“What we are doing in Phuket is not something that we’re keen to get credit for or charge for. There are lessons to be learned…we want to stimulate collaboration, rather than us all trying to be insular.“
Hotelier works to keep Planet Earth intact for the next generation
Greta Thunberg, Time’s “2019 Person of the Year” and fearless eco activist, and hotelier Bill Barnett may belong to different generations, but they come together on one thing: their planet — our planet — must be saved. And there’s not a moment to lose.
Both also agree that it’s the world’s youth like Thunberg, a 16-year-old, who are certain to inherit the devastating effects of climate change, if government leaders do not finally agree on transformative measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions causing temperatures to rise, an eventuality that will lead to searing drought and even more abject poverty.
Lessons to be learned
Barnett, who boasts some 30 years in the Asia-Pacific deep in hotel operations, development and asset management, with senior corporate roles at international hotel chains and publicly listed companies, is walking his talk. Four years ago, he helped set up the Phuket Hotels Association (PHA), now a 77-member organization committed to addressing the issue of sustainability and survival, particularly in the travel and hospitality industry.
“We (in Phuket, Thailand which he calls “home”) learned from the Bali bombings of 2000 that it’s important to speak with one voice,” Barnett explains to Boardroom Watch during a recent visit to Manila. “What we are doing in Phuket to effect change is not something that we’re keen to get credit for or charge. There are lessons to be learned even from the example of one small hotel, and we want to stimulate collaboration, rather than us all trying to be insular.”
“Guests have also changed; they’re smarter. They’ve researched on the destination before arriving. They know what’s beyond the property; what types of food are available and which restaurants to go to.“
Two years ago, Barnett and his industry friends in Phuket organized Phuket Hotels for Islands Sustaining Tourism (Phist) to kickstart this intention. The second powwow was held on September 23 and combined an exhibit showcasing sustainability products and services and a mix of short expert panels and thematic discussions on topics such as destination status updates, community tourism and global sustainability trends among others. Highlight of the event was the launch of The Great Big Green Hotel Guide, a compilation
of best sustainability practices offered by PHA members. “We want to provide people ideas that they can apply on their own,” Barnett says. “It’s the only way to get things done. It’s a start, but we have to make the effort. More ideas will come in the future.”
This year, particular focus was placed on sustainability and the next generation. Bill says: “We’re looking at education and raising awareness (about issues) among the youth. The university students…the next generation of hotel owners are our next leaders – they’re (now) the ones to influence because they’re the ones who are going adapt sustainability practices.
“We have a problem that’s not going to go away, and ours is a 50-year message (of sustainability), and is not one just for the next two or three months.”
Unfortunately, according to Barnett, the significance of sustainability in the region continues to be an afterthought, rather than the rule. “But as you can see, environmental problems are everywhere even in the islands thought of as a ‘sunny paradise,’” he points out. “Look at the haze, it has had an impact on many parts of Asia. You can’t hide from it.
“When people come to Phuket, no matter if they go to the beach or not, they still see the destination as (mainly) the beach. That’s Phuket’s canvas, its brand, and so, seeing lots of plastic floating on the water spoils that image. Phuket’s environment has to be protected.”
To reach young minds, PHA is considering building a Discovery Center, where the kids can learn the joys of recycling and other best practices, after which, it is hoped, they will share the new learnings with their parents. “Phuket after all is there they live and earn their living. This is their future,” Barnett says. Human capital is another factor that he and his colleagues are keen to grow and maintain in increasing numbers. PHA is currently nurturing 30 local scholars, and in January, it will be sending Thailand’s first bet to Cornell School of Hotel Administration in Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.
“This is what drives us at PHA, influencing more people, so that they in turn influence others, and propagating the next generation of leadership,” Barnett beams with pride.
Doing what is right for Planet Earth seems a no brainer, but challenges remain for eco warriors like Greta and Barnett. “Hotel owners in Asia lag behind in terms of awareness and understanding the necessity of sustainability, compared with the west where a lot is spent on it,” he reports. “On the customers’ side, there still has to be that number that says they want to stay in a sustainable property – and are willing to pay a premium to do so.
