Ernesto Hernandez and I walked along a dusty trail that ran alongside the Rio Grande River as it continued to carve out the border between the US and Mexico in Big Bend National Park. As we walked, we heard a single, soaring voice that bounced off the sheer cliff walls of the river canyon and broke the silence that surrounded us: "Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores, Porque cantando se alegran, Cielito lindo, los corazones," which literally translated means "My dear, sing and don’t cry because singing warms the heart."
Across the river, standing on the Mexican shoreline, stood our troubadour. His name was Victor, and he came from the local community of Boquillas del Carmen located just across the river from Big Bend Park. Victor was singing “Cielito Lindo”, a favorite Mexican ballad, to us and other hikers in hopes that we’d put a few dollars underneath a rock on our side of the river. At the end of a long day of serenading, Victor would paddle a small boat over to collect the donations in order to help support his family and others back in Boquillas.
For years, Boquillas was a must-do day trip for anyone visiting Big Bend. To get there, you had to go through Victor. He was the boatman who picked up tourists from the U.S. side of the Rio Grande and poled them across the river to Mexico. There, tourists could rent a donkey for the short trip up to town to enjoy some Tex Mex and cold beers at the local restaurant. Making the pilgrimage to Boquillas was a long-standing tradition for many of the 350,000 people who visit Big Bend every year, especially Texan residents who make up most of that visitation.
But the world changed after the attacks of 9/11. The informal border crossing was seen as a threat to homeland security, and on a spring morning in 2002, a U.S. government official showed up to tell Victor he could no longer bring tourists to Boquillas. The Boquillas border crossing has been closed ever since.
For the last decade, Boquillas has struggled, along with many of the other small Mexican communities along the Rio Grande that used to enjoy freedom of movement between our two countries. In Boquillas, the community of 100 families dwindled down to only 30. Many packed up and sought new opportunities in bigger Mexican towns further south.
Those that stayed behind did anything they could with the resources they had to make ends meet. A failed government project to bring electricity to Boquillas left behind hundreds of spools of copper wire, which local artisans commandeered to begin making small intricate figurines of scorpions and birds. Walking sticks were carved out of the local “sotole” plant, which quickly grows back after being cut.
Since tourists could no longer come to Boquillas, and local residents couldn’t legally sell their wares in the national park, the artisans had to get creative. They would (illegally) cross the river early in the morning or at night and lay out their crafts on large flat rocks at park trailheads or scenic overlooks where tourists would stop their cars and get out. A torn piece of paper would have prices listed (with most items costing less than $10) and a can would be set up with words written on it like “Donations Accepted, School Kids, Boquillas Mexico”. The dollars placed in these cans helped the remaining community members of Boquillas survive, but it has been a struggle.
It’s no secret that news coverage of the US/Mexico border region has been overwhelmingly negative for as long as most can remember. Yet the region surrounding Big Bend National Park is considered the most remote and undeveloped area in the contiguous United States (just look up a the night sky to believe it!). Due in part to this isolation, Big Bend has been spared much of the violence and illegal activities that plague other parts of the border region.
Recognizing the unique situation of this region, U.S. and Mexico representatives announced plans to reopen the Boquillas border crossing. A multi-million dollar, unmanned, state-of-the-art border facility was constructed, and is expected to open in 2013 to allow for the return of visitors to Boquillas. And this is where Solimar comes in. Working alongside the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), and partnering with the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) and the Mexican National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), Solimar will work with the community of Boquillas to develop sustainable tourism products and prepare the area for the return of visitors.
Solimar’s work has already included an initial tourism assessment to identify both supply and demand of potential tourism products in the region. We have also developed a business plan for the formation of a community-owned enterprise that will manage tourism operations in Boquillas. Short-term tourism opportunities include interpretive guided tours – from canoe and hiking trips to sand boarding adventures – as well as an artisan market, food services, and local festivals to highlight the regions cultural and culinary traditions. Long-term opportunities include safari-style tent lodging and spa services built around a nearby hot springs, as well as mountain biking and backcountry trekking tours.
Solimar has become a leader in directly linking sustainable tourism development to biodiversity conservation in the areas where we work, an effort guided by the development of our Tourism Conservation Toolkit that documents 16 unique strategies to link tourism, conservation, and communities.
