Friday, 12 March 2010

Innkeeper Quandary #2: A Place We'd Like to Stay

Innkeeper Quandary #2: A Place We'd Like to Stay At

In our travels we have stayed at 100's of places around the globe . . . at each we learn something new.  A few days ago we decided to take a night off so we stayed at a "beach resort" not far from the end of the new highway to the coast.  They offered a good deal on a "villa" and we wanted to try out their "gourmet restaurant" to see if we could pick up some new ideas for the Pura Vida Hotel dinners.
Over the years of developing what is today's Pura Vida Hotel, we have come up with loads of "best practices"  from our trips.  We try to take at least one mini-trip a month to both keep ourselves fresh and our ideas equally so.  More often than not though it doesn't quite work out that way.  This trip to a "5 Star Beach Resort" as they advertise actually worked in reverse . . . we got some new ideas of things we don't want to do in a "place we'd like to stay".

In short, the beach resort was not on a beach but on a cliff (albeit a spectacular location).  The gourmet restaurant was closed that and other nights - which we understand as we do not cook every night in our 6 room place though it was more surprising in a 100 room place.   The management was nowhere to be seen though the staff got a 5 star rating from us.  Reception/guards etc were 100%, maids/room service were 100% and waiters in the other restaurant were also 100%.
At check in they showed us the registration form and then took an enormous rubber stamp and stamped our registration form with a huge no smoking sign and a commitment we needed to sign saying we do not and would not smoke and if we did our room would be assessed a $200 charge to clean.  Later as we checked out our "villa" we looked in the fridge/minibar and found it thoughtfully stocked with 2 packs of Marlborough cigarettes and a box of matches.  The "villa" was not really a villa, more of a condo and although the view was most excellent we wondered about the management of the hotel.  Finally, it was clear that 20 years ago this place would have been in tip top shape but the tropics are not kind to paint, wood or concrete and the place was looking a bit tired.  On check out the next day, it was clear their system was defective (automatically overcharging) as some TripAdvisor ratings had noted.  We got it fixed right away but it has happened before.

This WAS and IS a nice place but it was not a place we would be managing for some of the above reasons.   On returning to the Pura Vida we got our "guest services" team of 4 together to chat about what we had seen and to figure out what they thought and what we could learn from the trip.  We too won't be perfect but if we say we are a beach property, we should be on a beach.  If we rent a "villa" it probably should be a free standing building.  Smaller things were also a bit odd - for example there were nice flower petals spread on the bed but they had sadly wilted by the time we arrived in the room.  Hibiscus is a beautiful flower but it wilts very fast out of water and even faster when disconnected from the stem.  On the bed were swans which once were towels - we won't do that for 2 reasons - a towel that has been manipulated by human hands into a "statue" will never be used by a guest and even if it is I don't want to use it anymore.

Our serviettes at the Pura Vida, for that reason, will never be intricately "carved" into some kind of table design because people don't want to use serviettes that have been excessively "handled".   Spot treat if necessary (usually not), wash, dry on the line, iron out the creases, fold once/twice/thrice, final iron, place on table.  Simple and as clean as you can get.  We wonder all the time about this small item but our staff understands why these details make sense.

In many restaurants you will see waiters polishing glasses before service.  We wonder about this too.  Someone already washed and dried these glasses.  What ARE these people doing?  Well they are cleaning off the water spots the original washer missed.  W. Edward Deming (in my former life) was my guru on such things.

Our manager, has in fact studied some of Dr. Deming's thinking and I reprint here the 14 points from Wiki:

Deming offered fourteen key principles for management for transforming business effectiveness. The points were first presented in his book Out of the Crisis.
  1. Create constancy of purpose toward improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and stay in business, and to provide jobs.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Build quality into the product in the first place.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead, minimize total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.
  5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.
  6. Institute training on the job.
  7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.
  8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.
  9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the work force asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  11. a. Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.
    b. Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.
  12. a. Remove barriers that rob the hourly worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.
    b. Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement.
  14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody's job.
Deming was a statistician who taught Japan all about quality and management "by numbers" in the 1950's.  He perhaps, if alive today, would be turning in his grave after the Toyota quality debacle.  His 14 points were aimed mostly at manufacturing companies (and were in major part responsible for some of the ideas in Japanese manufacturing post WWII) but I have used them everywhere since I first found his work in the 1980's.  Constant improvement and the involvement of everybody is required for any business to succeed. 

