Karen Emanuel is an Earth Changer.
As a student with a passion for music, Karen booked bands for Leeds University leading to a career in music distribution and production despite a degree in Genetics. But the travel bug presented an unexpected opportunity: An “Island for sale” sign in Nicaragua and serendipity leading to a completely new mid-life challenge. Here's her story:
I grew up in North London, in a Spurs (Tottenham Hotspur football club)-supporting family. But my parents also took me on holiday from an early age, so I've always just liked travelling, experiencing different places, different food, different cultures. As a child it fascinated me - I would do schools projects on birds and animals abroad given the chance. At university I studied Genetics, but the part that I absolutely loved was not the molecular side that people get taught now, but more the animal behaviour.
With travel very much part of my DNA, after university I spent two years working and travelling around Europe. But I returned to London to follow my other passion – music! I started in the industry as a receptionist in music distribution, working my way to being Production Manager, then setting up my own business Key Production (music vinyl pressing, CD manufacturing and packaging) in 1990 with just a telephone and typewriter in the back office of Jungle Records.
The travel bug was never far away - success in business enabled worldwide holidays. Being able to visit places like The Galapagos has no doubt had an influence on me, and I’d swap stories with a couple of friends who also loved and would spend every last penny on travelling.
Staying in eco-lodges was the way I liked to travel, going to places a little bit less travelled, places with wildlife and beautiful scenery. With the ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ concept very much in mind I developed my thoughts on what I liked best as a discerning customer.
So in 2007 I came to Nicaragua, where I wanted to go more than to beautiful Costa Rica (although now I've been to Costa Rica a number of times); Nicaragua’s attraction was that it was just that bit less travelled. I find the people so beautiful, they’ve been through so much hardship, they've got a huge culture…
My friends’ recommendations brought me to a particular sustainable lodge which I loved. Their land had previously been slashed and burned, which they had returned to its original forest state, they plant trees as well, and so with habitat a lot of wildlife also returned - the monkeys, the sloths. Plus, the way the architect designed the lodge was very much in keeping with nature.
I just really liked it but also saw that it had been successful, despite being 2 ½ -3 hours’ drive (depending how the roads are!) from the main city that everyone went to visit. It got me thinking, surely somewhere with the same ethos, nearer the main city, at a time when there were no luxury hotels really there, would surely be a good idea?
And then, serendipitously, I walked into a restaurant and a notice proclaiming “Island for sale” sign, which proved too tempting to resist!
And just a short boat ride from Puerto Asese in Granada – a beautiful colonial town one hour from the capital Managua and well placed for touring Nicaragua’s best sights – was El Jicaro. I came back from holiday, having fallen in love with the place, the beauty, the nature, the feeling, and was back a few months later to buy myself an island.
I stated my intention from the outset, “to be as Eco Friendly as possible – no trees chopped down. Keep the wild rocky feel of the land. Local materials to be used. Local staff paid above average wages in good conditions. All solar powered. Reuse of grey water. Recycling. Filtered drinking water rather than bottled… Decent sized swimming pool chemical free, 8 x cabanas – all facing out to the lake. One to be used as a spa.
Furniture and interiors locally sourced and again as eco-friendly as possible. Style and quality…bio diesel for boat. Profits to be put back into helping local community projects. Activities – general sightseeing as well as boat trips on the lake. Provide kayaks. Whole Island can be hired for weddings, privacy etc. Yoga retreats in rainy season.”
- KarensIsland blog, 2007
"I am building a luxury Eco Hotel on an Island in a lake in Nicaragua. I have limited prior knowledge of the hotel trade, but a good eye for business and style, and a strong sense of community."- KarensIsland blog, 2007
Also, Key Production is very much a service industry so you have to know what customers want, what they need and I think that carried over: I was a discerning customer. I visited to research a load of Central American sustainable lodges to get an idea of all the others that are available. I looked at what I thought, as somebody that travels that way would like, wouldn’t like, how cheated I would feel if something was pretending to be sustainable but wasn't… Combined with what was possible – where I really learnt!