In Boquillas, Solimar will work closely with protected area managers to integrate many of these strategies into Boquillas’ tourism development plans. For example, in order to combat an increase in trash as more people arrive, “best practices” will be developed and taught to local service providers on how to better manage organic and inorganic waste. A “Code of Conduct” will be implemented and messaged through signage to remind visitors of ways in which they can reduce their impact to the environmental and to the local culture.
Poorly managed livestock have wrecked havoc on the surrounding fragile desert and river ecosystems. The Boquillas tourism project will begin to look at ways that cattle can be repurposed in more sustainable ways. Strategies include the local production of leather crafts and merchandise, community BBQ festivals, and even a tourism package where visitors can become a cowboy for a day to help round up cattle.
As a hopeful community awaits the opening of a vital border crossing that will bring the return of visitors and opportunity, Solimar will continue to work with local partners to ensure that tourism in Boquillas develops in a way that celebrates and supports the unique ecosystems and heritage of the region.
“Ay, ay, ay, ay, canta y no llores, Porque cantando se alegran, Cielito lindo, los corazones”.
Sierra de la Giganta is one of the last remaining wild stretches of Baja California Sur’s coastline, but it is increasingly coming under the pressure of developers who are eager to replicate Mexico’s other tourism mega-destinations. It is also one of Mexico's poorest regions, with existing economic options limited to fishing, mining, and other resource extractive activities. With the support of the Resources Legacy Fund, Solimar and our local partner, RED Sustainable Travel, are working to identify the opportunities to link tourism, conservation, and rural development in this region.
In order to ensure the long-term protection of Sierra de la Giganta's natural and cultural resources, solutions must address the region’s conservation goals while also providing real economic opportunities for the local population. These goals present a perfect opportunity for sustainable tourism, as it is an economic activity that depends upon the preservation of natural and cultural resources rather than its extraction.
Solimar and RED's initial tourism assessment revealed a number of interesting potential tourism models for the Sierra de la Giganta region, concepts that will be developed and documented in business plans that can then be used to attract donors and investors to the region.
The first potential model focuses on marine tourism. Establishing a network of coastal community tourism service providers would allow locals to benefit from the marine tourism activities already taking place in the region in the form of kayaking tours, sailboat rentals, and private yacht owners. Local communities could provide complimentary experiences such as mule trekking tours, salt-water fly fishing guide services, and restaurant/food services.
Secondly, a private reserve eco lodge could boost the current tourism offerings. A local conservation organization that established a private coastal reserve is considering the development of a small-scale ecolodge that would enable visitors to not only spend a night in the reserve, but also to participate in the organization's terrestrial and marine monitoring and research activities. From checking bighorn sheep motion cameras to conducting fish counts in the Sea of Cortez, the lodge would give visitors a chance to be "biologists for a day". Such a lodge would also create needed jobs and revenue for local communities, as well as begin to better integrate those communities into the reserve's conservation activities.
With the assessment complete, we look forward to further developing these business plans into a shared vision of sustainable tourism for this unique region.
El Pardito fishing community inhabits a tiny island in the Sea of Cortez, surrounded by ocean and soaring desert mountains.
Part of the cultural attraction of Sierra la Giganta is the continuation of traditional economic activities like fishing. The goal of sustainable tourism is not to replace those activities entirely, but rather introduce additional economic alternatives to reduce the pressure on the region’s natural resources.
Local artisans show off their handiwork in El Pardito.
Solimar & RED team members assess new tourism opportunities in Sierra de la Giganta.
It’s no secret that ecotourism, which in turn evolved into sustainable tourism, was born out of the conservation movement. From international NGOs like Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy to their local counterparts, conservation organizations poured considerable resources into the ecotourism boom of the 80s and 90s.
But that interest and investment began to ebb about a decade ago – most likely due in part to the lack of success stories or replicable models illustrating how tourism could reduce biodiversity threats, not just contribute to them.
Fortunately, over the past few years Solimar has been increasingly approached by various conservation partners, from global organizations to local protected area managers, who want to know how tourism can become a bigger part of their conservation approach.
