Why Regenerative, Why Now: Co-Founder David Leventhal on Ethos, Service, and Luxury

On the shores of Juluchuca, Mexico, one hotel has moved beyond simple sustainability and is actively regenerating the landscape — all while providing the highest level of luxury. Playa Viva is renowned for its approach to eco-conscious design and is leading the way for the like-minded hotels of the Regenerative Resorts collective.

Owner of Playa Viva and Co-founder of Regenerative Resorts, David Leventhal has championed this eco-first ethos since the founding of Playa Viva in 2005. By creating a sense of place, both geographically and historically, Playa Viva encapsulates a new type of luxury for guests: one based on cultural authenticity, natural immersion, and impeccable service.  

With the founding of Regenerative Resorts in 2019 with Co-founder Amanda Ho, Leventhal turned his eye toward a more global audience. With the goal of replicating the eco-luxury of Playa Viva at establishments around the world, Regenerative Resorts has served as a network for both environmental hotels and conscious consumers looking to make a positive impact with their travels. 

Regenerative Resorts’ ever-expanding hotel collective has proven to be popular among eco-travelers who don’t want to compromise. But it has also raised new questions about the future of sustainable travel. What are the standards for regenerative operations across regions and countries? How can hotels provide the best experience for guests and the environment? 

We sat down with Leventhal to gain some insight into the principles of Regenerative Resorts and how Leventhal’s operations at Playa Viva are driven entirely by a commitment to improving the environment and this world in which we live.

David Leventhal, Owner of Playa Viva and Co-founder of Regenerative Travel.

What does it mean to be regenerative and how is it different from being sustainable? 

In a very simplistic standpoint, being green is about doing less damage. Sustainability is somewhat net neutral, and regeneration is making it better.

“Sustainability” is about not improving the carbon footprint that we all have in the nature of global warming. We have to change our ways and path to reverse the negative impact that we’re making and move to a path that is moving us in a positive direction and improving the overall situation, making the world a better place for all of us to live. Some of the core principles of “regeneration” say we have to think differently about how we do things. 

Assume you go to the doctor because you’re getting less and less healthy, and the doctor is just prescribing medicine based on the conditions you have without addressing the core symptoms. You know, that can be a “sustainable” aspect but it’s not “regeneration”. There’s no way you can turn back your unhealthiness because you’re just treating the symptoms and not the cause.

So, that’s how regeneration begins to say, ‘Okay, let’s start rethinking about how we deal with problems and issues so that we’re not just dealing with the symptoms, but we begin to look at the cause.’

An aerial view of the award-winning Treehouse at Playa Viva.

Where did the vision for Regenerative Resorts and Regenerative Travel come from? 

The vision behind RR came from the fact that at Playa Viva, we have guests who stay with us that say the experience they have with us is different from the experience they have at other hotels/resorts. Once they’ve come and stayed with us, it kind of ruins them for going to other places. So, they began to ask us, “You guys have Playa Viva and you do it this way, who else is doing it your way?” And so, really the origins of RR and RT came from the demand of our guests asking us to help identify places like Playa Viva. That really was the emphasis for trying to help identify what other hotels and experiences are like ours. 

I was also finding that the investment community loved what we were doing and saw it as the future of travel, but were concerned about the lack of liquidity and diversification and scale in what we were doing. So that really was the emphasis for me to go out there and to look for who else was doing this and how could we scale. 

A worker at the local coconut factory in Juluchuca, Mexico.

What are the hallmarks of a Regenerative Resort? 

We get the essence of “Regenerative Resort” at the highest level by checking out what a resort is saying about themselves and seeing how they present themselves on their marketing platforms. And a lot of it would come from the “About Us” section of their website to see if there was some sense of “history of place”, an understanding of the transformative nature of travel, the need to integrate with the natural environment and a responsibility to strengthen the local community.

When you do a “history of place” assessment (like we did with Playa Viva), you look at the spot on earth that you occupy from a geological and archeological standpoint. This includes spoken or written history, all the way down to where you’re interviewing the town elders or local folks about their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations for this place. And then you begin to understand what your role is as a steward of the future of this place. 

This is all part of the process of getting a sense of what is a correct RR hotel. Do the resort/hotel owners see themselves as stewards? Is there some commitment to regeneration? And that is a commitment to not just the environment, but to the community, the culture, the people and the entire ecosystem.

Volunteers at the Turtle Sanctuary at Playa Viva.

How does Regenerative Resorts empower guests to make a positive impact on the environment? 

The thing about green, sustainable, regenerative is you can always be “more.” You can always be more green, you can always be more sustainable, you can always be more regenerative. The question is where are you on that continuum, where is your trajectory in the plan to get there? 

I think the role of the guest is multifold, and I would say that the first role is participation. By bringing the guest into that environment, the guest has the opportunity to experience what it is to be in a regenerative way.

At Playa Viva, we are 100% off-the-grid solar, making all of our own energy, producing some of our own food, etc. There are certain practices that we are doing, which hopefully the guest can experience either indirectly, or where we’re being more educative about the process, without ruining their experience. It’s a reciprocal process again. It’s not like we’re not going to feed you until you take this class on where you’re food comes from — it’s more like we present the menu and talk about where on our farm your food comes from and invite you to walk the land and experience the farm and maybe participate in the farm.

The process of engaging people in understanding how that place is regenerative hopefully inspires them to go back and be more regenerative in their own lifestyle.

A couple looking out from the Treehouse at Playa Viva.

Where is the balance between luxury and sustainability? How can hotels integrate these elements without compromising either one? 