But back to the point about this blog entry - "how to make a place that we'd like to stay at?"  How do you do that?  How do you measure that?  How do you know you did it?  When is the job completed?

One measure is through experience, both good and bad.

How do you do that?  We remember for example our stay some years ago at a tiny little hotel - Finca Los Caballos near Montezuma on the southern Nicoya peninsular.  Our host Barbara, prepared us a lovely fixed price no-menu dinner that night which we enjoyed with a nice cold bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. 

We said "this is just perfect!" and promptly adopted the idea for the Pura Vida Hotel.  We have been perfecting it ever since.  Last year we stopped by Wolfgang Puck's Chinoise restaurant in Santa Barbara, California and tasted a delicious 5 spice Pork chop concoction. 

We said "this is just perfect!".  When we got home to the Pura Vida, your chef (and my wife) went into her "lab" and came out a few weeks later with an even better version though we still call it Puck's Pork Chops in deference to one of her heroes of the cocina.

How do you measure that?  This is not so difficult as in the case of our dinners . . . if Nhi (your chef) gets a standing ovation after dinner we know we may have a hit on our hands.  In the case of the concrete walk ways of the early days of the Pura Vida Hotel (and similar walkways in the "5 star hotel that caused this blog entry") it was more difficult. 

The rainy season (our first) had started.  As days went by in the rainy month of May everything got a little tinge of green throughout the garden including the concrete walk ways.  One day I took off down hill while walking the dogs - my speed increased exponentially and inappropriately as my sandals lost contact with reality.  Down I went with a splat and a bang!  Max, my German shepherd, stops, looks back at me with a sad look in his eyes that seemed to say "dumb gringo only has 2 legs!"

This happened to me a second time before I called the staff together to see what they thought (see Deming Point 8 and Point 9 above).

"Are there problems with the walkways in the rainy season?", I asked the team.

"No," everybody agreed.

"Who has fallen on the walkways?"

Everybody nodded.

"Yes I have," some added.

"So, everybody has slipped or fallen on the concrete walkways in the rainy season?"

"Yes."

"And there is no problem with them?"

The short story is that we finally settled on covering all the walkways with a "laja" material (a bit like slate) that is pretty much slip proof however "green" it gets and looks pretty good too.

How do you know you did it?  In this case we all just stopped slipping, in the case of a standing ovation it's pretty simple but for many other aspects of running a hotel it can be very subjective.  Some people think towels in the shape of swans look great, others think they represent unnecessary human handling. 

One way to double check to see if "you did it".  Is to measure against your guest type.  The Pura Vida Hotel is not inexpensive, does not attract backpackers or young children and is enjoyed by an unusually large number of people who are a little older, love to eat well and have .edu in their email addresses.  If we were a "young family hotel" we'd have child seats as an example - we have none - we would not work for that demographic at all.  Our .edu guests are however pretty tough on environmental issues so we need to measure everything we do against THAT backdrop or they won't send their friends next year.  What does our kind of customer expect?  And what can we do that will knock their socks off (as a large part of our business today comes from guest referrals)?

(entry in process)

Monday, 8 March 2010

Quandary #1 - "There are some things you must not live with - the Kitchen"

It's been 7 plus years since we opened our front gate to our first guest. His name was John and, as he was good friends with the former owner, he forgave us our initial cluelessness. In response to a question from John, we'd say something like, "well we just got here, what did she do?" It helped a lot that John had been here longer than us and could teach us where the on/off switches and such were.

"Yo John, is this what she made for breakfast?"

Over the next few weeks in the blog, I wanted to ponder some of the "quandaries" we have dealt with at the Pura Vida. Some of these are obvious, some are lessons learned and others were great revelations based on circumstances we had no control over.  Of course we must not forget serendipitous events that we were lucky enough to stumble upon.

The first of these I will label "there are some things you must not live with - the old Kitchen". If, one day, you decide to buy a small hotel in the neo-tropics you will be faced with many decisions for which you will not have the band width, the money or the experience to make the correct decision.

The story began like this:

CHAPTER 1
5:35am  DAWN IN COSTA RICA, EVERYWHERE

It's 5:35am, it's dawn in Costa Rica everywhere.  Maximus Optimist (our 4 month old baby Tico Shepherd) is stirring - not the best sign - he is pretty much house trained now, but you never can tell. His stirring means I have a mission to better fertilize the far end of the garden and our future parking lot.

It will only become a parking lot if we can sneak in some constructores early one weekend to clip some trees, level some ground a little, cut a 30 feet hole in the "living fence", install (quietly) an electric gate for the coches de huespedes, make a small concrete ramp over the ditch from the road and maybe slightly reroute a part of the stream (aka municipal water pipe leakage) behind the Katydid Casita.

If we do this quietly one weekend, nobody will complain.

But back to the house training of our young boy Max.

It is 5:40am. I stumble over Max, bump into a stack of boxes "about me height" and curse quietly as I stub my toe on the residue of a leather dog bone. I slide over one my socks which had somehow become a chew for Max. It is obvious we had only been here a few days as, today, I don't even know what socks are for.

Teeth cleaned, fast not gleaming. I grab any item of clothing -a shirt from a box and some shorts, grab the sandals off the "me height" stack of boxes yet to be unpacked and me and Max head down the short staircase.

We live in a fortress guarded by big dogs and iron bars and gates at every orifice. Which means EVERYTHING has a lock or a padlock. Every lock is different, every padlock is different and some areas of the house have not been visited lately due to this small challenge. I sometimes feel like a medieval dungeon keeper as I fuss through keys of many shapes and sizes trying to access something that I'm not sure goes anywhere useful.

The stairs to the roof, for example, have not been accessible for 2 weeks due to the loss of a key to that padlock. Well, you may ask, who needs stairs to the roof anyway?

Turns out we do! Seems as the constuctores tore out part of the kitchen ceiling, they discovered that not only was the ceiling rotten to the core, there were also large chinks in the roof itself 2 or 3 feet above it.
As the internal ceiling was being ripped out, I asked the supremely stupid question to "el constructores" . . . viz: "If I can see light through the roof, does that mean it leaks?" Fortunately, el constructores speak absolutely no English except "good morning, Senor Berni" and "is it hora feliz (happy hour)?" Which means my question about the huecos in the techo (holes in the roof) is not taken terribly seriously.

To continue. After walking gingerly down the dimly lit stairs to the iron gate (part of fortress Pura Vida's second line of defense), I feel around into the wooden cubbyhole near the door to the back stairs. There I find 4 keys, I insert one in the big brass padlock and open sesame. My lucky day perhaps?

Max rushes down headlong into his buddy Toro who heard us open the door milliseconds before we even touched the door. Toro is one very very large and very alert (and potentially dangerous) canine. Toro is all German shepherd with an extra large head and shoulders supporting a jaw with teeth from a movie set. I should mention here a line from an old Peter Sellars movie, "but he is not my dawg!".  We are boarding him for the previous owner.

Toro and Max greet each other like long lost lovers - Max licks, Toro growls a deep menacing "IAMTHEBOSS" statement of fact. Off they run across the new restaurant floor covered in paw marks now from some nightly frolicking by Toro (the master shepherd), Tarzan (the subservient shepherd), Sugar (a
dachsund trained as a guard dog) and Blackie (a dachsund with no training in anything).  I should note that Sugar, Tarzan and Blackie are not our dogs either but that's another story.

This is the canine managerie that makes up the nighttime guard patrol. Max leads and Toro follows out onto the "FUTURE-HOME-OF-A-SMALL-POOL-IF-WE-CAN-AFFORD-TO-PUT-ONE-IN".

