Sustainability as a Natural Part of the Guest Experience: Feynan Ecolodge Case Study
- Commit to making sustainability an integral part of your business, following core guiding principles that reflect not just what you do but why.
- Embed your sustainability practices into the design of your product, in a way that helps enhance guest experience (and not in a “preachy” way).
- Invite guests to learn about and experience your sustainability efforts in a subtle, personal and tasteful way.
- Travelers don’t necessarily think about “sustainability” when they book. But they will remember the stories of the local benefits you create and your passion for the local community.
- Inform your guests clearly and frequently about what to (and what not to) expect during their stay - and importantly - why. This helps avoid misunderstanding and surprises, although it’s normal to have occasional complaints.
- Sustainability investments such as water and energy conservation measures can become a memorable and positive part of guest experience when combined with local benefits in an authentic and meaningful way.
Sustainability Practices at the Lodge
The Feynan Ecolodge, located within the Dana Biosphere Reserve in Jordan’s southern region, is owned by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), and managed by its private sector partner, EcoHotels. Through this partnership, a portion of the lodge’s revenue goes to RSCN to support the NGO’s work in conservation of the reserve.
The 26-room lodge is surrounded by a desert ecosystem, and is completely off-grid. Operating in a sensitive environment means effective resource management and conservation measures are a natural part of the business. This includes:
- Electricity is generated from the lodge’s own photovoltaic system, and used for essential electrical appliances (lights in the bathrooms, fans, and lights in the kitchen and offices).
- Solar energy is used to heat the water for showers in the guest rooms.
- The lodge has worked with the local community to eliminate plastic water bottles. Guests receive drinking water in traditional clay jars (which are made by a local cooperative), and can fill their reusable water bottles at the water refill station in the lobby.
- Wastewater is treated onsite, using a constructed wetland that naturally filters and cleans wastewater, which can be repurposed for irrigation on the property.
- For cold evenings in the winter months, the fireplaces at the lodge use a natural alternative to charcoal called jift (“olive pit charcoal”, made from recycled by-products of olive pressing).
With all these and more, sustainability practices are subtle but visible parts of the guest experience at the lodge.
Gently Nudging Guests to Think about Sustainability
The successful business model of Feynan Ecolodge (whose success has attracted various accolades) is based on the five pillars of its sustainability ethos:
- To provide guests with unique and authentic experiences.
- To contribute to conservation.
- To maximize community benefit.
- To minimize environmental impact.
- To provide interpretation and education.
These ethos are deeply embedded into the way the business operates, which means that the guests don’t need to try hard to ensure they have a responsible travel experience during their stay.
Parts of the guest experience, however, are intentionally designed to “make them think” about sustainability, and their own choices and impacts. For example, all meals served at Feynan are vegetarian. While some guests may not be used to only eating vegetarian dishes, most are satisfied with the quality of the dining experience (with various local ingredients and traditional dishes). So the lodge manages to send a subtle message about the climate footprint of our eating habits, without having to preach to the guests or sacrifice guest satisfaction.
Another example of Feynan’s guest experience designed to inspire awareness is the evening conversations. Each night after dinner, everyone is invited to join a presentation while enjoying stargazing. Aligned with Feynan’s sustainability pillar of interpretation and education, these evening conversations are a great opportunity to highlight the lodge’s sustainability ethos and its commitment to ecotourism.
The presentations shared by the lodge’s staff are also an important way to encourage guests to realize that each of them has an opportunity to make a positive impact whenever they travel. The ultimate goal is to nudge them to become responsible travelers, who, when looking for places to book for their future vacations, will think about maximizing benefits for local communities and supporting conservation.
Through these learning opportunities woven into the guest experience, Feynan not only inspires its guests (5,000-7,000 guests every year), but also potentially turns some of those guests into sustainability advocates who take their knowledge home to change their own lifestyle choices and inspire others to do so as well.
Committing Ecotourism Doesn’t Mean Exclusively Catering to “Tree-Huggers”
With credentials such as being the overall winner of the WTM World Responsible Tourism Awards in 2019, the lodge is well known among those who are engaged in ecotourism and sustainable tourism. However, the travelers who choose Feynan are not necessarily your typical “tree-huggers”.
