“A true Ecolodge is a business that puts environmental values into practice on various levels and at the same time allows its owners to make a reasonable living.”
Arif Qureshi was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1960 of an American mother and a Pakistani father. He grew up and went to school in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Mr Qureshi obtained a Master's degree in architecture at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana with a specialisation in the preservation and renovation of older buildings. He worked in architecture and in building construction in Illinois for a couple of years and then moved to Barcelona, Spain in 1987 intending 'to spend a year in the city' but ended up living over 15 years there. He obtained a Master's degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the University of Barcelona and worked as a freelance English teacher in businesses, government agencies and several universities in Barcelona. Together with his wife, Marta Maristany, a Catalan linguist, they moved in 2003 to the Pyrénees of Southern France to create and run an ecolodge together. L'Orris des Planès Trailside Ecolodge opened its doors in February 2005. 15 Years later, having turned it into a successful green business, they have decided to put it up for sale and undertake a new venture in another part of France.
Ecoclub: Did you always plan to become an Ecolodge Owner? What was your background and original idea and why did you choose this area and this particular village?
Arif Qureshi: Not at all. My original profession was architecture and my second profession was Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Before moving here and creating our lodge, my wife Marta and I lived and worked in the centre of Barcelona. Though we liked the city, we were always in the Pyrenees during our vacations and finally decided it would be more logical to move from the city to these mountains. The transition took several years. After a two-year search, we decided to buy a 300-year-old farmhouse here in the tiny village of Planès in the Eastern Pyrenees of France. Though it needed major renovation work, we chose this property because it is set on the GR10, the Transpyrenees hiking trail, and because it is just 2 km from a downhill ski resort. As we were making a big investment, both of time and money, to create the lodge, we figured this combination of Summer and Winter activities would allow us to run our business year round and that this would help to make the business successful.
Ecoclub: Were there any key or surprising lessons learned from creating and operating L'Orri de Planès?
Arif Qureshi: Before undertaking this project, Marta and I were both freelance teachers in Barcelona and had been working for ourselves for numerous years. Nevertheless, we never imagined how complicated it would be to get our renovation project finished and open the lodge. We bought the property in 1998 and didn't open the first phase of the project (the Orri, our guesthouse) until February 2005. During this time, we had to overcome numerous obstacles. These included obtaining permits and financing and managing a very complex renovation project. One of the most complicated issues was the fact that our project included a major solar installation and a major effort to insulate the entire building envelope (floors, walls and roof). Both of these elements added costs that the bankers didn't like, visual elements (solar panels integrated on our roofs) that the Bâtiments de France (the division of National Monuments) didn't want to allow, and constraints that most of the construction workers didn't understand.
Though we had conceived a coherent renovation project that would transform our farmhouse into a low energy eco-lodge operating principally on renewable energy, which we believed was a commendable undertaking, the project was just too different for the banks and French authorities to get a grip on. It took perseverance and around two years of negotiation to finally obtain financing (through la NEF, which at the time was a group of ethically based French investors) and to get the permits approved.
Ecoclub: What makes a genuine Ecolodge in your view, beyond green architectural features?
Arif Qureshi: Though most Ecolodges seek to highlight nature, they are too often directed at a relatively privileged public that views the world as its playground and is not aware of or concerned about the environmental challenges we face today. A true Ecolodge is a business that puts environmental values into practice on various levels and at the same time allows its owners to make a reasonable living.
As hikers and outdoor lovers, my wife and I have tried since the beginning to design and implement a global environmental policy at our lodge. This plan has allowed us to reduce our environmental impact and at the same time, to promote awareness of the environmental issues facing our society today. Over the years, we have made thoughtful decisions on issues ranging from energy to food sourcing to housekeeping to finance and even implemented pricing policies that incorporate small discounts for guests who use public transport to access our lodge. Through these decisions, our Ecolodge has become a life project for both of us.
Ecoclub: From your experience, what percentage of guests truly appreciate your green efforts and choose your property because of this, rather than for your location, prices or by accident? What percentage of these eco-aware guests are also prepared to pay more for eco-friendly accommodation?
Arif Qureshi: A significant portion of our guests do choose our lodge for its environmental policies and for the quality of the quality of the meals we serve (prepared using mainly organic and locally sourced ingredients). During the Summer, we host lots of guests from around Europe who choose us after coming across our website, where we put our environmental policies at the forefront. Many of these guests understand our efforts and are willing to pay a little more for our services.
At the same time, we also host lots of hikers on the Transpyrenees trail who come more or less by chance, just because we happen to be a stopping place on their route. These guests are often surprised by some of our policies; some react positively, others negatively. Running a lodge based on environmental policies seems to bother certain tourists. Maybe this is just a sign of our collective denial as a society to face the challenges presented by global warming, etc.
