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Meet the Jury - Qualifying round

As teams to continue in the challenge have been chosen, we asked the Jury for some insights of the first qualifying round. This time we would like to introduce you to Veerle Donders. Veerle was part of the jury during the qualifying round this year, more precisely for the Dimension 3: Hospitality Tomorrow.



Veerle Donders


Veerle, Concept & Brand Director at Zoku, started with the company 9 years ago as an intern and worked her way up to its leadership team, through concept development and guest experience design.

Next to that, she is also responsible for the entire community strategy of Zoku. As the first community manager in Amsterdam, she could follow her passion for “connecting people and reducing loneliness”, what made her the perfect fit for our most prospective Dimension; Dimension 3: Hospitality Tomorrow.



Veerle believes that it is important to support the students to ensure the continuous growth of the industry: “It is important for people like me from the industry to help students out, because I got a lot of help when I was a student, so I want to give back. If everybody does little bit of that then the world would be a better place and hopefully more students actually end up in the hotel industry.”



What makes the SHC unique?

What I love about challenges like this is that they really combine the global set of Hotelschool worldwide. Even though hotelschools are quite international, there are still different cultures, different concepts, different angles, which assures even more interesting ideas for the challenge. As a jury member you can notice that different schools focus on different problem sets and values based on their culture and country.



What makes Dimension 3 - Hospitality of Tomorrow important for sustainable development in the hospitality industry?

What I think is interesting about this dimension is the set of values for the hospitality industry. If you don’t change your values as a company you will never start focusing on it, because then it’s not important to you. So personally, I feel that any company starting in or past 2020 should be a sustainable company.


In this case, not only community in a neighbourhood sense, but also community in terms of the rise of loneliness is very important. Way back hotels had this hospitality function where the locals would come to the bar to spend time. Somewhere along the way this was forgotten about, and hotels have become fortresses within the neighbourhoods. Locals don’t go to a hotel just to have dinner anymore, or to a bar due to the rise of prices and emptiness of these places.


At Zoku we try to focus more on community. We created a place to go if you live nearby, your meeting spot and/or office space. I think it’s important to bring back that old hospitality function that inns used to have in the community sense. We pull in so many people from different countries, and all those people can bring something to the table to make a better world of tomorrow. As seen in some initiatives that a lot of hotels are starting to do, is getting people – guests to do some local community work, like help out people that are less fortunate than you. Such an initiatives should be more wide spread in the industry.




How can a community influence sustainability?

In so many ways, as a community you are stronger, and you will have more voice.

Getting a group of like-minded people together with those same values, that’s where it starts. As a hotel you need to show those kinds of values, and that will in turn attract people.

What we do at Zoku, for people that live and work in the city for a month maybe two, we ask them if they are interested in doing some local charity work, and many of them are willing to contribute. I think as a hotel that’s something you should be able to facilitate because otherwise people will not start to do such things as it becomes too complicated.


I think we should go back to those old values and really think about how we can contribute with locals but also the people that are staying in the hotel.



How can a sustainable mind-set help to solve societal and environmental challenges of our time?

There are some initiatives that help to kind of promote this sustainable mindset in a very practical way, e.g. Green key certificates or B Corp. I think mindset is a start, it’s a culture but then these above-mentioned programs really help to make it actionable.

So to start with a mindset saying like: “okay I want my operations not only to earn money but actually do something for the world”, that’s where it starts.


My favorite ‘B Corporation’ is an American certificate, which is sustainability in the broadest sense. To get the certificate you need to not only take care of the planet, but you also take care of your people (in terms of training and development, gender equality etc.) and the local community around you by doing charitable things. It starts with a mindset and I think in order to make it actionable you should really pour it into something, like certificate.



On which aspect should the students focus during their journey developing a sustainable environment for future cities?

From what I’ve seen so far, I would say to focus on what is really creating a concept. Not just saying “these are the problems and here are some solutions, good luck with it.” I would really focus on creating one, valuable concept.