The up tick may be due, in part, to the unrelenting growth of global tourism. As more than one billion travelers traverse the globe each year, efforts to reduce their impact must increase, especially in fragile ecosystems. WWF’s Global Marine Programme approached Solimar in 2013 because coastal development, including that driven by mass tourism, is second only to unsustainable fishing as the primary threat to the world’s coastal and marine ecosystems. WWF realized the importance of developing a strategy to address the impacts of tourism in coastal areas head on, including efforts to create industry standards and to encourage alternative livelihoods for fishing communities.
Solimar and WWF’s Global Marine Program are now finalizing that strategy, and hope to see tourism increasingly embraced as a part of their efforts to support conservation worldwide.
Another potential reason for the renewed interest of the conservation community in tourism is because travel market trends increasingly favor destinations and businesses that embrace sustainability and offer opportunities for visitors to personally experience that wonderful space where tourism and conservation overlap.
For the past two years, Solimar has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in the Nicaragua Caribbean to help establish Kabu Tours, a tour company owned and operated by ex-sea turtle fishermen who are attempting to transition from resource extraction to sustainable tourism. These ex-poachers have been trained by WCS to lead overnight trips to the Pearl Cays Wildlife Refuge where visitors learn about the organization’s sea turtle monitoring program and, if they're lucky, watch a sea turtle lay her eggs.
Turning a sea turtle poacher into an interpretive guide and environmental ambassador has an obvious upside for conservation, but so does giving an accountant from Sacramento a chance to be a marine biologist for the day. Doing so provides not only a world-class tourism experience, but it also increases visitors’ understanding, appreciation, and support of the destination and efforts to protect it.
For tourism to contribute to environmental outcomes, whether it’s through job creation for resource extractors or increased funding for conservation activities, a destination must first be successful in tourism. That requires demand-driven products, innovative marketing, and great delivery.
Second, tourism is one of the world’s most complex, dynamic, and historically fragmented industries. You need to know which partnerships are important, and how to build them. Whether it’s connecting a community-tourism cooperative to a German outbound tour operator or convincing a global hotel chain to adopt sustainability criteria, identifying and realizing mutually beneficial interests is vital.
Finally, you need a blueprint. A comprehensive understanding of the direct and indirect threats to biodiversity at a site, as well as a clear vision of how tourism can positively affect the socio-economic conditions that result in environmental degradation such as lack of economic alternatives, awareness, and industry standards.
Solimar attempts to consider and address all of these important pieces to the tourism and conservation puzzle. Our “Tourism Conservation Models” documents successful and replicable strategies that link tourism, communities, and conservation in parks and protected areas. Our Enterprise Development Program helps local entrepreneurs build successful tourism businesses from start to finish. Our approach to marketing harnesses the power of social media, the generation of great online content, and tourism networks that connect markets and products. And finally, our ability to engage multiple stakeholders – including public sector, industry representatives, NGOs and communities – helps to share and align interests.
Solimar looks forward to being a part of the growing global effort to make tourism more sustainable, and to explore and increase the ways in which tourism contributes to conserving the world’s most biologically important and diverse destinations.
Any great tourism business begins with a great “road map.” This road map serves as your business plan with actionable steps for moving forward with developing the enterprise. There are seven key components to your road map.
1. Clear Concept- Before you can dive into the road map, the essential first step is to clearly articulate your enterprise concept. What is your enterprise? What do you do? What are you trying to achieve? What impact do you expect your enterprise to generate? Before you move further down the road map, be sure that you put some thought into these questions and can clearly define the concept of your tourism enterprise. Try to condense this concept into a simple one to two sentence pitch that clearly articulates your business concept.
2. Market Analysis- Your market analysis includes the international, regional, and national tourism statistics and travel trends, the profiles of your target market segments, and a value chain/ industry analysis. Begin by getting an idea of the relevant tourism trends and statistics. What percentage of tourists coming to your destination region, country, or city are country nationals versus international visitors. When is the peak season that tourists come to visit? What are the typical demographics of visitors? Has the number of international tourists to your destination been increasing or decreasing? Addressing these questions will help you to better understand your market before moving forward.
From here, you can develop the profiles of your target market segments. Determine the nationality of your market, their wants and needs, their budget, etc. Think about whether your target traveler is seeking adventure and physical challenges, luxury and relaxation, or service and learning opportunities. Additionally, you will need to analyze the existing tourism industry in your destination. Especially if your enterprise will work with intermediaries; investigate the existence, success, and business models of tour operators, travel agents, and hotels; as they relative to your business concept to market or sell tourism products.
