Committed to responsible travel since its opening in 1994, the boutique Rockhouse Hotel sits on Jamaica’s glistening Negril coast. It’s perched atop cliffs overlooking the aptly-named Pristine Cove, the same cliffs enjoyed by Bob Marley and The Rolling Stones in the 70s.
There’s a timelessness to the Rockhouse Hotel and its setting, perhaps because sparkling seas, flavor-infused Caribbean cuisine and the warm feeling of a content, tight-knit community are elements that make for enjoyable travel, time and time again.
If we leave our homes and our daily routines behind to head on vacation, it’s because we either want a complete change of external scenery or to transform our internal state of being and switch off from the inside. The Rockhouse Hotel, with its luxurious amenities and meaningful community engagement, offers us both in equal measure.
So what exactly makes the hotel so special? And how does the inspiring Rockhouse Foundation make for an even richer experience for everyone involved?
Responsible Travel From the Ground Up
From its award-winning spa to its on-site organic farm, Rockhouse is more than just an aesthetically pleasing boutique hotel. From its outset, Rockhouse has been committed to being a responsible hotel that’s acutely aware of its position in a developing economy. The team intricately analyzed in whose interest the hotel’s success was and made sure that the hotel was entirely accountable to those parties. Those identified groups include the hotel’s guests, its team, the surrounding environment and the local community.
Rugged cliff edges embraced by lapping cerulean waters and a laid-back atmosphere set to the rhythms of reggae beats, Rockhouse could easily be an idyllic vacation setting that helps guests escape the stresses of pulsing metropolitan lives and not much beyond that. However, this hotel is much more than a Caribbean retreat for overworked city-slickers.
Every luxurious detail is coupled with a sense of responsibility for the local environment and its community. The organic juice bar serves reinvigorating refreshments like the Rockhouse Green Juice, which includes antioxidants by way of callaloo and bok choy grown in the Rockhouse Organic Garden. The entire team provides thoughtful, friendly service to guests including the charming General Manager, Inise Lawrence, who joined as a teenage desk clerk over 20 years ago and now runs the show with her warm smile. The team also participates in regular beach clean ups to make sure that Seven Mile Beach’s chalky sands and clear waters remain pristine. No detail goes unnoticed at Rockhouse.
The Founding of the Rockhouse Foundation
Perhaps the hotel’s most impressive and enduring initiative is its Rockhouse Foundation, a particular source of pride for Chairman Paul Salmon. Established nearly 20 years ago in 2004, the Rockhouse Foundation’s aim is to enhance education in Jamaica by transforming the places where children learn and supporting the teachers that so painstakingly nurture the children’s minds and development.
“What we observed in our community work in the 90s was that the biggest area of need was in physical structures. The Ministry of Education had pressures to put staffing in schools but had little budget for building or maintaining schools in our area,” says Salmon. By going to local schools and speaking to teachers and community leaders, the Rockhouse team learned where the areas of greatest need were.
The first initiative involved starting a breakfast program at a local school in Negril which was not on anyone’s radar but very much needed support. The Rockhouse Foundation provided free breakfasts for any kids in the school who wanted them. The idea was to ensure that every child was starting their day on a full, nourished stomach. Now all the schools that the foundation works with have breakfast and lunch programs.
Today the foundation’s work has amassed the renovation and expansion of a total of six schools in the Negril area as well as a major expansion of the Negril library. Their biggest project to date includes the expansion of the nearby Savanna-la-Mar Inclusive Academy (or simply, Sav Inclusive), Jamaica’s first public institution educating typical learning children and children with disabilities side by side in a full inclusion setting. The inspiration came from a Rockhouse team member’s exasperation at not being able to find the right educational opportunities for her autistic child.
Thanks to the success of the Sav Inclusive’s initial expansion, the Rockhouse Foundation and Jamaica’s Ministry of Education have now signed a joint commitment to further expand the school to have classes up to 12th grade. The crux of the foundation and the hotel’s work is longevity and making sure that they have a lasting, positive impact in Jamaica. After raising a total of more than $7 million USD since its inception, it’s clear that the foundation and its ongoing work to transform education in Jamaica is very much here to stay.
Hospitality and Philanthropy Operating in Harmony
So how exactly can travel and philanthropy positively converge? In practical terms, there are several ways that Rockhouse Hotel helps the Rockhouse Foundation. Firstly, all foundation expenses, including administrative and fundraising costs, are underwritten by the Rockhouse Hotel, Skylark (their sister property also in Negril) and Miss Lily’s, a buzzing New York restaurant that now has an outpost at Skylark in Negril too. The investors and owners of the hotel are also major donors to the foundation.
