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Selling Green

April 8, 2009 By: Jena Tesse Fox Travel Agent
 

What can you and your clients do to save the planet?


GreenGlobe

The Cuyahoga River, on its way to Lake Erie, used to burn from all of the chemicals that had been dumped into it. The Delaware River was so polluted that boats would emerge to find that the paint on their hulls had been stripped away. America’s highways and byways were lined with litter from passing cars, and even the rain became toxic.  

When the Environmental Protection Agency was established in 1970, the country began to take steps toward cleaning up its act and actions. Lady Bird Johnson urged us to “Keep America Beautiful,” and a weeping Native American became a popular symbol of the devastation we had wreaked on the landscape. But after the initial environmental awakening, concerns waned and seemed regulated to a fringe or niche interest until Al Gore woke us up with his devastating book and documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Suddenly, green was cool. It was hip. Most importantly, it was vital to our very survival, and people were finally paying attention. Terms like “carbon footprint” became part of everyday jargon, and global warming was fodder for cocktail conversations.

But how pervasive is the green movement, and how does it affect you as a travel agent—and as a concerned human being? In this issue of Travel Agent, we will examine every aspect of the green movement as it relates to the travel industry—from environmentally friendly hotels and cars, to destinations and resources available to you. Every article in this issue will focus on the environment, and on what you and your clients can do to help save it.

By the Numbers

First, the good news: As environmental rules and regulations take hold, businesses are taking measures to ensure that their carbon footprints are as small as possible. For years now, many hotels have offered their guests the option of reusing towels and sheets rather than using new ones every night. Some hotels have motion sensors in the hallways to dim lights when nobody is around to use them, and LEED certification has become a bragging right for buildings. A recent YPartnership survey revealed that 85 percent of interviewed travelers consider themselves to be “environmentally conscious,” and 40 percent said they would “consider shifting their patronage to a travel service supplier that demonstrates environmental responsibility.”

PhoCusWright’s report titled “Going Green: The Business Impact of Environmental Awareness on Travel” is similarly inspiring. “Forty-four percent of U.S. travelers consider the environmental impact to be important to them when planning travel,” the report states, adding that demand for environmental options could let suppliers charge a premium for such products and services. “Nearly one-third of U.S. travelers would pay such premiums,” the report continues. The Travel
Industry Association of America
offers some harder numbers in its report “Geotourism: The New Trend In Travel”: 60.8 million travelers are “inclined to select travel companies that protect and preserve a destination’s environment,” 58.5 million would “pay more to use these companies” and 55.1 million classify themselves as “sustainable tourists” or “geotourists.”
But other studies tell a different story. In a recent survey of 180 travel agents by Vacation.com, only 5.1 percent said that their clients had requested environmentally friendly hotel rooms, and even those agents say that most of these requests come from between 5 and 15 percent of their clientele. Only 9.4 percent of reporting agents said that a hotel’s green status affected their decision to book it for a client. As one poster commented on a recent TravelAgentCentral.com poll, “The only kind of green travel that my clients are interested in is the kind that saves them green.”

Changing Perceptions

Translated, these numbers would indicate that while travelers care about the environment, they aren’t making a concerted effort to travel green. In many cases, they may simply be unaware of the options available to them, or they may not understand that green travel can be just as enjoyable, comfortable and even luxurious as regular tourism.

And here is where you come in: By casually mentioning the environmental features of a hotel, cruise or destination, you can raise awareness and make a destination more attractive to a concerned client. For example, Fairmont hotels around the world are popular not only for their luxury and comfort, but for their business-wide dedication to the local environments of each property. Rooms use low-flow showerheads and aerated taps to preserve water, and three of its properties create their own electricity and capture excess heat for the hotel’s use. In fact, Fairmont quite literally wrote the book on environmental responsibility in hotels back in 1990, creating a “Green Guide” to environmental partnerships that is available free to other businesses. Other environmentally conscious hotels offer free parking for guests who arrive in hybrid cars, or provide bicycles for guests to use during their stay.

For those who prefer to relax on water, cruise lines are drastically improving their environmental image. Not so very long ago, ships were condemned for guzzling fuel and dumping garbage and waste into international waters. Today, it’s a different story. Harbors are being converted to allow ships to use local electric grids rather than burning fuel while in port, most major lines utilize advanced purification systems to treat wastewater and individual ships are introducing various environmental features. For example, Celebrity Solstice, the industry’s first ship to use solar energy, has 216 solar panels that provide enough energy to power all the ship’s guest elevators or more than 7,000 LED lights. In March, The Ports of Stockholm awarded Crystal CruisesCrystal Symphony the Environmental Buoy Diploma for its efforts. The ship was chosen from among 80 eligible vessels—a comforting and hopeful statement about the future of the cruising industry.

Inspire and Empower

But what about the travel industry in general? Naturally, nobody wants to contribute to the destruction of the planet, but if “environmentally friendly” isn’t also economically friendly, it just won’t fly.

“A healthy economy is impossible without a healthy environment,” says Aaron Pope, manager of sustainability programs at the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). “We all rely on clean air, clean water, a stable climate and healthy food to live. As we destroy the natural systems that provide these essential services, our economies, and our cultures, suffer greatly.” Traditionally, he adds, economic systems sheltered many businesses from paying for the true cost of their environmental impacts. “In the end, somebody must pay for what is taken. Current trends are definitely shifting toward making businesses pay a larger share of the ‘true cost’ of doing business, so being proactive about lowering your environmental impact is becoming smart business.”

But even if businesses do their part to meet environmental standards, how do agents get their clients to do their share?  “This is a complicated question,” acknowledges Pope. “We must help consumers make the connection between the lives they lead, the people and places they love, and a healthy environment. They must feel that doing their share contributes positively to their lives and also fits into their value systems.” Guilt-tripping clients is not effective, he continues, recommending that agents inspire clients by telling them about other everyday people who are taking action. “People are very inclined to join others with whom they identify and admire,” he says. “Publicizing success stories, leaders and environmental heroes in your sector, and then empowering clients to take similar steps can be quite effective.”

“Educated clients will make the conscious decision to support green travel choices when they see that their decision really makes a measurable difference,” says Richard Peterson, director of travel industry sales at CAS. “Delivering on the promise of experience, price and value are all constants in the travel selection process, regardless of it being ‘green travel’ or not.” Above all, clients need to demand environmentally friendly options. “If the target products are not in line with consumer demand, then the environmentally friendly options will not be successful,” Peterson says. “There should be a balance in the process at all times.”

Agent Resources

Numerous educational and accreditation programs are available to encourage environmental awareness in the travel community. American Express and the U.S. Travel Association have joined forces to launch Travelgreen.org, a resource for agents and suppliers alike that links to national and international organizations and associations and their green programs. ASTA’s Green Program helps agents and suppliers educate themselves about environmental travel. At the heart of the program is the Green Guide, which provides an overview of green travel as well as sections on terminology, marketing sustainable travel and green resources.

In addition, the World Travel and Tourism Council recently published a report entitled “Leading the Challenge on Climate Change,” which outlines 10 goals or “Action Items” for the future of both the environment and the travel industry. The Council will also be creating a website that will offer information and examples to help everyone in the industry make green choices.

“Going green may be a trend, but true business-as-usual sustainability will have to replace it,” says Pope. “Many natural systems are so severely damaged that we cannot ignore the damage any longer. Examples such as increasingly common extreme weather events, water shortages, rising sea levels, overfishing and so on are making our true impacts impossible to ignore. The planet will continue to talk to us, and its voice will grow louder and louder. This is what the science tells us.”


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