3. Sales and Marketing Strategy- At this stage of your road map, it is important to determine strategic positioning in terms of the pricing, placement, and promotion strategies of your business. There are numerous factors, both short and long-term to consider for pricing including the value provided compared to that of competitors, the price the market is willing to pay, the revenue needed to enable the business to reach its financial goals, and profit maximization. Your placement, or distribution, may be conducted either through direct or indirect sales. Your promotion strategy will describe the sales and marketing techniques used to reach your target market and should include online and social media marketing.
4. Competitive Analysis- Complete a summary of competing businesses and products, and determine your competitive advantage. Begin by defining your business competition- the people and businesses that offer similar products and services and seek the same markets. Research these competitors and assess their products or services on a number of factors, such as pricing, product quality, and customer service. Porter’s Five Forces Analysis is a useful tool to use for a through investigation of your competition. By assessing your business competition against your proposed enterprise, you will gain a better understanding of where your business stands and how best to leverage your strengths against your competition’s weaknesses. To determine your competitive advantage, simply outline the major advantages that your enterprise holds over the competition.
5. Operations and Training Plan- Consider your business structure and the key personnel and training needs that will be required to support it, while also keeping in mind any legal considerations. Will your enterprise be a private company, a partnership, a limited liability corporation (LLC), a cooperative, a non-profit organization, or an association? There are pluses and minuses to each, and it is extremely important to think carefully to determine the best structure for your enterprise. Once the structure is determined, consider the number of employees needed and the roles and responsibilities of each. Consider the hierarchy of employees in your business and how profits will be shared. Finally, the legal environment is key to consider; think about potential requirements like business registration, employee/membership agreements, permits, and insurance coverage.
6. Community and Conservation Support- Consider sustainable tourism as a cornerstone to your business plan. Sustainable tourism has the potential to not only mitigate potentially harmful impacts of visitation to a site, but it can also support conservation of the resources upon which it depends. At Solimar, we employ a market-based approach that links jobs and revenue generated by sustainable tourism to support conservation of the resources upon which the tourism depends. To develop a sustainability plan, begin by assessing the conservation threats related to your tourism enterprise. Once these threats have been assessed, you can choose tourism conservation strategies that address those threats, such as an environmental education program or a trail monitoring and research program. Lastly, be sure to budget for the implementation of your sustainability plan, including salaries, equipment, materials, and trainings.
7. Key Milestones and Workplan- Lastly, now that your business plan has been fully considered, you can create a timeline of the major activities related to the establishment of your enterprise and its tour products and services. Create a comprehensive list of the milestones to be completed for the successful establishment of your business and determine the order in which they shall be addressed. With each milestone completed, you are one step closer to being the proud founder of a great tourism business!
Business planning is a key part of the work Solimar International performs in destination marketing. To learn more about how to create your own tourism business plan, please download our free e-book on business planning.
“The business of a business is business” goes the famous saying. Simply put, it means that a business needs to be practical (has a sound model, makes money) and realistic (whatever you set out to achieve, you should be able to achieve it) to operate successfully. However, growing a business that is both practical and realistic is much easier said than accomplished. Businesses are complicated and they contain a lot of moving parts. Here are 5 common mistakes you should be wary of so that your business remains practical and realistic during the planning stage:
1. Not understanding the difference between planning and a plan
Tim Berry, the founder of Palo Alto Software stresses that the value is never in the original plan. Rather, it is in the implementation. He stresses that a plan can serve as the foundation providing a strategic direction but it is never valuable unless it is put into action. Planning is a continuous cycle, which takes a plan, puts it into action, compares the outcome with the projected results, and uses this new data to adjust the plan and set goals accordingly. It is the planning that creates value and allows a business to learn it’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats as the time goes by – not the original plan. Therefore, a planning cycle should be put into place and the plan needs to be reviewed & appropriately changed on an annual basis to guide the business towards the desired end. This in turn, makes your business practical and realistic in response to the market.
