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At the easternmost tip of Canada, Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland has received huge international exposure since opening in May 2013 due to its high luxury level and high concept architecture located in a wholly non-traditional travel destination.
The story begins during the years between 1999 and 2001 when Zita Cobb, who grew up on Fogo Island, exercised over $100 million in stock options as CFO of JDS Uniphase, a fiber optic company based in California.
The telecom industry crashed in 2001, which according to The Economist wiped out much more valuation than the dot com bubble burst. Cobb then spent a few years traveling around the world and investing in philanthropic projects before returning to Fogo Island in 2005.
A decade before Cobb became one of the wealthiest female executives in America, the Canadian government placed a moratorium on North Atlantic Cod fishing off the east coast of Newfoundland. Multinational trawler fishing had completely wiped out the fish stocks, and the moratorium decimated what remained of the local Fogo Island economy.
When Cobb returned home, she saw how corporate overfishing impacted more than the ability for locals to earn a living. It impacted their identity, their culture, their sense of purpose, and their trust in place. So she decided to create something of lasting value, embracing place and permanence to protect what she calls the “sacred capital” inherent in any community.
The result of that is Fogo Island Inn.
“The most important thing is place because human culture is attached to place,” she told Skift during the PURE Life Experiences conference in Marrakech last month. “Our ability to survive and flourish and make meaning all derives from place. We think we can master and flatten place, but in so doing we kill all the paths to enlightenment for ourselves.”
Cobb doesn’t like the phrase “sense of place” because she says it trivializes the value of place. For her, place defines “a way of knowing that can’t be duplicated elsewhere, so we need to hold on to that because that has value for all humanity.”
With that front and center in her mind, Cobb and her brother developed Fogo Island Inn to celebrate and save a unique Canadian Maritimes culture from extinction. Her first move was to hire Newfoundland-born, Norway-based architect Todd Saunders to design a modernist resort with a slightly Scandinavian temperament that would capture the imagination of the world’s most experienced travelers.
Since opening, the 29-room Fogo Island Inn has been the darling of hotel, travel and design media enamored with the juxtaposition of globally-attuned architecture standing sentinel over a barren rocky landscape striking in its severity, simplicity and solemnity.
One can only surmise all of the emotional and psychological factors that motivated Cobb, following her experiences in high-tech telecom culture and the ensuing crash, to invest a considerable chunk of her fortune back into Fogo Island. Seeing such disparity in fortunes among abandoned fiber optic investors and forgotten Fogo Islanders, at the whims of multinational corporations, one of which she herself profited from handsomely, is a personal narrative that one can only imagine.
However, that volatile history is clearly driving her purpose today on Fogo Island and at conferences around the world. Over the last few years, Cobb has been an outspoken critic about how society is continually prioritizing commerce over community.
During her keynote at PURE (below video), Cobb opened by saying the world is on “fire,” which for her has several layers of meaning extending from environmental calamity to the Syrian refugee crisis. She attributes those challenges to what she calls “reductionism” in the business world that defines people solely as consumers.
Fogo Island Inn, then, is Cobb’s way of creating a new economy that places the health of the community at the center of all decision making within the community.
That’s based on her favorite quote from British economist E. F. Schumacher: “Nature and culture are the two great garments of human life, and business and technology are the two great tools that can and should serve them.”
One could argue that Fogo Island’s location, devoid of much outside influence, and Cobb’s wealth make this project an utterly unique proposition that could never scale or be duplicated.
Maybe, but it does provide an incubator for ideas about how a hotel can become a platform for placemaking, community building and economic development.
Interpreters Of Place
Newfoundland is so remote that the province has its own time zone 1.5 hours ahead of Eastern Standard. “Though in truth it feels like it’s hundreds of years behind,” reads this New York Times story. “When it’s 10 p.m. in New York, it’s 1825 on Fogo Island.”
That may be true in terms of the traditional lifestyle on the island, but the programming at the Inn is decidedly progressive within the realm of delivering immersive local hospitality. For example, when guests make a reservation, they’re offered the opportunity to meet and spend time with specific locals with like-minded interests.
