Why Did the Hotel Chain Hire a Marine Biologist?

Carbon neutrality, zero waste and serving seafood solely from responsible suppliers: Many boutique eco-tourism destinations — particularly those catering to small numbers of luxury travelers — can reach or come close to sustainability goals such as these, but what about a decades-old resort company operating 97 properties across 14 countries?

As the global director of sustainability at Iberostar Group, Megan Morikawa is striving to prove that large travel operators can be better stewards of the planet. The Stanford-educated marine biologist is applying science to achieve these goals and more, such as helping the privately held hospitality company build coral research labs and use A.I.-powered trash cans to reduce kitchen waste.

In a nearly two-hour video conversation, Dr. Morikawa talked about her career pivot from academia to hospitality, the importance of collaboration across the travel industry and her new role for the Travel Foundation, a nonprofit providing destinations with sustainable-tourism research, strategy and training.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What led you to research coral reef die-offs for your doctorate?

Basically, the theme of my technical background is how we can use the technology of genetics and genomics to better conserve species on the planet.

My Ph.D. adviser, Stephen Palumbi, was focused on genetics, genomics and coral reefs. His whole proposition was: Could we find the world’s toughest corals, learn what makes them tough and use that to help predict winners and losers of climate change, so that managers could better understand how to restore reefs?

How did you end up in travel?

It was at the end of my Ph.D. when at Stanford I met Gloria Fluxá Thienemann, Iberostar’s vice chairman and chief sustainability officer. My adviser and I were scratching our heads asking, “What does a Spanish hotel owner have in terms of interest in our research?”

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