Creating a Greener, More Responsible Tourism Business: The Four Essential Ingredients
As the world emerges from the pandemic, tourism business owners face a unique opportunity.
Dozens of recent tourism recovery reports cite that consumers are beginning to take sustainability more seriously. Booking.com´s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report talks about this being a “potential watershed moment for the [travel] industry and consumers”.¹
The same report states that “83% of global travelers think sustainable travel is vital, with 61% saying the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in the future”.¹
Of more significance for the accommodation sector, “Almost half (49%) still believe that in 2021, there aren’t enough sustainable travel options available, with 53% admitting they get annoyed if somewhere they are staying stops them from being sustainable, for example by not providing recycling facilities” ¹
Whether you are a country lodge or an urban hotel, a seaside b&b or a glamping site, a travel agent or a busy restaurant, there is a lot that can be done to reduce your impact and increase local community benefit.
The question is, where do you start on your quest to become greener?
Getting serious about making concrete and lasting change starts with you, the owner of the property. YOU are the number 1 ingredient.
You have to get really serious about your “why”.
The process of integrating more sustainable practices into a business does not have a start and a finish. It must be seen as a holistic approach that will become part of your ethos and will sit over every action that is taken.
It intrinsically involves making changes to operations. Operations are conducted and managed by humans, so for operational changes to be successful, we need to significantly change behaviour.
How do we change behaviour?
Through understanding and explaining why we are asking people to do things differently.
Simon Sinek wrote “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. ²
This is not just relevant to consumer buying decisions, it is just as easily applied to the “buy-in” process every business owner needs to go through in order to fully embrace and accept the changes required to create a greener business.
If you are not clear on why you are making a certain change, you will be unable to communicate it clearly to your staff. This can lead to a well-intentioned idea falling at the first hurdle.
So, what is your why? Why do you want to work at creating a greener business?
It is ok to want to know if modifying your operations will save you money. Achieving lasting change takes time, so what will you get in return? This is not egotistical behaviour; it is human nature.
The truth is that not all sustainability actions will immediately generate more revenue, which is why it is crucial that you are “bought-into” the process.
However, the benefits are many and they also become more evident as the process of integrating more sustainable ways of doing business becomes an integral part of your operations.
From cost savings to risk minimisation, improving community partnerships to gaining market advantage, boosting staff performance to increasing product quality, the advantages are numerous and tangible, but at the outset, the undeniable fact is that it is quite simply the right thing to do.
You have to be in or out. There is no in-between. It can help to think of your child or grandchild in 10 years when they question why you continued to buy, use, and throw away X, Y, or Z. They will want to know why current generations did not take action to change sooner. Their struggles to overcome greater challenges than the ones we currently face will make us wish we had done more while we had the chance.
There can be no better reason than that.
So, now that you are committed to generating change where possible, ingredient number 2 is to work out where to start?
With so many changes that can be made, overwhelm is often cited as the reason for not getting going at all.
One way to counteract this is to choose just one internal change for your business, and one external solution to a destination-level problem.
For your first internal project, choose something that resonates with you. Like everything else in life, if you can easily see and feel the enjoyment in something, sticking at it and generating positive progress will be a whole lot easier.
If you love gardening, consider creating a green space at your property that offers shade and proximity to nature. Customer comfort and satisfaction will increase in response to having somewhere attractive to sit when the temperatures soar, and you will also see electricity savings as guests spend more time there rather than in their air-conditioned rooms. In addition, you will boost your marketing material with fresh images and written content about your new installation.
For the external solution to a destination-level problem, choose something that benefits your staff and their families. This could be anything from raising money for a new bike track, to offering school visits to your property. Starting with something that instils pride in your staff is great way to help you later on as you introduce more significant operational changes in your business.
So, ask yourself, what does your destination need right now?
Always keep in mind that sustainable tourism is an aspiration that can only be achieved by taking more responsible business decisions that create a better destination to live in. This in turn works to offer a more attractive destination for your customers to visit.
Onto ingredient number 3. When you have worked out what actions you will implement first, you now need to communicate them to your staff.
