With over 25 years of experience as an architect in private practice and over 12 as an accredited assessor for sustainable Eco-tourism I have collected many insights into success factors for excellence in Eco-tourism built environment design strategies.
In this post I discuss some important success factors for achieving a healthy bottom line while delivering the best possible guest experience at your Eco-lodge.
This discussion is primarily aimed at the Australian market.
For more information email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Eco-lodge development as a design process
What is an eco-lodge?
Let’s break it down;
From the outside looking in:
- Located in or near a spectacular natural attraction it is an accommodation facility that provides a base from which to access exciting, exotic and memorable nature-based tourism experiences. It is not the primary destination, the natural attraction is, but great Eco-lodge architecture always enhances the destination experience.
From the inside looking out:
- An Eco-lodge is an expensive development situated at the end of a long and challenging supply chain, probably in a remote location, which makes it hard to recruit and retain staff. It faces constantly increasing costs which squeezes profit margins, and yet despite all this, has an amazing unique selling proposition thanks to spectacular natural surroundings and the thoughtful ways that the building enhances guest experiences.
What is Eco?
- For some observers nature-based tourism and Eco-tourism mean the same thing. For them it is all about the ecology of the setting/experience. I take the view that ecotourism must differentiate itself from mainstream tourism by seeking to minimise its environmental impacts both on and off site through various measures typically described under the umbrella of “sustainability”.
When contemplating the design, development and operation of an Eco-lodge tourism experience there are two approaches:
• A leap of faith: “build it and they will come!” Or;
• A patient search: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.
A leap of faith may pay off in locations that are so spectacular and rare that enough people are willing to pay almost anything to go there.
For everything not in such an enviable situation a patient search for the right mix is the only reliable way forward.
Here is my checklist for the patient searcher:
Lets have a look at these in more detail:
As they like to say in real estate, location, location, location. It is everything – almost. Crucially, location attraction underpins the perceived value of the destination and hence the value of your project. It is the primary motivator for potential guests. Your Eco-lodge needs to be seen as the most desirable base for those wanting to experience that particular location.
Many of our most attractive locations are in protected areas. Opportunities to build new Eco-lodges in protected areas are scarce to non-existent. It may be possible to find an adaptive re-use opportunity to convert existing infrastructure into an Eco-lodge. A lighthouse and associated buildings or an abandoned research station for example. The most likely opportunities will be on lease-hold or free-hold land adjacent to a protected area. Development on such land is far less likely to adversely impact the conservation values of the protected attraction, provided it is soundly made and operated.
Remember to check for native title rights and reach out to the local elders, at the very least as a courtesy, but also to explore opportunities to cooperate and enhance outcomes all round.
All development has an impact on the environment. Access roads, paths, trails, power lines, sewage, solid waste, noise and light emissions, vegetation clearing, soil disturbance, habitat displacement and human activity all modify the receiving environment to some extent. Development should not (and hopefully will not) be permitted where it will result in a degradation of the natural asset.
Good development has the potential to actually enhance conditions and improve outcomes within its sphere of influence. For example the ongoing work by Peter Gash, his family and crew on Lady Elliot Island is an outstanding case study of leveraging environmental repair from tourism development in a protected area.
Good development increases the perceived value of the destination, which is great for the environment and even better for your bottom line.
Another location consideration is that of potential synergies. What other reasons might your guests have for visiting the region? Are there other nearby attractions? Is it on an established tourist route? How will guests access your lodge? What complementary products are on offer – guided tours, fine dining or day-spas for example?
Engage with approval authorities as part of your pre-acquisition due diligence process. In high level terms, are you likely to be granted approval for your project and what is the approval process? Is it complex and technically challenging, or is it just basic good stewardship?
In a nutshell, select your Eco-lodge site based on its inherent value as an attraction with a solid chance of gaining approval, then aim to enhance the offer through your development, including synergistic opportunities and great design (more on design to follow).
Your architect can assist during the site selection phase by acting as a sounding board as well as providing guidance on potential opportunities and constraints on a site by site basis.
When building to a budget, you must first budget to build. In other words your project must drive the budget, not the other way around.
Let’s tease this out.
Having identified an opportunity in an attractive location the next step is to gain an understanding of the likely guest expenditure in that regional market:
- Who are you pitching this offer to and what are they willing to spend?
- How many bed-nights can you expect to sell in peak, shoulder and off-season?
- How (and how much) can you grow the market?
- What are your likely operating overheads for staff, consumables, maintenance, insurance, finance and so forth?
Ask not, “How much can I do with this amount of money?”
Rather, “How much money do I need to do this?”
Set up a financial model to help you forecast the capital requirements for your development. Help is available from industry associations and government agencies to avoid excessive reliance on assumptions during this process.
