Six Senses’ VP of Sustainability Jeff Smith on Sustainable Tourism | Convoy
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Six Senses’ VP of Sustainability Jeff Smith on Sustainable Tourism

Prior to the onset of COVID, tourism came under fire for the impact it was having on destinations. Many locations like Venice, Machu Picchu, Amsterdam, Iceland, and the Galapagos Islands were working to restrict tourism because of the negative impact the high numbers of visitors were having on the local community. Yet, as with any industry, there are indeed travel and tourism companies who have been working to minimize the effects their business is having on the environment and the people and communities around them. 

Within the hospitality industry, for example, there have been major strides to ban individual shampoo bottles and plastic straws, and reduce water usage through the re-use of sheets and towels. A company which has been at the forefront of sustainability in hospitality — even before the industry as a whole began to have a larger sustainability conversation — is Six Senses, a hotel, resort, and spa collection with “a passion for wellness, community, sustainable design, and smiles.”

Jeff Smith, Vice President of Sustainability at Six Senses — which has been an innovator in the sustainability space since the mid-1990s sat down with us to discuss how the brand approaches operating a luxury hospitality business without compromising the ability of future generations to continue to exist harmoniously with the environment. 

Jeff discussed how Six Senses defines sustainability and maintains the culture as it continues to grow, the business value of sustainability, and ways in which they have turned the sustainability conversation into a guest experience opportunity. His key takeaways follow. 

  • How to manage sustainability for a global organization: I’m responsible for the essentials of sustainability: managing our energy, water, waste, and all of our impacts across the whole portfolio of hotels we operate. (2:22)
  • How to plan for future sustainability as the brand grows and expands: We are a management company, but we also advise and steer the design and development of the new resorts being built. There are sustainability requirements or standards that we have baked into the way our hotels are built because the build form influences the way we are able to operate them. It’s very important that sustainability is really built into the design from the ground up. (2:47)
  • The definition of sustainability as it relates to Six Senses: Our aim has always been to deliver the top level of luxury hospitality and do that in a way which is good for our local communities and good for the environment.  (4:05)
  • How sustainability creates business value for Six Senses: It is part of our positioning in the marketplace, so we absolutely believe it helps draw people to our destinations. We are also able to add more value to our guests through the experiences they have because of sustainability. We have experiences where we’ll put guests on a boat with a local fisherman and send them off to have a fantastic, very bespoke fishing experience with the local community. To be able to have those kinds of things happening, we really need those strong relationships with our local communities so we can bring those experiences to life. On the environmental side, we love to take on projects for wildlife conservation or habitat protection. We’ll often partner with local NGOs or government agencies to do that work. Guests can cross that boundary. They can meet with the conservation biologist and hear about the research they’re funding as a guest at the resort. They can go on that truck in the jungle and see some endangered species and learn about those species from the scientists doing that work and we wouldn’t have access to that kind of programming if we were not doing what we do for sustainability. We absolutely feel it adds value to the way we can conduct our businesses and what we offer our guests. (4:40)
  • How to set sustainability goals: Our goals are to add value to our local communities and to have a net positive benefit to the environment where we operate. We will choose projects outside of the resort that we allocate funding to and we’ll find partners to run programming very much built around what’s needed at that specific location. We look at what’s the strategic risk in that location and risk to the resort business and extend the scope of that. This is how we choose the priorities for each specific location. If we’re operating a resort in a region that is drought prone, then taking on access to clean drinking water and water access seems like a great idea for that location. Additionally, as an organization overall, we have our own strategy and targets that we choose to set and take on as a group. (7:08)
  • Managing sustainability goals: We have a whole set of guidelines and policies and procedures we need to follow which are mandated from our home office and given out to every business unit. They cover all of the operational practices inside the hotel. We then audit compliance to those standards. Managing sustainability within the business is somewhat standardized, but what we take on outside of the hotel to add value to our local areas is very much based on location and what’s needed. (8:48) 
  • It’s important to enable creativity within the sustainability framework: There is a framework — and we like to give our hotels room to move within a framework so there isn’t chaos — but within that framework there is a lot of room for creativity at the local level. We encourage creativity, because we don’t want to have cookie cutter hotels and resorts. We want each one to be specific and unique to its environment and location and local culture.  (10:45)
  • The biggest challenges for sustainability practices: The sustainability challenge this year because of COVID has been financial as a result of the shut down of the travel industry. Looking at the bigger picture, the biggest challenge over the last few years within our organization has been our growth. The challenge is to maintain the culture of understanding that sustainability is core to what we do. Every time we open a new hotel, we have all of the orientation training, learning our brand for the new people who are running that property and sustainability is embedded into that orientation training. But what is a perceived challenge is also an opportunity because it’s a new location where we’ve got new people and we can bring them on board and have them join our mission to make the world a better place and to benefit those communities where we’re opening the hotel. (11:39)
  • Setting A Plastic Free Goal: Our biggest and most ambitious goal as a group is Plastic Free 2022. Going all the way back to the origins of our brand back in the 1990s, we’ve never had those little shampoo bottles at our hotels. We got rid of all of our plastic water bottles across the group in 2003, we got rid of all of our plastic straws in 2016, and then it seemed like the whole world woke up to plastic straws. With us aiming to be an industry leader on sustainability, we did a lot of strategy sessions about where we go next on plastic. We have looked at the science behind where plastic comes from, the carbon footprint associated with that, the human health impacts from extraction through transportation, manufacturing, all the way through disposal, and the life cycle impacts of all plastics, not just single use. We’ve made a bold and crazy goal to eliminate all plastics throughout our entire organization in 2022. (13:17)
  • Turning sustainability into a guest experience opportunity: Part of our aim is also to capture our guests’ interests and that’s actually a great opportunity when they are on vacation with their minds relaxed and open to new ideas. They ask “what are you doing with your glass bottles back there?”, and we actually do workshops around this so we invite them to come and learn what we do with our glass bottles. For example at one property we crush our bottles and make new things. We do upcycling at our resorts and we like to involve guests in that. Some guests arrive not knowing what we do, but ideally every guest leaves at least being aware of what we’re doing to ensure that their stay has been the lowest impact possible, the lowest negative impact but also a positive impact on our community’s environment. We are in an industry of providing experiences, so we try to draw it all together and hopefully we’ve equipped our guests with some tips they can take back home or we have inspired them to live a slightly more sustainable lifestyle when they go on with their lives back home. That is part of our mission as well. (16:45) 

