Playa Viva Founder David Leventhal on His Ten Year Regenerative Journey

Written bySiani Abrahams
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In a rare opportunity, Amanda Ho interviewed her Regenerative Travel co-founder, David Leventhal, to discuss his regenerative journey at Playa Viva, a boutique hotel located on the west coast of Mexico. David’s first-hand experiences offer a glimpse into the regenerative hotelier world and how fulfilling the regenerative journey can be. 

“So much about Playa Viva is what you don’t get in pictures,” says David Leventhal, Regenerative Travel co-founder and owner of Playa Viva, a boutique hotel located on Mexico’s west coast. Details like the hills overlooking its beachfront to form a perfect north-south orientation, with regularly spaced contours, are best witnessed in person. This led David and wife Sandra Kahn to discover (with the help of archeologists) that the 200-acre property they purchased had a rich agricultural history dating back to the Aztec Empire. 

By upholding a commitment to honor the history and ethos of place, David describes Playa Viva’s ongoing coevolution with the local community and how Playa Viva’s mission and core values allows for their team to continually live up to their principles. An eco-luxury destination that goes beyond being green and sustainable, Playa Viva was built on the principles of regeneration and coevolution. From the energy-efficient architecture, the locally sourced organic cuisine, to biodiversity-friendly resort activities, everything is the result of careful planning and exhaustive, all-hands-on-deck stakeholder meetings.

In this interview, David talks to Regenerative Travel co-founder Amanda Ho on the ten-year journey they embarked on to transform Playa Viva into a living legacy for the Juluchaca community.

When you first began building Playa Viva were you aware of the principles of regeneration?

Not when we first started. Once we hired the Regenesis Group, then we were educated over time about those principles. Since then, we’re constantly learning about them through relationships originally stemming from Regenesis and when we won an award from Carol Stanford through the regenerative business council that she leads. We attended a conference with her and learned more about it. There’s always more to learn about how to do regeneration better.

How did you come across Bill Reed and make the decision to bring in the Regenesis Group?

My wife went to the Greenbuild Conference after we had bought the property and met with a bunch of folks, who were recommended to her based on our background in conservation and social impact, who would be aligned with us in values on how to develop this property. One of those folks was Bill Reed and the Regenesis Group. Sandy, my wife, came back from Greenbuild and said, ‘Wow, you gotta see what these guys did. They took this land that was completely degraded and brought it back to life.’ She was really impressed. My skeptical radar went up and I was able to talk to Bill on the phone. In my conversation with Bill, I was like, ‘I hear about this, how to make it better, but aren’t you destroying it in the process of building?’ What Bill said was ‘No, actually, if you look at anywhere, 99% of where humans are building, humans have degraded that place in some form or fashion over the years. If you understand the history of place and how it got to be that way, then you can understand your role in bringing back the abundance that was once there.’ That’s really how we embarked down that path. We hired Bill and team to come in and lead design charrettes for us. We held two different design charrettes and started moving through the process. That’s how we met Bill and then initiated our relationship with them.

Can you walk me through that initial design process from a regenerative standpoint? What did you use to lead that design process?

The design charette was all-hands-on-deck multifunctional and multidimensional stakeholder meetings. We brought in people who represented different aspects of that particular place, to bring their perspectives. We hired an anthropologist to look at the anthropology behind the place, there was an archeological site there. The anthropologists who had worked with the museum in Mexico could give us a whole background on how this particular location fit into the entire anthropology and deep native history of Mexico. We worked with geologists who did soil samples on all these different areas of land. We brought biologists to look at everything from the flora and fauna and explain to us how that place got to be the way it is, how it is evolving. We did permaculture work, looked at the history of agriculture and what was growing on the site. We did interviews with town elders, the community, community leaders and the youth about their understanding from an oral history of the place and how it evolved. We brought some local town leaders into the charrette process. We brought in a hydrologist and put up weather stations, brought in potential guests from Mexico, from the U.S, brought in architects and experts in all different areas. 

That was our first charette with everybody sitting down, having done their homework about how that place got to be the way it is. We were able to create a map of the land and layer it with each one of those pieces; the soil layers, the solar standstills, the agriculture, the water flows, the animals, everything got mapped onto one huge map. Through that process, what unfolded was how the land needed to be stewarded. We didn’t walk in with any preconceived notions about what we wanted to do. We walked in with a complete tabula rasa, a blank slate, and asked what is this place and what does this place demand and want from us? From that first map, everybody studied what had come out of that first session so we could come into a second session and begin to design. In that second meeting we began to divide off into multidisciplinary groups around how we are going to handle things like water, energy, food, buildings, building materials, connectivity to community and employees.

In the first charette, before we even started the discussion of history of place, one of the first things we did was develop a set of core principles. We sat around the table and asked, ‘What is important to us? What guides us? Why are we doing this? What are our values?’ From that emerged the originally seven core values. They’ve been condensed into five and those then would guide decisions we would make.

What are the five core values of Playa Viva?

The five principles are one: use cleaner, more abundant, and more transparent energy, water, and waste streams, two: promote meaningful community, three: create transformational experiences, four: foster and generate biodiversity, and five: establish a living legacy, which for us meant thinking seven generations out and what the effects will be. What we do now over the long haul, not just short-term thinking.

Having this discussion about, for example, the kitchenettes and refrigerators [in guest rooms], it came down to asking does this promote cleaner energy or water. The answer was no, it actually uses a boatload of energy. Then the next part, which was more important, was does it create meaningful community? We really wanted people to come together, eat meals together, how important that was to create the ethos and the experience that is Playa Viva. If people had kitchenettes in their room, it would destroy that. It broke down into women saying, ‘If you have a baby and need to store milk, what do you do?’ The resolution was we will get a cooler, we will put ice in it, and you can store your milk. Having those core principles allowed us to work through really heated debates and discussions, resolved because of those core values.

In that second charette where we began to work out those design details, we would break off into individual groups to solve specific problems, come back, report in, then break off again and report in. Eventually what emerged was another layer on top of that map with what we were going to build, what the program was going to be, how we were going to operate, and what we were going to do differently so that it lived up to our principles.

How has coevolution or the concept of coevolution evolved with the community and landscape over time in the last 10 years?

Coevolution was a term that Bill Reed kept pushing on me and the more he said it, the more I really understood it. While I tell people that Playa Viva is 200 acres, has a mile of beachfront, has a perimeter around it – the perimeter is just a fence that marks the physical boundaries of the hotel, in no way does it mark the boundaries of the influence of the hotel. If you look at all the inputs that come into the hotel; the team, the employees, where are they coming from? What towns? What villages? When those people go back to their homes, to their families, to their villages, what they do at Playa Viva becomes an echo effect outside of the property.

It’s also the entire supply chain of what’s coming into Playa Viva, including how we eliminate waste – telling our suppliers we don’t want you to package things with single-use plastic because we don’t want to throw out that garbage. There’s an effect up and down that supply chain, and building that local supply chain – consciousness about who we are and what we’re doing.

One of our social environmental impact officers worked on a project for developing sustainable fisheries. They looked at the fish we were serving, questioning whether it was sustainable. The answer was, unfortunately, it wasn’t. There you are thinking you’re doing everything great, and actually you’re not. Solving sustainable fisheries is a huge problem but one we have to take on, on a micro level, to say let’s identify fishermen who want to catch in a sustainable way.

Another example would be the work we did in a baseline impact study. Lesson learned, one of the things we should have done from the get-go: go into the community and do an impact study to find out the uncertain key indicators, so that as the hotel developed, we could go back every five years to see if we were having an impact on that community. We finally did that 10 years into our existence, part of coevolution as well.

The biggest sign of it is when people in your community reflect back the values you have created. Whether it’s through young people starting a recycling program and getting their parents to stop burning trash, to the kids or the farmers saying no, you don’t want to slash and burn and there are other ways of enriching the soil and having a better crop. When that emanates from their relationship with us, then we’ve coevolved with a community. It’s also a two-way street, because it’s not just us learning from them. They can learn from us too.

Where, along the design process, did you develop the mission statement and what is your mission statement?

