When it comes to business philosophy, Peter Hillenbrand is invested not only in creating an exceptional Caymanian experience but also in preserving the Island’s resources and beauty for the next generation. As the son of an avid scuba diver and spear fisherman, Hillenbrand began scuba diving at only eight years old. His family began visiting the Cayman Islands in 1973, and it’s this fascination with the Islands’ natural surroundings that he now instills into the culture at the Southern Cross Club, an award-winning resort that stands as a shining example in local sustainability.
The resort was awarded the Cayman Islands Environmental Programme for the Tourism Sector (CEPTS) Stewardship Award at the annual Cayman Stingray Awards in 2013, and Hillenbrand was honoured last year with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in the Caymanian community and contributions to the Islands’ conservation.
Cayman Airways Skies caught up with Hillenbrand to talk more on his heart for the Islands and his hopes for their future.
What do you hope guests of the Southern Cross Club experience?
A very simple, comfortable resort that’s well run and has good-quality food. We’re a small, 14-room resort that tries to offer the best possible product, but we’re not five star. We’ve never tried to be five star. When people come to Little Cayman, it’s important they understand not only what we do offer but more importantly what we don’t offer. There isn’t shopping here, different restaurants to go to, etc. When they come here, they want a really good, small resort experience that is in a very pristine, natural environment. Especially in our marine environment, but terrestrially as well.
For those visiting the Cayman Islands, what are some of your must-dos?
That’s a no-brainer. Come diving and fishing at the Southern Cross Club. There are very special events here that either the Island or the Southern Cross Club specifically puts on. It’s delightful visiting here at any time of year, whether you’re a diver or a fisherman, or you like to sit in a beach hammock whilst drinking a margarita. People don’t come here because they want to go to a carnival. They come here because they want to experience the natural environment that we have.
You’ve been scuba diving since you were eight years old. Where did that love of the outdoors originate?
I think a lot of it is just genetic. It’s the way I’m built. I have loved nature, whether it’s walking in the forest or snorkelling in the coral reef, since I was a little boy. I can remember getting in the deep end of that pool as an 8-year-old like it was yesterday. I can remember snorkelling as just a young boy in Grand Cayman in 1973 and how beautiful the reefs were. Those are the memories that I’ll always cherish.
How can the Cayman Islands balance conservation with tourism?
If humans are going to visit and love something as fragile as a coral reef, then we have to do it as responsibly as possible. When laws are passed that many consider silly, like wearing reef-safe sunscreen when you’re going snorkelling, or not touching live corals, that really is important. I think a lot of us shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, it’s just little old me,” but all those little things make a big difference in being able to protect what we are experiencing now for our children.
What would your message be to other business owners in the Caribbean, in terms of their professional responsibility to the environment?
This is going to be an ongoing debate for generations well past ours. It’s really the question of the profit motive versus the protection motive. Being able to balance those two, running a good business whilst being able to control costs and protect the environment, that’s a delicate balance. There are those that believe, “I have this piece of land, and I want to see how many condos I can put on it, and I want to make the most money I can from this piece of property that I own.” And then there are those like me that say, “Well, I’ve got a very nice, beautiful and unique piece of property, and I want to run a good business. I have to be able to make a living and make money, but I can do that with my 14 rooms and still earn a good living and do what I want to do and protect the environment.”
You received a Lifetime Achievement Award last year for your professional and conservation endeavours. Describe what it was like for you and your team.
Any time that you’ve put in a career, and you get recognised by your peers, is going to be a huge achievement. I would not be here right now without my staff and the people who’ve been working with me for so long. You’ve got to hire people that you’re willing to trust, and that you’re going to let take over the business, and let them run it properly. As the owner, I’m sort of the director. I help create the culture and the focus of the business, but the day to day I leave up to other people. I think that business philosophy has worked fairly well for me, and I was just honoured beyond words to be recognised with the Lifetime Achievement Award last year.
Author: Jessie Gilmartin
Photographer: Photos courtesy of Peter Hillenbrand