by Jeremy Smith, Editor & Co-Founder, Travindy
The easiest way to understand why most people struggle to communicate sustainable tourism well, and to understand how to get it right, is to stop thinking about sustainable tourism.
Instead, think about food. When you buy any food that comes in packaging, that packaging is covered with information. On the front, there’s the name of the product, maybe a photo or image of it looking at its finest, and a few short words or a phrase that describe how mouthwateringly, lipsmackingly delicious it is. All this information is communicating to the customer what their experience will be like. Because that is what motivates their purchase.
Meanwhile, somewhere else on the package, probably on the back, in a tiny font, is a long list of ingredients, some information on how to dispose of the packaging, guidelines about which sort of food intolerances it is a risk for, and so on. How many times do you ever look at that information before you buy a product – unless you specifically need to know if, say, it might contain peanuts? This is how the product was made. It’s complex, necessary, and in a few specific cases motivates a purchase. But not often.
When talking about tourism in general, people focus on the first approach – how relaxing, exciting, thrilling, inspiring your holiday will be. But when many people try to communicate sustainable tourism the focus shifts to an overemphasis on what is found on the back of the food packet – the stuff about how it is made.
It’s not surprising. People who put in all this extra effort are incredibly committed, passionate people. They care hugely about supporting their local communities, regenerating endangered habitats, or reducing their impact on climate change. And they want to share this passion with their guests.
Last year my colleague Professor Xavier Font analysed the sustainability messages used by businesses winning the World Responsible Tourism Awards held at WTM and WTTC’s Tourism for Tomorrow Awards over the previous years. In other words, the leaders in the field. He found that even then: “most of these messages focus on passive facts where the beneficiary of the sustainability action is not clear.”
To use an example that combines food and hospitality, companies report reductions in food miles, but don’t contextualise this message so as to explain to their guests how their experience is improved as a result. Yes, reducing food miles means less carbon emissions while supporting a region’s farmers. Yet the key message to consumers should be that this offers unique opportunities for them to enjoy varieties and tastes they won’t get elsewhere, while ensuring that the food is as fresh and ripe as can be. In other words, our efforts to be more sustainable mean a better holiday for you.
In the same way, if your lodge has solar panels – key messages might be how this enables it to be sited in such a remote and beautiful place, or how it means there are no ugly power cables spoiling the view, or how guests can sleep undisturbed by the hum of a generator. If your staff are all from nearby villages, this means they know the area best, have the most fascinating stories of its history, and make the best guides to it today.
If you clear the litter off of coral, it is the clean reef you show a picture of, not the pile of rubbish. If the air is pure where you operate, you don’t detail the chemical composition of the atmosphere, you paint a picture so people imagine closing their eyes and breathing deep. If you have protected thousands of acres of forests the story you share is not of the bureaucratic wrangling and years of campaigning, but of how far and free people can walk direct from your front door.
For every action you take, every procedure you implement, every device or tool you’ve added to make your operation run more sustainably, ask yourself – how does this improve my guests’ experience. And then tell them that. To use the food packaging analogy – put this on the front of the pack.
Of course it may well be that you can’t think of suitable stories to tell about some of the things you do. So, just as with all the less exciting sounding ingredients, you put these on the back. In an environmental policy document. Under a ‘sustainability practices’ tab on the website. You still mention them – because just as some people look for specific ingredients in food, so some people will check your sustainable tourism policy. And without it being there for those that look, how would they know?
There is much else to get right, once you have ensured your communications focus on the benefit for your guests. You need to avoid greenwash. Got the tone right so you aren’t preachy or angry. But everything starts here.
Looking for more help?
Over the years we’ve worked with hundreds of people and companies who are putting loads of effort into being more sustainable, and who are frustrated because they aren’t able to get their guests as excited about their efforts as they are. We’ve put together much of what we have learned, and the stories of many of the companies we have helped, into a free Essential Guide to Marketing and Communicating Sustainable Tourism. This 83-page ebook is filled with case studies of companies getting it right, and ideas and advice for people looking to do the same.
It can be downloaded from Travindy here. And if you want to talk to us about how we can help you get your sustainability stories heard, email firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet @travindy or find us at facebook.com/travindy