I came in with the idea for everything to be solar, then realized that you couldn't do that at the time because the solar panels weren't good enough then for a high-end hotel to provide ice all the time as well as electricity, heating etc. etc. I discovered many things along the way that put paid to some of my romantic ideals.
That said, I always had vision about what I wanted, was forward-thinking and very focused, “what sounds like preposterous ideas... the outcome is to have a “living spa” with the walls of the rooms all being built out of plants and woven in and around the trees. I believe it would be the first of its kind anywhere.” -KarensIsland blog, July, 2008
Now I can appreciate some of the problems I’ve experienced in other hotels, such as provision of good organic supplies of fruit and veg. It’s not always easy to deliver to Western high standards – and we aim higher – when you’re in a developing country. Certainly for us, a lot of teething problems were getting the right suppliers, and ones that would give us stable and consistent supplies.
Also, trying to get all the legal permits, bank accounts, money exchange, the tax exoneration law 306 that took us 2 years to jump through hoops… - it's really hard in your own country with local governments, but as an outsider it's challenging to find the right people who understand the law, accounts or just cultural system in a different country but speak your language and work through it with you.
“Every time I’m in the UK, it seems like a dream. When I get to Nicaragua, reality strikes and I wonder if I am truly crazy to have embarked on such a huge project with no experience of what I’m doing in a 3rd world country.” KarensIsland blog, August ’07
We have to account for absolutely everything because of the (tax break) law 306 - Nicaragua are actually really strict - and thankfully we have our hospitality management company Cayuga who develop and sustainably manage eco-lodges over-seeing everything, which really helps.
I was incredibly fortunate with the people here, who were so unbelievably helpful. For example, Matthew Falkiner, the architect of the lodge I loved, became the architect for Jicaro.
"How lovely is it that even, though I’m entering the same business, people here are more than willing to help you in any way and set up a mutual working relationship" KarensIsland blog, Nov 2007
“Sometimes I think that this project is blessed. The team I am building around me just fits so well and I appear to have attracted the best of the best.” - KarensIsland blog, 1 Jun2008
Many of the people I met was quite serendipitously - I think it would have swayed me had I not met the right people at the right time that were interested in working with me on the lodge. It could very well have put up barriers that I wouldn't have wanted to climb over but because I had the right people, I trusted in them. I wouldn't put myself particularly as spiritual but I do think things happen for a reason, plus I had the drive of wanting to do something I was passionate about: I’m very tenacious (ha! stubborn). If I’ve got something planned out, I will do anything I can to make it work.
The team comprised of specialist skills with Matthew as architect, Ben - project manager, Matt - his assistant, Chris - permaculture, Francois - kitchen, accountants, lawyers, various friends at various points, and Glen and Sunshine - spa and yogi – who never became involved but gave me a lot of good ideas and focus.
Someone who had already been suggested to me, but again I met totally randomly, in a bar when I was with other suppliers – was Hans from Cayuga Hospitality, who have been absolutely invaluable. Once the land deal was secure and we had just literally broken ground (for building), we met to discuss more formally right at the point when they were looking to take on one more place as a management company. They only take on people who work with their same sustainability ethics and ethos - we realised we were all speaking the same language. Serendipitously again, I happened to want someone and they happened to have a gap, and it all fell into place.
We seemed to start very slowly, me cashing in savings to start the project, getting funding, changing banks, dragging heels a little until funding was through, a challenge every week (it was ‘What now?... What Now?’ for a while!), working in a developing country can be really frustrating! The ideas of business and time are just very very different from my home fast-paced environment – rather, a ‘manana’ type environment where people wouldn't turn up for their meetings. So I felt it could have happened a lot quicker, although really it was pretty quick. Three years from the start to the hotel open.
Again, this is where skills from another business do come in, and my personality must have something to do with that - not being scared of working hard, negotiating, but mostly knowing how to lead and build a good team that can function without micro-management.
It’s all about team. Getting the right people, the right advisors in place - and trusting them. Take their advice! Listen to them!”