“There are still a lot of owners, who live in a world that is limited to the hotel next door.”
But change is coming, if it hasn’t already arrived. According to Barnett, a number of resorts no longer subscribe to being known as the sole sanctuaries of personal indulgence or the ultimate escape from the workplace. “Resorts now go into their neighborhoods to see what can be done to help or make an impact on the community.
“Guests have also changed; they’re smarter. They’ve researched on the destination before arriving. They know what’s beyond the property; what types of food are available and which restaurants to go to. So, if they see there is garbage outside the resort…”
If owners and developers are genuinely serious about contributing to climate action, they should be sure to include a sustainability factor in their conceptualization. Barnett, who been involved in projects from Japan to the Philippines, from Indonesia to the Indian Ocean and more, is at present working on two upcoming resorts in Cebu and Bohol that both feature a sustainability team working with the architect and interior designer. He stresses: “It’s important to make sustainability an integral part of the planning, rather than present a sustainability guide once the building is done. Sustainability covers more than just foregoing the use of plastics.”
Friend and mentor
A native of Hollywood, California, Barnett first started out in the music industry, finding his way into Capitol Records where he wrote performance reviews and was a gofer for executives (we can imagine his sassy manner of speech has always been intrinsic to his personality). He then, as he says, “evolved,” going to work in a ski resort, a dude ranch in Wyoming, a lodge in Alaska and finally, hotels in Hawaii that locked him into the hospitality arena which he has never left. After a stint in Papua, New Guinea, he arrived in the Philippines in 1985, “a day after People’s Power,” he recalls. Two corporate office assignments in Cebu and Manila later, he moved to run Century Saigon as general manager in the early 1990s when Vietnam opened up for business.
“I was the first American hotel manager to work in Vietnam after the war,” he recalls. The only other hotel at the time with international standards was the “Floating Hotel.”
As an entrepreneur has co-developed two residential projects in Thailand and is actively involved in the online property marketplace FazWaz.com as chief strategy officer. He is also currently business development advisor for Le Pirate International, a fast-growing regional beach club chain. He has also authored four books on travel, property and hospitality: Slave to the Bean, Collective Swag, It Might Get Weird and Last Call. His participation in professional bodies includes the International Society of Hospitality Consultants (ISHC).
Barnett’s easy-going nature and predilection for t-shirts belies one of the sharpest and most respected minds in the hotel residences sector. Close friend and development consultant Cyndy Tan-Jarabata, who met him in 1990 when both worked for the Pathfinder Group of Cebu, says: “He has been pivotal in the success of several major projects, but I think Phist is his lasting signature, which will be carried on by the next generation. He helped me start my consulting business – I should be so lucky to have both a best friend and a mentor in him.”
Another longtime pal, editor-writer Jon Wall remarks: “I’d never met a hotelier, who was so well-read and so unconventional, and I still haven’t. Against the sharp suits and polished manners of his peers, he was Hunter S. Thompson (the American writer, who pioneered “gonzo” journalism, which subscribes to the first-person account) in a wild Hawaiian shirt.”
But legacy is the last thing one would expect Bill Barnett to be concerned with. Like Greta, he has no grand solution to climate change and its worrying effects. Like her, he does what he can in his own way, in his own sphere. Now, what was it they said again about little ripples making big waves?
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Lessons from Phuket
Bill Barnett, founding advisor of the 75-member Phuket Hotel Association (PHA), would be the first to tell you the group is not out for glory or money in the noteworthy things they do for sustainability. Here’s why:
• We learned from the Bali bombings of 2002 that it’s important to speak as one voice. Now, Phuket hoteliers speak in a common voice.
• Our most important platform is collaboration, rather than trying to be insular.
• There are lessons to be learned from even the example of one small hotel. We want to provide people ideas they can apply on their own.
• The Big Green Hotel Guide is a compilation of those best practices by our PHA members. Launched this year, we want to share it with everyone and anyone who is interested in sustainability.
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN