Selling Green Travel

Savvy travel agents can take advantage of an untapped market by providing green travel planning resources to their clients By: Monica Poling
The Element hotel brand mandates LEED certification for all its properties. // © 2011 Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide
The Element hotel brand mandates LEED certification for all its properties. // © 2011 Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide

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Read an interview with Ecoism founder Richard Edwards on the state of green travel and more tips for travel agents.

Understand the Players

Energy Star: Energy Star is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Program helping businesses and individuals fight global warming through superior energy efficiency. Energy Star-rated hotels are verified by an independent engineer and use 35 percent less energy and emit 35 percent less carbon dioxide.

Green Key Global: The Green Key Eco-Rating Program, administered by Green Key Global, was the first green program. Focusing more on operations and less on building components, Green Key has a graduated, five key rating system. Hotels take a self-assessment that consists of 150 questions covering operational areas. Although the assessment is self-administered, an independent, on-site audit takes place at roughly 20 percent of the hotels annually.

Green Seal: Green Seal serves a stamp of approval for a variety of products. Green Seal’s lodging standard first came about in 1999 and offers three different certification levels — Bronze, Silver and Gold — which are verified through an independent audit.

LEED: The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program is governed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and provides building owners with a framework for implementing green building design in newly constructed buildings and renovations.

Other Trusted Certification Organizations:

•  Audubon Green Leaf

•  Green Globe

•  Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program

It’s a rare hotel, these days, that doesn’t ask me to help save the environment by hanging up my towel and reusing it the following day.

That’s no problem for me. I hang the towel, proud of the resources I’ve just conserved. Sometimes I’m such a good green traveler, I even hang the “do not disturb” sign on the door, ensuring the housekeeping staff won’t use precious resources to clean my room when it’s not needed. I even carry my own shampoo and soap because I hate opening a full-size bar of soap for one or two uses, and I already have enough half-used hotel products at home to last beyond my lifetime.

But when it comes to a real test of my commitment to green travel, I fail with flying colors. For never once have I sought out a travel product based strictly on its green policies.

It seems I’m in good company, however, when it comes to my mixed travel consciousness.

A recent poll of Travel Leaders advisors, conducted for TravelAge West, found that two-thirds of the responding travel agents have never had clients request green travel options.

When it comes to attitudes about green travel, however, some 44 percent of U.S. travelers do consider environmental impact to be “somewhat” or “very” important to them in the travel planning process, according to the 2009 study “Going Green: The Business Impact of Environmental Awareness on Travel,” conducted by leading hospitality research firm PhoCusWright.

So why is it that although almost half of U.S. travelers acknowledge the need to be better stewards of the environment when traveling, that knowledge isn’t translating into actual demand?

Richard Hertzog, owner of Travel Leaders in Burlington, Lynnwood and Mukilteo, Wash., said, “Although people may be well intentioned, price has been the driving factor particularly during these last three years.”

Does Price Matter?
Responses to the PhoCusWright study seem to agree with Hertzog.

The study revealed that 67 percent of respondents found cost to be the most commonly identified barrier when it comes to traveling green.

Conversely, however, the same study also found that nearly one-third of travelers said they would be willing to pay some sort of premium for proven green travel options.

PhoCusWright agrees that there is a “disconnect with consumers on the cost of traveling green,” especially since the study also found that “no major travel company has implemented price increases based on green initiatives.”

With so many brands such as Starwood, Marriott, Fairmont, Hyatt, Kimpton and even Best Western rolling out green policies, there are seemingly plenty of mainstream options on the marketplace that don’t have to break the bank when it comes to green travel.

So if the idea that pricing is a perceived barrier as much as it is a true roadblock, the obstacle to green travel planning must be in how green information is being received by travel consumers.

Again, the PhoCusWright study concurs. Just 8 percent of the people polled felt that it is easy to find green travel options, with a whopping 53 percent finding it “somewhat difficult” or “very difficult” to find credible information.

Credible seems to be the real crux of the matter, as consumers indicate that they feel suspicious that the information they are receiving is more marketing hype than true green policy.

Are We Being ‘Greenwashed’?
When it comes to his client’s green travel habits, Robbert van Bloemendaal, owner of Travel Leaders in Rowlett, Texas, said, “While I am green conscious, I do not believe we have customers that are so inclined. I cannot recall one stipulating a green hotel or car. Also, I doubt most of my clients would pay a premium for that, either. However, I personally reuse towels and turn the lights off in my hotel rooms to try and make a difference. I also know that those measures are more about cost saving for the hotel rather than being green.”

