Marcus Cotton is an Earth Changer.
A finance career in the city of London was probably never going to last long for this country man. A great supporter of social values and authentic culture, the owner of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in Nepal has a pragmatic approach putting staff happiness at the core of hospitality for a thriving community with tourism benefits. Here's his story:
Growing up in a traditional, Buckinghamshire farming village in England, I was a countryman and naturally interested and enjoyed the outdoors, wildlife and forestry. It wasn’t exactly relevant to my job at Lloyds of London (insurance) but certainly helpful when I came to manage a mixed agricultural and sporting estate, and was greatly reinforced during my first job in Nepal.
I moved to Nepal to pursue my conservation interest with a job at the King Mahendra (now National) Trust for Nature Conservation, a Nepalese non-governmental organization with its origins in the Nepalese royal family established in 1982 - a bit like the Prince's Trust in the UK. [Ed. - In 1986 it initiated the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, the first and the largest conservation area in Nepal, to protect the environment with sustainable community development by the local people without intervention from the Nepalese Government and/or any other institutions]. I worked with them on conservation and development related issues from 1987 to 1990.
Thereafter, I came to work for Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park and Mountain Travel. I was involved in a variety of administrative and field based roles on a brief to help develop the tourism sustainably with conservation.
A short spell in the UK with the Countryside Alliance was followed by a return to Nepal as General Manager for Tiger Tops and then at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge which they had recently established in 1998, and where I did the same sort of job of making the sustainability match the rhetoric, in as much as possible. I ended up as Chief Executive of the Group from 2009 to 2011.
The rhetoric is always a little ahead because it’s in your vision and plans before implemented in any operations, systems and processes.
I became a co-owner of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge with Tiger Tops from 2001, then bought them out in 2016.
Tiger Tops never really had standard, hospitality-trained people as managers. This was a good strategy suited to the remote environment where they operated and carried through to Pokhara. It prevented hotel-school standardisation and focused the staff and guests on a local, personal approach.
I actually found coming into customer service quite easy because, as children, my parents had quite a lot of guests in their large house, generally using us as unpaid labour, making the beds and running cups of tea to people! So hospitality was nothing new! In a boutique hotel it’s about people and hands-on skills - endless qualifications could potentially be more of a hindrance than a help. Certainly, we don’t necessarily look for qualifications, but rather practical, competent, young people with enthusiastic commitment to the job. In Nepal, someone who’s passed their equivalent of GCSE (exams at 16 years) is probably going to get a job. Someone who opted out 2 years earlier who has a devil of a time getting a job, is just as eager, but probably 2 years more practical.
We have 40 staff at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, 38 at the lodge itself, guides, lodge staff etc, then 2 in our Kathmandu office. We’ve had 97% of our staff for over 8 years. This makes me really lucky because most of the staff have been on the job longer than me, from the very inception of the lodge, so they know better than me, and it’s just a matter of fine-tuning things.
On sustainability training
Our staff might not have a sustainability academic background, but they have their natural environment and community; it’s a matter of communicating that.
You might not know the word sustainable or what that means. You might just want to use a quick and easy solution, not to do things unsustainably deliberately, but rather out of convenience, without realising the implications.
Like a weed killer, or that nice easy powdered fertiliser for the land instead of that cheap nasty smelly dung you make your wife use… Just like the British farmer in the past using growth promoters in cattle which were basically antibiotics and no one knew – neither the scientists or the farmers - the implications for antibiotic resistance. They did it to make cattle grow faster, to produce more cattle, in answer to great demand and a government saying we must produce more of our own food. It’s not until 20 years later that the negative effects start to appear, to know you have to change. Mad cow disease in the UK is a prime example. Farmers might have only known at the time their sack of feed was 18% protein, 70% carbohydrate and the rest minerals etc., not where the protein or carbohydrate has come from, nor to question that. You trust the feed merchant you’ve worked with for a long time as a good guy, and don’t think people would be so stupid as to use bits of cow to feed back to cows. So farmers ended up blamed, but how often do we get our supermarkets asking detailed questions about what we’re buying? Yes we look at information on the back of packets, but we rarely go further than that. Your average farmer is much the same as your average UK supermarket shopper, or your average Nepali.
People see convenience before any negative implication.
And so quite a lot of my time is spent explaining why one should be sustainable, why the easy action isn’t actually very good at all. They listen and follow, and it was lovely when we first started monitoring our impacts how quickly they got extremely enthusiastic about verification, coming up with loads of ideas, which was interesting and fun! To the point where we had to say please stop we can’t monitor everything all the time because we also have to do our work!
There are cultural differences, but they’re only a challenge when you want to be ignorant of them. Once you’re aware of any cultural differences, you know the way to go. Cultural difference challenges come down to bad management rather than character: education and sensitive awareness is key.
