How can travel companies avoid the reputational risks associated with attempting to become sustainable?

The recent Earth Day (22nd April) and World Environment Day (5 June) brought with them inevitable stories about shameful greenwashing – from oil giants to global banks to car companies.  As an industry that contributes 8-11% of global greenhouse gas emissions (WTTC, 2022), travel companies have a profound role to play in adopting greener practices, yet can easily face reputational risks in doing so: accusations of greenwashing or backlashes from those opposed to environmental policies can understandably leave many companies thinking they are better off not bothering.

Alternatively for those genuinely committed to change, this leaves many companies in the travel industry afraid to launch green campaigns publicly, instead resulting in the very opposite: ‘green-hushing’, i.e. not communicating what they are doing. This not only means the companies lose out on the justified rewards of acting virtuously, but also that such actions don’t have the full impact they deserve as engagement levels are lower due to lack of awareness.

So what should travel companies be doing at a communications level when trying to act sustainably? And where should they focus their efforts? We asked several travel technology industry experts.

Christian Sabbagh, Founder & CEO from travel SaaS provider Travelsoft – owners of platforms such as Orchestra, Traffics and Travel Compositor – comments: “In an increasingly environmentally conscious world and a very strong media focus on the travel industry about this subject, travel companies are under mounting pressure to not only reduce their carbon footprint but to communicate and report their efforts in a transparent and meaningful way. I believe that we, as an industry, should see this topic as a positive challenge to embrace, take action and communicate about our achievements. By reacting positively to this pressure we can progress faster and always keep a step ahead.”

Greenwashing or green sheen concept with washing machine

Looking at how hotels present themselves in their sales and marketing channels, Janet Jaiswal, VP of Marketing from Cloudbeds – who provides technology to independent hotels – believes that “it’s not enough to just make changes behind the scenes; companies also need to communicate these efforts to their customers in order to truly make a difference.  But in a world where travellers are increasingly prioritising eco-friendliness, if you fail to follow through on sustainability initiatives once the guest is on the property then that can lead to lower guest satisfaction, cancellations and less bookings in the longer term. Companies must take a holistic approach to sustainability in order to benefit the environment and maintain their bottom line.”

Alex Gisbert CEO of FastPayhotels – a B2B platform for travel sellers and hotels globally – points out that whilst much of the focus is on those who have a heavy carbon footprint, for example the airlines or the hotels, all businesses across the travel distribution ecosystem must accept that the days of saying ‘that’s not me’ are gone. “The carbon footprint of the tech sector focused around travel – bedbanks, GDS providers, channel managers, payments services, property management systems, PSS platforms, and so on – might well have a very small direct carbon impact compared to the suppliers, but it is there nonetheless. Besides, true sustainability is not just about carbon footprint, it is so much more. There are steps in the right direction for sure, but they’re not as well communicated or coordinated as in the B2C space and they need to find their voice, neither over-emphasing their role and impact nor downplaying it. Start small would be my advice.”

Considering the challenges that tourism boards face, Carlos Cendra from travel intelligence provider Mabrian adds: “The DMOs have a unique opportunity to make meaningful contributions to sustainability, while also avoiding the risks of greenwashing or indeed backlash from those opposed to environmental policies.  It is not just about the carbon footprint though, tourism sustainability goes beyond that and must be approached from different dimensions: environmental, social, economic and structural. The DMOs managers have the responsibility to implement a sustainable culture for both the tourism sector and the residents. That takes time and efforts to establish, but it is the only way to make a real and lasting change. By contrast, the ‘patchwork’ strategy of doing uncoordinated sustainability actions is almost useless and can give an impression of greenwashing”.

Green Business Meeting. United Partners Team with hands together holding plant green trusted friends. Hands stacked Holding with sustainability partners. Trust business authentic of people.

Meanwhile Alex Barros from hotel revenue management platform BEONx sees promoting the sustainability of your property not just as way to ensure you don’t fall behind, but as “an actual direct source of revenue generation, quite literally selling them a sustainable experience or services. While a sustainable business model may require initial investment, it offers long-term benefits in terms of cost savings and enhancing the hotel’s reputation. At the same time, hotels that choose to ignore sustainability do so at their own peril, risking reputational damage and financial losses in the face of increasing demand for socially responsible businesses. In short, being sustainable is no longer a choice, but a necessity for hotels that wish to remain relevant and profitable.”

Consumers and even to some extent B2B buyers look at the aviation space and understandably focus on the fuel consumption aspect, but let’s not forget that there’s the whole B2B side of the industry providing all the technology and operations that make everything work. Martin Eade from travel booking technology provider Vibe points out that such companies have “generally promoted sustainability in terms of what their business is doing, rather than how the services they provide can actually lead to a more sustainable world. Consider for example NDC solutions that enable passengers to easily access only the elements they require – think about the carbon footprint of unconsumed meals or unwanted extra legroom, for instance – or more efficient rebooking tools that help reduce the number of empty seats on a plane. As long as you can back up your claim to show a demonstrable impact, do so not just because your company benefits but because it inspires others to thing the same way.”

Finally, looking this topic from the investor perspective, Morgann Lesné from boutique travel investment bank Cambon Partners comments: “There is a growing desire among investors to align themselves with green-related businesses.  However, it’s crucial to remember that authenticity is key in this arena.  Attempting to greenwash investors by overselling your environmental actions or making false claims is not only unethical, but it could also land you in legal trouble.  As part of an industry at the forefront of environmental issues, it’s imperative for travel companies to be transparent and honest about their environmental practices whatever they may be, whilst at the same time always striving for continuous improvement.  Contrary to what some think, investors value honesty and trust, integrity, thinking long-term and doing the right thing.”

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