By: Bruce Hull, Michael Mortimer

How do you go from being an art dealer in Wisconsin to a successful hotelier and influential green business advocate in China?  Brian Linden did it by pioneering the market niche of sustainable luxury tourism emerging within the larger multi-trillion dollar (PDF) tourist industry.

China is relatively new to domestic tourism, but as is typical of most things Chinese, its tourism industry is developing on a grand scale, experiencing double-digit growth. The extraordinary economic development that lifted out of poverty and urbanized hundreds of millions of people is fueling an equally dramatic explosion of domestic tourism.

Tourist preferences in most cultures follow a similar pattern: Tourism begins with the pursuit of mementos and novelty, and matures into a quest for meaning, connection, and self-actualization (for examples of the latter, think eco-tourism, agri-tourism, heritage-tourism, and yoga-tourism). Chinese national policy actively promotes tourist destinations with massive infrastructure investments and marketing. Chinese tourist sites such as Dali and Lijiang, in Yunnan province in southwest China, offer examples of mass tourism developments dominated by trinket shopping, foot massages, cosmopolitan bars, and glitzy shows. These attractions target the novelty-oriented tourists who buy mementos and want to be entertained, a market segment that seems likely to grow as millions more Chinese join the middle class. But surely there are also visitors who are looking for a more transformative experience or cultural immersion. Where will they go?

Chinese building interior

Brian Linden saw an opportunity. He signed a long-term lease on a historic building in charismatic southwest China, renovated it, and built a business model that sells sustainable luxury experiences to these guests who are looking for a more meaningful connection.

Resources exist to help businesses such as the Linden’s green their operations (i.e., knowledge networks sponsored by National Geographic or the United Nations, third party certification systems, and programs to reduce carbon emissions in major hotel chains). Linden took advantage of these and other resources and greened the hotel in all the usual ways: energy and water conservation, local and locally-sourced cuisine, paying a decent wage to a largely local workforce, and financially supporting charities and causes.  Those were not easy tasks, but relatively straight-forward ways to promote an environmentally and economically sustainable business.

The bigger challenge Linden faced was influencing the development trajectory of the surrounding town.  For Linden’s business model to work, the town where the hotel is located must sustain rather than replace its culture and environment so that guests have an immersive and authentic cultural experience. The hotel loses its capacity to deliver these experiences if local tradition, architecture, and environment get replaced by the cookie-cutter, trinket-driven, escapist-entertainment development. For example, the rice patties abutting the hotel’s terrace could become condos, the adjacent street lined with historic houses could be replaced by fast food restaurants and bars, and the access to traditional food, tool making, arts and crafts could convert to the all-too-familiar bazaars and bars selling mass produced goods imported from elsewhere.

Man looking out over field

Influencing a town’s development trajectory would be difficult for any small business owner, but especially one who is a foreign national. Yet, Linden has been remarkably successful, using several strategies to exercise what leadership experts call “influence without authority.”

Linden uses rational arguments and evidence about tangible, material gains to show how Xizhou, the town where the hotel is located, benefits directly from the hotel operations. Examples of short-term economic gain are plentiful because the hotel intentionally sources local food and labor and pays respectful wages for access to tofu makers, horse cart drivers, tour guides, and for arts and crafts demonstrations. It also helps organize projects by service-minded visitors that repair community buildings, record local history, or teach language skills.

Convincing local leaders of longer-term economic pay-offs takes considerably more rationalizing. Linden works hard to communicate a vision of the town that includes a future where traditional culture and architecture become scarce elsewhere in China and thus a valuable resource to those who sustained them. As Chinese tourist preferences evolve and visitors tire of trinkets and novelty, few other Chinese communities of tomorrow will be able to provide high-value, authentic experiences.

Some of Linden’s influence comes through nurturing a sense of purpose and pride in sustaining and enhancing the local culture. Hotel guests include the Chinese and global elite, who travel great distances to experience an immersive cultural experience. He uses this fact to help residents appreciate the special qualities of their town and inspire them to sustain these qualities. Although Linden tries not to use negative pressure to motivate action, he says that shame may be part of his influence: local leaders recognize that a foreigner is stepping up to save local legacies which is something local people should have been doing all along.

people exploring a chinese building exterior

The hotel also leads by example. It promotes local food systems that increase farmer productivity and public health. It innovates building and engineering practices and invites local plumbers, architects, building renovators, and neighbors to tour the facilities and learn about these innovations. The hotel also works hard to achieve and sustain employee buy-in. It employs people from the village, treats them with respect, pays a decent wage, and provides regular training.  These employees have become local advocates who explain to family and friends the value of conserving traditional architecture and values. These efforts were recently recognized when the Linden Center was one of nine finalists for the prestigious Secretary of State’s 2014 Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE).

As foreign nationals, Brian and his wife Jeannee have little formal authority, but they have become local celebrities because the hotel’s success attracts considerable media attention, and because Brian was named by the United Nations Development Program and Chinese media as one of the 10 most influential foreigners in China. The Lindens intentionally share their celebrity.

Crowded market

They take daily walks, visiting with townspeople and stop at local establishments to shake hands, pat backs, and share status with their neighbors. The Lindens are also quick to give credit to local authorities for creating the conditions that led to the hotel’s success, and these formal leaders in turn lend their connections and authority to support the hotel.

The Linden Centre now ranks among the top luxury facilities in China. What makes it especially noteworthy are the leadership lessons it illustrates. The Lindens’ success seems to follow the basic principles of a well-known leadership theory known as influence without authority. In doing so, they are helping define sustainable luxury tourism in China and perhaps creating a model that can be replicated elsewhere as more and more tourists demand both luxury and sustainability.

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