The tiny islands or “cayes” off the coast of Belize sit in the middle of beautifully serene coral atolls and are surrounded by the world’s second largest barrier reef. Like shallow lakes in the middle of the ocean, the atolls host several UNESCO world heritage sites and some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving in the world. My team, consisting of three Johnson students and an MPA student from the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs, found itself tasked with providing consulting services and business advice for the owners of one of these cayes in what turned out to be the most unique spring break of my life.
As part of the SGE immersion at Johnson, students are paired into groups of four and are assigned a sustainability related consulting project with a company. From development work in Ghana, to an entrepreneurial renewable energy technology in the USA, to a large cosmetics firm based in Asia, the projects vary widely across industries and geographic location. Due to my interest and background in hospitality and eco-tourism (see my hotel in Nicaragua here!), I was assigned to a small family owned company with land holdings in Belize.
All of the participating client organizations flew into Ithaca at the beginning of the semester for a few days of meetings and socializing. We learned the background of our company, what sort of challenges they were facing, their goals and growth plan, as well as their personal stories as managers. They have been selling plots of land to people interested in building vacation homes or opening small businesses, and there is currently a bed and breakfast and scuba-diving operator on the island. The family has set up strict eco-guidelines for chemical use and building codes in order to protect the mangrove and coral reef ecosystems in the area. The clients needed help with their long-term strategic vision and were in need of a concrete implementation plan that could align their current actions with their goals. My team boiled down the main question we were after as: “How can the company generate long term revenues from a finite resource while remaining in line with their eco-guidelines?”
Weeks of research on land development, eco-tourism, the Central American business climate, and many a conference call now behind us; the project is still a work in progress. We are developing financial models that analyze leasing opportunities and supplemental land services, and we are developing forecasts for a planned eco-lodge and restaurant. We will also deliver market data that will provide focus for the eco-lodge, and provide recommendations on implementation schedules. We are working towards a final report and presentation to our clients at the end of the semester, and have gained new enthusiasm and clarity on the project after our visit to Belize. As the owners had repeatedly told us, “you just won’t get it until your feet are in the sand”. They were right.