Your architect can be of assistance when it comes to budgeting, particularly for construction and infrastructure considerations.
A sound business case will establish where your development budget needs to sit to achieve a viable outcome. Confirm this is “bankable” through various finance channels.
A staged development approach might be worth considering.
From a cash-flow perspective it may be advantageous to establish a “starter” operation from which to test and refine your business model, prove the value of your brand, and provide an evidence base for investors, financiers and approval agencies. Through staged development you can minimise financial and compliance risks until the strength of your proposition is established, then leverage off that to achieve your ultimate goals.
One frequently overlooked budgeting concept is the balance of capital costs and recurrent costs. Capital costs are what you spend up front to purchase something. Recurrent costs are those incurred over the life-cycle of that something.
All buildings cost way more to operate over their service life than they do to construct.
The savvy operator balances capital and recurrent costs to lock in an ongoing competitive advantage by reducing their total cost of operations.
As a process:
The Queensland Department of Tourism, Major Events, Small Business and the Commonwealth Games Ecotourism Development Toolkit 2016 sets out an eleven step development process.
The steps are:
- Market Identification
- Develop an Ecotourism Concept
- Site selection and tenure investigations
- Economic and commercial viability
- Stakeholder consultation
- Review of regulatory and accreditation frameworks
- Design of activities and facilities
- Documentation and approval
Steps 2 – 5 are iterative because later findings may mean you need to revisit earlier steps. As a designer I prefer to be involved from the beginning right through to step 9, construction.
At the very latest you should have your architect on board from step 3, site selection.
Take note of step 11 – Decommissioning; Planning for a graceful exit is not always front of mind as we commence design and yet it might be the case that to gain approval we need to demonstrate how we plan to address an exit scenario.
Early engagement with your architect can save you substantial time and money down the track by avoiding costly re-working of proposals and re-submission of applications.
Your Project Team
Just as eighteenth century expedition leaders relied upon qualified guides, sturdy porters and the occasional “fixer” to get to their destinations, so too do development projects.
The right mix for your project will be determined by context. An optimal team will have members from each of the following categories;
- Guides – to help identify, interpret and negotiate the best path. “Guides” include; designers (architect/interior/landscape), scientists (Ecologist/biologist), analysists (business/finance/market)
- Porters – to do the heavy lifting and make sure your kit is looked after. “Porters” include; surveyors, planners, engineers, technicians, assessors and certifiers.
- Fixers – to remove impediments. “Fixers” include Public Relations Consultants and Lobbyists, mentors and advisors.
Multi-disciplinary teams: – covering all the bases, seeing all the angles.
Creatives and technicians: – left and right brain thinking – yin and yang.
There is plenty of theory around group dynamics if you’re interested. The key message I’d like to share from my experience is that the best outcomes derive from a distillation of diverse views and the synergies that stem from different modes of thinking combining to realise a common goal. Avoid tunnel vision!
You don’t need everyone on board from the outset. Projects typically start with a small core team and bring in specialists along the way.
Start your design process by recruiting your architect – someone appropriately experienced and aligned with your values. Your architect will be a sounding board when investigating various sites, scoping, visioning, and developing your brief, to help get you off on the right foot.
Your architect will also advise on the appointment of other specialists, can help you find and recruit them, and can act as your agent to manage them and ensure they perform.
As a concept:
Guests seeking a nature-based tourism experience are initially driven by a particular natural attraction; otherwise they’d be booking a mainstream resort. That said there is no reason why we shouldn’t also delight them with a fabulous built environment experience too.
Adding value to the destination through design excellence, rather than merely facilitating shelter with food and beverage available, is a fundamental way to maximise guest satisfaction and so, revenue.
What is design excellence?
For me design excellence is the delicate balance of what I call the pragmatics and the poetics.
Design excellence – pragmatics:
- Climatic Region
- Design for climate to maximise guest enjoyment and minimise energy consumption for cooling and heating.
- Topography Geology Ecology
- Flat or sloping land. Rock/clay/sandy soil. Wet or dry forest/ savannah/ riverine/ marsh/ coastal
- Aim to minimise modification of landform through appropriate construction methods. For example raised floors to avoid cutting and filling the land.
- Bushfire Ecology
- Flora and fauna – endangered species?
- Cultural context
- Is there a local architectural vernacular typology?
- Are there location-specific cultural/heritage considerations?
- Access to services
- Is the site on or off grid?
- How far will service lines need to be extended to reach your building? Long distance extensions may be more expensive than off-grid alternatives. For example mains power lines can cost thousands per pole and underground lines are even more costly, so a stand-alone solar and battery storage system may be less expensive in some locations.