Watch the video or read the transcription below.

TRANSCRIPTION

Jennifer Wong: Hi everyone. Welcome to The Business of Sustainability. Today we have Jeff Smith joining us, the vice president of Six Senses Hotels, Resorts, and Spas. Welcome, Jeff. 

Jeff Smith: Hi, Jennifer. Thanks for having me on the show. 

Jennifer: Yeah, thank you for joining us. This will be our first conversation to really learn more about sustainable tourism. To start, I’d love to hear more about your journey to your role and leading sustainability for this large hotel chain today. 

Jeff: Sure. So, I started out in, you know, in university I studied environmental engineering. I worked very briefly in that field. I ended up in sustainable tourism, kind of by accident. I was backpacking around Southeast Asia. I got stuck in a really cool elephant conservation project as a volunteer and then ended up in management processes there. Fast forward to today, I’ve actually went back to school, I got a master’s degree in sustainability and now I’m leading sustainability for this wonderful hotel group. 

Jennifer: What does your role responsibility look like leading sustainability for this global hotel chain? 

Jeff: So, we operate 19 hotels and we have about maybe 20 or so under development or construction and various stages in between. I’m responsible for the sustainable operations of all of that. The main focus is on the hotels that are open and operating because that’s what we do, we’re a hotel operator. But also advising the design and construction process because of course how these buildings and built has a big influence on how sustainably we can operate them. 

Jennifer: What sustainability [2:00] goals are you focused on right now? 

