Sustainable travel. (photo via smshoot / iStock / Getty Images Plus)
In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainability was a frequent focus of conversation and action throughout the travel industry.
There was regular buzz about companies in the travel and hospitality industry doing away with single-use plastics (the low-hanging fruit as it were), as well as broader talk about moving toward more sustainable business operations.
But it wasn’t until a globally devastating pandemic truly laid bare the fragility of the planet and its people—in graphic and heartbreaking relief—that these discussions took on a profound sense of urgency.
And as the pandemic wore on, pledges to do better and step up responsible and sustainable practices reached a crescendo among industry leaders. These efforts also began to diversify and expand in fascinating new directions—including encompassing a long overdue focus on uplifting and giving back to local communities, as well as ensuring that indigenous people have a seat at the table, creating sustainable travel funds, and rethinking modes of transport to more seriously and meaningfully address climate change.
Missing from much of this evolutionary dialogue? Travel agencies and travel agents.
As Rose O’Connor, founder of the consulting firm Sustainable Wanderlust, and an award-winning luxury travel advisor, noted in a recent social media post:
“Travel agencies have been largely absent from the responsible travel conversation. Yet with their capacity to shape consumer demand, while influencing supplier practice, they are primed for impact.”
Primed for impact indeed. At its height in 2019, before the pandemic brought the industry to a halt, U.S. travel agencies reported $61.8 billion dollars in sales, according to Statista.
And given their position within the travel funnel—as trusted advisors who point millions of people toward specific destinations, hotels, tours, cruises, and more—it’s painfully obvious that travel agents are essential to a comprehensively sustainable future for the industry.
At least one travel agency has already begun embracing that responsibility. The Pennsylvania-based luxury travel agency Avenue Two Travel has embarked on a journey, with the guidance of Sustainable Wanderlust, to create a top-to-bottom sustainability strategy. It’s an effort that will encompass a long list of important new Earth-conscious initiatives including sustainability training for agents.
“If advisors want to have a vibrant industry and they want to work in perpetuity, we need to start doing things differently. Because otherwise, there’s not going to be anyplace for people to travel anymore,” Avenue Two CEO Josh Bush told TravelPulse.
Sustainability has become an important consideration for travelers. (photo via iStock/Getty Images Plus/VichienPetchmai)
Our responsibility to take action has never been clearer
When Avenue Two travel was founded in 1987 by Debbie Bush, the agency’s goal was to create memorable travel experiences. But 35 years ago, international travel, particularly to remote destinations, was not the commonplace occurrence it is today.
As her son, Josh Bush, explained in the agency’s recently released and first-annual Sustainability Report: “Fast forward to today, where hard-to-reach destinations are more accessible than ever, and people’s desire to see the world is at an all-time high. Combine that with our culture of instant gratification, and you have travelers who can, on the spur of the moment, plan a long weekend to Europe,” Bush wrote in the report. “From a business perspective, this is great and the industry is booming; from a sustainability perspective, this can cause lasting, harmful impacts on our beautiful planet and global communities.”
Concerns like these helped drive Josh Bush’s decision to reach out to Sustainable Wanderlust, a consultancy that helps travel businesses assess, develop, market and promote sustainable practices to travel professionals and recreational travelers.
Bush’s decision to create a comprehensive sustainability strategy for Avenue Two Travel can also be traced back to an industry meeting with fellow travel agency leaders that took place during the third quarter of 2021. During that gathering, the discussion turned to what efforts—if any—were being made by travel agencies to address sustainability. The response was underwhelming.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t have any answers,” recalled Bush “It dawned on me, that that couldn’t be our answer or our response…Sustainability isn’t just a supplier problem. It’s an agency problem. And if we just bury our head in the sand, we won’t have a product to sell anymore,” said Bush.
Avenue Two needed to begin doing things differently and better. But Bush had no idea where or how to start. And that’s where Sustainable Wanderlust came in— working with Avenue Two to come up with a meaningful and proactive path forward.
Over the past year that effort has included developing a new mission statement for the agency and applying for B Corp certification (an exhaustive process that involves meeting the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance). Avenue Two’s sustainability journey has also included creating an advisor sustainability training program, revamping many agencies’ policies, and even reviewing marketing efforts.