Van Bloemendaal is not alone in his distrust of green policies set by suppliers.

Some 56 percent of those polled in the PhoCusWright study said that they are skeptical about what companies tell them about their green practices.

While some hotels may be guilty of misleading consumers about their environmental endeavors, a practice known as “greenwashing,” there are certainly plenty of trustworthy brands who are making great strides to become better stewards of the environment.

One company that seems to be leading the charge when it comes to green policies is Starwood’s Element brand.

When it launched in 2008, Element made history by becoming the first major hotel brand to mandate that all its properties pursue LEED certification. Today, Element’s portfolio includes nine properties in the U.S., with an additional nine expected to open in the next 2½ years.

As Element expands, each property must follow a stringent set of requirements. All Element properties are new properties, designed as high-performance buildings whose sustainable practices reduce waste and conserve resources. Carpets, furniture and floors are made from recycled content, wall art is mounted on bases made from recycled tires and low-VOC paints improve indoor air quality. Energy Star-rated appliances and recycling bins in each guestroom make it easy for guests to incorporate green living into their daily routines.

“What’s happening is that we are using Element as a laboratory to test our green initiatives, which are then rolled out at other Starwood brands,” said Brian McGuinness, senior vice president of specialty select brands for Starwood Hotels and Resorts.

Element was one of the first brands, for example, to test electrical vehicle charging stations and energy management systems (turning off the power when rooms are not occupied) using motion sensors.

Parent company Starwood is following suit and also looking at ways to become better environmental stewards. Earlier this year, Starwood teamed up with Clean the World, an organization dedicated to preventing deaths caused by hygiene-related diseases. More than 500 Starwood hotels across the U.S. are participating in a program that collects, recycles and sanitizes used products, reducing each hotel’s waste output, while helping fight the global spread of preventable diseases. It is estimated that Starwood will recycle some 1.6 million pounds of soap each year.

Starwood is just one example in a long line of hoteliers making wholesale changes to their policies and procedures. As more hoteliers continue to roll out sustainable programs and consumer awareness of green options increases, travel agents may just find a new market evolving before their eyes.

What Can Travel Agents Do?
Some agents, including Bonnie Lee, owner of Travel Leaders in Albertville, Minn., are already embracing green options in their trip-planning process.

“I like to provide information about a hotel if it is green when I am pricing it out or talking about it,” Lee said. “I think it becomes an added benefit. I’ll point out that it grows its own vegetables and that they are organic, or that it is Green Globe Certified, etc.”

So what steps can travel agents who are interested in providing green travel take?

Certainly an important first step agents can take is understanding the industry players. While there are numerous certification programs, such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Energy Star, Green Seal, Green Globe and Green Key Global, each has a slightly different way of quantifying what it means by green.

Green Key Global, for example, is the first program to focus solely on hoteliers. The organization provides a membership-based program, where properties receive a ranking varying from one to five keys, based on their answers to a 160-question self-assessment.

“The focus of the Green Key Eco-Rating Program is on hotel operations — what the operator does on a day-to-day basis to run a more sustainable operation,” explained Zach Conen, vice president of sales and marketing U.S. Region for Green Key Global. “LEED’s historic focus has been more targeted toward building and design, and typically that ship has sailed for many hotels, until it comes time for renovations.”

Although Green Key just entered the U.S. marketplace in 2010, it is rapidly becoming the certification program of choice for the travel industry, with such organizations as the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Accor North America, Sofitel, Carlson Hotels, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Hyatt Hotels, MGM Resorts International, Kimpton Hotels, Destination Hotels & Resorts and Best Western adopting its standards.

Although members are ranked based on a self-assessment, some 20 percent of the member hotels are audited each year.

“While we sometimes find a hotel that didn’t quite get it right, in large part the hoteliers are spot-on with their assessments,” said Conen.

When it comes to promoting green travel, agents should make their passion be the key to standing out, suggests Richard Edwards, founder of Ecoism, an organization that works with travel suppliers to help build a more socially and environmentally responsible approach to travel marketing.

“We recommend that agents engage their clients in areas in which they are comfortable,” said Edwards. “For example, if agents understand locally sourced food and wines associated with products that they offer, then that could be an ideal opportunity to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.”

Travel Leaders Poll, October 2011: Are any of your clients interested in green hotel/resort options?

Yes, all of my clients.
0 percent

Yes, a majority of my clients.
.4 percent

Yes, many of my clients.
4 percent

Yes, a few of my clients.
28.4 percent

No, none of my clients.
67.2 percent

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