Jeff: We have a sustainability management framework that is built around a set of guidelines. So, the guidelines are issued from our corporate office, or we call our home office to all the business units. So, they’ve kind of got that framework and those kind of boxes to play within, but there is a lot of room for movement and we encourage each hotel to kind of, you know, figure out what is, you know, what makes the most sense for them in terms of sustainability. So, the way that we operate the hotels, a lot of it is kind of fixed in terms of our, you know, our policies and procedures. But then what the hotel takes on in terms of helping the local communities, helping their local environment, taking on projects, that’s very localized. So, it’s not cookie cutter at all, its ideally, and we try to coach them through this process, is thinking about at the business unit, how can they address strategic risks to that hotel based on their situation where they’re operating. So that’s within the local community, social issues, they could take on or within the environment, or maybe its wildlife, or climate related, or whatever it is. 

Jennifer: What is your favorite project that one of the hotels is working on right now? 

Jeff: We’ve got some really great wildlife projects and that’s, you know, in case you didn’t guess, you know, I got sucked into this sustainable tourism gig from working with elephants, so I do really like wildlife. So, I guess I have to admit that I’m more drawn to the wildlife project, but we do have some amazing community projects too. Over in Fiji, Six Senses Fiji, we have critically endangered Fiji Crested Iguanas that actually [4:00] live in a reserve at the resort so that’s pretty cool and you can go on a spotlight tour and actually see these iguanas. And they’re funky, striped iguanas so that’s fun. In Vietnam we have black shanked douc langurs, which is an endangered species of monkeys and they have, like, if you Google them, they have, like a little blue goatee. They’re really cool looking monkeys. So, they’re cool, and you can see them, you know, if you’re lucky, you can go on hikes around the resort and you can see them in the forest. So those would be maybe my two favorite wildlife projects, although, having said that, also over in the Maldives we have, like, a half dozen different marine wildlife projects happening with, like, sea turtles, and manta rays, and dolphins, and amazing stuff there. And the community work, I mean, lots of our hotels have great community projects and of course, that’s the fun part of traveling is getting to interact with the local community and because we have these projects in place, it can be done in a positive way so its not like, let’s go and look at the local community but let’s go talk to them, you know, we can meet the head of the NGO who is running that program that we’re supporting or we can meet the teacher who, you know, we’ve placed them in the schools and they’re running educational components. So, there’s quite a few of those and I won’t list them all off, like I said, we have 19 hotels. 

Jennifer: You have all these hotels, 19 hotels, 20 in the works, how does Six Senses kind of almost essential or a corporate entity, articulate the value of sustainability where you are making this investment today in sustainability, these wildlife projects, kind of investments in the communities and you’re going to make these investments even further, so how do these align to the business? 

Jeff: That’s a great question. I guess that’s kind of the topic of this, you know, this speaking series that you do. So, yeah, the business of it, right. I think the important thing is to think of it in terms of [6:00] strategic risk. So, you know, we’re not just doing these things to be nice, right. We want to identify what could actually…and by strategic risk, I mean longer in terms of time and broader in scope. So, it’s looking outside of the hotel business and looking at, you know, by supporting education in our local community, we’re addressing our future need for hiring good people from that community, right. That’s, you know, and that’s the risk of not having good people to hire for the hotel. Or investing in medical equipment for the local hospital, when our people get sick, they go to that hospital. So, we want to have those community, you know, services in good standing because the hotel needs those to thrive in a very, you know, broad scope and long term. The same with wildlife. I mean, if we degraded our beaches or if the forest around the hotel was completely clear cut and there’s no wildlife, we lose that wildlife asset which is an asset to the tourism component of our business. So, you know, people travel because they want to see really cool wildlife in beautiful settings and all that stuff. So, with that gone, the business loses something. So, I think addressing the strategic risk is a big element of that. Another part is thinking about, and this would be for any business I think, is how can sustainability add value to your product offering. In our case with sustainable tourism, that is, like I’ve just described, its more interesting to travel if you’re not just a spectator. If you’re like, “Oh, let’s visit a community. We can meet the people who are doing the project.” And, you know, you’re connected to that project because as a guest in our hotel, you’re funding that program. So, they’re there to say hello to you and they genuinely have a relationship with you. You’re not longer an observer, you’re a participant in your travels. So, I think that adds value to our travel product and I think that’s the kind of thinking I would advise any business [8:00] in sustainability is to think, you know, first, strategic risk and addressing those risk but then also going above that to actually add value to your product. 

