When it comes to environmental awareness, different levels of involvement
work for different travel agents.
Environmentally friendly travel has come a long way, courtesy of industry groups that promote responsible tourism and agents who help their clients see the world through “greener” eyes.
The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) began developing its Green Program in 2007, when the ASTA Research Department decided to write a green report to assist members in understanding green travel concepts and terminology. “We planned to do a simple white paper on green travel and develop a glossary,” recalls Melissa Teates, director of research at ASTA, who developed the program. “As we talked to members, we determined that much more was needed. We started to expand the concept and finally determined that a program would be the best learning tool. We developed a project plan and executed it.”
ASTA calls its Green Program an education and self-assessment program for both travel agents and travel suppliers alike, with the Green Guide at its core. The guide has a general overview of green travel as well as sections on terminology, marketing sustainable travel, and green resources. It also has a large section on how to operate in a more sustainable manner, including a self-assessment tool for internal operations.
Agents and suppliers who purchase the Green Guide can also become ASTA Green Members, which involves completing the self-assessment, signing ASTA’s Green Code of Ethics, and submitting an application. Green Members receive a monthly e-newsletter and copies of all Green Guide updates.
Green As a Bonus
So far, so good. But how does going green play out in daily business? “ASTA’s Green Program is a fantastic resource to learn about the little things you can do to make your office greener,” says travel agent Stephanie Lee of TravelQuest. “The beauty of it is that you don’t need to be a green travel specialist for it to be applicable to you; you can just be an agency interested in doing your part by having as green an office as possible. You can go on Google and find loads of green tips for small businesses, but the unique aspect of ASTA’s green program is that they give specifics on what travel agencies are doing, so it’s 100 percent relevant to you.”
|Costa Rica is already a popular destination, but its emphasis on sustainable tourism makes it a good entry point for agents looking to sell green. Shown here is the Poás Volcano crater in Poás Volcano National Park, Costa Rica.|
Lee says that TravelQuest does not particularly market itself as a “green” agency, but ASTA’s Green Program logo is on its site. “I think it depends on which circle you’re in on—if ‘green’ is a huge selling point,” she says. “To some people, working with an environmentally conscious agency is an added bonus, and to others, it can be a defining factor.”
While green travel, as a trend, has remained popular with eco-conscious travelers, Lee feels that it has taken a back seat during the recession for those who consider it a luxury. “I believe that as the economy strengthens, it will allow more recognition and support to be put toward green travel agencies,” she says.
Arvid Olson, who runs a Travel Leaders branch in Florida, agrees. “The clients always seem interested, but are still very price-conscious,” he says, adding that while his company uses the ASTA Green Program logo in newsletters and e-mails, the program has not “significantly” affected their business. “We try to emphasize areas such as Costa Rica that promote sustainable travel, and I hope that will take off in the future,” he says. “I just returned from the Amazon and learned how crucial the area is to the climate of the whole world. It is in everyone’s interest to support green and sustainable tourism.”
|While her agency doesn’t market itself as particularly green, Travel Quest’s Stephanie Lee says agents can adjust that green activity according to market demand and cost.|
Olson says that he and his wife (and partner) Patricia encourage all of their travel consultants to further their travel education through fam trips, continuing education courses and webinars. Several agents have become Costa Rica specialists, Olson notes, which has the side benefit of focusing on environmental travel. “The Costa Rica program emphasizes, and educates our consultants on, green ratings for accommodations and transportation as well as the sustainable practices that are being encouraged in the country,” he says. “The agents are encouraged to pass this information along to their clients. This may steer a client toward a comparable lodging that is more eco-friendly, if they can show increased value even though the price may be slightly higher.”
While some agents are becoming members in ASTA’s Green Program and doing what they can to be environmentally aware, others are making responsible travel their sole reason for being in business. Liz Wessel runs Green Concierge Travel, an agency that exclusively sells environmental travel.
“I combined my interest in travel with my educational background and career in working for environmental nonprofit organizations,” she says, recalling the company’s founding. “I think the key, just like eco-travel and ecotourism principles, is that you need to be authentic...You need to be willing to do the research and look for green travel options where they may not be obvious. Being curious and willing to dig a little below the surface is really important. I use a lot of travel agent tools, but the Internet, library and direct experience are essential supplements to any trip research.”