“Fogo Island Inn doesn’t have a concierge because 2,706 people live on Fogo Island, and all of them are perfect hosts,” Cobb said. “And the knowledge that a Fogo Islander has is unique to Fogo Islanders.”
Aubrey and Marie Payne, for example, developed a fishing technique with cod pots that keeps fish alive until they’re collected, and they also don’t catch every other species in the water like the trawlers once did.
Likewise, fisherman Aiden Penton builds wooden boats in traditional Fogo Island style, and he can always use an extra hand around his shop.
Cobb says that they and many other local residents are only too happy to engage with guests at the Inn because fishing communities have always prided themselves on true hospitality.
Fogo Island Inn’s website profiles more individuals working in the hotel and around the community, so people have “the opportunity to arrive and know people,” explained Cobb. After the intro slide show, the homepage shows photos of more than a dozen islanders such as Paddy Barry, a local photographer and storyteller. He writes in his profile:
“The Fogo Island Inn is like a platform to me, the kind you find in a train station. I see it as a place where travellers cross paths with Fogo Islanders, sharing their relationship with the sea and to the land, their optimism, and their uncanny ability to reinvent themselves. This project and this community have transformed my life completely.”
The central focus on locals pretty much defines the overarching concept behind the Fogo Island Inn guest experience.
“Their way of knowing is cross disciplinary, and it’s embedded in their whole bodies,” explained Cobb. “So it’s a deeper knowledge. It’s not information. I think as contemporary people, urban people in particular, we know a lot of stuff. That’s information; it isn’t a deep knowledge. And when you live in a world of information, I think there’s a kind of existential despair that comes from that.
“So when you spend time with Fogo Islanders, you learn to see the natural world in all of its gestures and nuances. We are, above all, interpreters of place.”
In the late 1960s, the Canadian Film Board produced a comprehensive series of 27 films chronicling the lives of Fogo Islanders, which Cobb believes are priceless commentaries on Fogo Island’s sacred capital.
Those films provide a kind of due north for Cobb, and she pointed out one in particular depicting a group of young boys building a fort.
“Now what we do with the kids, we just see them as consumers to sell them video games,” said Cobb. “We have created a machine that actually separates us from place and each other, and in so doing, we’ve gotten tunneled into this faulty logic of me and mine. There’s been such this evolution of giving back to yourself.”
We asked Cobb how the Fogo Island Inn experience applies to that.
“So I think there’s a growing need, and we all feel it,” she answered. “This is going to sound new agey, and I’m not a new agey person, I’m a business person, but I think we crave unity. Whereas the world has got us all chopped up in silos, we want unity, and we want time. You crave the presence of time. That’s why suburbs are such depressing places, because of the sameness, and because there’s no sense of time. You can’t feel the history.”
Cobb created the Shorefast Foundation to provide that unity between community and place through asset based community development. That includes Fogo Island Inn, which we learned, she doesn’t especially appreciate being called a hotel. “It’s more of a cultural center, of sorts.”
An extension of that, there are six more of Saunder’s angular buildings designed to house visiting artists, filmmakers and other creative professionals invited to the Fogo Island Arts residency program.
Other initiatives focus on social entrepreneurship. Cobb developed a microfinance Business Assistance Fund in the model of the Grameen Fund in India to support locals while they develop their trades and small businesses.
The Shorefast Foundation also provides an educational platform to discuss the community’s relationship with the ocean, which was so out of balance not that long ago when the big corporate trawlers killed the seas.
“Ultimately every business on the planet needs to be a social business, and a social business isn’t a form of communism,” Cobb told us. “It’s just a more evolved business. And you know you’re a more social business when you ask the question: How much money should we make if we’re doing the right thing by the people on the planet?”
There’s a certain level of irony in that statement but it fades into as many shades of gray as the dark Atlantic itself with the passage of time and the ebb and flow of tech bubbles.
Cobb’s advocacy on behalf of her home, where she grew up without electricity and running water, and the power of community-based hospitality are fully expressed in the following videos.