Time Out for Fun!

June 30, 2006

Just two more nights left, and today Team Relationship Management brought the WHA/CTSK roadshow to Xcaret, which is just 30-something kilometers above of Tulum. The original plan was for a collation of those willing to get up at daybreak (Megan, Olger, Art from the UN and myself) to spend an hour snorkeling the reef in front of Maya T, then the snorklers would be joined by a collation of those who wanted more sleep (Janice), we’d all have a quick breakfast to be followed by a work-filled morning, then in the afternoon we’d all drive to Xcaret. But the Mayan gods of Power and Plumping had other ideas. Megan, Olger, Art (from the UN) and I did venture out into the morning’s rather choppy incarnation of the sea, and despite much lower visibility due to kicked up sediments, we did see a lot of fish (very Finding Nemo). But when we returned to shore, intending to move on to the next step of our plan we were stymied. At first I thought it was just the poolside shower that was having trouble – when I turned the handle all I got from the showerhead was a sad, dwindling hiss. In my room I quickly confirmed (by skidding across floor tiles that turn slick with condensation whenever A/C, which is otherwise constantly running, turns off) that Maya T was without power (again). Ever stalwart, unswayable and maniacally focused on being productive, Teams Product Dev and Web Site packed our laptops and Jeeped to the CTSK office in Tulum, determined to make headway on our various deliverables. What dedication!

Olger and I worked through the morning, but, with a final presentation pending the next day, there was still more work to be done. So rather than break for Xcaret as a group, we decided to divide and conquer. Olger and I (safely, obeying all traffic laws to the best of our knowledge) sped up the highway, and pulled into the Xcaret parking lot with minutes to spare; the CTSK van had also just arrived – this would be the first time they’d see the presentation that 2 of CTSK’s members, Manuel (Sales) and Pastor (Tour Guide) had been part of for the last few days at various locations around Mexico. After spending most of the last two weeks in our rustic accommodations, walking down Xcaret’s spacious, nearly elegant and completely air-conditioned hall was almost too much for me an Olger. While we definitely weren’t “roughing it” in Tulum, it had been a while since we’d been anywhere so refined.

The presentation was in a long auditorium, and it was packed with representatives from local hotels, tour companies – mainly Best Day (who were consistently supportive of WHA while we were down there, in a number of ways — thanks Best Day!), and others. I’d guess the total attendance was around 100, and Laura later told me that other audiences they’d addressed were around the same size — clearly these roadshows were the most contact with their industry that CTSK had ever had, and it was also clear that this sort of exposure would be one of the most important outcomes of the program. These roadshows were going to drive business. (And looking around the room, I got nervous about the website, wishing it could be finished before all these people left the presentation and went online to find out more…)

The end of the presentation also marked the end and realization of a tremendous amount of work for the WHA team. To celebrate, the group of us (Olger and I, now reunited with Laura, Kate from the UN, and new NGO friends) drove north to Playa del Carmen, where Janice, Megan and Dustin (who’d drive back to Tulum that afternoon to add his thoughts to the presentation material for the next day) would meet us. Without going into too much detail, because this is already a long post, and because, as I learned, “What happens in Playa del Carmen stays in Las Vegas”, here are some bulleted highlights:

  1. Debriefing, recapping and tequila on the Hotel Deseo, while lighting flashed in cloud masses rolling in from the Caribbean

  2. Dinner at Yaxche where, at a table of 16 (more?)
  3. Didn’t it seem like all servers wanted to wait on Laura.
  4. Wonderful speeches at dinner from Laura, Janice and Olger, capturing and expressing a lot of the emotion we all felt about the experience.
  5. More tequila
  6. Dancing at the Blue Parrot beach club
  7. “Tacos para todos!” – Greg Custer
Advertisements

Did you miss us?

June 29, 2006

Hi there!  Long time no blog.  There are no excuses for this, I know, but let me give it a shot anyway.  We’ve had problems with the wordpress site, they seem to do maintenance fairly often.  Add to that the fact that the electricity and water have gone out three times now in our hotel and I’m sure you can imagine some of the challenges we’re facing.

Yesterday morning (early – 6am!) Janice, Olger and I went on the bird watching tour that CTSK offers.  It was really great, especially because our guide, Alberto has a fantastic ability to recognize the birds by their calls alone.   Before we started the bird tour, though, we met a local shaman (actually, I think we woke him up).  He just moved to the house he’s living in and he’s trying to start a botanical garden with all the medicinal plants they use.  He showed us some of the plants and what they’re used for, then showed us some of the medicines he makes from them.

After meeting Don Domaso we started the birdwatching tour in the Muyil archeological zone.  Soon after we started it started to rain.  Lots.  So we hid out in one of the ruins up on a pyramid and watched the rain.  Luckily, it only rained for about 10 minutes so we were able to continue on with the tour.  The most incredible bird we saw was this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motmot.