Most people don’t book because the lodge is sustainable. Sustainability may not even be part of what they think about when looking for their travel options. But, because of the nature of the destination - being in a biosphere reserve - most travelers are looking for amazing nature experiences. It’s a beautiful and unique place, and that’s why people want to visit Feynan.
The fact that they stay supports the conservation NGO is, of course, a positive reward that makes them feel good. And once the guests are there and experience the various ways the lodge’s sustainability ethos are put into practice, those also become added benefits. They don’t come for the solar panels, handmade candles and recycled olive pits. But every aspect of what makes the lodge unique becomes a part of the guests’ memories of the place.
The most memorable of all, however, for most guests is the community element; the lodge’s 100% local staff, the local suppliers who provide traditional products and experiences, and the local community members who become part of the guest experience. It’s the relationship with the local people that makes the Feynan experience truly unique, and that also happens to be among the most important word-of-mouth marketing tools.
Although the lodge tends to receive significant exposure through coverage of its awards and mentions in travel media and guidebooks, word-of-mouth (e.g. recommended by a friend, heard about it from family) is still a key marketing channel, and Feynan’s sustainability ethos tend to shine when guests enthusiastically tell their friends back home about the cooking class they joined or the time they spent with a local shepherd.
For the most part, Feynan Ecolodge’s guests welcome their eco-experiences during their stay, such as the all-vegetarian meals, candle-lit rooms, and refilling water bottles. To ensure these aspects of the guest experience do not become surprises (and thus potentially perceived negatively), the lodge communicates clearly about what to expect in its pre-arrival communications.
- Pictures of the guest bedrooms are shared on the website, showing that the rooms are simple both in design and amenities. The fact that Feynan is an off-grid property and many areas of the lodge are lit by candles is explained on the website and in emails.
- Also because of the nature of being an off-grid property, options for charging personal electronic devices are limited. Guests can, for example, charge their mobile phones in the lobby. Some might find it inconvenient that they can’t do so in their bedroom, but that’s just the reality.
- The local transfer - the shuttle service provided by local community members, many of whom come with old pick-ups - is not the most comfortable ride one has had, and that is also clearly stated, along with the reason why the lodge offers bumpy rides in old vehicles (to provide supplementary income to local drivers) rather than opting for more “luxurious” offers.
So guests can learn about most of what could potentially be considered small inconveniences before they book on the lodge’s website and before they arrive through the guest communications. Being clear about what to (and what not to) expect during the stay is important, so the guests have the right expectations for their experience.
But it’s not possible to ensure everyone reads everything. So of course, occasionally there are negative reviews complaining about the lack of lighting or uncomfortable rides. How can those be addressed? There are no easy solutions; the only ways to address such possibilities are open communication before, during and after their stays, and doing as much as possible to honestly share not just the what but the why some practices may be unusual.
From Common-Sense Investments to Memorable Experiences
Sometimes sustainability practices are discussed in a complex manner. But in the case of Feynan Ecolodge, a lot of sustainability related choices have been “common sense”.
Given the location, being off-grid is not a financial sacrifice for the sake of sustainability; rather, it’s a smart business decision because investing in solar panels and batteries is cheaper in the long-term than purchasing electricity from the grid or relying on generators. Similarly, minimizing the use of electricity saves money. Reducing water usage by reusing wastewater for irrigation saves money.
But going beyond energy and resource conservation, investing in sustainability efforts - as represented by Feynan’s 5-pillar sustainability ethos - is also about supporting and empowering local communities. By weaving local community benefits into the common-sense sustainability initiatives, sustainability becomes a natural and memorable part of the guest experience; for example, Feynan’s off-grid property is lit tastefully by candles, which are at the same time a source of income for local community members who work at the onsite candles workshop.
So, Feynan’s example shows that an important part of engaging guests in sustainability is engaging local people in different aspects of sustainability, and making them a key part of the guest experience. The local connection then becomes not just a nice feel-good add-on, but a key differentiating factor for attracting prospective guests, turning them into returning guests, and hopefully also, responsible travel advocates and sustainability ambassadors.