Toro hears a sound at the far gate 2 seconds before the small animal that made it, made it. He turns on warp speed and 1 second before the sound reaches me is already doing 25 mph leaping bushes and small trees towards the back gate.
Max and I ignore the commotion - we have a fertilization run to do.

Later we head on up to the Casa at a gallop. I fool myself that this is good exercise. Jose-Luis (the gardener/manager) is up now and both of us proceed to make breakfast for the two guests from last night. They are John and Dee in from Houston, Texas on an expedition to buy wood bowls and crafts and import some to the USA. The guest has stayed here 10 nights out of his 11 in country - is this a trend I hope? He has also agreed to be featured on our web site if ever I get the web editor working again in this country. My travails with the local internet service, the problems with the electricity *(not to mention the 2 prong plug problem) and the problems with our local phone (that was somehow simultaneously connected to 4 houses) all have conspired to kill off my web editing aspirations for the last few weeks.

The bell rings - the "ding dong" chime means it is the front door. It is 7am and it is "the egg man" - I wave at him and mumble "no huecos" or "huevos" or something. My Spanish is no help but my gestures are working well. The Texans show up to eat before heading out for Sarchi. We apologize for whatever we have none of right now.....e.g. "no tables", "no kitchen" and we apologize for things we have too many off....such as "too many things that crawled over their roof last night" etc. They are happy with the place and will be back in a day or so to stay again. Go figure.

The bell rings again - a different tune - the "brrrrrrrrrrrrrr" sound means it is the back gate. It is 7:15am and it is los contructores. We hired them a couple of weeks ago (about 4 days after we arrived) and they have been at it ever since. They come in by bus or taxi every morning - they live 2km away in Alajuela and have no car. They also have little in the way of tools, clothes or anything else to call their own. Their leader is Ruben, the master electrician or Arnoel, the master builder. It is not clear who leads really. I really wouldn't know a master builder if I fell over one, but I know when I see classy work and they are it! [7 years later your editor would like you to know that the previous sentence is that of a deranged and excessively optimistic gringo so happy to have arrived in his new country and actually see any kind of progress. In hindsight, our readers should know that we had to pretty much undo everything our first constructores did.]

I say, "Buenos Dias! Arnoel!". Arnoel says, "Good Morning, Senor Berni!" - we exchange strong early morning handshakes accompanied by genuine "Costa Rican welcome" smiles - they have worked for 10 days straight for 12 hours every day.
We try to get them to take some time off but they have nowhere to go.  They refuse. They'd rather work. All three have residency problems and are trying to start a new business with a whole lot of sweat equity. Ruben has a wife and young son, maybe 10 in Pereira, Columbia. Ruben misses them so much - it is so sad that this man has to start again from nothing after running his own construction company
Arnoel has a girlfriend in Medelin, Columbia who he will marry soon - we are invited to the wedding. He is a political refugee fleeing the narco-trafickers. El Cubano is the third member of the trio - his hometown is in the only town in Cuba that we visited a couple of years back – Santiago. Our digital photos of Cuba brought tears to his eyes one night over a few beers. [It should be noted by your editor that 7 years on, I now believe pretty much nothing Arnoel ever told me but he was a pretty fun guy.]

After the "good mornings" the constuctores head off to the kitchen where "who knows what" awaits them in the old walls, old ceilings or old floors of the Casa. After living with the kitchen for a few weeks we had finally decided to rip out some of the old concrete shelves, craters, pits and creature dens that housed the inherited kitchen accoutrements. Strange things went on after we left the kitchen at night and, whatever it was, it had to be exorcised. It's not that we wanted to do it but the potential of whatever lurked in there needed to be banished for once and for all.

It is 8:15am. The "ding dong" rings at the front. It is Walter, the carpenter from Tuetal Norte - our village (I believe).