But I've also learnt – to be more patient, to let go more, that there's things I just can’t get done overnight, that is going to take the three months in between visits to get done. And with that comes learning a greater respect, for a completely different culture and why, when I expect something to be done, it doesn't get done because there's a cultural difference and people don't understand why they should be doing it. So I’ve learnt a lot more about working with people, as opposed to telling them what to do, and understanding why.
“As an aside, I would love someone to explain to me why there is gallons of water falling from the sky but none coming out of the taps…!” - KarensIsland blog, May 2008
And the linens! They had me crying. I think because we were so near completion. It’s funny, but at the time the linens was one of those things that caused me so much grief and frustration but now it's paled into insignificance.
Obviously it’s not been easy to develop the lodge, but it was the right thing to do. Luckily I had, and still have, the amazing Howard, our manager – it’s very unusual to have someone that comes before a hotel opens and still be there, they often burn out after a year. He’s really grown and he just makes everything better. He's a local guy, he knows everybody, he knows how the bureaucracy works, he helps us a lot.
While we were developing the island, I was there most months, so had a rented apartment. Now most the time, I’m remote and go to Nicaragua every 3-4 months to check everything is going as it should, and spend time in London (I’ve just completed an acquisition of another company for Key Production). That’s why we have the team at Jicaro, to manage.
“Jicaro Island Ecolodge was built on sustainability. It’s in everything we do: The way we’re built, the way we’re run, is to make as little environmental impact as possible, while contributing positively to the local community.”
We always monitor consumption of our electricity, consumable goods … you can’t monitor what you don’t measure. We’re careful about food our purchasing – not just qualitative, organic, but in terms of quantities. We ask people to choose at breakfast what they will have for their evening meal to minimise waste, then any waste we feed to the pigs (like at Lapa Rios).
I also acquired another island about 10 minutes away on a fast-ish boat, or longer to kayak, with two-fold plans: One to develop vegetables gardens to grow more of our own plus teach gardening skills; Secondly to develop as a private island as a day-time extension of Jicaro (with chill out areas, toilets) so couples can go just by themselves, take a picnic or bbq, and at the end of the day we'll come and pick them up. It’s really hard to say when it will be ready, ideally… the beginning of this year? (!)
We’re always open to new ideas and ways to improve - the staff undertake the monitoring and they're very very proud of what they're doing, and give up a lot of their time to help the local school.
We go to the community, and with them work out what they need, and how we can help. Then our staff volunteer, and guests donate money directly to Cayuga’s partner NGO, Earth Equilibrium, which goes directly into community projects. We’ve done an awful lot with the school and community, for freshwater, solar electricity, and now health centre.
I’m driven a lot by “Why?” and so I understood the importance of providence early, of the real back story, more than ten years ago long before anyone was talking about stories in marketing terms. I wanted to know and be able to explain ‘Why'? For example, my early wood supply was,
“from the North East corner of Nicaragua where Hurricane Felix struck”… “One day I will make that arduous journey myself, armed with camera and so be able to tell the story of the wood.”- KarensIsland blog, March, 2008
(Although I’ve not yet been able to actually do that!)
I want to know everything about a product. I seek truth – Like with Key Production, I would always go the extra mile and visit the factories. I want to know exactly how something’s done so that I can tell the knowledge to other people, and so I can know why, where it comes from, why it might go wrong, and how to avoid that. Knowledge is power, but also helps you pre-empt and manage. And I like learning all the time.
My tips to guests: Most hotels with a conscience will be involved in community projects, I would encourage people where possible to visit them – it really is appreciated – we love it when customers take an interest in how we're trying to help and in the hotel's sustainability – we’re always very happy to walk people around the back of house, and be able to explain and show what we're doing.
How you can be an Earth Changer:
Visit Jicaro Island Ecolodge
Escape to sustainable luxury on private stunning islet shores in the middle of Lake Nicaragua
Hang out in a hammock, kayak from your casita or retreat into wellness & gastronomic bliss.
Earth Changers Karen recommends reading:
The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War*
by Giaconda Belli
The Jaguar Smile: Nicaraguan Journey* by Salman Rushdie
My heart will always be...
"Belonging in part to Nicaragua."
"Sustainability is no longer about doing less harm. It's about doing more good.
- Karen Emanuel