In researching its cover story on Selling Green Travel, TravelAge West caught up with Richard Edwards, founder Ecoism, an organization that works with travel suppliers to help them develop a more socially responsible approach to travel marketing. Edwards shared a number of insights on developing sustainable program
What got you started on your path to Ecoism?
Over and over again, my first question to organizations has been, “What are your business goals?” When most people begin to consider a sustainability program, they don’t realize it has anything to do with business. They know they want to use it in their marketing, but they see it as separate, and possibly even as a cost of doing business.
There are many top quality marketing firms that focus on the tourism industry. There are also a number of organizations very familiar with helping companies and destinations with their sustainability programs. I didn’t see agencies or organizations that addressed marketing and business planning with sustainability as an integrated piece of the equation, which is where it is most effective in helping to achieve the economic and environmental goals the organization may have its eye on, as well as actually helping to drive revenue.
Economics and ecology meet at a point where sustainability is integrated into a business model that measures and achieves financial goals with sustainability as a contributing factor to that financial success. We see the void in the marketplace around practical, industry-focused and revenue driven sustainable tourism marketing, and ecoism is actively filling that need for travel companies and destinations.
The research we are seeing suggests that the next hurdle for travel suppliers is finding messaging that effectively communicates their green policies to their clients. Would you agree with this? If not, what are some of the companies you work with doing to communicate green standards/policies.
I don’t know if the issues center on communicating policies, but rather on getting commitments from leaders to really embrace the path to sustainability, to understand its overall mutual benefits, and to tell the stories that surround sustainability efforts in a compelling and real way.
Many travel suppliers don’t have a great deal of experience with green marketing and sustainability communications. Communicating effectively, truthfully, and concisely in a crowded and highly competitive marketplace is already a significant enough challenge.
Often it seems extremely daunting, especially if green messaging is unfamiliar territory. Travel business leaders, marketing executives and tourism boards look at their green or sustainability initiatives, but so many cannot see immediately how to effectively communicate their commitment or achievement. They’re aware that the tendency is to tout accomplishments for marketing purposes, but that often raises other issues about responsible business practices.
Sometimes, we see paralysis or inaction because the demands of day-to-day business operations require immediate attention, and integrating sustainability messaging is difficult because it demands a shift in focus away from business as usual – the minutiae, the details, the forecasts and plans, the strategy and the execution that people are accustomed to – and toward a broader view of the business, the future state of tourism products and destinations, and the company’s place as a responsible part of the community. Sustainability plans require a significantly longer view than quarterly financials.
Companies and destinations we work with are counseled to develop their sustainability initiatives and really understand that process and the people who are making it happen. The stories that flow from those processes are quite naturally compelling, because they are stories about real life and the real struggles involved in creating change. In other words, the messaging comes easy if your actions are well-intentioned and well-informed, and then you’re telling the real story.
More than 50 percent of consumers feel skeptical that they are being “greenwashed” when faced with green statements. What are some trusted sources you’d recommend?
A multi-year process that involved stakeholders from many sectors of the travel industry, backed heavily by the United Nations Foundation, UNEP, UNWTO and many NGOs and private sector partners, led to the creation of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (http://new.gstcouncil.org/resource-center/gstc-criteria).
The Criteria was developed to create a common language around what the baseline for sustainable tourism should be for the industry around the world. This was done to assure that social, cultural, environmental and economic considerations were all taken into account when discussing, implementing and promoting sustainability in tourism. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council is the organizational steward of the Criteria, of which I’m the Communication & Finance Chair.
Travel agents and consumers can compare the efforts that travel suppliers are touting as sustainable against the Criteria to understand whether those efforts are closer to greenwashing, than to significant attempts to improve the natural environment and the lives of people in local communities within or adjacent to tourism destinations.
A study by the Element brand by Starwood says that some 60 percent of frequent travelers admit to dropping their green routines while on the road. Is this something you address with your clients and/or have recommendations for them on how to deal the “vacation from green” mentality?”
I am not aware of that study, but a study conducted by the Lowcountry and Resort Islands Tourism Institute at the University of South Carolina, which was presented at the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference in Hilton Head Island last month suggests the opposite.
Professor John Salazar explained that 96% of their survey’s respondents would recycle while on vacation, 91% would purchase organically grown food if the price were the same as non-organics, 88% would reduce water consumption, 86% would participate in hotel/resort towel and linen reuse programs, 83% would keep heating and cooling at energy saving levels, 82% would reduce consumption of soap, shampoo, and lotion, nearly 80% said that they would take public transportation, and nearly all feel that hotels, resorts, and restaurants should recycle.
We look at the full situation and analyze the barriers to participation as well as the strategies for success. The biggest rewards are often from the most practical and visible solutions – like recycling programs that have public receptacles, rewards like a free appetizer at the hotel restaurant for participating in linen reuse program, and other incentives can go a long way toward the success of client initiatives. Guest participation is not just good for the brand but also good for the bottom line. We’ve seen that the breakdowns come from the lack of access to keeping their green routines alive.
In an era where travel agents are faced with shrinking profits, declining clients and increased competition, agents may be afraid to alienate clients by talking about green travel. What recommendations do you have for agents to open a dialogue with clients about their interests in green travel.
Innovate and differentiate.
Once you’ve determined there is a market or potential market for it, make your passion your key to standing out. Stepping out of your comfort zone isn’t easy, so we recommend that agents engage their clients in the discussion within the areas they are comfortable.
There are often significant economic and social benefits, or co-benefits, to sustainability initiatives, so agents can learn a little about those benefits of sustainability and weave them in to communications with their clients.
For example, if an agent understands locally sourced food and wines associated with products they offer, then that could be an ideal opportunity to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
They can easily become a local expert on sourcing locally, and how that helps the restaurant and the community by reducing transportation costs and food costs – as it means that the food and wine will be fresher and more vibrant and tasty.
We work with clients to help them share their sustainability stories without being obtuse about it. The value that destinations represent means different things to people, so exploring the full range of features and benefits makes sense.