Thursday, January 04, 2007

Day 7: Guest Travel Writer ~ Matthew Brace

Today, I hand over the blog to award winning travel writer and foreign correspondent Matthew Brace, who kindly let me sit in on his conversation with Sofia de Meyer, the founder with the vision and determination to bring Whitepod into existence.

Matt: what struck me was the amount of effort gone into Whitepod - all running around to keep it going. Give me idea of how much effort put in.

Sofia: The pods come first. As we do not use cement to fix them in the ground, we must pitch them with the first frost in November which freezes the structure into the ground and then the snow provides insulation. As soon as platform is set, everything follows. To set up camp requires huge logistics - from working out the amount of petrol needed for the lamps, matches, fire-lighters, kindling, wood pre-ordered for season - I'm starting to have a mathematical brain!

When we dismantle the pods, such is the limited impact on the environment, you would not know we had been here. Currently we are in discussions with a Charpentier - structural wood engineer - to find a way to set them without frost. One way would be with thin steel cables which will anchor the pod like a tent. The pods will have their green summer jackets and we will use green mesh to cover under the platform as well to ensure their appearance sits well with nature.

My staff help set up the camp because they then realise what is involved, so that they are part of and are included in the philosophy. Team work is important here: you cover everything. They say a successful busines is built as a pyramid, I say no it's a horizon, with each person on the same level. Look at the guy behind Patagonia.

Matt: In the summer will the Whitepod experience leave a larger impact on nature?

Sofia: No - and this is very important to us. There are mountain pathways already marked out - so walkers will be using existing paths. Also there are four established hiking routes here. We are very keen to introduce kite flying and there will be rock climbing in the Pointe de Valerette. The Dent du Midi is behind, with her seven peaks that look like teeth, where you can also go walking on established routes and rock climbing.

Matt: Do you have an established written eco-philosophy?

Sofia: Yes, you can find our eco-philosophy on our website I am at the moment preparing a little booklet which guests can refer to and take home. We want to inspire guests to do likewise at home, even the little things, such as be considerate to others, to use ecologically kind cleaning materials. We also have very little waste. Our composting and recycling is very organised - no packaging, as 95% of our food is sourced locally and brought in wooden crates. Fruit comes from local growers in Monthey, except for oranges which come from Spain. Almost nothing comes from outside of Europe. Dried fruit is local but not the nuts. Vegetables are either organic or local. If you buy local Swiss produce it is close to European organic standards, because pesticides etc are not allowed to be used in Swiss farming. So, most of our food nearly organic or mostly organic.

Matt: How did you come to decide to do this instead of continuing as a city lawyer in London?

Sofia: I always kept it with me the love of nature. I grew up in Villars, and my father was a fantastic person and great influence. As a child I used to help him out with the chalets he renovated and as he grew older, I would run up the hill to check the chalets and we would then sit down and have our chunk of cheese and admire the mountains. He meant everything that matters to me - he taught me patience and respect for nature.

After six years in law, there came a point in time to decide whether to become a partner in my London city firm. That was my crossroads three years ago when I was 30 years old. So I came back here and spent three days in the forest for inspiration. At the end of the three days my decision was made. I had decided I wanted to create something for me, it was important to me to have a philosophy that means respect for nature.

Matt: What other influences shaped your vision?

Sofia: I have travelled much and I always aimed to travel within eco-tourism guidelines, sleep locally where local communities gained, and where I would gain some education of the local environment. To set up Whitepod I first of all followed the international eco-tourism guidelines. When I read the document, I realised that the guidelines had different emphasis to different places. For instance, it was very different in Africa from here in Switzerland eg we don't have a water shortage. But we have a lack of knowledge of the alpine environment, how to protect the slopes, that we can do to promote less invasive activities such as snow-shoeing. It became clear to me when reading the report that there is a need for eco-tourism, but how should we apply it? These issues came up again and again, and the recent Eco-tourism Summit highlighted the necessity of low impact, education and the need to give back to the local community. I want to set up Whitepod camps where they need assistance - for instance, set up temporary camps in Nepal to bring tourism to the place for building the community, then once it is established we can leave.

Matt: Why Pods?

Sofia: It started from wanting a removable structure - therefore a tent. I looked at teepees, yurts, but they were not right, then finally found the pod. I chose it because it was innovative, gave maximum space, has good heat retention and has a window, which you cannot have with yurt. We had it modified, and now we are building our own because we want total immersion with nature, totally dismountable and have it made locally with people with limited skills. They made our ceramic tableware, which took four months. We said, okay, then we will wait. And now we have lovely mugs, plates, pouring jugs etc.

Matt: Have the Swiss been receptive to the Pods?

Sofia: We ran into huge problems. They say it doesn't fit with the laws of chalet construction despite being low impact. I say that they must close the book of chalet rules and look at this differently. The only way we can do this for the moment is that we apply for temporary structure permits every 4 months, but we are now running out of the argument of it being temporary. I have been asked to sit on a forum to put Whitepod forward as a good example of sustainable tourism. There is a huge gap between low impact builds and planning laws, especially in Switzerland. Eco tourism needs to be incorporated widely so that it can progress. We need local planning laws and local support so that we can plan for the future, for even the next season.

Matt: What about incorporating renewable technologies such as solar panels?

Sofia: Yes, we looked at soft material solar panels for pods but we do not really need them. We have also considered it for the chalet, but we do not get enough sun at this side of the mountain for it to be a practical solution at the moment. Instead, we took out much of the lighting from the chalet, to reduce usage. Next year we are putting in place a thermal underground pump for all our hot water supplies. When we took on these premises, we prepared the ground for it from the outset, so all that is needed is now for it to be put in place in time for next winter season.

Matt: You have proved that eco-tourism works and is economoically viable. People want this experience, but there seems to be a reluctance to take on such a business concept.

Sophia: You are right. In the business world, ecology equals failure, bad quality. However, I think we can turn this around. You can sleep in a tent but it can be warm, comfortable and luxurious. Our pods are low impact, considerate impact. The most frustrating thing is that it's easier to be non-ecological. Look at most consumerism and tourism - one advert here offers free car parking for the ski pistes covered in artificial snow, which is all wrong. It makes it more difficult for people to be environmentally ecological in their decisions. Whitepod offers an ecological experience.

Matt: Any plans for the future?

Sofia: We want to take Whitepod further afield. We are planning to franchise the concept and have received huge interest from all over the world. There are many people who want to buy pods, but we decided not to sell without the philosophy. So we decided the best way is to franchise, so that we can retain that element of control. When you sign a franchise contract, you receive an operations manual, and the investment plan is all set out. The operation manual goes into great detail down to what the cleaner needs, how many hours are required to clean pod etc. The idea is that it is all set out for you so that you can read it and open tomorrow. There is also management support for the first month to assist and oversee, so that the whole operation can be set up smoothly. It's going to be a busy year!

Hotel Heaven,
Confessions of a Luxury Hotel Addict

by Matthew Brace
published by Random House
Due out in Spring 2007

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