Colleen Wade, a recent graduate from the University of Notre Dame, studied Information Technology Management at the Mendoza College of Business. She was Chief Operating Officer for the Mendoza Student Leadership Association as well as worked as a Social Media Intern here at Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Initiative. She is currently working in Tanzania as a social impact and development consultant for the Mailisita Foundation. This is the second post is a series of blog posts from Colleen about her work with the Stella Maris Lodge.
From the first day I arrived at the Stella Maris Lodge, I found myself wondering how the model worked so well. It seemed to perfectly fill both the needs of the Mailisita community and the desires of a tourist population eager to visit a beautiful country. How did a seemingly ordinary U.S. parish and an impoverished village know how to start a profitable hotel in rural Tanzania? Assuming this concept had never been tried before, how had it worked so well from the start?
I posed this question to Nathan Partain, a Mailisita Foundation board member and its vice president. He explained that from the beginning, the organization focused on five keys to success:
- Relationships with established tour operators
- Close proximity to an international airport
- Free wireless Internet
- Hot water in each guest room
- Top-notch customer service
I was surprised that “connection to a school for AIDS orphans” or “non-profit mission” didn’t make the list of differentiators for the lodge. The do-gooder in me wanted to believe that was the major reason tour companies booked their clients at Stella Maris and why individual guests wanted to stay there. However, what most tourists really wanted was a place where they would feel comfortable. In the end, the social mission didn’t matter unless the hotel could deliver quality service.
Two simple business strategies allowed Stella Maris to differentiate itself from the majority of tourist hotels in the area. The hotel established relationships with two of the most popular Kilimanjaro trekking agencies shortly after it opened for business. Because the lodge sought to make only enough to cover its operating costs and the costs of the primary school, it could offer lower prices to the operators than similar quality hotels in the area. In addition, Stella Maris had a prime location. Most travelers fly into Kilimanjaro International Airport when coming to Tanzania. Unfortunately, most tourist hotels are in Arusha, at least an hour’s drive away. In contrast, Stella Maris is situated 35 minutes from the airport and closer to Mount Kilimanjaro. Agencies were eager to book their guests at Stella Maris months in advance.
Balancing social impact and quality customer service became more difficult when deciding which guest amenities to invest in. Stella Maris opted to appeal to the type of traveler most commonly found in the region: Kilimanjaro climbers. Already inclined towards new experiences and a little discomfort, these guests are relatively low-maintenance. Most require only two nights in a hotel: one night before the climb and one night after. After going a week without electricity and running water, many are overjoyed just to have a hot shower when they return. However, they do tend to have one major concern. After flying for 24 hours or so before finally reaching Tanzania, climbers are a bit frantic to connect with friends and family when they arrive. When those same guests get back from the mountain after reaching the summit, each of them wants to post a photo on Facebook, Skype their families and email their coworkers sharing their accomplishment. Wireless internet isn’t just an added bonus at Stella Maris – it’s expected by the guests from the West. Though the cost of running 15 water heaters and wireless internet (and a generator if the power goes out) isn’t cheap in rural Tanzania, those two amenities are enough to make travelers pleased with the experience.
But Stella Maris guests aren’t just pleased. They’re thrilled with their stay, and that’s because of the fifth and most important of the differentiators: unbeatable customer service. Thanks to hotel manager Teddy Chuwa and the Tanzanian karibu culture, guests can expect one of the warmest welcomes they’ve ever received when they arrive at the lodge. Teddy gives everyone one of her signature hugs and the restaurant staff never fails to bring out homemade passion fruit juice – even at 2:00am when Turkish Airlines passengers finally make it to the lodge. This simple greeting makes a lasting impression on many weary travelers, made evident by the numerous mentions of “welcome juice” on the hotel’s Trip Advisor web page.
Despite being a collection of somewhat simple business strategies and guest amenities, Stella Maris’ five keys to success allow it to deliver an experience unlike anything else offered in the area. By winning on the business front, the organization can consistently meet the needs of a growing primary school and look forward to expanding its social impact. It is truly a model for how developing countries with tourism-dependent economies can leverage that market to improve the lives of the local people. For Stella Maris Lodge, it was simply a matter of designing a business with the right traveler in mind.
Though the Stella Maris model has been successful, not everyday feels like a success when working for a social enterprise as a recent grad. Hear what Colleen learned from her experience in the series’ third and final post, coming next week!