Firstly, make it scalable, because if you want to really make a dent into the world you have to think big. Start thinking in terms of distribution through technological platforms, not just something that relies on you or one small team to do all the work. What I’ve noticed for myself, if I have an idea it really helps to make it into a business case. I would love to see this in their (the participants) next phases, thinking about “How can I make this attractive for hotel owners?” Usually hotel owners start to listen when there’s some sort of cost saving involved.


If you can really make a full case for this, it will be widely adopted. Therefore, really think in creating smarter solutions instead of just more stuff.



How does COVID-19 challenges the sustainable development of cities?

In a way it challenges it and in another way it really benefits. COVID-19 made us travel a lot less, which I think took the pressure off of cities, like Amsterdam. Nobody’s staying in hotels, which is horrible for us, but it gave us time to innovate and to think what we want to do to make this world a better place.

I think the fact that we are working from home more made us realize that, even though we don’t like it as much, a lot of meetings and conferences are possible to do online. So yes, we’ll start traveling for business less, and I think people will start to travel slower. Slow travel is already a trend, which means that instead of going for a day or a weekend work trip, people will go for example a month somewhere and work from there. This way they get to explore the city and lifestyle more and benefit the planet with a reduced amount of flights taken.


What do you think will it look like past 2020?

If we really fast forward, I think we will become global citizens, but we will be more mindful of how we are impacting cities and the planet. I think bigger cities will be growing, so we will need to start dealing with every square meter in a smarter way.

It will be combined with higher awareness and more flexible lifestyles. People will continue to travel but they will be doing it in a different, more conscious, slower way and be more mindful of their imprints on the place they travel to.



What does Zoku do to contribute to sustainable development in Amsterdam, Vienna or Copenhagen?

We are B-Corp certified, which is really one of the highest attainable sustainability certificates, that’s been awarded to only a few other hotels worldwide. Next to that, we try to approach sustainable living in a different way where we really look at using every square meter smartly. We have created this very smart Zoku Loft, which is basically an entire apartment in the same size of a normal hotel room. Additionally, we are now looking into stacking business models on top of each other within the same square meters. For example, can rent out our Lofts during the night for sleeping, but during the day we have people using them as offices, working there. This way we can use same square meters twice in turnover. We believe that this is a smarter way of using space, especially in bigger cities where space is expensive and every square meter counts. Instead of five-meter-high ceilings, we should really think: “We have this little spot in the city how we can we make it as valuable as possible for the people that are in that city.”



Why is sustainability important to you personally? How it is shown in your daily life?

For me it has always been important, but I think I realised it by some years ago when I watched a documentary called Food Inc. I am largely a vegetarian, with some exceptions such as really good steak in a restaurant. However, after this documentary I really understood how myself eating meat really impacts the world.

Furthermore, I recycle and drive electric vehicles, mostly taking my bike like real Dutch person. I think my main contribution to sustainability is more largely through Zoku, because I can actually really make an impact in people’s lives through the work I do.


The point with sustainability is that you have to start somewhere. There’s so much you can do, and it’s never going to be perfect. It’s about picking and choosing for yourself what really works for you, without feeling like “Oh god I need to do everything”, because nobody can do everything. A book that I can recommend to anybody about sustainable behavior is “This is a good guide” by Marieke Eyskoot. She made this little ‘bible’ of what you can do to be more sustainable.



What would be your tip for this year’s competitors?

What I have seen now in the category that I was judging; I would say think bigger. I noticed that often people think in current problems and solutions, but not in big ideas. 2050 is a long time from now, so really take a risk and think how you can impact the future the best possible way. Make a stable business case for it, it needs to be something where hotel owners, who mostly want to make money, say: “Great idea, I need to start thinking about this and do it.”

Good ideas take time, but you don’t win if you don’t take risks. Don’t try to solve all the problems with existing solutions. Instead, thoughtfully focus on solving one important problem really well.

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