an impact in the local community and now they have the data to show that. They can report that I think it’s more than 90% of their employees are from that region. I like this too, this idea that just doing the regenerative work is not enough. We really need to find ways to share that story and share the work that we’re doing so that other people can learn and we can amplify our impacts even beyond just individuals or an individual hotel.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah, definitely. How many properties do you guys currently have?

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah. So we have 38 properties in the collection currently and we’re actually about to open up our application again. We are definitely growing every day. So we have a couple of other properties that are in the wings that we’ll be announcing shortly.

Jeremy Wells: Definitely. Yeah. Each of the properties are just so inspiring. I want to visit every single one. I think it’s really obviously special what you guys are doing and how you’re curating these properties and the ideals that you’re bringing to light in each of them. Obviously, you guys are right now are primarily focused on like resorts and it seems like a lot of more remote or rural destinations. I’d be curious your thoughts on like how this concept of regeneration and regenerative travel can translate from like more of a rural or remote destination, those types of resorts into maybe an urban setting and what that could look like. Have you guys had any sort of interest from properties and more of an urban market?

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah, it’s a great question. And one that we thought a lot about when we created our standards, we felt strongly that the standard should not exclude a property because of its geography or location and that we should try and make the standard as inclusive as possible. So yes, we actually have a couple of hotels in the collection who have sister hotels or properties that are more urban, that are working now to see how they need to change their operations to meet the standard. But also, I live in Washington, DC, a very urban place. Actually just this week, I had an opportunity to sit down with a couple of folks from Eaton Hotel. They have two hotels, one in Hong Kong and one in Washington, DC. And I am really inspired by what they’re doing in the urban space and they have really taken the principles of regeneration and thought very carefully about what it means for an urban community to be regenerative.

Just to give a couple of examples, they really built the hotel to also serve as a community space for people here in Washington, DC. And in my opinion, some of the best parts of the hotel are those community spaces. Even if you’re staying there as a guest, you get to be immersed in local art. When I was there the other day, there were a group of climate activists meeting there. So you really feel like you’re getting the essence of what Washington DC is all about when you’re in Eaton Hotel. And they have really also tried to support local organizations focused on the environment, focused on activism around social impact. And so in my mind, they’re doing very similar work to our hotels in more rural places. And I think it’s one example of many of how urban hotels can definitely meet the regenerative, can aspire toward this regenerative model and standard.

Dustin Myers: We had talked previously about how the conscious consumer has been evolving. And I know you guys have done some research around that. Is there anything you can share with the audience as far as like what you guys have been seeing, what you’ve been learning, and where you see that evolving into the future?

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah. So actually I did some research at the tail end of my tenure at National Geographic where we asked both the general public and National Geographic customers a series of questions about what they thought about sustainability and travel. It was really clear in that research that consumers just don’t understand what sustainability means in the travel context. Largely, they assume that sustainable tourism meant something environmental. And they also were pretty I would say confused about what it meant for them as travelers. So some of the respondents would think that you were saying, “Oh, we’re only talking about very remote eco lodges in pristine environments.” And then on the other end of the spectrum, we would see people responding that it meant, “Oh, I need to bring my water bottle and Tupperware on vacation so that I’m not generating trash.”

So yeah. There was just a real disconnect in understanding sustainability and travel. So what I’ve been excited about over the past couple of years is really seeing this concept of regeneration resonate with consumers. This simple idea that when I travel, I should not be degrading the place. I should be supporting efforts to make a place better and that travel is a privilege and that we should all not do so mindlessly. And it’s amazing. Consumers are really more tapped into this now than I’ve ever seen before. I’m excited about that. At the same time, I think we would be foolish to think that that change in consciousness and understanding from the consumer side is going to change these really big challenges that we are up against.

When it comes to addressing things like over tourism, like climate change, we need to really look at the governance models we have in destinations. We need to look at the incentive structure for businesses and how that governance and that incentive structure is maybe leading us toward a degenerative path. And actually just this morning, I was reading a little bit about what’s happening in Hawaii right now. And I think it’s really interesting. We’re seeing a lot of pressure on the travel industry in Hawaii post-COVID-19. I think that one of the things we tend to do also in the travel industry is think of travelers as our only client. And we are so dependent on communities. That really is the product that we sell. And so we need to treat those stakeholders just as importantly as we treat travelers. And I think if we shift our mindset toward that, there’s a lot of possibility moving toward regenerative models and tourism.