2. Ignoring market realities
The market is of a crucial importance to every company operating around the world. Susan Ward, co-owner of Cypress Technologies and an IT Consulting business, illustrates that a company can have an amazing product or a service that they would like to sell, but if the consumer is non-responsive to the product and does not want to purchase it, then the company will never be successful.
For example, if a company sells umbrellas in a place where it only rains 5 days a year, people would not purchase the umbrella. If the same company sells an umbrella in a market where it rains 200 out of 365 days a year, the demand is higher and umbrellas will likely sell. Even then, there are several other factors that need to be taken into consideration. Take a look at a business’ environments and corresponding factors in diagram below:
Adequate research into market dynamics needs to be conducted annually to understand the business climate, set realistic goals and assumptions, understand the competition, and price the products/services appropriately.
3. Being everything to everyone
Bill Cosby has famously said, “I don’t know the secret to success; but the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.”
Pick a focus. Pick a problem to solve in the market. Solve it. It is crucial to pick a focus for your business and it is crucial to keep sight of it. It keeps things practical and realistic. Spreading yourself too thin trying to go in numerous different directions will most likely result in nothing working out too well. Ensure you have clear objectives when business planning and ensure that you tailor your plans to suit your business purpose. Whatever you pursue, make it your singular focus. Tim Berry defines strategy as “… focus. It’s as much what you aren’t doing as it is what you’re doing.” Therefore, be clear in what you do so that you can save time, money, and set goals that correspond with the purpose of the business. You don’t need to please everyone.
4. Thinking that big picture is the key!
Tim Berry states that a “good business planning is nine parts implementation for every one-part strategy”. Therefore, while it is commendable to have a vision and a strategy, as they act as the guiding forces, a detailed action plan is very necessary to achieve the desired end. You should have a goal and underneath list all of the steps that need to be taken to accomplish that goal. More so, you should detail who is responsible, the dates and deadlines for the tasks, forecast the outcomes, design suitable key performance indicators to measure success, measure success against projections, and review the efforts to make decisions for the future of the company. The point is to put planning into action in such a way that there is accountability for each task and action, and you can measure each component. That will provide a much-detailed outlook onto what is working for the company and what areas require improvement. The big picture paints a pretty sight, but the details and implementation make that sight a reality.
5. Treating it as a race or sprint
Being an entrepreneur is not a race. It’s a disciplined lifestyle, which demands time, persistence, and commitment. Therefore, to minimize risk, continuous business planning is essential and should become a natural rhythm rather than an activity you pursue irregularly. A plan should be carefully put into action. The actions then need to be measured. The new insight you gain should influence your plan. One also continuously needs to be wary of their market, consumer demands, their product/service offering, and pivot in response to the change to business’ environments.
A plan is not a final product, only a beginning. It’s the implementation, continuous planning, and the ability to adapt to the changes that will prove your efforts fruitful and help you retain an edge in the market.
In the end, business planning can indeed be a daunting task. As long as you ensure things are practical, realistic, and the plan is being implemented and reviewed regularly taking into account the change in business’ environments – your business should thrive.
Solimar International can help your tourism business or destination with business planning. Whether it is a start-up or an operating venture, Solimar can help plan, train, and set structures in place, so that your venture can flourish for years to come.
Click here for more information.
In July 2013, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), the managers of Rwanda’s parks and tourism assets, contracted Solimar to assess the feasibility of creating an independent organization to take on management of the country’s parks and tourism assets as well as create a business plan for the proposed entity.
RDB is a government organization with the mission to transform Rwanda into a dynamic global hub for business, investment, and innovation. As such their focus is on economic development across all sectors of Rwanda’s economy. The RDB recognized that they needed to take a new approach to management of the country’s parks and tourism assets outside of their existing structure and had formulated a concept to establish a new organization to achieve this goal.
After an initial assessment, Solimar spent several months conducting a feasibility analysis of RDB’s concept. During this phase, Solimar worked extensively with RDB staff and other stakeholders in the tourism and conservation sectors to tackle a series of questions and create a common understanding of the concept proposed by RDB.
The major questions included: what did RDB and local stakeholders want for the future of tourism and their national parks and how did they see it being sustainably managed and successful for both conservation and the national economy. Stakeholders involved included tourism industry leaders and conservation organizations.