Limiting oneself to one kind of travel can become a challenge, but Wessel has found ways to overcome the difficulties in her chosen specialization. “One key challenge is getting there and getting around,” she notes. “In North America at least, the transportation system emphasizes air and highway travel. There is often nothing to recommend except a carbon offset for transportation. However, the rental car fleets have expanded their number of hybrid and alternative fuel choices. And entrepreneurs have started airport shuttles using hybrid vehicles like PlanetTran.”
|Liz Wessel is fiercely dedicated to responsible travel and made it the mission of Green Concierge Travel, the agency she founded.|
While green travel certification programs are increasing, and in some countries, well-established, it is often not immediately clear which hotel chains really provide a green option. “That’s why, when I get the chance, I encourage vendors of all types to be transparent on their websites about their green/eco efforts and programs,” Wessel says. “For example, Millennium Hotels and Resorts has a page that gives a sense of their corporate policy. But what I really prefer is when an individual property puts it out on their website and it’s a part of their brand.” For instance, she points to Hotel Terra in Jackson Hole as a property where “eco” and sustainability is part of the brand.
“Another challenge is that many of the places I end up recommending do not offer commissions,” Wessel adds. “So I am very upfront with my clients about a fee/commission structure. You have to be willing to ask for fees directly.”
With the recent rise in “staycations,” Wessel had to look close to home to find eco-friendly travel options. “I had a lot of people asking about Amtrak and taking trips using the train at least one way,” she says. “The National Parks are still popular, and many are accessible via Amtrak. Popular parks like the Grand Canyon can be reached and explored without a rental car.”
On the flip side, she notes, urban eco-travel is also a growing trend. “A lot of the heart and culture in a destination can be found in the cities,” she says. “This dovetails with what I think will be an increasing interest from newer green companies that want to include business travel as part of their green business operations.”
Teach Your Clients Well
Of course, green travel won’t work if clients believe that eco-friendly choices will compromise their trip. “I personally don’t believe there needs to be any sacrifice,” Wessel says. “You need to work with the client and determine their travel needs and their budget. I present options and when there are green options, I highlight them using a special bullet. I also automatically provide a carbon footprint when appropriate for transportation choices. These actions help educate a client but leave the final choices up to them.”
To encourage clients to make those green choices, Wessel has had to combat various misconceptions about eco-friendly travel—for example, the belief that it is limited to staying in a lodge in a rainforest. “Ecolodges that were developed in some of our most biologically sensitive areas of the world (Costa Rica and Australia, for example) led the way,” she acknowledges. “They understood early on that in order to preserve the reason travelers came to their area, they had to protect the local environment and culture that made the place special. But really, eco-travel starts when you walk out of your front door. The principles can be applied worldwide.”Another common misconception about environmentally conscious travel is that it cannot be luxurious. “Maho Bay in the Virgin Islands has been one of my top destinations for clients over the last few years,” Wessel says. “It is extremely economical, yet provides a unique eco-setting for a very beautiful spot. On the other hand, Hotel Terra in Jackson Hole or Stonehurst Place—a bed-and-breakfast in Atlanta—offer very different luxury experiences. The bottom line is that you can find the type of eco-travel experience that fits the needs and expectations of your client.”
As green awareness continues to grow, Wessel expects travelers to continue to seek options that reflect their values, including sustainability, buying locally and respecting other cultures. “These are all core principles of eco-travel,” she says. “The ‘buy local’ trend may mean looking for more locally opened and operated travel options.”
Personally, Wessel says, she would love to see a growth of interest in dude ranches in North America: “They offer unique experiences, often family-friendly, and they are all-inclusive. Many maintain their traditional activities, but I have seen a broadening of interests. And they are often found in absolutely stunning scenery. My favorites are the ones where they meet you at the Amtrak station.”
In short, a trip can be as green as an agent and a client want it to be. “Every request becomes a challenge to try to find at least one option that provides the green choice for that itinerary,” Wessel says. “And this is the way I like to travel. So what I do for myself and my family, I do for my clients. This includes not overselling, but telling people what they are getting, and taking the time to do a little extra research.”
|Wessel sells what she knows, and brings her lifetime experiences to the table as an agent.|