How Marcus Cotton, sets the standards for regenerative tourism in the middle hills of Nepal @ Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge

#boutiquehomestay - Kandani Danda Pokhara 26, 33700, Nepal | Book on RARE India

YC - What is your background? What motivated you to start and what is it all about? 

Marcus Cotton - Marcus Cotton first visited Nepal in 1983 and then, through family connections with the country, worked for Nepal’s leading conservation and development charity, the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (now the National Trust) from 1987 to 1990 before joining Tiger Tops at the invitation of the owner, Jim Edwards, to oversee the group’s environmental and responsible tourism activities as well as to enhance administrative and financial management. I continued to work for Tiger Tops until 2011 when I retired as CEO of the Tiger Tops / Mountain Travel Group after Jim Edwards’ death in 2009.

Concurrently, I was working at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge from 2001 and continue there as co-owner and Managing Director, mentor to the team running this iconic property that sets the standards for regenerative tourism in the middle hills of Nepal. With panoramic views of Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Manaslu Himal, the lodge is the winner of many international awards and accolades and is one of a handful of properties in Nepal independently audited for its sustainability.

My first interest is tourism to be a force for good in Nepal’s economy, especially in the aftermath of the current coronavirus pandemic. While responsible tourism is becoming mainstream conceptually, there is still much to be done, on the ground, to increase adoption and verifiable actions by tourism operators.

I was a member of the Nepal Committee of PATA from 2012 to 2017; Nepal coordinator for CAIRN Trust (a leading education charity working through exceptional local partners in central Nepal) and Patron / Adviser to Tilden Project, a village self-development project funded by a British charity. As trustee of both the UK Trust for Nature Conservation in Nepal and the International Trust for Nature Conservation, I maintain close links with conservation organisations working in Nepal. As Special Adviser to Bird Conservation Nepal, I support and advise Nepal’s leading ornithological organization. In 2020 I was invited to join the Advisory Board of the USA charity, Nepal Youth Foundation, and the Advisory Board of Regenerative Resorts. I am a member of the UK Institute of Directors and I promote professional and ethical standards in business direction and management by both practical applications at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge and local advocacy. 

I am a keen amateur naturalist, with a particular interest in recording bird and butterfly species seen around the lodge and wider Pokhara Valley. I did not found Tiger Mountain but was involved with founders Tiger Tops and Mountain Travel Nepal, taking on the management and evolution of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge from 2001 (Tiger Mountain founded 1998) alongside Lisa Choegyal (who happens to be Joanna Van Gruisen’s – Sarai at Toria – eldest sister. Just imagine, 5 siblings and 4 are in travel all in their own companies or entities!). In 2016 the link with Tiger Tops drew to a close and I purchased their shares in Tiger Mountain. My enthusiasm was to raise the game and really develop the sustainability approaches for small properties in the middle hills of Nepal. Having worked at the iconic and pioneering Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park – where, being inside a premier national park, all the rules and regulations supported sustainability and there were minimal human distractions – the challenge was to evolve approaches and criteria to work in the densely human-dominated landscape of Tiger Mountain’s farmland, villages, and forests in the Pokhara Valley.

YC - Could you please share with our readers what is your current team size and their roles?

Marcus Cotton - We are a real family team – 36 staff, 2 wonderful ladies, Mana and Reetu in our Kathmandu office, and the remaining 34 in the lodge outside Pokhara. “It is a wonderful statistic (of which I am both proud and humbled) that over 80% of the staff at the lodge have been working since the lodge opened in 1998.” Indeed, most worked on the construction of the property so predate the start of the lodge as tourist accommodation.

We do not follow standard ‘hotel’ structures, hierarchies, or protocols – in fact, if hotels would go in one direction, we will tend to take the opposite direction! We do not have layered management but a team of four staff representing Dining & Rooms (Dol Raj), Operations and Guest Relations (Jhalak), Regenerative Tourism, Admin and Accounts (Ishwar), and Kitchens (Chef Lalu) work in partnership to manage the daily operations. Jhalak, Ishwar, Dol Raj, Lisa and I handle marketing aspects between us and encourage other staff to attend trade shows, etc. to promote what they do and how they enjoy being part of the family. Management is flat – Lalu is as likely to be scrubbing the kitchen floor as he is to be stirring a fine sauce!

