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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Why did the hotel chain hire a marine biologist?

In an undated image provided by Iberostar, Megan Morikawa, who went from getting her Ph.D. at Stanford to working for Iberostar Group as director of sustainability. Morikawa is applying science — and scale — to eliminate food waste, save coral and collaborate across the travel industry to cut carbon. (Iberostar via The New York Times)

By Elisabeth Goodridge

Carbon neutrality, zero waste and serving seafood solely from responsible suppliers: Many boutique eco-tourism destinations — particularly those catering to small numbers of luxury travelers — can reach or come close to sustainability goals such as these, but what about a decades-old resort company operating 97 properties across 14 countries?

As the global director of sustainability at Iberostar Group, Megan Morikawa is striving to prove that large travel operators can be better stewards of the planet. The Stanford-educated marine biologist is applying science to achieve these goals and more, such as helping the privately held hospitality company build coral research labs and use artificial intelligence-powered trash cans to reduce kitchen waste.

In a nearly two-hour video conversation, Morikawa talked about her career pivot from academia to hospitality, the importance of collaboration across the travel industry and her new role for the Travel Foundation, a nonprofit providing destinations with sustainable-tourism research, strategy and training.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: What led you to research coral reef die-offs for your doctorate?

A: Basically, the theme of my technical background is how we can use the technology of genetics and genomics to better conserve species on the planet.

My Ph.D. adviser, Stephen Palumbi, was focused on genetics, genomics and coral reefs. His whole proposition was: Could we find the world’s toughest corals, learn what makes them tough and use that to help predict winners and losers of climate change, so that managers could better understand how to restore reefs?

Q: How did you end up in travel?

A: It was at the end of my Ph.D. when at Stanford I met Gloria Fluxá Thienemann, Iberostar’s vice chair and chief sustainability officer. My adviser and I were scratching our heads asking, “What does a Spanish hotel owner have in terms of interest in our research?”

Our initial conversation showed that she was genuinely interested in the science. Gloria’s passion for the science of the oceans has facilitated so much of what we now do.

I moved from academia to Iberostar because really passionate people want to use the private sector to scale solutions for critical ecosystems, like coral reefs.

Q: Iberostar now has three coral labs and seven underwater nurseries in three countries. How did that start?

A: The first year that I joined, we constructed our first coral lab at a property in the Dominican Republic. It would have taken us four or five years if we were doing this from an academic standpoint.

The coral lab is three things in one. It’s an outreach center, where guests and others can pop in and stumble upon seeing — for many of them — coral for the first time. But it’s also a genetic bank: Corals in the Caribbean are experiencing a lot of challenges, like widespread disease and bleaching events. Having a genetic bank is an important asset saving for genetic diversity. Our third objective is to recreate coral bleaching: The lab has a sophisticated system that recreates heating waves with small tanks so that we can stress individual corals, and predict winners and losers, just like I did for my Ph.D.

Q: Iberostar has taken hotels off fossil fuels, partnered to create a waste-management system in Brazil and more. How is it making these changes?

A: The question is always around how you scale sustainability. Scaling is an interesting combination of being able to speak in a high-level strategy voice about say, business objectives, and then being able to translate that down to the actual actions that a hotel director needs to take.

Because it’s not just our executive leadership. From our operations to our procurement team to our head of human resources, we all recognize the risk climate change poses to our business. So the passion and enthusiasm to do something about it is there and was not what needed to be sparked.

Q: Tell me about these trash cans.

A: We do a lot of work on our food waste — we serve around 45 million meals a year.

With our partnership with Winnow, an AI waste management company, we have placed devices in our kitchens that have an AI-assisted camera and scale that allows for chefs to spend the first month or so training the model on what the camera is seeing. Through time, the system automatically registers what is being wasted.

With that data, we can get feedback on those economic losses as well as carbon footprint losses. And finally, what is it that we are throwing away? And how can that help us to inform how we produce food the next day?

Q: What are the top challenges to Iberostar’s sustainability goals?

A: Travel is made up of a bunch of different businesses in different sectors. And how that all joins together can be really difficult to understand — particularly in the role we all play in protecting natural resources. Because we are a beachfront resort company, when we see erosion and other impacts on those areas, it’s really clear and evident. But one of our excursion providers might not be thinking about it as much in their day-to-day.

As a scientist, I recognize that a lot of discovery of how to do things that have never been done before requires quick absorption of new materials and being able to speak multiple languages. And by that, I don’t mean linguistic languages; I mean speaking from a research standpoint to a government standpoint to a business standpoint. A lot of the barrier to collaboration was not being able to communicate effectively with each other.

Q: Are any of these changes something a guest would see?

A: We somewhat boldly said we are demonstrating that a luxury hospitality experience does not require single-use plastics. What I like to say is that when you see a room that is free of single-use plastics, it’s kind of hard to unsee it. A lot of times it can be thought of — initially — as needing to remove items. But I think our operations team thought critically about ways to elegantly offer an experience that was a better product. So that’s probably the most tangible way that we can see that.

Q: What is the purpose of the Travel Foundation?

A: The Travel Foundation is a U.K.-based NGO, providing research, strategy and support in their aim for tourism to provide the greatest benefits for every destination around the world, so local communities and environments can thrive. The role I’ve taken is chair of the board of trustees.

A recent research piece they published was looking at how to model pathways to reach net zero emissions, looking at aviation, transport and hotels. The Travel Foundation also supports destinations in producing management plans. For Lake Tahoe, in California, they’ve been doing great work to help the area think through its new boom in tourism and how residents can have a voice.

Q: When it comes to changing human impact on the environment, what are steps that travelers could take?

A: One of the best things that tourists can do is to inject mindfulness into their decisions. I know it sounds really silly, but the more meaning that we draw from the choices that we make in our consumption, the more likely we’re able to maximize the value that comes from it and make them memorable experiences.

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