Jeremy Wells: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I know Dustin was just recently in Hawaii. Over the course of the last 18 months with everything that’s happening, I know that it’s kind of been this challenge of tourism market in Hawaii is so important to that economy, yet at the same time, like you said, this idea of like degenerative harm that’s done because of over tourism and we see that in other markets like in Italy and other types of areas. I think it’s important, like you said, we work with customers a lot. The clients we work with, when we’re defining like an audience or like who we want to impact with the brand message or with our communication, and it’s oftentimes, like you said, just the customer guest or a traveler that comes up in that. But in some occasions, the client has wanted to make an impact in the community. So that becomes an audience of theirs. And I think that’s so cool that you brought that up, that you’re not just trying to make an impact to your bottom line and trying to get more guests in the doors, but you also have to make an impact in your local community. So I think that’s something that’s really special from the sounds of it, from the properties you guys have in your collection.

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah. And like kind of the theory that I talked about early on in our conversation, this is where I feel it really comes into play because bottom lines are relative. Right? And when you look at some of the destinations, for example, in Thailand where they’ve had to close down whole islands because there are so degraded. If you’re a hotel near or on one of those islands, that’s probably going to end your business. So again, I think pulling back sometimes, and I love this idea that you’re working with clients to think about this in a more holistic way, because I think we all need to just acknowledge the greater ecosystem that our businesses are a part of and really embrace that thinking to make sure that we’re resilient against long-term impacts. COVID-19 has revealed that better than anything.

And actually some of our hotels have done some great thinking around this. One of our hotels is on a remote island off the coast of Tanzania. And they have been in business for 28 years. They built their business completely to preserve the ecosystem there and to support the community, especially in health and education. And when COVID-19 happened and there were no more travelers coming to Chole Mjini, there was no income for any of those activities. And so John and Ann, who own Chole Mjini, have been thinking quite a bit about how through their business they created a dependency on tourism. And they still do not have tourists there and they, for the past six months, have been working on a number of projects to actually diversify the income of the community and their resilience away from tourism. I’ve talked to John quite a bit about this and he feels like it was a mistake to not think about the potential of something like a pandemic or some other disruption that could really put a pause on tourism and how reliant they all were on the income coming in from tourists. So again, I think it’s a great time for all of us to sort of take that more holistic approach to how we’re running our businesses.

Jeremy Wells: Definitely. Yeah. I think this pandemic has obviously forced a lot of businesses to rethink their model and pivot and make some tough decisions. So I think the future is hopefully a lot brighter. And as we end our time here today, I’d love to hear about, as you look into the future, what things excite you regarding the travel, hospitality industry of Regenerative Travel and what you’re looking forward to?

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah. Again, I never thought I would be in the travel industry, and I think when I look back, the reason why I was drawn to the travel industry and the reason why I’m still so interested in working within travel is because travel opens up this ability for us all to connect deeply with each other. And during this pandemic again, our need as humans to have those deep connections is so obvious to us all now. And we’ve all had a lot of time to reflect on that too. And I think this is a great opportunity for all of us to rethink the trajectory that we’re on and really about, again, those levers that can change the bigger systems that we’re all a part of. And that’s what I’m excited about.

Obviously, COVID-19 was such a challenge for the industry, but working at Regenerative Travel, you hear from so many people who weren’t thinking about regeneration prior to the pandemic or weren’t thinking about it in the same way. And there is this growing body of knowledge and conversation and changes that I think we can make right now that are really going to reshape the future of the industry. I think we’re really at a pivot point where each of us individually can have a lot of impact.

Dustin Myers: Absolutely. O’Shannon, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us today. We’re huge fans of what you’re doing and the movement that’s being created. And we look forward to watching as it grows. If people want to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing, how can they do that?

O’Shannon Burns: Yeah, regenerativetravel.com. In addition to learning more about the resorts, we have a number of resources there. We’ve hosted a number of webinars. We have an annual summit that we just completed virtually that you can watch after the fact. And I personally am on LinkedIn and always happy to connect and meet like-minded people in the industry.

Dustin Myers: Awesome. Thank you so much.

O’Shannon Burns: Thank you. It was fun.