Our operations comprise Stewards who care for the rooms, serve guests and with everyone else handle ongoing maintenance. Guides are all local and keen naturalists, so they lead guests on walks to explore the area around the lodge, they know the flora and fauna as well as, being local, the cultural aspects are innate, and sharing local events, festivals, etc., is a true pleasure for the guides. The kitchen team is all under-cooks working with the chef and all handle all aspects of kitchen output – both regular Nepalese and ‘western’ meals as well as all the production of preserves pickles, etc. They also handle all scullery work and kitchen maintenance.

Maintenance is overseen by the redoubtable Buddhi Bahadur and all is handled in-house except where technical skills are needed such as electrical works.

YC - As a founder what primary functions are you responsible for, basically how typically you spend your day in the office?

Marcus Cotton - My role is to support and guide the team. Every day is unique but involves being present for any help or advice as well as engaging with guests which is always a special pleasure that I share with Jhalak and the guides. Indeed one of our hallmarks is that all the staff love to chat with guests and share their experiences.

YC - Have you used social media platforms to promote your boutique homestay? Which channels have been very effective for your business? Which marketing channels have been super flops for your business?

Marcus Cotton - We use Facebook and Instagram as adjuncts to our formal marketing. They support our efforts to promote the lodge principally to local travel agents (DMCs) and international tour operators and travel agents. The social media channels are also a useful focus for our potential guests. The only channel that shows tangible benefit is TripAdvisor and I recommend that any small property focuses on their TripAdvisor pages. We tried AirBnB and it has been a total failure!

YC - What according to you is the USP of your boutique homestay, for which your customers come back to you?

Marcus Cotton - I think it is our personal and attentive approach, the family atmosphere, and the relaxed, tranquil setting.

YC - Can you elaborate on the challenges you faced in promoting your boutique homestay? What are your views on platforms like Airbnb, RareIndia, Booking.com, etc?

Marcus Cotton - We work closely with RARE India and have evolved their approaches with their splendid team and dynamic leader and inspiration, Shoba Mohan.

Airbnb – see above – total failure!

Booking.com, Expedia, Agoda, etc. the major OTAs – we use them as advertising more than selling tools. We derive most of our business from traditional travel agents so our rates on the OTAs are on the higher side to ensure space for our majority business suppliers – the travel agents. That said, we do earn some sales from the OTAs – no one is better than any other.

YC - How are you coping with COVID 19, what would you suggest to your fellow boutique homestay owners?

Marcus - Covid has hit Nepal hard as elsewhere. We have had extended lockdowns, travel bans, and similar. We are in our 23 years of operation. As owners, we have always had a policy of retaining significant reserves within the business to ensure we were safely able to withstand headwinds. This is a key issue for South Asia generally – in Nepal we have seen natural disasters, political insurgency, political protests, and international impacts of war (Gulf Wars), disease, SARS, and Covid – so we can guarantee some adverse events in the course of business and reserves are essential to secure staff and other financial essentials. To me, this is at the heart of the meaning of a sustainable business. Such is our relationship that it was staff telling me they should go on reduced pay – bottom-up, not top-down….!

YC - How do you manage expenses, typically what percentage do you allocate for marketing & sales, day-to-day operations, and property renovations and enhancements?

Marcus - We do not work in terms of percentages but tend to handle costs as they arise. I think I operate more by instinct than classical tenets of financial management. This works as Ishwar Basnet is so skilled at keeping our accounts up to date and he is always aware of the upcoming likely costs.

YC - Based on your experience so far would you have any advice for new Entrepreneurs.

Marcus -

  1. Do not do this unless you have a passion for people! You cannot run away from guests but must be there for them 24/7. This is hard work but has its countervailing awards.

  2. Do not only focus only on the property and hard infrastructure – marketing and other soft infrastructure are vital.

  3. Focus from the start on being sustainable – people/planet/profit or conservation/community/culture/commerce – note both these aide’s memories include the financial aspect (profit/commerce) as no business can be sustainable if it is financially stressed. 

  4. Measure your impacts – many guides are available to convert the property’s diverse fuels to a carbon footprint. This can then be the foundation for enhanced actions and evolution into truly Regenerative Tourism.

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