Ecoclub: What is your view of ecolabels? Did you ever feel the need to apply for an eco certification and if not why not?
Arif Qureshi: From the time we first opened our lodge in 2005, we have tried to implement a coherent environmental policy. Nevertheless, one of the most frequent questions posed by our guests has always been “Why do you call yourselves and eco-lodge?” After the first few years, we began to wonder whether it would be worth it to pursue an external certification that would validate our claims in the eyes of at least part of the general public.
First, we obtained the Green Key label, which we maintained for several years. After a few years, we decided to pursue certification with the European Ecolabel instead of renewing our Green Key certification. Both certification processes were positive in that they pushed us to go further, eventually leading to the implementation of new environmental policies in addition to those we already had put in practice on our own.
But after a number of years being certified, we realised that most of our guests hadn't ever heard of either label and that very few guests came to our lodge specifically because of these certifications. “Green” guests told us it that once they got to our website or came to our lodge, it was evident that our environmental policies were real. And an inspector who came to re-certify our lodge for the European Ecolabel was surprised to see that unlike the vast majority of establishments she visited, we had already implemented most of the policies that they take into consideration well before undertaking the certification process.
In light of these facts and of the relatively elevated cost involved in certification, we made the decision to abandon the Ecolabel several years ago. Nothing has changed in our operation since then; we continue to run our lodge in exactly the same way; our environmental policy is central to the everyday operation of our lodge, with or without eco certification.
Ecoclub: To generate bookings, which channel have you found more convenient and cost-effective: your own website, booking platforms, review sites, social media or traditional, offline ones? How easy it these days for an Ecolodge owner to manage their online promotion and bookings policy without outside help?
Arif Qureshi: Since the time we first opened, we have always tried to manage our reservations directly, principally through our website, without intermediaries and without paying commissions. We work with our numerous local suppliers in the same way. Over the years, this policy has allowed us to offer our guests quality at a reasonable price and still earn a decent living ourselves.
But in recent years, technology has transformed society and changed the way people operate, clearly making it harder to maintain our independence. Faced with declining occupancy, last Summer, we tried working with a couple of the large online booking platforms that go very much against our principles. My wife and I are both romantics; we prefer working on a human level and strive to maintain a world where human connections dominate and give meaning to our activity.
Needless to say, the experience was not very satisfying for us, and I am not at all sure we'll continue this collaboration when we re-open for our Summer season this year. I suppose we aren't the only lodge owners struggling with this question.
Ecoclub: Do you have any comments or thoughts about tourism policies in your part of Occitanie (Occitania)?
Arif Qureshi: It seems that the local various entities who work to promote our area as a touristic destination don't cooperate among themselves in any real way. This is unfortunate considering that we are located in an area that offers spectacular natural amenities which are relatively unknown. In an age where the general public is bombarded with a seemingly unlimited touristic offer, an area like ours needs well organized touristic promotion.
Ecoclub: Which method did you use to calculate the selling price of L'Orri de Planès?
Arif Qureshi: As I mentioned above, the creation of the Orri de Planès has been a life project for myself and my wife. We have created a unique touristic complex set in a spectacular natural setting. We are selling our lodge fully furnished and in excellent condition, and we've established the price based on the total investment we've made (building renovation and construction and furnishings) plus the approximate value of our business, which has allowed us to make a very reasonable living during the past 15 years.
Ecoclub: Would it be a sensible idea to sell your Ecolodge to its current employees if they were interested to do so and could come up with the funding? Why don't we see more worker-owned accommodation?
Arif Qureshi: My wife and I own and run our lodge basically on our own, with the help of just two seasonal Summer employees each year. In reality, we are a worker-owned accommodation. In order to include other workers in the business, we would need to have year-round employees.
Ecoclub: What advice would you like to offer to those who wish to purchase an existing Ecolodge? What key features or other aspects should they check?
Arif Qureshi: Running an ecolodge is an adventure. It takes energy, creativity, adaptability and conviction. If you sincerely believe that as a species, we humans need to collectively reduce our environmental impact and you are willing to work hard and invest yourself in what you do, running your own ecolodge can be an extremely rewarding experience, well worth the effort.
The question about what to look for in a specific property is very complex. Try to balance the feeling a place gives you with practical aspects such as location and energy consumption. Budgetary constraints are extremely important; you need to dream, but don't bite off more than you can chew. Serious renovation work tends to be much more expensive than most people imagine!
Ecoclub: How would you complete this phrase: Do not even dare think of becoming an Ecolodge Owner if you ___?
Arif Qureshi: Do not even dare think of becoming an Ecolodge Owner if you aren't concerned about and willing to work to preserve our natural environment.