The “Green” Traveler

Community Marketing, Inc. recently partnered with Destination Marketing Association International and 20 other leading tourism, hospitality and sustainability organizations to produce the CMIGreen Traveler Survey Report — the tourism industry’s first-ever comprehensive assessment of the sustainable travel consumer. DMAI asked us to present the report’s top five key findings from a DMO perspective.

The CMIGreen Traveler Survey Report is not a general travel study. The report focuses exclusively on the 1,736 respondents who consider themselves to be “extremely” or “very” eco-conscious and who took at least one overnight vacation in the past year. It provides a unique, comprehensive profile of these green travel consumers, and it fills a need for concrete data on this distinct, desirable niche segment. Without this data, it had been difficult for destination marketers to understand and serve the interests of this increasingly important segment. More on the study’s methodology can be found in the full report (to receive your complimentary copy, see details at the end of the article).

1) The Green Leadership Vacuum: Room for Differentiation
When asked which destination had done the best job of presenting itself as environmentally friendly, few respondents were able to name any. Only one brand seemed to have a clear, green identity: Costa Rica, garnered a 7% green brand awareness. Its national parks and biological diversity make it a perennial favorite with eco-travelers.

San Francisco, California was the only other destination with environmentally friendly brand awareness – over 2%. San Francisco’s Green Business Program grants certification to businesses meeting rigorous environmental standards, and the city’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, has said he aimed to make the city “as green as possible as fast as possible.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” the mayor said. “Do we also think it creates an environment, literally and figuratively, that attracts people? You better believe it. And that’s important as well.”

Significantly, nearly 60% of respondents were not able to name an environmentally friendly destination, indicating an opportunity for destinations to connect with travel consumers looking for natural settings, outdoor activities and a sustainable culture.

With the green travel segment still emerging, this is a good time for tourism and hospitality providers to grab market share. Sustainability programs with “teeth,” and targeted, accurate, compelling and benefit-oriented messaging will enable leading firms to differentiate themselves from competitors and gain “mind share” among green travel consumers.

2) Marketing and Messaging
The term “socially responsible” resonates best in travel communications, along with “sustainable,” “fair trade” and “local.”

Next to social justice, environmental sustainability was important to respondents in travel communications, with 65% citing sustainability as an important message and another 35.4% mentioning “planet friendly.”

The sophistication of this group is evident in the relatively few respondents (14.3%) who said that travel literature branded  “green” was particularly compelling them. Visuals of the planet Earth or the color green were even less meaningful. Respondents seemed to be informed enough that catchphrases no longer carry much weight, and were looking for the substance behind the labels.

3) (Lack of) Knowledge of Sustainable Tourism Criteria

The Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria is a coalition of more than 50 organizations, founded in October 2008 by the Rainforest Alliance and several agencies of the United Nations — and merged with the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council (STSC) in September of 2009 to form the Tourism Sustainability Council (TSC). With so many reputable organizations behind it, the TSC may succeed in setting a recognized, minimum international standard for tourism businesses in protecting and sustaining the world’s natural and cultural resources, while ensuring that tourism meets its potential as a tool for poverty alleviation.

In June 2009, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to officially adopt the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, which was later supported by the U.S. Council of Mayors.  However, as this survey was conducted only months after the GSTC’s founding, less than 10% of respondents were familiar with it.

4) Travelers Influenced by Each Other — Not Advertising
This survey demonstrated unequivocally that peer influence — “word of mouth from friends” — has the greatest influence on consumers (48% said very influential) when planning a vacation. Traveler reviews on websites and blogs were “very influential” to half as many respondents.

Trusting peers is not only a very human response, it’s a Web 2.0/social media response. When so many leading destination sites offer peer reviews and discussion, travelers look for that in their green travel choices as well. Facebook and Twitter are also prime influencers in this brave new world of brand awareness. In fact, the more easily green travelers can listen to peers, the less they listen to the green claims of advertisers.

In a world where a negative opinion can go viral overnight, giving the visitor a positive, rewarding, unique and thoroughly sustainable experience is every DMO’s first order of business.

5) The most sustainable sector — meeting planning
The hundreds of thousands of business events held around the world each year are a mainstay of the travel industry. Between jet travel, electricity and paper usage and waste generated, however, they have a chain-reaction impact on the environment. But event planners, perhaps more than any other segment, are trying to tread more lightly on the planet. 72% of respondents in the event-planning industry said their companies explicitly work to incorporate “green meeting” options into events — selecting venues close to public transportation, reducing print communications, insisting on sustainable on-site operations, teleconferencing, recycling, sourcing local food, not using bottled water, etc. 75% said they planned do more green events in the next year, most of those immediately.

Sustainable measures save resources and save money, according to leading green meeting planners. More than 65% of these respondents said that more information would help motivate them to implement sustainable event strategies — a clear message to green meeting advocates and destinations that better marketing and communications are needed.

Conclusion: Green travelers are the future of the travel industry
From carbon offsets to organic restaurants and towel re-use options at hotels, “green travel” is the fastest growing niche in the tourism and hospitality industries.

As the planet continues to heat up and resources become scarcer, every other sector of the economy is going to be adopting sustainable practices. Leading sustainable destinations and travel providers must know who their customers are, what drives them, and how to tune their products and messaging accordingly, in anticipation of a groundswell of green travel demand. It makes business – as well as environmental – sense. Eco-conscious travelers are trend-setters in our industry. The rest of the market will follow.

By Thomas Roth, president of Community Marketing, Inc. (CMI) of San Francisco, as reported on DMAI’s industry blog.

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