These conversations and Solimar’s analysis eventually led to a proposition, that RDB would transfer management and operations of two of its three national parks (the third being already independently managed by African Parks Foundation) and tourism assets to an independent organization, ‘The Rwanda Parks and Ecotourism Trust,’ that would be owned by RDB but able to operate independently to manage the parks and tourism assets on behalf of the country.
The feasibility report was used as a template for RDB and other stakeholders to review and comment, and then for the creation of a business plan, which provided the rationale, strategy, financial projections, and an implementation plan for the creation of the new organization. The proposed ‘Rwandan Parks and Ecotourism Trust’ will, if approved by the Rwandan Cabinet, be set up as a corporation under RDB and aim to increase efficiency and returns while remaining a leader in conservation and high quality ecotourism.
We are happy to announce that the innovative business plan Solimar created with our Rwandan partners was approved by the Senior Management of RDB in September, 2014 and the recommendations in the report will be submitted to the Rwanda Cabinet for review and approval. If approved, Rwanda will establish a new and innovative model for park management, conservation and tourism in the region.
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In January, Pacaya Lodge & Spa celebrated a soft opening with a New Year’s party for staff and guests.
The resort, located 20 minutes from Granada, Nicaragua, overlooks the iconic Laguna de Apoyo and offers stunning views over the canopy to the crater lake below and Granada in the distance. The 26-room luxury resort features exceptional service, an infinity pool, gardens, restaurant, bar, spa, and beachfront access.
Solimar’s Involvement with Pacaya Lodge & Spa
Solimar began working on sales and marketing for the lodge in January 2015. Our partnership with the lodge began when we were approached by Opportunity International Nicaragua in 2012. The NGO asked us to develop a strategy to leverage tourism to fund a high school operated by the organization. Solimar delivered a feasibility analysis for a luxury resort on the site which became the blueprint for Pacaya Lodge & Spa.
Solimar is thrilled to see years of hard work come to life and we are excited for the next phase. The lodge will celebrate a grand opening in March.
A Lodge with a Social Focus
This beautiful resort has a mission to support the local school. Currently, 240 students attend Escuela Tecnica Emprendedora, where they study either agriculture or tourism, the largest industries in the country. Pacaya Lodge & Spa will serve as a lab for tourism students and will help refine the school’s hospitality and English language curriculum and provide hands on experience through internships in the lodge itself.
Furthermore, Pacaya Lodge will source its produce from the school’s working farm. The goal of the program is to train students to grow produce without the use of pesticides so that when they graduate they will have the knowledge to work on or develop their own organic farms.
Upon stabilization, Pacaya Lodge has committed to cover 40% of the school’s operating expenses. Pacaya hopes to provide students with the tools they need to succeed in Nicaragua’s rapidly expanding tourism sector and to ensure the sustainability and future of tourism and agriculture in Nicaragua.
Delivering an Exceptional Nicaraguan Travel Experience
Keeping these objectives in mind, one of our main roles in the Pacaya project was to develop the marketing and branding strategy for the lodge. Our goal was to deliver an exceptional Nicaraguan travel experience that differentiated Pacaya Lodge & Spa from other Latin American resorts.
The solution was simple: grow from within the community. While many upscale resorts in Latin America seek to shield guests from local communities, Pacaya Lodge & Spa embraces its sense of place. The lodge highlights local artists and artisans, offers unique cultural excursions, and promises the opportunity to engage with the community.
The lodge features furniture, fixtures, and art from 16 local artisans. These artisans live and work in Masaya and Los Pueblos Blancos. Rotating galleries and exhibits on the property feature local artists. Spotlighting these skilled artists and community members strengthens the local economy and creates a guest experience that is authentically Nicaraguan.
Customized excursions bring guests to nearby cultural and natural attractions, such as nature reserves, volcanos, and cultural sites. In developing these excursions, we wanted to create a one-of-a-kind travel experience and support the development of new tourism destinations.
We know that visitors are seeking more meaningful travel experiences with rich stories and authentic experiences. It was important to us to create an genuinely Nicaraguan story in order to present the colorful history and culture of the destination.
Solimar is thrilled to be working with the lodge to develop a strong brand based on the lodge’s unique location, local partnerships, and rich Nicaraguan history. We believe that a successful strategy is designed at the community level. We can’t wait for the grand opening!