Travelling with purpose

As the global travel industry looks to restart following the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a strong desire to rebuild a sector with a far greater focus on sustainability and purpose.  

The move looks to build on what appears to be a growing awareness among consumers of their environmental impact. Pandemic lockdowns saw air quality in cities improve, due to lower vehicle emissions. Air travel, too, has been substantially constrained. And, with enforced working from home came a broader discussion about the impact of commuting, and travelling more widely. 

At the UNWTO, which had been openly pressing for a greater focus on sustainability in recent years, the pandemic presents a substantial opportunity for reset. Speaking in June 2020, as the pandemic started substantially disrupting travel, UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili declared: “Sustainability must no longer be a niche part of tourism but must be the new norm for every part of our sector. This is one of the central elements of our Global Guidelines to Restart Tourism. It is in our hands to transform tourism and that emerging from Covid-19 becomes a turning point for sustainability.” 

Two recent moves in the travel sector look to harness some of this positive attitude. Industry stalwart Barry Sternlicht, recently called on the hotel sector to “compete on purpose, not on points,” as he launched a new rewards programme for his SH Hotels & Resorts properties. The programme, named Mission, allows guests to offset the climate impact of their travelling, by supporting carbon offset projects from their reward points.  

“SH Hotels & Resorts’ US properties have been carbon neutral since 2018 and we have always looked at the brand as a platform for change and sustainability, not just a luxury hotel experience,” said Sternlicht. “Launching our loyalty programme where our guests can ‘stay for a cause’ with the all-important give-back component is exemplary of our commitment.” SH has looked to combine giving back while still allowing members to benefit from luxury perks 

Corinne Hanson, the hotel group’s corporate director of sustainability and impact, added: “The most sustainable product in the world could still have a tremendously negative impact if it ends up in a landfill. We’ve spent time gaining clarity on opportunities to minimize waste to landfills and optimize recycling. We want to be leaders who promote zero waste in hospitality and share our learnings with our guests.” 

Also looking to score with concerned guests is Preferred Hotels, which acquired tourism and consulting services group Beyond Green Travel in mid2020, and has more recently launched a Beyond Green hotel collection.  

“Beyond Green was born out of an inspired, natural synergy and shared set of values that was discovered over an initial coffee meeting between myself and Costas Christ,” said Lindsey Ueberroth, CEO of Preferred Hotel Group. Christ had founded Beyond Green Travel to positively influence the sector. “My family and our company decided to double down on our commitment to use travel as a force for good.” 

The Beyond Green brand currently features 27 properties around the globe, from African lodges to European stately homes. Each has to pass a rigorous vetting process, that measures the location’s progress against 50 criteria.  

“The question is no longer whether we can transform travel based upon sustainable tourism principles and practices to be a powerful force for saving nature, regenerating ecosystems, and providing tangible social and economic benefits to local people, while also celebrating cultural diversity and inclusiveness around the world,” said Christ. “This is now happening, as also represented by Beyond Green members. Rather, the most important question is how can travelers help make sustainability the new normal around the world while also having a great vacation.” 

Among hoteliers who have joined the Beyond Green affiliation are Richard Bailey, CEO of Pacific Beachcomber, and Jonathan Raggett of Red Carnation Hotels, who has three properties under the brand. “We believe that tourism must be a force for good, and in tomorrow’s travel world, it will no longer be enough to only “do no harm”, said Bailey. And Raggett noted: “This is a transformative time in our industry, and we feel that it is more important than ever to place sustainable practices that care for the planet and our guests’ wellbeing at the heart of our daily operations.” 

Anna Pollock, founder of consultancy Conscious Travel, said the moves are indicative of a realisation: “There are growing numbers of businesses that are recognising they’re living systems, not just profitmaking machines. And if we see ourselves as a living system, we’re going to behave differently.” 

“It’s a good example of companies picking up signals, and moving in the right direction. Customer wants and desires are changing.” 

However, there remain concerns at large, at the level of consumer interest in travelling with purpose. A recent study by airline Lufthansa pointed to the gap between the large number of people expressing a desire to be environmentally responsible, and the small number who actually opted to offset their carbon while travelling, even when it was presented as a simple tick box while booking. 

HA Perspective [by Andrew Sangster]: As every journalist knows, bad news sells. Every reader survey will tell you that they’d like to see more good news covered but the reality is that the only thing that gets read is the bad news story. 

The situation with green travel is similar. Customers will claim to seek out green companies but most will focus far more on getting the best price they can. 

What this means for a company is that the profit optimising position in any green ranking is to be mid-table: comfortably avoiding the relegation zone (and becoming a target for activists) while not spending gazillions trying to be league champions. 

But corporations are not just about customers. Critical are other stakeholders such as employees and suppliers. It is in these other areas where I think “purpose” has a bigger role to play. 

Unfortunately, the term purpose has been hijacked to encompass a range of well-meaning ideals. But purpose is really about focus and giving employees and suppliers a clear idea of what your company stands for. It does not have to be some “woke” mantra. 

Having meaningful purpose has (ironically, given my previous comments) to focus on your customers. It is essentially your company’s commitment to the people that buy your service. Communicating a clear purpose to employees and suppliers will help deliver a better, more effective customer experience. This in turn boosts the bottom line. 

An example of a company with an effective purpose is Ikea. The Swedish brand says its purpose is “to create a better everyday life for the many people”. It supports this by “offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them”. It is now the world’s biggest furniture retailer. 

Another example is children’s toy LEGO. Its purpose is “to inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future”. 

Both Ikea and LEGO are hugely successful and have clearly succeeded in making big profits. But profits were not the focus or purpose of the businessesIt probably helps that both are also privately held companies, not scrutinised by outside shareholders. 

Public companies have to be more prosaic about making profits, especially when communicating to shareholders. But this does not mean that they should avoid the poetry of purpose altogether.  

There are real opportunities to create wealth though purpose if the right balance can be struck between the often conflicting objectives of short-term profits and long-term value creation. 

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