Sustainable Travel: Observations from a Marketing Person (who is also your market)
By Lesley Stern
As a shallow but avid world traveler and an equally shallow advertising person, my knowledge of community-based tourism, sustainable tourism and anything green is limited. Don’t get me wrong. I’m responsible. I don’t litter. I recycle. I’m energy conscious. I don’t have the linens laundered every day. But I was always under the impression that my options for responsible accommodation would involve a certain amount of sacrifice (like giving up indoor plumbing, a floor or a roof).
So when I was asked to analyze why sustainable travel and community-based travel projects that have invested in infrastructure and capacity building to accommodate tourists, don’t, in fact, attract tourists, I felt a little out of my element. When I learned that as little as 5% of tourism-generated revenue actually stays in the host country (that’s only $5 of every $100), I felt angry (1).
What kind of budgeting is this? Shouldn’t the concept of community based tourism be approached as a business model? Shouldn’t the funds be appropriated not only for research and development, but also conducting and sustaining a business? It seems that would be an obvious concept, but maybe it’s not.
Adventurer that I am, I embarked on an arduous Google journey of knowledge. I started at community-based tourism and continued to sustainable tourism and green tourism websites, with stops at Expedia, Travel + Leisure, Amazon.com and Travelocity, as well as side trips to dozens of worldwide tourism organizations, businesses and non-profits, TravelMole, a stopover at the UNWTO and World Bank culminating in a cruise of hotel association web sites. My recent travels on the Internet have made me quite opinionated.
Sustainable and community-based tourism has to be approached like a business, not a niche or cause. Consider it a brand, and all the lodging, tours, services that qualify are products under the brand. Some sort of universal “responsible” certification code must be adopted and accepted. And then, it needs a marketing plan.
Anyone in the travel industry (or anyone who has used Googled it) knows the importance of the web and how a site with reviews, interactivity and pictures exponentially increases bookings. So this is a no brainer: build an advanced, interactive, user-friendly, mass-market website that allows travelers to research, review and book the entire gamut of responsible travel options. It needs to have the interactivity and search capabilities of a TripAdvisor, the booking ease of Expedia or Travelocity, and the gloss and visual seductiveness of Travel + Leisure. Then optimize it so you come up at the top of the search engines. It’s equally important to lobby the leading online booking agents to include a green section of listings, or at the very least, a code that shows which accommodations, tours, and transportation options are responsible.
Just because you build a website doesn’t mean they’ll come. Sustainable and green travel desperately need a consumer image campaign. It was nearly impossible in my search of web sites, books and travel magazines to find anything on the subject that wasn’t dry, pedantic and totally unsexy to the majority of the travel market. In other words, you’re talking to yourselves.
Clearly that’s a losing proposition now that more than half of all travelers are increasingly opting to independently research and book their trips on the Internet(2). Further, considering the fact that the majority of world travelers from the US earn over 100k / year, you’re not even beginning to reach your target audience who likely shares my previous misconceptions about responsible travel. Remember, Americans generally get only two weeks of vacation a year, which makes them far less likely to consider giving up comfort during the small segment of time allocated for R&R. I believe they’d gladly consider responsible choices if they only knew the range of accommodations available and could book them easily.
Mainstream travelers must be educated that just about every option available in the mainstream travel market is also available green / responsible, from luxury to budget. There should be more magazine articles and books on the subject. Not dry, colorless treatises. Engaging prose with lots of pictures. Responsible travel should be approached and presented as a mainstream travel choice instead of some quirky niche. Accomplishing this within your own business will require a concentrated and sustained effort and a dedicated marketing person who can coordinate, strategize, keep your web site up to date and make sure the strategy is executed to reach your audience and appeal to their needs and values.
There are a myriad of green/sustainable/community-based web sites that do a poor or incomplete job of promoting the proposition. Some are non-profit, some are for profit, and some are governmental. I’ve got to wonder why all these myriad .coms, .orgs, .biz, .gov’s don’t pool their resources and coordinate their efforts. That way, instead of having lots of redundant, incomplete sites and initiatives, you can develop a synergistic effort that drives towards the same end. It seems like a much more effective use of limited funds and resources.
At present, it’s impossible to tell the total amount of funds and resources that are going into developing sustainable travel and tourism, so I don’t know how they break down the budgets. But it seems quite clear that a lot more money is going into research and development than goes into building and sustaining the businesses once they’re built. For example, if I’m correct, the people the funds and resources wind up benefitting are usually the people who build the infrastructure, not the community invested in the project.
Each development should be based on a hotel-chain-type business model with annual reports and budgets that factor in marketing and promotion the same way hotel chains do. The marketing and promotion budget should go into the branding and keeping the listings and technology up to date.
Judging by what I’ve seen, much of the funds (at least on the government side) are going towards redundant studies and conferences. There should be some sort of oversight over all of them to ensure the funds are being used effectively within a sustainable business model.
After my research, I’m fully convinced that incorporating community-based / responsible destinations into my next itinerary will enhance my experience. However, I’ve also concluded that sustainable tourism will not be truly sustainable until mainstream tourists can reach the same conclusion I have, without requiring a grueling Internet journey.