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Using Ecotourism to Engage Customers

Getting vacationers to pick up garbage for free may be a viable marketing model.

By Mark A. Diaz 

In the age of convenience, customer satisfaction may no longer be enough to ensure return business. Companies are seeing a growing need to engage their clientele in order to produce a deeper emotional connection that, in turn, results in the invaluable commodity of customer loyalty. Highway 1 Discovery Route and the unincorporated San Luis Obispo County Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID) have created and maintained the award-winning Stewardship Travel Program (STP) in an attempt to merge sustainability, environmentalism, and customer engagement.

Established in 2013, STP involves businesses from Ragged Point to as far South as Nipomo and offers 70 activities to engage tourists and locals alike. Activities range from aiding in the restoration of trails in Montaña de Oro, volunteering to work at the Nipomo Native Garden, or picking up debris at the Cayucos or Avila beaches. Not all the activities involve labor, for instance, there are hikes, tours, museums on the list and even a wine tasting event. However, each activity is designed to highlight the beauty and uniqueness of the Central Coast with hopes that visitors will establish that elusive deeper connection.

Katie Sturtevant, co-director of STP, has seen an increase of return customers since the conception of the program. “It’s been working really well for us. It gets them to them to connect, care and gives them a way to give back to the area, which we have found, makes them want to come back,” said Sturtevant. “They are just more deeply connected to the area that they are traveling to.”

Not only does customer engagement show an increase in future spending, trends indicate Millennials are more inclined to actively search out destinations that are environmentally responsible and offer opportunities in land preservation and rehabilitation.

“We’re finding that more and more travelers want to spend more money on an area that they know is being preserved and that they can be a hand in preserving,” Sturtevant said.

The Avila Beach Tourism Alliance (ABTA) has recently revamped one of its contributions to ecotourism. The Avila Beach Cleanup Kit and Appreciation Tote Bag has received a new look with signage that will be posted around the beach town to promote the activity. Award-winning graphic artist Reilly Newman was employed to create the new look.
The ABTA invites “active visitors” to use a kit to pick up 10 pieces of trash and post a picture of their accomplishment on a social website (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) with #VistiAvilaBeach in order to receive an exclusive T-shirt and to be entered into a monthly drawing.

“You would not believe how many people jump at the opportunity to pick up trash,” said Chris King, general manager of the Avila Beach Inn. “It’s pretty amazing.” The Avila program is unique in that it not only has the potential to build engagement, but with the requirement of digital posting, it gives the activity an extra boost to grow organically.

ABTA kits contain gloves, a collection bag and a marine debris checklist. The kits are currently available at Central Coast Aquarium, Avila Village Inn, Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort, and San Luis Bay Inn upon request.

The Discovery Route recently received the Visit California Poppy Award under the award’s “Commitment to Community” category.

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*Featured on Highway 1 Discovery Route at 

Local Company Goes from Clicks to Bricks

By Mark A. Diaz

While major retail stores like JC Penny, Macy’s and K-mart are closing stores at a record rate some merchants are moving from the simple clicked mouse of online retail to more complicated brick and mortar stores.


Pipsticks, a sticker-based subscription business, recently opened its doors at 1239 Monterey St. in SLO after being purely online since 2014.

The business concept is simple and effective. Starring at $10 a month, a subscriber receives a packet of stickers and other ‘goodies’ in the mail. That’s it. Pipsticks currently has thousands of subscribers from 60 different countries.


“There’s this really interesting, amazing feeling of just really simple kind of giddy anticipation that people associate with stickers,” said Maureen Vasquez, owner and mother of four, “and I think a lot of our generation has that nostalgia around it because a lot of us grew up collecting them.”


She explains that the company receives fan mail from all over the world on a daily basis that not only give praise but recommendations that Vasquez has put into action.


Opening a brick-and-mortar location came from necessity over the success of the product and the success of the product came from Vasquez’s talent and drive. She spent months originating the business and developing strategies, beta testing, and marketing to ‘mom bloggers.’ The simplicity of the idea belies the effort it has taken to make it a success.


After much deliberation and thought, Vasquez and her husband Nathan, a former options trader, decided to move to San Luis Obispo and run Pipsticks full-time.  Vasquez went from managing and promoting the business while living in London to stuffing envelopes in their cottage on their property in SLO.


“So we really outgrew the space, last December we were on top of each other,” said Vasquez. “I think there were 8 working at that point in 600 square feet with sticker coming out of our ears.”


Opening the storefront brought another dimension to business that Vasquez enjoys. Already very communitive with her customers, she looks forward to interacting with them in person. Since the physical location was not a determining factor in the business’ success, Vazquez said that retail space is exactly what she envisioned.


“Also, from a business aspect,” Vasquez said, “we are looking to expand to a wholesale market, so developing our own products and marketing them to other retail stores, which will allow us to really understand the market better.”


The location also serves as a production floor in the back and Vasquez is looking forward to launching an event space that can be reserved for special occasions and giving people another option for after-hour activities.


At first, the sticker packets were geared toward children. Within six months, she realized that the majority of subscribers were adults and adapted to the surprising discovery. Now, the company assembles two types of packs; ‘Kid packs’ for children and the ‘Pro Packs’ for adults.