After we finished the bird tour, we took the boat to monkey island to talk about a tour they’re thinking of doing.  They would like to build a botanical garden and butterfly farm in this stand of jungle that is in the middle of the mangrove swamps on the edge of the savanah.

We arrived back at the hotel around 11:45 and were starving.  We worked for a few minutes and then came into Tulum for lunch.  We were really looking forward to going back to the hotel, working straight through to dinner and really starting to wrap up the presentation for Friday and documentation for the project.  However, when we arrived a the hotel there was no electricity or water.  It never would have occurred to me to select a hotel based on whether or not they have their own generator, but it turns out this would be a good criteria to use.  Anyway, I called the desk to find out what was going on and when it would be fixed and was happily told it would be fixed sometime that day.  So we all gathered our things and headed into Tulum to the CTSK office to work.  This allowed us to get some of our work done, but there are too many of us to really work here successfully given the number of ethernet connections.  Anyway, that’s why we’re behind on the blog.  🙂

Josh and I have made a lot of progress on the CTSK website (http://www.siankaantours.org.  He’s been working on a new design and templates as a short-term fix that will unify their pages and make the information more accessible.  We’ve been working with Paulina and Cristian in the CTSK office to convert all of the pages to the new look and feel.  I’ve been doing a lot of translating, which has been interesting because I realize I didn’t know any computer words in Spanish!  They’re both completely new at doing HTML, so it is taking some time, but they’re picking it up quickly.  If I had this program to do over again, I might organize some sort of web development class in addition to the work Josh and I have been focusing on for the site.We’ve also been working on the spec for the longer term wholesale redesign of their site and the report for the entire program.  We’re almost done (a good sign since we’re leaving the day after tomorrow!)

This morning before the electricity went out we went snorkeling in front of the hotel, so I would really love to remove all the salt with a shower.  Guess I’m gonna have to wait for that.  We’re trying to get things wrapped up so we can meet Laura, Dustin and folks in Xcaret for the final presentation they’re doing for the hotels, then tomorrow we have wrap up meetings all day.

megank

Homestretch

June 29, 2006

Finally we’ve got something to show. A lot of things to show, actually. I’ve spent the last couple days squaring up the code of one of CTSKs designs, and creating page templates. With Megan translating we were able to show our CTSK team how to clone the templates and add the appropriate content to the pages. Now, about 70% of the site is looking much more professional than before, and the last 30% shouldn’t be far behind.

Tomorrow we’re presenting our outline for where the CTSK site could go in the future. Early in the process I drafted a site maps and some wireframes, and though I hoped to create some mockups of a revised homepage, our focus on tidying the current site just didn’t leave me enough time. Hotwire UI Team to the rescue! I’d been keeping my team looped in about the project, and I guess they got sick of listening to me whine about the time constraints, because Tuesday morning my manager, Ryan Sims, emailed that our rockstar visual designer, Virnard Magpantay, had some cycles to spare. I bundled up all the CTSK links and collateral I could find, plus an extremely rough wireframe of the homepage, and sent it off. Bada-bing bada-bang, and at the end of the day Virnard fires back a design that everyone agrees is awesome. Ryan asked why we couldn’t have Virnard here, too. Aside from the fact that he’s not a huge fan of Mexican food, I think it would be great. Maybe the next one?

The power’s been down at our hotel, so we’re working out of the CTSK office in Tulum. Every now and then the air in our office at Hotwire goes down. The office gets warm and stuffy, and I’m usually the first one to email our facilities team. Well, not after this week. Warm and stuffy is nothing. I’m sitting just 8-inches from a floor fan today, and beads of sweat are still rolling down my back. It’s been a good lesson in how much we all take for granted those little creature comforts of home, and we all keep reminding ourselves of the advice Julio gave us on our first night here—always carry a big bag and keep if filled with good humor.

View from Observation Deck @ CESIAK’s Hotel 

I'm a thousand times more comfortable with our current plan for the web project than I was when I hit the ground last week. The initial thinking was basically crazy—Megan and I were going to try to cobble together a development team from any and all resources on hand. That would've meant Megan coding, the Biz Dev Duo writing copy, and Dustin comping in Photoshop. We'd have to draft the hotel staff as well, putting the Chef in charge of QA, the Front Desk would take on the project management, the Concierge would direct the creative. The bartender we wouldn't move, he'd be fine right where he is… What we're doing instead—focusing on gathering requirements and developing schematics—makes a lot more sense.

 

Yesterday Megan and I met with Fernando, Paulina and Christian at the CTSK office and laid it out for them. Developing a new design for CTSK requires a pretty specific skill set, one they don't have in their office, but part of the program's objective is to enable them towards working independently. It doesn't make sense for them to become fluent at coding—their business is tours, and the web is just a tool to that ends. But they do want the ability to update their message, and keep their product descriptions current. The current site suffers from Multiple Personality Design Disorder—there are 3 very different look and feels, and new visitors probably get quite confused. We decided to help them address this more urgent issue by aligning around one of the 3 designs (we opted for the design that had already been applied to the most pages). I did a couple quick comps of how the other 2 variants could look after applying what we chose as the primary design, and basically said, "Make the other pages look like this." Paulina and Christian are both pretty new to HTML, but they both have been studying on their own, and are eager to learn more.

