As seen in HOTELS Magazine.
Jesús Parrilla, Principal of Luxury Frontiers, a San Francisco/Johannesburg-based international design firm specializing in high-end, light-on-earth lodging concepts and strategic advisory for the eco-tourism (or sustainable tourism) industry, recounts how his experiences in the outdoors and love of nature have prepared him for his career in outdoor adventure planning.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been passionate about the great outdoors. Growing up in a small rural town outside Seville, Spain, I spent my free time hiking, biking, and riding horses through the countryside. Fast forward to the present day, and I’m fortunate to be working in an industry that allows me to do what I love the most: blazing new trails (literally).
My lifelong passion and commitment to the outdoors have shaped me in innumerable ways, both as a person and a global citizen. It’s also steered me professionally, guiding me toward opportunities and companies that advocate for responsible, sustainable, and ethical business practices. Over the past 15 years, I’ve been involved in developing more than 3,000 kilometers of exploration routes and trails for luxury hospitality companies like Explora, where I served as CEO and Commercial VP, and Smartrip Chile, where I was the Executive Director. Most recently, I have been working with Luxury Frontiers, a design firm serving the lodging industry, which in addition to designing award-winning luxury tented camps, hotels, and lodges, also provides strategic guidance and recommendations to tourism boards, and travel outfitters, landowners, hotel brands, and investors. My role with Luxury Frontiers specifically focuses on strategic advisory to clients also looking to venture into the experiential hospitality space.
The throughline of my career has been crafting successful outdoor experiences and developing new tourism destinations. It’s work that is as thrilling as it is gratifying; it’s been the joy of my professional life to work alongside local communities and committed hospitality professionals to share beautiful places with the world. At the same time, it’s a job that comes with weighty responsibilities: do harm to an environment and risk causing irreversible and incalculable damage. It’s a duty I take incredibly seriously, both as an environmental steward and a fierce lover of the natural world.
In my editorial columns for Luxury Frontiers, I reflect on the challenges and rewards of the job. In doing so, I hope to shed light on a relatively unknown subset of the industry, correct misconceptions about the work and identify negative industry standards—one of the most troubling of which is the one-size-fits-all approach that some hospitality companies take when developing new concepts and designing outdoor experiences.
This brings me to experiential design, one of the hallmarks of Luxury Frontiers. This term signifies a practice whereby a destination’s natural, cultural, and historical environment is leveraged to develop experiences that are meaningful, well-rounded, and contextually relevant.
Our experiential programming and strategic hospitality advisory services exist to complement our architectural and interior design work. Nothing is designed without first factoring in the experiences and vice versa – the outdoor activities are an extension of the design, meaning the guest experience continues when you leave the room.
The experiential programming process at Luxury Frontiers begins from the ground up. Arriving at a new destination, our team will study the flora and the fauna, analyze the movement of water, analyze topography, as well as investigate the cultural and social aspects of the place. We’ll ask: Who lives here? What does this land mean to those who inhabit it? What does it represent from a historical, spiritual, anthropological, or even archaeological perspective? And how can this place sustain future generations?
The answers to these questions affect all levels of physical design—from a structure’s building materials and energy systems to water treatment technologies. As we weigh these decisions, our team will work with stakeholders and shareholders to ensure alignment on values, products, and experience.
From an activity standpoint, this rigorous investigation of the land allows us precisely map the destination while also planning experiences for various skill sets and physical capabilities. The incline of a hill, the rising and falling of the ocean tides, and the species of plants that populate an area are all factors that will shape risk assessments, evacuation, contingency plans, guiding requirements, and gear and equipment selection, among other considerations.
As a believer in the mystical, transformative properties of nature, I’m also interested in outdoor experiences as a means to open up and stimulate travelers’ senses. The most transformative trips I’ve ever gone on have taken me to the world’s wildest and most remote corners—from Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range to the wadis of Saudi Arabia. And while I’m aware that not all destinations can offer the same degree of “escape,” I’m an advocate of experiences that demand total and active participation from travelers—allowing them to perceive new realities and adapt to foreign situations without misrepresentation or filters.
From a destination standpoint, our goal is to infuse a hospitality concept or experience with a sense of place while also protecting the environment, implementing sustainable business practices, and supporting local communities and businesses so they stand the test of time and generate prosperity and meaningful employment opportunities.
Ultimately, our process at Luxury Frontiers can be boiled down to what we call a “5 P’s” model. Inspired by the “Triple Bottom Line” accounting framework conceived by John Elkington, one of the founders of the global sustainability movement, the model encompasses the tenets of people, planet, place, prosperity, and perpetuity.
“People” is about respecting local communities by demanding parity and fair remuneration and trade and preserving culture, traditions, and identities. “Planet” concerns caring for natural resources, regenerating vital resources, and championing low-impact operations. “Place” has to do with showing the utmost respect for a locale; “prosperity” is about ensuring economic and social advancement so that no stakeholder is left behind; and “perpetuity” deals with resisting fads or trends to safeguard the survival of an environment/community.
For me, the art of crafting meaningful hospitality concepts and outdoor experiences can be rigorous and, at times, even painstaking. But it’s work that, like travel, on the whole, is about connecting to something larger than ourselves. Not only does it lend richness and authenticity to the travel experience but ultimately, also, to travelers’ lives.