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Special Report: Sustainability in the spotlight

Guests on a Hotelplan and Travel Weekly trip to the French Alps debated sustainability during a round-table discussion. Lucy Huxley reports

Speakers at the round-table discussion agreed there was both a moral and commercial incentive to improve the sustainability of their businesses.

Joe Ponte, Hotelplan chief executive, said: “Our mission is to become the most sustainable business in our sector, and not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the commercial imperative is also important.

“Skiing per se is not sustainable – you’ve got charter flights coming into all these resorts in the mountains. But there is stuff we can do and we’re committed to contributing to the solution and not making it worse.”

Prue Stone, the company’s group head of sustainability, added: “Our winter brands are doing a lot. We’re not perfect and we’re not going to be perfect for a long time. But if we all do something, we’re all going to get a lot better. We’re [carbon] offsetting all our holidays, we’re supporting rewilding projects, we’re investing in alpine resorts and villages, and contributing to local communities.

We have a responsibility to ensure we’re working with partners who have sustainability as a priority

“We’re doing some really cool stuff but perhaps we don’t talk about it enough.”

Giles Hawke, chief executive of Cosmos, Globus and Avalon Waterways, said: “Cosmos needs to get to a place where we have someone 100% dedicated to sustainability.

“Customers aren’t asking for sustainable holidays, but get upset when they see non‑sustainable things happening. They want to do things, but they want us to help them do them.”

He added: “Our operations teams still find it difficult to talk to hotels about sustainability. That needs to change.”

Stone agreed that hotels needed to shoulder their share of the responsibility, adding: “We need to run tenders for hotels to get our business and we need to hold suppliers to account and make sure they meet sustainability criteria to be in our programmes and uphold the values of our businesses.”

Customer demand

Alastair Wilson, managing director of Titan Airways, asked Ponte if Hotelplan would continue to use a supplier if use of sustainable fuels made them more expensive, to which he said: “The answer is yes. Absolutely.”

Nicki Tempest-Mitchell, sales and marketing director at Barrhead Travel, said customers were yet to proactively ask for sustainable options.

Not many people are coming into our members’ shops and asking for a sustainable holiday yet

But she added: “We have a responsibility to ensure we’re working with partners who have sustainability as a priority. The challenge is that we have more than 200 partners, so we need an easy way to identify who is taking it seriously.”

Derek Jones, chief executive of Kuoni parent Der Touristik UK, said: “The Travelife scheme is an easy way to identify which partners are operating sustainably. Staff should be trained to look out for Travelife certification.”

John Sullivan, head of commercial at The Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “Not many people are coming into our members’ shops and asking for a sustainable holiday yet. But even those who are more in tune and think about travelling by rail soon re-evaluate their priorities when they see the price of air versus rail.”

Drivers of change

Richard Sinclair, chief executive of ski specialist Sno, said: “We see interest from customers, but usually only those who already care. We put a page up on our site about driving to the Alps by electric car, showing all the charging points along the routes.

“There are hundreds of hotels in resorts that have at least two charging points. There are people that are super-keen but we just need to help them do it.”

Travis Pittman, chief executive of online marketplace and OTA TourRadar, said: “We [feature] 2,500 tour operators and we can’t control what they are doing on the ground [regarding sustainability], but we’re talking to travellers who are trying to close the gap between intention and action.

“Our challenge is how we get the content curated and categorised so customers can search, filter and make decisions on it.”

Government intervention

Der Touristik’s Jones said one of the most pressing issues was aviation and the government’s strategy for reaching net zero.

“We have to make sure the government is investing in a solution and not just taxing the problem,” he said. “We can all convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing, but if the cost of travel goes up and the number of people travelling goes down, that’s not the solution.

“We have to accept the part we play in global warming, but airlines can’t do it themselves. It needs government.”

Ponte agreed, adding: “Who solves the problem? Industry or government? It feels like industry is doing more than the government.”

Phil Gardner, chief commercial officer at Ambassador Cruise Line, said legislation could provide a framework for different sectors, adding: “The cruise industry is legislated and there are certain places we can’t go to unless we meet certain environmental criteria.

It feels like industry is doing more than the government

“You have to be Tier 3-compliant, which requires older ships to be fitted with massive catalytic converters. It’s not needed until 2025, but we’ve done it now, from the start, so we can go to more places. If you could copy this kind of control in other industries, it would be good.”

Gordon McCreadie, general manager at If Only, said staff were increasingly becoming drivers of change. “We’re all finding challenges around recruitment and increasingly candidates are asking what our CSR [corporate social responsibility] and wellness policies are, so operating sustainably has an even wider impact,” he said.

Dean Harvey, Kuoni marketing director, agreed, saying: “Customers aren’t knocking on our doors about it, but potential employees are. They are not going to join your business unless sustainability is part of your strategy, so they are going to push the agenda.”

Ponte said: “We’re very well-progressed with this in the adventure side of our business [Explore]. We have even had some people join us for less money because they want to be part of a purpose-led organisation.”

Positive impacts

Shane Riley, vice-president of UK and international sales at Virgin Voyages, said companies needed to focus on sustainable efforts alongside the positive impact of travel.

He said: “We urge people to take a voyage – not a guilt trip – and we tell them all about the positive impact we are having, such as working with homeless people in Barcelona to make them our tour guides.

“Our commitment to sustainability is way deeper than just removing plastic straws. We’re focused on the entire end-to-end product.”

Jones added: “There are huge benefits of travel and we should be proud of what we do and remind people of what we give back to the communities we travel to.”

Mark Mitchell, head of product and commercial for travel at Midcounties Co-operative, said: “There are so many wonderful stories in the industry, but we need to find a way to bring them to the surface. As agents, we’d like to know all these great things that suppliers are doing, but how do we collate them to pass them on to their customers?”

Our commitment to sustainability is way deeper than just removing plastic straws

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