In other news, it rained last night, and it's ridiculously humid this morning.

Art and I have been in Belize for the past few days, scoping out the possibilities for a new project along the Belize Barrier Reef.  After a few days away from reliable internet, I'm checking in for the first time to see how everyone's doing up in Sian Ka'an…

Reading their posts, I'm impressed with the commitment and knowledge that the Expedia participants have shown thus far, and no doubt their contributions will be invaluable to CTSK.  It seems to me that this is exactly what a community-based tourism enterprise needs: a bit of mentorship and collaboration with experts in tourism to really identify how CTSK can remain true to its commitment to community, culture and environment, while facilitating new opportunities and markets that will allow their enterprise to thrive.

I don't have much to add to what's already been posted, but wanted to share a few photos that I took during one of our first days, when the group had the chance to take part in CTSK's "Muyil Forest and Float" tour.  Not only did the tour provide an incredible mix of habitats (clear lagoons, jungle, mangroves, etc.) and underexplored ancient ruins, but Pastor (our very capable guide) shared some unique experiences that he and other members of his community have had throughout the years in Sian Ka'an — or, as Pastor described it, his backyard.

 Pastor showing how local people around Sian Ka'an — including himself when he was young — have had to rely on harvesting chicle (the base for chewing gum) from the trees in the reserve as a form of income.

Observatory Temple in the Muyil section of Sian Ka'an.  The ancient Maya — known for their advances in astronomy and other sciences — used to chart the stars by their reflection in pools of water at the top of the temple.

Entrance to one of the canals between freshwater lagoons in Sian Ka'an.  We traveled through two of these canals – one made by the ancient Maya to facilitate commerce and fishing, and the other made by natural processes.  We got out of our boat here, strapped on life vests, and floated through the mangroves for a half hour, enjoying glimpses of birds, fish, and coasting in the crystal clear water.

 View of the lagoons of Sian Ka'an from the observation tower of the new Sian Ka'an visitor center.

When in Mexico…

June 24, 2006

As Dustin’s blog tells, we spent yesterday afternoon in Playa del Carmen assessing the competition, their sales tactics and product offering. There is a distinct competitive disadvantage here as the competition’s prices are lower and they very much misrepresent what Sian Ka’an is and what you can do there. When we asked if we could swim with the wild dolphins (which is strictly prohibited) the tour operator told us, “yes, of course.” It was very sad, to tell the truth.

Playa del Carmen

 

When we returned from Playa del Carmen, the power and water were not working at the hotel. Only safety lights allowed us to see our way through the hotel. However, to keep everyone happy the hotel had a great Mariachi band playing in the open air restaurant. I think we found Elvis…he joined a Mexican Mariachi band. J

Mariachi Elvis

 

Today Olger and I are putting together our thoughts on the current and new products, researching competitive pricing and trying to nail down costs. We’ll be in the office most of the day…at least the view is ok.

Office office view

Later this afternoon we are meeting with the folks from CTSK to review our suggestions, etc.  

PS: The mosquitoes are bad today.

Janice and Olger returned from Punta Allen the night before last, so yesterday was the first day we were all in the office together.  It was great to synch up and share with one another the things we’ve learned thus far about the challenges and opportunities we see in the project.  All of our respective roles in the project overlap quite a bit, so working together and sharing ideas has really be a fun part of this experience.  Expedia has become so large that we often tend to work in silos.  Not here!  We’re sharing ideas for content, sales strategies, the look and feel of the website, etc.  We feel like a .com startup.

 

In the afternoon we went to Playa del Carmen to do some recon and see what CTSK’s competitors are up to.  We have our work cut out for us!  One thing about the Riviera Maya – it’s not hard to find something to do.  We had tour operators soliciting us right and left from

5th Avenue

(Playa’s main tourist trap) to book their tours.  But we have some great ideas that no doubt will put CTSK on the map in a big way.  These other guys won’t know what hit them!

 

This morning I’m leaving Maya Tankah to start a sales tour (for lack of a better word) around the

Yucatan
Peninsula with a group of folks from CTSK, Expedia, UNF and UNESCO.  We’ll be meeting with Hotels and Tour Operators from the area to get them interested in the World Heritage Alliance (WHA) and encourage them to support community based organizations like CTSK.  Laura has been doing similar meetings with hotels in
Cancun the past few days and has had phenomenal success.

 

We’ll be in Calakmul (camping, I’m told), Campeche, Merida and
Cancun for these WHA training meetings.  Not sure about the internet access in these areas (Calakmul, specifically), so I’ll send an update when I’m back on the grid.

 

–Dustin