We developed it right from the get-go when we developed the core values. Those core values really define our mission statement. I would say the only thing that we added to that, when we looked at it, was creating meaningful community and having an impact. We brought in a full-time social environmental impact officer and we further defined our mission with social impact around three things, which is education, health, and economic development. If people are better educated, if people are healthy, if they have good paying jobs and living wages and have the opportunities to build their own businesses and grow and develop, then we’ve done a good job within the community.

What are lessons learned over the last 10 years and throughout the whole regenerative design process? If you were doing it again, would you have done anything differently? If so, what?

The first one we would do differently is the impact study. I would have done that from the get-go. The other lesson learned is around how we interact with the community. When we first came in there, there was a vocal minority that stood up and tried to access resources from us. We were quick to respond to that, to show our better nature. I think that actually worked against us because what it did is made the quiet majority look at us as kind of foolish for catering to that vocal minority. I would say that was kind of a community relationship issue.

From a financial standpoint, we started this business in 2006 in the last big economic boom, which crashed in 2008 with a global economic crisis. It hit travel and tourism, especially in Mexico, which was hit by H1N1 and tourism was down by 50%. I would say timing wasn’t great for us, but we really should have spent more resources investing in things like social impact, like our farm and food program. Like many folks who get into the hospitality program as independent operators, we were very naive about what it takes to build a hotel, especially from a sales and marketing standpoint. I think we thought, if we build it, they will come. Investing a lot more into building relationships with not just PR for the launch, but with trade and doing a lot more investment from the get-go on the project would have been helpful.

From a regenerative standpoint, hiring the regenerative team was really good. Bill Reed and Ayrie Cunliffe, who was the architect, created amazing designs and drawings around the common area. With the tree houses, we didn’t know how to transplant the trees early on, so that slowed our tree-house building down. To do it again, I would have built tree houses from the get-go, but it took us a while to get the transplant of the trees done with coevolution. Everything we made a mistake on, because of coevolution, we are figuring it out as we go. Luckily, by starting small and working up, it has not hugely impacted us.

What do you think people should take away from what you’ve built? 

So much about Playa Viva is what you don’t get in pictures. A lot of the photos were about design details because you couldn’t really capture the essence of the place in video. There are these intangibles about being at the place, for example the whole concept of creating meaningful community through Playa Viva. The way we go about doing that programmatically is very subtle, but it’s very powerful. An example of that community is when people come from different places and they meet at the big table at Playa Viva by breaking tortillas together and eating avocados. When they’re leaving, you see them hugging our staff goodbye. Then they all book to come back during the same time next year. These strangers just met and now want to be back at Playa Viva and have that same experience again. They come back year after year. Then they adopt a kid through our adoptive student program. When there’s an earthquake in Mexico, they email us and ask us how things are doing. That blows me away. It’s the visceral connection other people have with this place and the people of that place. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

What I’d like to add is what we aspire to. I think that’s one of the interesting things now coming from being part of Regenerative Resorts.

When the idea of regenerative travel first hit me, I used the term that we’re all prisoners of paradise, with our own passion projects. Meeting individuals who built these properties, [they] all have these magnificent outlooks and specialties. For example, Hamanasi and their wellness program. Our responsibility is not just the health within our social environmental impact program for the community, true wellness, not just of our guests but of our employees and how that reflects out through the employees and then through the community and the ripple effect that has. Seeing Hamanasi’s commitment has been tremendous.

What Fogo Island has done by allowing the property to be the patrimony of that community is something we aspire to as well. I don’t want Playa Viva to be mine or my wife’s or my kids or my grandkids. I want Playa Viva to belong to that community. Sure, I’d like us to continue reaping that success, but really learning how to do so in a non-extractive way and helping the community develop real wealth through ownership, which is really part of that next step. What we aspire to is defined by the inspiration that we’re drawing from other members in the collection.

The other thing aspiring for us was the baseline study, to know what our impact is going to be. I think the key element is data collection benchmarking and best practice so that we can really look at how well we’re doing compared to our peers and where improvements can be made. I think that is so crucial for our next step of growth as an organization.

Schedule a complimentary travel consultation with Regenerative Travel here to learn more about a trip to Playa Viva to experience the wild west with our travel design team.

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