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Sustainable Travel Panel Offers Industry Insights

Leila Darwiche | May 24, 2021
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Options for sustainable travel are more important than ever to consumers as they look to reduce their impact on the environment. The halting of much of the travel industry in the past year due to the pandemic has given companies the opportunity to be introspective, and as many anticipate a return to normalcy, appealing to new consumer preferences for sustainability is at the forefront of their agendas.

The Paula M. Trienens Institute of Sustainability and Energy and Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications co-hosted a panel on April 29 that addressed how marketing professionals and journalists are presenting sustainable travel options to consumers. The panel was moderated by Abe Peck, professor emeritus-in-service at Medill, director of Business-to-Business Communications, and senior director of Media Management Center. He was joined by Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley; Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor at AFAR; Laura Mandala, managing director at Mandala Research; and Yannis Michaelides, founder and director at H&T Beyond Tourism.

Peck opened the panel with a discussion of the various definitions of sustainable travel. While some emphasize the actions of the traveler in nature, to “leave only footprints, and take only photos,” other definitions considered the consequences that travel has on supporting local residents and the various stakeholders involved in enacting sustainable policies. For corporations, a certain balance would need to be struck, something that many panelists touched on in their remarks.

“Things are more complex when companies have to do that balancing between present enjoyment and future existence,” said Peck. “Can the industry protect its ultimate product?”

For Gallagher, a graduate of the Kellogg School of Management, her work in the Napa Valley highlights this tension as tourism dollars are driven by agricultural products that rely on a healthy environment to grow. In California, the effects of climate change are already beginning to impact tourism as the wildfires during the dry months threaten both the prosperity of agricultural land and the communities in these areas. For such places, sustainable practices are even more important.

“We must make sure that we are making the right decisions today in terms of sharing this destination from a tourism standpoint,” said Gallagher. “So that the quality of our wine and the ability of our land to produce our world class product, which is wine grapes, continues for generations to come.”

While companies have made progress towards being more environmentally conscious, the move to offer more options that appeal to travelers wanting sustainable tourism has been slow. After working toward her doctorate in sociology at Northwestern, Mandala shifted to working on research within the travel industry. In her market research of the industry, Mandala has found that 60% of travelers (105M) in the United States have taken at least one sustainable trip over a three-year period, and for 53% of travelers, sustainable tourism is a driving factor in their decision making. However, Mandala emphasized that there is not just a market reason for companies to consider. There is also an economic one: sustainable travelers on average spend 41% more than other travelers.

“In terms of convincing the travel industry that this is an attractive market segment to pursue, the data is there,” said Mandala. “Given the clear positive impact to brand perception among travelers it is curious that more travel companies and destinations have not more boldly embraced sustainability. For example, more than 8 in 10 travelers say that they have more positive brand perceptions of companies that demonstrate their commitment to sustainability – everything from minimizing their impact on the environment to sharing profits with local communities and supporting local artisans. Similarly, 52% of travelers say that sustainability practices were the reason they chose their last destination or helped them choose among destinations.

Though there is an incentive to market towards such audiences and to take action in these ways, many companies are reluctant to do so. Even when companies do make the effort towards instituting environmental practices, the panelists emphasized the potential for “greenwashing” or the deceptive marketing of products as being more environmentally friendly than they are in reality. Both Mandala and LaGrave gave the example of plastic straws: many companies talk about the elimination of plastic straws or even just turning off the lights without real measurable ways to look at the impact of such changes. And with COVID-19, the packaging of food for take-out has become so prevalent that the impact on the environment should be a concern. In all of these cases, these panelists believe that there is much more work that needs to be taken by industry in order to have a significant impact. In nearly every sector of the industry there are excess non-recyclable service items that existed even pre-covid that need to be re-evaluated.

“We're going to see what we saw in the food industry. Everything is natural. Everything is sustainable. But what does that actually mean?” said LaGrave, a graduate of Medill. “I think the specifics are really important.”

Throughout the discussion, panelists kept coming back to what should be the driving force for taking these actions: protecting their product and destinations. Michaelides emphasized that companies ought to consider the overlap between the travel industry’s products and the places that are affected by climate change and negative environmental policy, summing up the problems the industry would face in the coming years.

“It's about culture. And I think that branding management has the power to persuade, motivate leaders, local communities, and visitors to take action on environmental issues,” said Michaelides. “And I think that the real strategy is about implementing integrated branding that incorporates both well-being and sustainability values, and it should be supported by research, media and journalists, and of course, leadership.”