[Small editorial digression, it really tells you how clueless we were - we didn't even know what village we lived in. This is actually easier to accomplish than you may think in a country with no addresses.] I'm not really sure (at the time) if we are in Tuetal Sur or Norte. Walter has the new kitchen cabinet to replace the 30 year old gold Formica monster in the kitchen. He has four people with him and a friends truck. An older guy, maybe his father, two 15 year old boys from the village and a 4 year old - an observer from what I could tell. Walter owns no truck or car just a 175cc motorcycle - hard to be a carpenter on a 175cc bike, I must imagine, but he always smiles anyway.

Ligia (the maid of 6 years inherited from the previous owner of the Pura Vida) has reserved the old white and gold Formica monster (with creature holes in its base) that is soon to be demolished to make way for the hyperspace bypass (sorry, new cabinet). Ligia lives in humble dirt floor surroundings - we pay her about $1.20 an hour, which is a significant raise over her previous pay. She has six kids and a drunk husband who periodically shows up sober to help cut trees or repair a fence. We then pay him about $1.05 (400 colones) an hour for a day of toil.

He then spends this on some kind of cactus juice or beer, gets drunk and comes back to hang on the front gate calling for "Jose, Jose, Jose"..... we tell him "Jose no esta" and he stumbles off down the road to Tuetal Norte (or Sur?) looking for someone who will listen to him. Two days later he'll be back cutting bushes and the saga will repeat.

Walter unloads the new cabinets he made by hand - a lovely feel to the external wood, cedar, although, to save on cost, the guts of the cabinet is plywood with a nice light stain. The cabinet will take up a whole wall maybe 4 meters long by 3 meters high - it will house our pantry and it will be impervious to whatever ate the old formica cabinet.

We hope.
Walter grabs a hammer and starts hacking at the old white and gold Formica monster. I mumble something in pidgin English to him about how Ligia had been looking forward to her new cabinet that he has just smashed up one side. He points out that this thing is anchored by screws and nuts and glue and nails and (I think) he tells me in Spanish that he has no devices suitable for removal of nuts or screws or glue or nails other than his large hammer. At least that is what I think he tells me. I have many such conversations in this country.
I dash off looking for some wrenches for the nuts and maybe a small crowbar I remember packing - alas I find none of these things - our container of boxes (which arrived a few days earlier) has left a box residue everywhere and nothing at all is to be found anywhere.

I return to the battle zone, Walter is oblvious - the white and gold monster must die and it is. He has now acquired the vigorous assistance of Jose-Luis who is mashing the other side of it. Bang, bang - bang, bang - smash, bang, boing......bang!!! The wall behind is not of concrete like the rest of the place - it resembles 3/4" thick cardboard. Holes in the wall are appearing - holes big enough to let in small cats and very large insectos.

This is not good.

From a future episode:

An Indigenous Connection

An email from a friend and one of our favorite tour book writers, Beatrice Blake at The Key to Costa Rica , reminded me today I hadn't visited with our indigenous friends and acquaintances lately.  And it is time once again to head down to Boruca (the home of a fascinating and successfully self sufficient indigenous culture) as we are nearly completely out of masks again.
This photo is of Don Ismael, the person who, in the 1970's, brought a revival of mask making to the village of Boruca.  He and his son (also pictured) now teach others the craft and also make some of the finest masks we have ever seen.

Costa Rica has a darn good shot of avoiding becoming entirely globalized.  So many factors have placed our adopted country in the cross hairs of a unique solution and response to the pressures placed upon all countries.  It was interesting, watching the Vancouver Olympics this year to see how they tried to bring forward "aboriginal" and "first nations" as representatives of their country.  Successful or not, other countries such as Costa Rica also have rich histories in their "first nations" communities.