The success of any change to the way your business is run is 100% dependent on staff “buy-in”. Whether you have two, ten, or twenty-five staff members, they all count. You simply cannot a) generate change, and b) ensure that the change is maintained over time, without engaging your staff.
This goes far beyond asking your staff politely to turn lights off and recycle more. Sustained operational change can only happen when your staff members feel a part of the change. To achieve that, they need to understand the reasons behind why you are asking them to do something differently, and they also want to know what is in it for them.
Once again, this is not egotistical behaviour; it is human nature.
Let’s think for a moment about the psychology behind consumer buying decisions. We don’t always buy products or services based on price alone, maybe table salt and pasta yes, but not clothes, furniture, or cars. We are always looking for that extra value that answers the question of “What’s in it for me?”, “What value do I get from this product?”.
The answer could be as simple as accumulated points on a specific purchase, or a good dose of feel-good factor that your new t-shirt is made from organic cotton.
The point is, encouraging your staff to change the way they do things requires that they see the value of the changes they are being asked to make. What does the change mean to their lives, their family's lives, their community, and the place where they live?
Effective staff training can only come from a place of knowledge. This is why you are the critical ingredient in generating sustained change. To communicate the changes effectively, you need to be fully committed to the reasons behind implementing them.
Tools to help you in this process range from training strategies such as modelling the new behaviour and communicating through different mediums, to more motivational approaches such as introducing non-financial incentives and generating a healthy sense of competition.
As a result, staff pride in their jobs and in the company they work for will grow. In turn, you then benefit from an array of secondary effects such as reduced human resources expenditure due to lower staff turnover and more positive customer reviews because of increased staff morale.
Moving on now to ingredient number 4. You have successfully set up a process to communicate your intentions (your why) to your staff, but what about everyone else?
A solid strategy to communicate your sustainability practices and results is an integral part of influencing and educating others to do better.
A recent Skift Q&A about sustainability in tourism raised this question:
"When are travel professionals going to take responsibility for the products they sell? For example, by teaching people how to travel better, before, during, and after the sales process? Does their responsibility end with taking the booking?”.
Generating change that matters, both internally and externally, should not be hidden from the public eye.
When we begin to see this as an opportunity to educate not only our staff but our colleagues, industry partners, and guests about how they can also live better and make less impactful choices, the job of communicating what we are doing becomes easier.
We have to get bold and confident, but most of all we have to get authentic.
The world has moved into an era where greenwashing (too much talk, not enough action) will be called out. The opposite, greenhushing (too little talk about successful action) can be counteracted by leveraging two of the positive legacies of the pandemic:
That consumers are actively seeking and respond to the trust that is generated through authenticity, and
That travellers want to know more about how they can reduce their impact even while enjoying a well-deserved holiday.
Just as implementing sustainable changes requires a shift in operational management, authentically communicating sustainable and responsible tourism actions should become an integral part of your communications strategy.
By sharing the results and showcasing the positive impacts of action taken, owners of responsible businesses cannot fail to influence others, from peers and competitors to partners and consumers.
It is however important to understand that one standalone piece of content is not going to do the job. Your sustainability actions must be woven into the storytelling behind all of your creative content. It should slide in there alongside your regular communications about room updates, upcoming events, behind-the-scenes insights, outstanding images, and glowing customer reviews.
By integrating this type of communication into your strategy, it intrinsically becomes normalised and a part of your business ethos.
You truly begin to share your why with the world.
To conclude, generating change that matters starts with owner “buy-in”. This is the single most important ingredient for success. From there, deciding what to start with becomes a matter of preference and priorities. Positively influencing staff so they roll with the operational changes that are being asked of them requires a solid internal communications and training strategy. Then, once the actions taken have generated results – no matter how small – incorporating them into your communications strategy is not only an opportunity but also an inherent responsibility allowing you to educate and influence change in others.
This journey to create a greener, more sustainable business needs to be viewed as an exciting challenge that will positively impact people’s lives, and one that also gifts you the perfect way to create a noble legacy and a better future for those who follow.