Responsible Hotels - Interview

Yvette Jong

Interview with Yvette Jong, Sustainable Tourism expert on China, Sustainability and Change

by Responsible Hotels Team, Carlos Buj

Today I have the pleasure of sharing this interesting talk with Yvette Jong, Founder and Director of Craft House, a consultancy company based in Hong Kong. However, she  is a New York born hotelier with a degree in hotel management from Cornell University and 13 years of global hospitality experience. In her early career, she cofounded a nonprofit organization focused on community based tourism beforebecoming an executive manager in hotel operations, director of human resources and opening manager for the New York and London premier member clubs and boutique hotels, Soho House and High Road House. In 2006, she became a consultant with Horwath HTL where she developed concepts and feasibility studies for more than 45 hotel and destination projects across Asia. Yvette is a LEED  Green Associate.
After I discovered her work titled “Towards the business case for sustainable hotels in Asia”,  I arranged through Yvette’s Twitter (@CraftHouseLLC) this interview on green hotels, sustainability in tourism and other topics.
Yvette, you started a Non-profit which supported Community-Based Tourism before going into the business world and you still support a local project in Bali. What can you tell us about this experience?
For those who know me, they’re aware that sustainable tourism is one of my passions.  While I’ve encouraged developers to build green, I’m still passionate about organizations that demonstrate exemplary practices in sustainability rooted in strong and healthy relationships with their community.  In such cases, sustainability isn’t just about how you design a hotel, or carbon offsetting, it’s the holistic way they engage with the world outside their organizations to promote better livelihoods and environmental stewardship.  I admire programs that build community programs on natural resource management, those that build schools, rehabilitation projects, outreach and education programs, create jobs, improve infrastructure and make great strides to protect the environment, combat poverty, and promote sustainable communities.
Could you give a couple of examples of programs that build community programs on natural resource management ?
Yvette Jong: InterContinental Moorea in French Polynesia and Shangri-La Fijian Resort and Spa are 2 examples where they engage the local community in natural resource management (i.e. coral reef protection, programs to combat dynamite fishing, illegal fishing, etc).  When a client recently asked if they should have a sea turtle program, I stressed that it wasn’t up to either of us to make that decision, and that if he was serious, he should approach research centers, universities and get an EIA done.  Such partnerships can be beneficial to the developers (added activity, marketability, etc), and for the researchers (funds they might not get otherwise).
In your company’s site you claim to “build successful hospitality businesses in one holistic process by streamlining and integrating creative, development and operating strategic thinking and execution”. This may sound a bit intimidating for some conventional hotels. Could you elaborate a bit on what this really means for a hotel in practice?
It is intimidating because conventional hotels have followed the same pattern over and over again.  They talk about being “glocal,” but few are able to identify and react to the nuances that make a hotel successful in a particular location, within a certain environment and given specific workforces.  To be more specific, I created Craft House to streamline all creative and operational strategies.  In a traditional process, consulting firms work in isolation from each other, concentrating on their own areas of expertise, not the overall needs of the owner, brand and end-users.  As such, motivations often differ, brand values are skewed, the customer journey is compromised and development and operating costs can increase.  Instead, Craft House integrates the expertise of our consultants from conception to completion.
It seems that there is few people or none that understand all the implications and dimensions of the tourism activity. Should tourism professionals have a more general vision of tourism beyond their specific field?
Yes. Hotels and destinations are tried, discussed, recommended or rejected just like any other marketed lifestyle product.  In the past, as long as you were clean, convenient and well priced, you were fine.  With competition rising, travelers are more discernible.  They have options and are driven by factors that were never part of the traditional hotel model.  Crowd sourcing, social media, tripadvisor, experiential travel, sustainability, voluntourism, etc, all play major roles in decision making factors of travelers these days.
I’m organizing a TEDx conference next year which focuses on the future of tourism in Asia with a focus on things like photo journalism, blogging, food tourism, medical voluntourism, slaveryfootprint.org, airbnb.com, etc.  The industry is changing and everyone should be aware of the changes taking place
You wrote a document on the business case for green hotels in Asia? Why does going green make business sense for hotels?