- Construction logistics
- Remote locations have long supply lines which mean added costs
- Access for heavy machinery and concrete trucks may be limited
- Pre-fabrication may be advantageous
- Remember construction waste needs to be removed, so to save money, design to minimise waste production – modularity is a great strategy
- Rating schemes and accreditation
- …or hoping for the best with TripAdvisor? What impact does this have on your design?
Design excellence – poetics:
- Wow factor
- In the context of all of the above (the pragmatics) don’t overlook the importance of the “wow factor” (the poetics) to create a point of difference and a bonus reward for guests who visit your Eco-lodge.
- Community dividends
- Identify deliverable community dividends – something your project might deliver that is a tangible benefit to the community. Think creatively and there are numerous win-win possibilities. Allow for this in design.
Examples of community dividends include educational outreach, local employment and vocational training opportunities.
In one project I worked on the developer offered to build a surf lifesaving patrol tower on the local beach. In another a new office and visitor information centre for the Parks and Wildlife Service was constructed at the developer’s expense.
Breaking ground and making buildings.
- Site selection validated against your business model and checked for suitability with approval authorities.
- Finance in place.
- Development approval. Local, State and Federal agency concurrence. Based on conceptual design.
- Building approval. Aligned with development approval conditions, assessed by a private building certifier. Based on detailed technical design.
- Building contract signed. Appropriately experienced builder appointed under a recognised standard form of contract.
- Commencement. The contract clock starts ticking and the first big risk window opens for “unforeseen” conditions.
- Practical completion. The builder’s work is mostly done and you finally get the keys.
- Defects liability period. Post construction period where the builder is responsible for ensuring all of the contracted elements are working properly.
- Fit out and soft start. Moving in and getting to know the place. Training staff and procedural shake downs.
- Official opening. Ready to rock ’n’ roll.
A few quick notes about building contracts:
There are several standard forms available. These are developed by industry and government groups and have been tested in the courts. As such they are a reliable way of managing risk during the building process. Never use a novel or custom building contract; Never.
Fundamentally a building contract is a means of allocating risk. Contracts have at least two parties, you (the Principal) and your builder (the Contractor). Most include an architect as a Contract Administrator. It is important to understand that some risk is always borne by the Principal, such as conditions hidden underground that are only discovered after work has commenced.
Managing your risk actually starts well before the building contract is signed. Talk to your architect about the various procurement strategies available and clarify your appetite for risk before detailed design commences.
Congratulations you are up and running and the first guests are checking in. The main game has begun!
So too has the learning curve.
If your project is staged, now is the time to start polishing the model and tweaking the plan. The mantra here is; if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. Keep detailed records.
Here is a headline list of records you might keep:
- Energy consumption. Renewable energy ratio?
- Potable water consumption.
- Wastewater production. On site treatment ratio?
- Solid waste production. How much leaves your site to landfill? Recyclable portion?
- Chemical usage. What types and how much? Proportion that is non-biodegradable?
- Social commitment. Community dividends delivered and/or environmental improvements achieved?
All of the above can be measured in expenditure terms and reported as performance indicators. Expressed as units per bed night these indicators can also be tracked. For example if your energy consumption per bed night is increasing over time, you would prudently investigate why and try to reverse the trend to reduce costs and also reduce environmental impacts through greenhouse gas production if you are using non-renewable energy. (The above is based on the EC3 methodology for sustainable tourism development.)
Such records greatly assist with planning the next phase of your project so that, over time, efficiency improves and impacts decline. Good data is gold for your consultant team as they begin formulating their designs going forward.
You set out to do something special in a special place. It has been a long patient journey to get here, don’t hesitate to celebrate your achievement.
In this age of social media your celebration should include creating and nurturing an authentic clickable narrative, ideally one that goes viral generating free promotional coverage. An authentic narrative in the wild on social media drives business to you. “Authentic” is the key word. Customers increasingly seek the “not only but also” value-add whereby they can both enjoy an indulgence and have a clear conscience about it. For example, they would prefer to know their visitation assisted with conservation rather than caused harm. Leave only footprints, take only pictures, plus a bit of actually doing some good (not necessarily hands-on, but it could be).
A great looking building in the background of guest selfies posted online can’t hurt either!
- An Eco-lodge development in or near a protected area is likely to be a more complex and challenging proposition than a mainstream tourism development would be. It is also incredibly exciting and has the potential to generate many positive outcomes and great experiences.
- Your chances of success are dependent upon a patient methodical mindset, maintaining a long-term view and adopting a team approach to not only achieve compliance but also to lock in sustainable outcomes.
- Your budget must be driven by your business plan.
- Appoint your expedition guide (aka architect) early so that you can access their knowledge, insight and experience and avoid tramping off down too many dead end tracks.
These are the foundations upon which we can achieve a successful development that offers an authentic and unique guest experience; one which will attract deep and ongoing engagement with your customers, and make a dollar along the way.