Luxury has many different definitions. A more traditional concept of luxury is one that is gold-plated, fine marble, and ostentatious. This is an artificial standard of luxury. From a hospitality standpoint, I think luxury comes from attention to detail in design and service. 

Design goes back to the aesthetic, and the aesthetic can be very simple. If it’s an original mud hut in Sri Lanka, there’s a certain amount of luxury that comes from the texture and scent of the materials, the sensation of natural materials on your wellbeing, and the appropriateness of how the design fits with the place. Service goes back to the core of hospitality and hospitality is as simple as helping someone feel at home. We define service and luxury to our team as anticipating what the guest wants before they even know they want it themselves. 

Another part of luxury, which is the luxury of immersion. Immersion in nature and immersion in a different culture. Today we are so surrounded by the trappings of our western modern life. It’s the sense that when we’re immersed in nature, a luxury that comes from that experience. We are so accustomed to listening to the hum of a refrigerator or an air conditioner in our spaces that we forget how this mechanical hum of humanity changes us. Immersion in nature surrounds us with the hum of natural systems and this is luxurious. 

One last note about luxury, at our core, we as humans, are storytellers. We love to tell and hear stories. If we can go someplace new and you can tell a great story about that experience, all the better. Luxury also comes from being able to tell a good story about where you went and what you did.

A volunteer on the on-site permaculture farm at Playa Viva.

What lessons can we learn about resilience and regeneration as a result of Covid-19?

COVID-19 is like a major jolt to our systems. Unlike a fire, flood, hurricane or other natural disasters, what is being destroyed here are human-to-human connections due to social distancing and the health and economic systems. Ironically, one is protected and preserved from the same behaviors that deteriorate the other. We all know and understand the tradeoffs of our health in exchange for economic viability. In this case, though, our economic system is being destroyed, as if by rapid-fire. Property is not destroyed, no buildings burned, no cars flooded, no trees uprooted by high winds. We did this to ourselves and we can undo it in good time and in a manner that won’t jeopardize our health.

Resilience Relies on Complex Systems Coming Together to Self Repair – So what does COVID-19 teach us about our living systems especially in the tourism business.  Specific to resilience, when we look at resilient systems, the question is how quickly can they self-repair. When you think about a fire, how quickly does a forest regenerate after a fire? I remember visiting Yellowstone National Park after the great fires of 1988 and while the forest was a desert of charred dead trees all silver and black, the ground was greener than it had ever been and full of life. Not all the trees were burnt. Where small trees couldn’t find new light, now they had plenty of sun to grow big and strong.  I was in North Carolina after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo and the morning after the storm, as we walked around surveying the damage, the sound of chainsaws cleaning up the damage was already echoing all over. We know that living systems can self-repair. They do take time and energy. They may not be exactly as they were before the devastating event, but they do bounce back.  

Build-in Redundancy and “Save for a Rainy Day (Disaster)” – How quickly they bounce back is an important question to ask ourselves about the systems we are part of and how we can make them more resilient in the future. For example, in the case of the US Medical System, we had to flatten the curve because we did not have enough respirators, hospital beds, and hospital personnel to handle the volume of cases that was expected.  What are the points of failure in the system and how can these points of failure be strengthened? What would happen if we had more ventilators, had more beds on reserve, could bring up a reserve of health care workers? If we had to flatten the curve to reduce the impact on the healthcare system, where that line is on the graph might alter how much the economy really needs to be impacted. The healthcare system and the economy are individual systems, which are inextricably intertwined. So building in redundancy reserves, and “dry powder” in one system reduces the impact in another, impacting the entire system.

Planning, Preparation, and Disciplined Deployment – COVID-19, in particular, is a shock to the human-to-human system. As we can see on Main Street and Wall Street, it affects some businesses more than others. Businesses that rely on people coming together were particularly impacted by COVID-19, including events (sports, music, festivals, conferences), restaurants, bars, and especially travel. Who wants to board a plane full of people to breathe the same air when someone might be infected? Who wants to go to a hotel where they will be in close proximity or be in the same room as someone with COVID-19? This is where we take lessons from some countries in Asia who responded with aggressive testing and contact tracing.  In this case, technology was used (and good old fashioned detective work in some cases) to limit the impact and allow for a more balanced approach over severely disrupting the economy through quarantining the population at home. In this case, countries who had a recent experience with other viruses (SARS) had developed systems for rapid response. COVID-19 teaches us that planning, preparation, and disciplined deployment can make a huge difference in limiting the effect of a disaster on systems.

Flexibility, Reallocation, Creativity, and Pivot – When watching how we are responding to COVID-19, what has been most interesting are the “feel-good stories” and how much we rely on the good news to get us by. A common thread in many of these stories is how a factory that once manufactured X is now making Y, which is needed more when global production and trade are also impacted. Flexibility, creativity, and responsiveness are also key lessons. When considering our hotel on Mexico’s Pacific coast, Playa Viva stopped hosting guests as travel came to a halt for our international and domestic markets, but we kept our farm fully functional.  The key was to maintain production in a manner that kept our workers safe and food production hygienic. While the hotel rooms were empty, the chickens were still laying eggs, the pigs still needed slop, buds were coming out on the trees, and veggies still needed to be harvested. Having this related but tangential business allowed us to keep our staff employed and fed while we focus more energy on the farm, while other areas of our business can wait. By relocating resources, one system could be strengthened while the other sits “idle.”

While hindsight is 20/20, and it will be more so after the events of 2020, we can learn some quick lessons from COVID-19 that we can hopefully apply to our endeavors.

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