State of Green Business

Hotel chain raises the bar on ocean conservation and coastal health

Iberostar
Megan Morikawa underwater at Iberostar’s coral reef in the Dominican Republic.

This article is sponsored by Iberostar Hotels and Resorts.

While 2018 was the International Year of the Reef, the world’s coral reefs remain under dire threat. Human activity is a major culprit, with over-fishing, aggressive coastal development, pollution and climate change degrading coral reef health around the world.

One hotel chain is working to be a part of the solution: Iberostar Group, which owns more than 120 hotels in 18 countries. Through its Wave of Change movement, Iberostar Group is taking action to deliver measurable improvements by reducing plastic consumption, improving coastal health and promoting responsible seafood consumption.

Iberostar designed Wave of Change in line with Objective 14 of the Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations. The movement aims to unite employees, customers, suppliers and society to work together to create an increasingly sustainable tourism industry.

Wave of Change is the brainchild of Gloria Fluxá, vice chairman and chief sustainability officer at Iberostar Group. She knew that certain elements would be critical to the movement’s success; the first was that it be science-based.

Science at the core

Iberostar Group is working on an ambitious coral reef research project, aided by a team of scientists with expertise in coastal care and protection from Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. The company hired Megan Morikawa, a Stanford-trained researcher who specializes in coral reefs, to study and boost reef ecosystem resilience.

Based in the Iberostar complex in Dominican Republic, Morikawa is working to develop the first coral nursery in the country and is studying mangrove ecosystems to see if they can help with water treatment.

"Scale is a challenge in the scientific world," Morikawa explained. "Private sector engagement expands the pie of what’s possible for reef restoration. With Iberostar’s workforce of more than 32,000 people focusing on coastal health, big things happen quickly."

Doug McCauley, science adviser for Iberostar Group’s Wave of Change movement, agreed. "The unique and rare ingredient in Wave of Change is a real recognition of the problem and a deep understanding that science must be a part of the solution. Lots of groups have sustainability programs, but Iberostar has chosen to make this a high-IQ movement by making scientists an integral part of it. This makes a huge difference in how much impact you can have."

Family first, 360 stakeholder engagement

In championing the Wave of Change movement, Fluxá sets the tone and agenda from Iberostar’s highest levels, but she also understands that the endeavor can succeed only if all stakeholders are committed and engaged. This is no small feat, considering that Iberostar has a workforce of 32,000 employees at more than 120 hotels in more than 18 countries, she said. "The sheer volume, geographic distribution and cultural variety of our staff makes full engagement a big challenge. Our employees are our most important stakeholders. We have to count them in as ambassadors. To achieve this, we have to seduce, not impose."

Morikawa noted that Iberostar puts family first in its engagement efforts, meaning not only that the company strives for 360-degree buy-in from its workforce, but also that it considers employees’ families to be an important part of the equation. Iberostar offers coastal health education programs in schools, particularly those its employees’ children attend. The company just completed an activity in schools near its Dominican Republic complex, teaching students all about corals and how they protect coastal ecosystems and communities.

Education's long reach

Iberostar embraces the critical importance of earning and keeping its customers’ support for its coastal health and ocean conservation movement. Regarding the company’s efforts to eliminate single-use plastics, Morikawa noted, "Sometimes it starts with people being confused about not receiving a straw in their drink, and then it often just takes one conversation to get people on board with the endeavor."

This is no small matter, as Iberostar says it’s the first hotel chain to have eliminated single-use plastics from its hotels in Spain, and it will have done so in all of its more than 120 hotels worldwide by the end of 2019. In Spain alone, this initiative will cut plastic consumption by 300 tons a year, according to Iberostar.

Fluxá explained that Iberostar is working closely with its suppliers to achieve a seamless, meaningful elimination of single-use plastics. "Our suppliers needed to change their operations in order to satisfy our need for creative, functional alternatives," she said. "In that sense, we’ve been able to bring them along in our journey." Iberostar also hired an external company to gauge customers’ reaction to the elimination of single-use plastics in Spain. "Eighty percent of respondents perceived it as positive and congratulated us," Fluxá said.

Photo courtesy of Iberostar
The Wave of Change movement has been able to create multispecies nurseries and is on track to have six species in Dominican Republic.

"You’d expect total resistance from customers, but when people learn why you’re doing this, most are very receptive," Fluxá said. "My hope is that our clientele will drive a shift in generational thinking. Maybe they’ll pick up good practices on vacation with us, and bring them home."

Tourism as a sustainability driver

Iberostar and other players in the tourism sector have a special opportunity. McCauley noted, "These hotels are where people come to meet the oceans, to fall in love with them and enjoy them. Millions of people move through the tourism industry, and Iberostar in particular. They’re ready to learn about the place where they’re relaxing and vacationing. At the same time, a group like Iberostar stands to gain quite a bit if it sustains the ecosystems on which it depends. It’s a win-win situation."

A movement, not a program

Fluxá emphasized the importance of a long-term view and an integrated approach. "Wave of Change is a movement, not a program. It has no end date. At Iberostar, we do things for the long term, and for the right reasons. Our goal is to restore and preserve reef health, foster healthy and sustainable fish stocks, and substantially reduce ocean pollution. Anything less is bad business."