This is tough.  A lot of developers are wary of being “green” due to cost, while operators feel it’s impractical.  Then you have those who want the “sticker” for marketing sake which leads to a lot of greenwashing.  The purpose of the study was to show the dollar and cents savings associated with it.  I.e. you can switch to LEDs, or sell x thousand rooms to make the same bottom line savings.  With WWF and Horwath HTL, we’re looking for sponsors to help develop similar studies in both South America and Mexico.  Having region specific case studies are important since the situation in one region is going to be vastly different from another.
I have a former client who wants to be green but has marketed his project completely in the wrong way.  He was advised to use “Carbon Zero” “First Green …” etc.  As soon as you start calling yourself “green”, you become a target for criticism.  I tell developers that if they do it for the right reasons, and not for public approval.
It seems that communicating “green” is sometimes even more difficult than being green. What tips can you provide to hotels who are commited to be moer sustainable but don’t know what to tell about it?
I tell them that having a well written CSR policy is a good start.  It communicates your position to stakeholders, employees and prospective guests while offering transparency.  I also tell them that they should never boast or use statements like, “always, only, never,” because at the end of the day, “sustainable tourism” is an oxymoron.  We can only do our best.  A “staycation” is possibly the only true form of sustainable tourism. That’s why the study I wrote for WWF and Horwath was called, “Towards the Business Case of…,” not “The Business Case…”
What is your opinion on the numerous certification schemes? How do  see the future regarding this issue?
I don’t agree with most of them.  Again, they offer hotels and groups a “sticker” that doesn’t say much. I’d rather see hotels with strong CSR policies and programs where they can benchmark their performance against their own standards and goals.  It doesn’t make much sense to benchmark against a “similar” hotel in your city, or in some cases a different city.  I’m working on a software program now that will allow hotels to benchmark their own performance on a daily basis (or as often as they want to enter it), which will provide reports, goals, trends, but more than anything, will offer solutions.  I can’t say much more on this now, but it’s results and solutions driven.
Is any particularity in Asia? How is sustainability perceived different in East and West?
The west appreciates sustainability, just like they appreciate health and wellness.  Certain markets in Asia (particularly in China) are only just learning to spend their new earned wealth.  Sustainability, as such will take a long time to become a priority.  However, there are many other places where sustainability is natural in construction – think open-air pagodas or bungalows, etc.  Then there are places like Taiwan and Japan where organic farming and farm stays are becoming popular.
How does sustainability in tourism with e-learning? Is this kind of education suitable to produce change in organisations?
We develop a range of e-learning programs that don’t have to do with interpersonal skills.  The e-learning program is an introduction to the impacts tourism has on the environment and community and showcases a variety of case studies where small changes make big differences.  The purpose of the course is to guide/change behavior more than anything else.Are there any politicies and regulations that the public sector can use to make tourism more sustainable ? Ecotax, flight-tax, visas, etc?
The Maldives as a country is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2020, Bali doesn’t allow buildings to be built above the tree lines and there are carbon taxes imposed by some governments, but none of these are focused on tourism alone.  It would be a big step for such policies to come from the public sector for tourism alone. The hotel board in Shenzhen, China the one which has stipulated that hotels cannot offer bathroom amenities free of charge.  The purpose is to reduce waste, which is brilliant and surprising for China.  But this is just one city. Obviously the 5-star international brands are upset, while the domestic hotels are happy to make the extra money…
China is the most populated country in the world, so it seems that its approach to sustainability is very relevant. Your example sounds like a good example, but will China learn to be green soon enough?
Unfortunately no.  Those who travel are experiencing a new luxury they were never able to have.  For them luxury is about spending and splurging and using things for the sake of using them because they paid for it. It’s a broad statement but geneally applicable. I had a client who wanted to build an organic farm into his hotel.  But in a lot of consumer research, people said, “My family were farmers.  Now I’m in Shanghai.  Why do I want to see a farm?”
Once I pictured the cycle to green as from bike to car to bike again. It seems many countries which have lived rather sustainably out of need now as they get richer they wanna “progress” and only when they have reached some leve of socioeconomic development they start appreciating old sustainable ways.
Definitely. It’s a process that will take both time and some education.  They’ll get there, but not in the near future.
Thank you Yvette, it’s been a very interesting talk.