Oh, Mexico: A Burned-Out CEO Turns a Ranch into a Retreat

UPDATED: May 10, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 2, 2023
Oh, Mexico: A Burned-Out CEO Turns a Ranch into a Retreat

Burned out from a career in retail, Lisa Harper sought refuge in sleepy coastal towns on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.

That was in the mid-1990s. A seasoned jet-setter, Harper had worked in leadership roles at The Limited as vice president of merchandising and design, Gymboree as chair and CEO, and Belk as CEO. Before that, she was a Levi Strauss & Co. fit model and later worked for the denim designer and manufacturer by flying around the world to source products. She also serves on the board of Hot Topic, a retail brand targeting pop culture-enthused teens through merchandise and apparel.

“I thought this was going to be another year of travel for me,” Harper says about her sojourn in Mexico. “I was going to be there for two weeks and plan my travel. Eleven months later, I was still camping on the beach. I read a book a day and slept in a tent. I felt very charged.”

Not ready to return to the U.S. and her hectic corporate life, she bought land nearby, transforming a former poblano chile ranch into Rancho Pescadero, an adults-only retreat in the quiet town of El Pescadero, 40 miles north of bustling Cabo San Lucas.

“I fell in love with the area. I fell in love with the people. This was before Costco and Home Depot,” Harper says. “You lived by what was available, instead of this consumer mindset.”

Since the hotel’s 2009 opening, the area has thrived, building off of Harper’s mission. You won’t find chain hotels or cookie-cutter, all-inclusive resorts here. What you might find is a more sustainable way to vacation.

* * *

Respecting the community and its natural resources was Harper’s No. 1 goal. “I felt strongly that I couldn’t put pressure on the local municipality,” Harper says.

All in all, the land-titling process took five years, a true test of patience. She launched the hotel’s first chapter as a 12-room property. It has since expanded into 102 suites and villas and a two-bedroom hacienda. Having its own wastewater treatment plant—and soon, a solar farm—decreases dependence on local utilities. Further decreasing this reliance are a water-bottling plant in partnership with well-known environmentalist Paul Hawken, dark sky lighting and a desalination plant.

A composting program ensures there is little waste. Single-use plastics are not used at all. An ethnobotanical garden thriving with native plants and a biodiverse arroyo garden supply produce to the hotel’s restaurants (Botánica, CENTRO Café and KAHAL). Goats, chickens and bees are also part of the hotel’s residency and lifecycle, providing locally sourced meat, eggs and honey. Even cocktails are farm-to-table; they feature citrus and herbs grown in the hotel’s gardens. There’s also a nod to local cuisine influences—for instance, Botánica’s Mayan-inspired underground oven, in which barbacoa meats are slow-roasted.

The property is still evolving. “We don’t call it sustainability because it isn’t fully sustainable,” Harper admits. “We’re still impacting the area, but with the lightest possible touch.”

The key to all of this innovation is to not strain the local community and instead lead the hospitality industry toward better practices by partnering with those who also want to create social change. One example is the organic bamboo straws the hotel manufactures and makes available to other local businesses as an alternative to plastics.

* * *

While the 30-acre beachfront property is known for wellness and luxury—including a 25,000-square-foot spa—Harper recently added a new socially conscious layer. The hotel relaunched in fall 2022 with a new interior design scheme and an even stronger socially conscious mission: It now provides housing for the hotel’s 300 employees, with a small percentage of their base salaries taken out of each check to cover the housing costs. Under construction are 170 one-, two- and three-bedroom homes also featuring a kitchen, dining area and either one or 1.5 baths. The homes also feature washer-dryer areas in each. Previously, the housing model for Harper’s hotel—and most hotels in developing countries—was for employees to share dormitory-style accommodations and live separately from their families. Harper hopes that bringing families back together will help them achieve better work-life balance. “The happier the associates are, the more they want to be a part of it,” she says.

An influx of new residents now working remotely has made it difficult for Rancho Pescadero employees to find affordable housing.

People are relocating from the States, particularly the Bay Area, because they can work remotely,” Harper says. “Rents have gone sky-high.” While she’s proud of the hotel’s employee housing, she’s quick to add that it’s not a moneymaker: “At the end of the day, it will probably be a break-even endeavor.” The hotel’s next step is to build housing for the community. Another plan in the pipeline is to further employees’ education by offering courses that develop skills in computer science and HVAC technologies, for example. Rancho Pescadero broke ground on a technical school in fall 2022. Assistance in obtaining preschool education will also be provided for employees’ families, ensuring that the majority of a family’s needs are met.

Hiring locally is a mantra Harper repeats often. While most resorts in tourist areas hire from within the hospitality brand—such as a Four Seasons manager relocating from a property halfway across the world—she wants to retain the hotel’s local ties. “I’m really pushing to hire locally,” Harper says. “I’d rather hire locally and train.”

Harper doesn’t mind at all when those employees take the skills they’ve learned at Rancho Pescadero and go off on their own—or to another resort. The environment is more about fostering talent than it is acting competitive among the hospitality community. Three former employees have launched their own businesses, including a taco bar that appeared on Netflix’s Taco Chronicles, a restaurant down the street from Rancho Pescadero, and a bakery.

“It’s instilled this sense of entrepreneurship with skills they’ve learned on the property. It’s the best news of all,” Harper says. “We’re not a philanthropic initiative. It’s a business, but at the same time, we’re able to invest in a way that’s not just transactional but integrated.”

* * *

This integrated approach extends to the land itself. While once a spot where poblano chiles were harvested, the development was always intentional. To build the resort, soil was disturbed only after careful thought and deliberation—to the extent that Harper has even replanted what once thrived here, in the exact same spots. Large swaths of the property remain undeveloped, subverting the notion that a resort should be sprawling.

Despite having no hospitality, development or branding experience, Harper had decades of experience in attracting customers. “I really translated those skill sets into this experience. I used my wits and creativity to get things done,” she says. “Everything I’ve done, in some way, shape or form, feeds this. The idea of the property being intuitive, unfolding, all of those aspects are really critical to my retail career. It’s not about just listening to your customers. It’s about creating an experience they don’t expect but deeply relate to.”

Building a hotel from scratch wasn’t always easy. But her persistence won out. In September 2008 Harper took a two-week hiking trip—and completely unplugged. “I came out of the mountains and saw that the [stock market] crash had happened,” Harper recalls. “I had to decide if I was going to continue.” Other luxury hotels being built in the Los Cabos region—including Montage Los Cabos—stopped their construction. “I made a decision [to go forward] because I trust my intuition. If I ignore it, I get in trouble. If I trust it, I have success beyond my wildest dreams,” Harper says, adding that “go big or go home” became her mantra. “I decided to go big.”

What happened next was a very DIY—but also intentional—marketing plan. Refusing to believe that hoteliers were doomed due to the economic collapse, Harper handwrote letters to journalists and editors about her hotel, tucking them into a book she’d created further explaining the concept. This led to a flurry of publicity. “I was opening something when there wasn’t any activity,” she says. “We were on the front page of the New York Times and the travel sections.”

Any business venture takes time to simmer, and Rancho Pescadero is no exception. While at Gymboree, Harper routinely told herself, “Someday, after all of this, I’m going to blow this place and build a little hotel on the beach in Mexico.”

And that she did. 

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 Issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Hansen is a Wisconsin-based writer who loves aged cheddar cheese.