“Right now, about 70% of our club is actually adults,” said Vasquez. “All of our kid packs are designed with parents in mind as well… all the stickers are tried and tested by children [her children] and high quality.”


She explained that, when a parent needs a break and uses stickers as a distraction, the last thing they want is a lousy product.


Before the Cal Poly graduate became the queen of sticker subscriptions, Vasquez worked for Clifford Chance, one of the top ten largest law firms in the world, while living in London.  The last project she worked on was centralizing all the firm’s designs that spanned across countries and creating a new design and identity program.


“The experience for me in terms of large-scale product management was awesome,” she said attributing businesses success to her experience at the law firm.


Pipsticks will celebrate its grand opening on June 3 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with free sticker crafts, prizes, treats and music.


For more information, go online to:

The High Cost of Turnover and How to Prevent it

By Mark A. Diaz

A high turnover rate costs a company productivity and profit. It overburdens the staff and kills the bottom line with the perpetual quest to fill empty desks. According to Wrike, a project management, collaboration and productivity software company, U.S. companies spend $160 billion a year on losing and replacing team members.

“When they do a quick hire, without really thinking it through,” said Christy Diaz, human resource director of the Achievement House and NCI Affiliates, “people can double their work by not taking the proper time to evaluate the hire.”

Researching Candidates – Pay Now or Pay Later

Putting the wrong person in a position may potentially do more damage than an empty seat. Managers must resist the temptation of a quick hire to fill a space, much like sowing tares into wheat, the cost becomes two-fold with an ill-placed person. The time and effort to find, train and onboard new personnel compounds when the individual leaves before completing their probationary period. In short, quick hiring is almost as bad as a sink or swim mentality when it comes to job fitting practices.

“When they do a quick hire, without really thinking it through,” said Christy Diaz, human resource director of the Achievement House and NCI Affiliates, “people can double their work by not taking the proper time to evaluate the hire.”


Personality Goes a Long Ways – Does the Position Match the Person

When hiring Cory Gray of Assessments –USA and Canada, Inc., an international company that uses tools to find the right match for a company hire, said an essential component is the behavioral job description of the position. Personality can play a significant factor in placement. Companies often search for a person with an outgoing personality, a real go-getter, however, if a person that loves to socialize gets stuck in a basement doing data entry, no matter how well they may perform it is only a matter of time before they leave. The position does not meet personal needs on a foundational level, and therefore they eventually search for more fulfilling work.


Gray’s company provides psychometric tests to use for screening, hiring or improving teams. The company utilizes job assessment matches that look at 20-core competency that the Department of Labor says that businesses need to measure to put the right person in the right job. One of the business’ tools is a 20-minute questionnaire that is designed to project how the applicant will perform in the position by examining five intellectual abilities, nine personality traits, and six occupational interests.

“With a high degree of reliability,” said Gray, “we can say that this person that has the greatest prospect for being successful because they closely match the behavioral traits and occupational interests and intellectual abilities in your top performers.”

Onboard Employees, Don’t Waterboard

Onboarding is a term used to describe the efforts to integrate a new employee into an organization. Failure to do so can lead to as much as 50 percent turnover in the first 18 months of employment, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). A recent Gallup poll reported that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does ‘a great job onboarding new employees.’, a fact gather website for the Central Coast, states that San Luis Obispo County’s unemployment rate in February 2018 sat at an astounding 3.2 percent, which is over a full percent lower than California’s average. With the high demand to fill jobs, employees are finding new choosing power when reviewing employment options. There is fierce competition in SLO County for middle to top tier employment positions, and companies can find the best of the best, but it is all for not if they cannot engage employees enough to keep them committed to the company.

Exit Interviews – Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out

Exit interviews are also an excellent resource to spot worrying trends in businesses. Many times, it is not the hiring process or lack of research that causes employees to jump ship, but poor placement of a supervisor and management personnel. Micromanagers are death to office morale and company employee relations. They may get the job done, but at an accumulative loss to the bottom line. Exit interviews, if done correctly, can provide an overall snapshot of the employee’s motivation for leaving as well as the inner workings of an office that may not be visible to higher management.

“Studies show that 80 percent of the people who leave a particular job, leave because of their interaction with their boss,” said Gray. “Sometimes we’re brought in, and we see heavy turnover and the people that are reviewing it think ‘well, it’s a difficult position’ but when in fact that it’s probably the supervisor that’s creating the turnover.”

For an accurate and candid exiting conversation, it is vital that the discussion is conducted by a third party and not by the employee’s supervisor. It is also necessary to keep track of answers and attitudes received to grasp an overall feel of the department, how it is engaging its employees and scope of turnover it is experiencing. When the amount of time and energy used to find and train a person is taken into consideration, a priority for any company should be retention. Generally speaking, a person needs to be in a position for two years before they are a fully productive part of the team.

One Last Thing

Gray pointed out that human resource people should be aware that the best interviewer may not be the best pick for a job. Gray said that in his experience the people who interview the best are generally those who job hop the most.

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