When it comes to fundraising for the foundation, the hotel community is heavily involved. For example, the team runs several events that engage the hospitality and traveler community such as their annual benefit dinner in New York, which regularly raises $250,000 – $300,000 USD. They also run a series of guest chef dinners at the hotels in Jamaica. Regular guests at the hotel can’t help but fall in love with the setting, the community and inevitably the foundation’s work, so regular guests often become individual donors for the foundation too.
Salmon believes that this inextricable link between the foundation and the hotel represents a new form of luxury. “Luxury today isn’t just about marble baths,” Salmon exclaims, “It’s about speaking with pride about the place you stayed. That’s the new luxury. The community and the way they treat their staff. [It’s about] how you can tell your kids or friends about where you stayed.” He highlights that traditionally, luxury tourism in the developing world has been exploitative and extractive. Rockhouse places great emphasis on making sure that it is instead responsible and regenerative.
By staying at the Rockhouse Hotel, Salmon wants people to feel good about their stay in every sense. He recommends that guests pack for a purpose; Rockhouse can provide those that want it with a list of supplies to bring for the schools. The team also runs weekly tours to the schools where guests can get off-property and see the foundation’s work in action. Everything that Rockhouse does is deep-seated in philanthropy, working alongside community members and providing opportunities to hyper-local construction teams in Negril, rather than dictating a certain way of doing things. This is how travel and philanthropy can come together to benefit everyone involved.
How We Can Better Combine Travel and Philanthropy
For the industry to move forward, Salmon says it’s important to understand the local community’s precise needs and how we might contribute in a way that’s not imposing but instead supporting. That’s the critical part. He says it’s essential to put in the effort to understand the location, the people and their needs and connect those findings with charities that are doing the work on the ground.
“A lot of people aren’t going to go to the extent that we have but there are lots of people doing good work in local communities and it’s about trying to seek out those more grassroots endeavors and how to support them,” Salmon advises. He is entirely aware that anyone donating their money to impactful work wants it to go directly to the work on the ground rather than being swallowed purely by administrative costs.
Hotels can play a role here by doing the groundwork to discover how people can meaningfully contribute and by connecting their guests to key players in the local community. Salmon reiterates the importance of getting on the ground and actually understanding how best to support local needs rather than presuming and imposing improvised solutions to estimated problems. By listening to those in the local community, we can best learn about the community’s real needs and how to address them.
The Rockhouse Regenerative Roadmap
Never lulling in its development and its environmental and social commitments, Rockhouse is currently investing in a major hydroponic farm to allow the hotel to grow the majority of its food on-site. The idea is to go entirely natural. Salmon shared that it’s actually very difficult to get lettuce and other crops on the island that haven’t been severely doused in pesticides. This is why they are developing 5,000 square feet of hydroponic farm, both vertically and horizontally. The idea is to grow lettuce, tomatoes and traditional local crops such as callaloo.
The Rockhouse team was inspired to do this by a local farmer who set up his own hydroponic farm and greenhouse. His business was doing so well that he was entirely at capacity selling to bigger hotels in Jamaica so he couldn’t supply Rockhouse with his produce. But a roadblock for the farmer was that he was having trouble accessing the capital he needed to build a second greenhouse. Rockhouse stepped in, investing in two greenhouses on its own property but giving the farmer full rights to the crops for the next 10 years; the hotel then buys back the produce at a discounted rate. This represents a mutually beneficial partnership and learning opportunity; Rockhouse benefits from the farmer’s knowledge and his freshly cultivated produce, while the farmer has been empowered to expand his business and supply more produce.
Rockhouse is also working on minimizing its use of plastics. This includes importing recycled glass bottles and partnering with a local water company, Discovery Water. The water is sourced from an abundant mineral spring up in the hills above Negril, only eight miles from the hotel. The Discovery team has developed a plant for bottle washing and filling and makes weekly drop offs and pick ups at the hotel. This is another lesson in ongoing education; whether it’s how we travel or how we run our businesses, there is always room for improvement. By sharing with local community members, our opportunities to learn and be inspired by others’ work are limitless. This is how we can successfully build regenerative ecosystems around the world.
Education is at the heart of Rockhouse. Whether it’s the foundation working to support Jamaica’s children in their learning or the hotel working to upskill its team and share Negril’s beauty and promise with guests, education is the end result. Because once you’ve visited a boutique hotel offering relaxation and luxury that also opens your mind to alternative ways of living and traveling, there’s no going back.