Whatever people say about education in the UK, it’s much better than village education in rural Nepal. We might often have problems of what we call “the flat earth”, for example staff might merrily attempt to call guest friends in Australia at 6pm in the evening, not realising it’s 2am in the morning there, because they have no concept of time zones and time difference. They’ve never been taught about it and they’ve never experienced it personally.
The basics of education, at primary and secondary school age, is much broader in the West than in Nepal, and therefore there are whole chunks of knowledge, like a basic understanding of chemistry and physics - early secondary school science - just really doesn't exist in education.
The vast majority of people want their children educated, and the children want education, not to skive off.
With no social security, education is your social security.
That makes people conscious of the importance of being educated. So in that way it is probably less essential that education is compulsory than it would be in England. As it’s not compulsory, it’s fairly flexible when children start and finish education, with many dipping in and out, which is probably not ideal but practically realistic.
For example, schools close to a city with pupils from rural areas don’t close for holidays at rice harvest November, but very few of the rural children will attend. They’re technically not in attendance when they should be, but that doesn’t mean they’ve left school, it just means that the work in the fields is temporarily more important than education. Everyone is hands-on in the fields. But as soon as harvest is done, the kids are back at school. Compared to the schools in rural areas which tend to shut, because they know there will be no children to teach.
Our staff are our partners in the business and community in whom we invest. In addition to statutory requirements regarding minimum wages, 10% company profit bonus, the company provides a full medical cost compensation scheme for the employee, spouse and children (for unmarried employees, parents are covered). Accident insurance is covered to above the statutory level. Free board and lodging is provided to staff requiring it and a free meal scheme is available for staff family members when visiting, with further meals are at minimal cost of Rs.20 (approx. US$0.25) per meal.
All routine leave is fully paid and additional travel time is given for those living further from the lodge. A travel allowance is paid for all non-local staff going on annual leave. Leave for special rituals is available –marriages, death, paternity, maternity etc. Special leave (paid or unpaid) is available for exceptional situations. A scheme is operated depositing 20% (10% employer, 10% employee contribution) of monthly basic pay in the government provident fund.
There’s a “zero tolerance” approach to all forms of abuse, discrimination, bribery or inappropriate behaviour; no government officials are entertained at company expense; and the Lodge follows the regulations in the Nepal Labour Act with regard to employment of young people on training / experience placements. Uniform and all safety equipment is provided free of cost and replacement is free, based on a fair-wear-and-tear basis.
On setting a standard in sustainability
A lot of guests come to Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge not knowing about our sustainability work. Ultimately, we’re about delivering a wonderful holiday. But having the comfort as well as rich experience here, learning-through-seeing what sustainability means for our staff and community, people always find great added-value and interest they didn’t expect.
We exceed expectations and deliver a ‘wow’ factor – sustainability, for its focus on a quality local, authentic, quality experience – can help us deliver this in real life, in a way you could never encounter digitally. The thing with technology developments like virtual reality, it leaves little to the imagination, to exceed.
We also host groups from other countries’ governments, associations and institutions to see our sustainability in action. Places like Bamyan Province in Afghanistan maybe not geared up for tourists now but as "The Place of Shining Light” regional cultural capital strategically placed to thrive from Silk Road caravans, need to prepare to implement tourism in the right way when the time is right.
Such visits can also teach our staff great lessons – we may be a developing country in Nepal, but we can be much more effective with our budgets and work when we don’t have to employ more bodyguards than staff, unlike others! It also shows us how it’s too easy for the West to put all developing countries into one pot, when we are vastly different.
Of course we work with Nepali local organisations too, like the Pokhara Hotel Association, but generally we’re ahead of the curve as much of Nepal is not yet ready to embrace sustainability. There are individuals doing it, there will be more and more, and we’ll soon get to a critical mass, maybe in 5-7 years. That will be obviously a wonderful achievement, to get to that point at last when what we’ve felt passionately about for decades becomes mightily important to the mainstream! There is so much what I’d now call minor sustainability - not changing sheets every day, not changing towels every day - that has become mainstream around the industry already, which is really good.
This also puts a certain pressure on us, to continually up the ante knowing what we’re doing now will become mainstream in future, so we have to be always innovative, improve further to stay ahead.
It’s great that human nature is inherently competitive – if you reduce your carbon footprint by a ton this year, you want to reduce it by a ton and a half next year – it’s instinctive, and quite easy to harness that, to create improved results.
Until last year we didn’t really have the data evidence to back up our work. Now we have a measuring and monitoring system that provides a framework to keep us on track, and excellent data we can harness to prompt further creativity.
Although, sometimes it’s a fine line with such industry recognition schemes that they just become more about the paper trail of proof than anything else. Of course any award scheme has to be one size fits all to a certain extent and to reduce everything to broad categories that can be applied across the sector, but that can render schemes meaningless.