There are in fact so few indigenous people here most tourists miss them altogether but some do find remote communities like the Isla de Chira for example.  
Isla de Chira is located in the Gulf of Nicoya and per se is not an indigenous community.  These folk trace their roots back to the Andalusian farmers (if a Tico ever bothers to look into their past).  They are not ones who fled the onslaught of the conquistadors.  However, you won't find a more "Tico" community anywhere in Costa Rica.  I think of such communities as "indigenous" inasmuch as can be in the 21st century in any community. This is part of our tale of  visit to Chira some time back: Rural Treats in Costa Rica

As Beatrice mentioned in her email,  "I just got back from a great trip to El Descanso, BriBri Pa Kaneblo, York√≠n, and Kekoldi, four ACTUAR projects where indigenous people are successfully bringing back their culture, and using tourism to support their efforts. All the communities have a somewhat different angle on the subject."  I look forward to Beatrices upcoming trip report.  She has probably done more than any gringa I know to help get rural communities in Costa Rica into a better state through sustainable tourism activities.

Another web site you may like to visit is that of our friends Ginnie and Phil - you'll find their blog here: Ginnee and Phil's Esparanza Adventure .  There are hundreds of reasons to support what they are doing and here's a delightful tale from one of their supporters last year:Anna's week
As Anna notes in the blog "I will never forget this most memorable week in my lifetime! It was the toughest, most difficult, arduous, dangerous, most exciting and most fascinating thing I've ever done in my 19 years of life."  Think of spending some time on this project on your next visit?  If you can't visit them on your trip, think of dropping some supplies for the Cabecar at the Pura Vida as you pass by the SJO airport area (we are 10 mins from the airport and even if you don't come here you can put your donation bag in an airport taxi and we'll pay the ride).
My suggestion to all our visitors is for you to find a location you like, find a place you'd like to stay and then ask them how you might best visit one of these locations while you are in that area.  Remember also that a number of them have small rustic and usually spotless lodges and a night in the village will be an experience you (or your kids) will surely never forget.  If not there'll be a lovely experience to be had somewhere in the area.
Another good web site to find information about these remote lodges is the Costa Rican rural community tourism association known as ACTUAR - you can reach them here doing "alternative travel" as they like to call it or just contact Beatrice Blake and she can figure it out for you.  Or just ask your hotel to point you when you get there.

Berni
p.s. The nearest rural community to us and part of ACTUAR association is Nacientes Palmichal.  They have done a lot to create a sustainable environment in this lovely village about 90 minutes south west of the Pura Vida Hotel here: Albergue Nacientes Palmichal

We took this photo near the water source that Nacientes is named after.  They'd be happy to organize a day trip to the community and they do have a spotless and delightful lodge if you want top stay overnight.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Every day should start with some electrons

 This bit from our local online newspaper.
"Electrical certification seen as safety measure
By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
An international group that will meet here next week has a goal of certifying electricians. Costa Rica does not now have such a program, . . . "
2 nights ago. 7pm dinner starting. Full house. Bang, flash, plunged into darkness.

Grope, grope, "no worries guys, it's an insurrection from the north."  "Hang on while I make things work."

Grope, grope, "Ah the flash light, now who moved the candles?"

"Yes, yes I know our web site says we have candle light dinners, isn't this nice."

"About that insurrection?"

"No worries they don't even know how to have an election and apparently you
don't even need a majority to ruin (or run) the country."

"I was only kidding about the insurrection anyway but that's why you came to Costa Rica, no? Some excitement? Push life to a higher more elevated plane? Eat gourmet dinners in pitch darkness?"

10 minutes later. Lights come back on. "How was the salad?" "These ICE electricians are getting better at this, you know."  [ICE - the national electrical company]

10 minutes later as the main course is being consumed. Bang, flash, darkness.  We see guys on a pole next door with a floodlit area nearby. There is diligent work going on at the pole.

"Maybe they DO know how to run an insurrection north of the border? Perhaps Mrs Murillo has taken over."

15 minutes later lights come on. 3 minutes later . . . bang, flash, darkness.   "Thank goodness for surge protectors and a good supply of candles!"

Later . . .

"Tonight's entertainment is brought to you by ICE. We hope you enjoyed the show."

The 6th and final bang, flash occurred at 3am.

The only questions that remain are:
1) how is it possible to replace a blown transformer so quickly? Love those ICE guys and girls!

and
2) how is it possible to blow up 6 transformers in one night?

You can't make this stuff up.
Berni
Major fan of free and fair electrons.