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Do customers care about sustainability when they travel?

bag-in-sea…asks Claire Yeates, Director at Waterscan

I was asked to be part of a panel discussion at the World Travel Market (WTM) event which took place at London’s Excel recently. The topic was: ‘Should the hospitality industry be communicating sustainability to its customers?’ and I was joined by Helena Egan, Global Director of Industry Relations at TripAdvisor, and Gavin Sanders, Radisson Blu Edwardian’s General Manager, in what proved to be a lively debate expertly chaired by Siobhan O’Neill, Editor of Green Hotelier.

Some years ago when we first started seeing little ‘tent cards’ in hotel bedrooms and bathrooms asking us to consider our environmental footprint by making an active choice about whether we really needed our towels and bed linen washed and changed each day, they stopped and made us think.  It was new.  Hmmm – surely it’s down to the hotel to make the right decision isn’t it? Why are you asking for my input?

Years on, all that has changed.  Consumer input and opinion has become the cornerstone of travel. Whether for business or pleasure, most of us wouldn’t dream of making a booking without analysing reviews on TripAdvisor and garnering the feedback of others.

At the same time, those little tent cards which demanded attention because they were so new have become so commonplace that most people don’t even bother to read them anymore.  But that’s because most people don’t need to.  Consumer behaviour has changed, with most of us not dreaming of having our towels changed on a daily basis, knowing that our choice as individuals is important and that we can each play our part.  It’s a step in the right direction.

I was really interested in Jenny Rushmore’s presentation at the WTM.  As Director of TripAdvisor GreenLeaders, she works to promote sustainable travel practices and has a unique insight into how guests react to sustainability initiatives in hotels.  Her detailed research revealed that consumers only notice a limited set of sustainable activities, but they do feel positively about them, and those that are interactive are most noticed.

TripAdvisor reviews which mention green practices are usually related to specific and highly visible attributes like recycling and towel/linen re-use, says Jenny. Other ‘green’ initiatives like lightbulbs, toiletries, landscaping, renewable energy and opt-out housekeeping rarely get a mention. These are more ‘behind the scenes’ and consumers aren’t able to make an impact here, so it’s clear that visibility does matter.

It should follow then, that, if visibility matters, so too should communication. So how do we create the necessary consumer interest and engagement to build foundations for the next level of behaviour change?

There’s general agreement too that when it comes to water, it’s even more difficult because water consumption is intrinsically linked to the customer experience. No-one wants to spend their hard-earned salary on a hotly anticipated holiday in a luxury five star resort to be told ‘please only shower for 3 minutes’ and ‘please don’t think about having clean sheets tonight’!  This conflict between the desired customer experience and desired customer behaviour is the challenge that needs to be addressed in my opinion.

My solution? Well, as with many sustainability matters, it goes back to the old adage: ‘think globally, act locally’.

Whilst there are many consumers who interact with hotels and leisure facilities for pleasure, there are also many who use them for business. Going on holiday to Cornwall with the kids?  I’d wager that bathtime for a family of five isn’t going to be the best opportunity to drive water reduction strategies.   Shooting up to Birmingham straight from the office to head to an industry event after a quick shower and turnaround? Yes!!

I believe it all comes down to quality data – a detailed look at location, demographics and typical usage.  By thoroughly analysing guest behaviour on a location-by-location, or even region-by-region level, it’s possible to refine a water sustainability strategy without negatively impacting the guest experience.

All of this is important because water is increasingly recognised by consumers as the next big global environmental challenge, and because, typically, hotels have a larger environmental impact than similarly sized non-hotel buildings.  I say ‘typically’ because we have been working with Whitbread to create an altogether different model.  Through detailed consultancy and the implementation of greywater recycling during the build process, we have helped the company work towards its water reduction goals by creating an industry first.  We will be revealing new developments on this shortly, so I won’t go into it here but we are proud of being a part of this major step forward for the travel sector.

Meanwhile, to conclude, I feel strongly that it is important to communicate sustainability to consumers within the travel sector.  But let’s start the consumer engagement process with a well thought through strategy.  Let’s do it with data, insight and brand-relevant tactics that help add value to the consumer experience rather than detracting from it.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic for ‘water use’ to be one of those most noticed and most commented sustainability activities that get positive reviews on TripAdvisor?