On sustainability and tourism resilience
Sustainability is often a very difficult balance and at the end of the day, everything has an impact. Take aeroplanes. People just aren’t going to stop flying and neither do we want to stop tourism where it’s desired economically; but we can encourage the airlines to be more environmental or moral. Then there’s carbon offset – or rather what we might call carbon philanthropy which doesn’t actually correlate the number of trees planted to the amount of carbon emitted. There’s an impact of tourism, and an impact of no tourism. It would be interesting to research which is better!
The 2015 Gorkha earthquake created huge social, cultural, environmental and economic impacts itself, but things are picking up and by this time next year we’ll be back to pre-earthquake levels of tourism revenues. Taking a wide perspective, it’ll be a blip, but I think it put tourism in Nepal on a very different bottom-line basis. It is probably the only industry which can quickly absorb shocks, generate employment, provide a viable alternative to locals to going and working in Qatar or Malaysia, and although there are qualifications and certifications, it is not essential to have them: There are few barriers to entry, which is one of the reasons to be against excessive regulation. Regulation which asks companies to do things right is one thing, but regulation that says someone can’t be a tour guide unless you have a certificate that costs a fortune to acquire and leaves the recipient little better skilled, is just silly and becomes not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Where certification can help is through the business networks and management information sharing to help innovate, prioritise and focus. Consumers want to feel comfortable they’re not screwing up places by having their holiday, but they’re not going to change their holiday destination country because a place in another country has the paperwork where one in the desired country doesn’t.
On sustainability and the guest experience at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge
To us, sustainability happens in situ at the lodge. We communicate with guests a lot about it, but we don’t preach, rather gently educate and persuade. There’s still that impression of 'hair shirt environmentalists' and it’s an easy trap to become sanctimonious, but we’re not here to tell people not to take that helicopter trip. Ultimately the traveller is there for the experience.
It’s still about having a wonderful holiday and great food, and sustainability is integral to it.
It’s not something we can separate and disassociate from the rest of our tourism product. But there are some incredibly sustainable lodges, in some not very interesting places, or not much fun, or foul food could still spoil a holiday. You’ve got to get it all right – like the Earth Changers curated collection showcases.
Sustainability is just as important as great food and a comfortable bed, not more important than the service. If we set it on too much of a pedestal, it actually gets a bit unreal. You can’t just be sustainable and nothing else, you’ve got to do all the other bits very well as well.
Sustainable is the nice icing on the cake. But there’s no point having a beautifully iced cake if it tastes of sawdust, however lovely the icing looks.
The interesting thing about our sustainability journey in Nepal is the way staff have picked up on it, and now my job really is only to sustain that enthusiasm. Initially I had to explain, but now I just add a little bit of fizz every so often to keep the chemical reaction going.
Our staff and employment policies are probably the best element of our sustainability. Something I find very difficult to get my head around is hotels that don’t treat their staff well with pay and conditions, to cut short term costs. It’s bad management and the wrong way round, defining success by how much money is saved for bosses. Putting my director’s hat on, we’re making good profit probably because the staff are happy. It’s just common sense.
Probably the biggest problem is proving the link between money spent and revenue generated, where boards and shareholders increasingly focus on proof. If you’re spending on traditional advertising, nine times out of ten, you can’t prove the direct response, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
Having to prove everything empirically might speak to accountability, but often stifles creativity, responsibility, empowerment, scope and leadership. And that occurs around the world. Here in Nepal, I know businesses where the managing director signs every letter. So we’re very proud of the creative freedom our staff have, and they can be themselves. We’ve created management staff in effect, because there were none when I took over, just workers, and we’ve allowed and enabled people to rise up and keep rising. And so they love to work here, and tell our customers everything they do.
At the end of a trip, we know our guests will go away thinking and understanding more about sustainability, and that it’s no longer about hair-shirted eco-fundamentalists! Chat with the guides who are abounding with local knowledge. Let them take you to explore their community, people, culture and fauna.
How you can be an Earth Changer:
Visit Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge
A stay at this stunning haven of tranquillity in Nepal’s trekking capital restores the soul and supports the local community with pioneering responsible tourism.
Earth Changers Marcus recommends reading:
For Nepal’s early days of tourism and exploring Mustang, now open for visitors:
Tiger for Breakfast: the Story of Boris of Kathmandu by Michel Peissel
Mustang: A Lost Tibetan Kingdom by Michel Peissel
The Mountain Is Young by Han Su Yuin – a romantic novel set in Kathmandu in the early days of foreigners visiting
Face of the Tiger by Charles McDougal PhD - an amazing insight into Nepal’s tigers and my mentor on all wildlife conservation.
My heart will always be...
"...uplifted when I see the mountain view from Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge – even after 16 years there, walking from my room to the lodge on a crisp, clear Himalayan morning with the sun just touching the high peaks is a wonderful, spiritual and deeply uplifting sight…beats any other commute in the world".
- Marcus Cotton