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s good advice. How do you measure progress against some of the sustainability initiatives that you mentioned? 

Jeff: Inside the hotel it starts with the classic, like, energy won’t go to waste. So, we track all those metrics, and we have, like, an enterprise level system where people enter in the data and it all comes to us here in the office and we can look at how the hotels are doing. Outside the hotel, its trickier and what we are getting better at is measuring our impact, our positive impact for local communities and the environmental projects. So, we’re also tracking, and we have, like a system quarterly reports that tracks, like, how many people have access to clean drinking water, how many students have access to improved education, so those are the kinds of community impacts we’re tracking. We also track on the wildlife side, like population numbers. So how many more, or how many new baby Fiji crested iguanas do we have in the reserve or how many turtles hatched on our beaches. We’re tracking things like that in addition to of course, how much we spend. But that’s, you know, the spend is what makes it happen and its important to track that, you know, to be responsible also in terms of those funds but the outcome of all that work is what we’re constantly looking to improve our ability to track our impact and I think that’s a trend that is kind of happening across the whole spectrum of our industry. 

Jennifer: If you look back at the past year, what has been one of your kind of greatest challenges that you’ve run into around sustainability or your role specifically? 

Jeff: In the last year? [10:00] I’ll have to think of a special one. I guess a lot of our hotels were forced to close due to all the Covid and travel restrictions and all that. So that put us in a bit of a tricky situation where each one of our hotel units has a sustainability manager and they’re like running everything I’ve just described. Like, they’re the guys that actually do the work on the ground and collect those impact numbers and talk to the local NGOs and check on things inside the hotel as well. So, with the shutdown, some of them were furloughed and that made it kind of tough. I’m so proud of our team. A lot of our guys kept working anyways and I think for a lot of us working in sustainability its not just a job, it’s a calling so that really came through during that period. A lot of our guys went above and beyond. That would be the biggest challenge, and it was a challenge in general for the whole industry, travel and tourism industry. It was a tough year, but we got through it and I think coming out of it I’d say we’re even stronger as a team. 

Jennifer: What’s something one of your guests may not know about sustainability at Six Senses? 

Jeff: Well, hopefully they’ll know a little bit before they come but we also see that’s part of our jobs is to let people know, right. To communicate. To communicate the why. Why is it important? Why have we taken on this project to help the community or why are we trying to reduce our energy use, right? Even inside the hotel. We actually have a space dedicated to that, it called Earth Lab and its in every Six Senses hotel and it’s a space that’s dedicated for innovation and engagement. So that’s where we can host workshops, the guests can actually sign up, and they’re free, you can come [12:00] in, you can learn. Well, you can learn about what’s happening in the local community or wildlife, but we also have kind of DIY type workshops where you can learn how to make your own toothpaste so that you can do that at home, and you don’t have to buy the little tubes that can’t be recycled. Or how to make beeswax wraps that, you know, it’s like to replacement cling film at home, you can use in your kitchen. So, these little kind of life hacks. We like to try to share knowledge. We also will bring our guests into the gardens and they can learn about what we’re growing in our garden, how to save seeds, and all that kind of fun stuff. We do, we see an element of education as part of our kind of mandate because of the industry that we’re in so we do try to share that with guests and hopefully if a guest does arrive not being familiar with everything we do, at least if they’re interested in learning, by the time they checkout, hopefully they have learned all of it and maybe, you know, take something home with them as well. 

Jennifer: I love that you’ve created an experience around sustainability for guests to join into that. That’s a great idea.

Jeff: Thanks. Thanks. I love it too. 

Jennifer: Yeah, well I can’t wait to visit one of your properties. Hopefully soon. Its going to be at the top of my list. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Jeff: Thank you, Jennifer. We’ll get you to a property soon. We’ll have to find one for you. 

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Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.