It’s a bold and inspiring example of what’s possible when it comes to bringing travel advisors and travel agencies into the heart of the sustainability movement. And for Avenue Two, those efforts were merely the beginning. Last year, says Bush, was about building a sustainable foundation for the agency. The coming years will be about taking those efforts even further.
Only a few months into 2023, Avenue Two has officially launched its first intensive agent training program. There’s also a preferred partner program on the horizon and development of a more robust carbon emissions reduction plan for the agency.
And not least of all, Avenue Two is eager to share what it’s learning with others in the travel industry. “Sustainability is vital to the health and longevity of our industry. Traveler demand for sustainable travel is growing and it is incumbent upon us to respond,” said Bush.
Online training course (photo courtesy ipuwadol/iStock / Getty Images Plus)
For the average individual who’s interested in learning more about sustainability, there are many educational resources and courses available in the marketplace. But up until now, the educational landscape has lacked a product specifically designed for travel advisors.
Enter Rose O’Connor, who made developing such advisor-specific training, her passion project. The founder of Sustainable Wanderlust, O’Connor started by developing a Sustainable Travel 101 deck that she describes as a tool kit.
The deck opens with this simple question: “What if we use the power of our position as advisors to ensure our clients spend local, protect the environment, and preserve the culture of the destinations they visit?”
It’s an important question. And O’Connor’s deck aims to offer concrete resources for defining and practicing sustainability as an advisor. “I want travel advisors to understand the power they have to impact supply and demand,” O’Connor, a luxury travel advisor herself and founder of Rose O’Connor Travel, explained during a recent interview.
The 101 deck was merely the beginning. O’Connor also developed and is leading an intensive 12-session sustainability course specifically for Avenue Two advisors. The course covers everything from understanding your power as an advisor to knowing how to vet and partner with the best hotels as an advisor and how to design better itineraries that extract less.
When Avenue Two made the sustainability training course available to its advisors, the responses were overwhelming. There was twice the number of applicants as spaces available. And there’s already a waiting list for the next round of training.
“To my knowledge, this is a first-of-its-kind training,” says O’Connor. “Our hope is to eventually do this for other agencies and also offer it to individual agents. But I wanted to be able to have a thorough pilot under our belt, before we try to scale it. And I wanted to see what’s feasible and most resonant with advisors.”
O’Connor’s goal is to spread the message of sustainability to as many advisors as possible and have them start internalizing the information being taught enough that they begin using it to prioritize the options and information presented to clients.
Bush shares the same hopes for the future, pointing out that it’s time to start having the necessary conversations with clients.
“These advisors have to be able to have non-judgmental, non-political conversations with clients, so that we can educate them about the fact that being a responsible tourist doesn’t mean you’re going to a place with no air conditioning,” says Bush. “The only way we’re going to effect change is if we start having those conversations.”
If anything, adds Bush, having these critical and informative conversations with clients will validate the work advisors do and their role as experts.
Travel agent working from home. (photo via Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
Moving beyond questions and doubts
Of course, with great change, there are often doubts, questions, anxiety, and concerns. During the course of her work, O’Connor has spent a great deal of time speaking with advisors about their feelings surrounding the idea of guiding clients toward sustainable travel choices.
“For a lot of agents, they were like ‘My clients are fully on board, but it’s a matter of how do I ask the right questions to make sure I’m putting right products in front of them,” says O’Connor. “Then there were people who were like ‘Look, I’m really worried about how to make this a priority for my clients. Clients may think sustainability is political and I’m not comfortable talking about it.”
Still, other agents expressed concerns about the expense associated with sustainable travel, while some expressed anxiety about not having the breadth of knowledge necessary to sell sustainable travel options.
But all of these challenges can indeed be surmounted—as the start-up one-stop-shop for sustainable travel Yugen Earthside makes clear. A small travel advisory founded in 2020 by Hilary Matson, the company specializes in responsible, sustainable travel options.
Yugen Earthside is a registered Social Purpose Corporation (SPC) in Washington state that focuses on environmental and social objectives, in addition to financial profitability. It’s also a certified net-zero company as of June 2022, and donates at least 1% of gross profit to sustainable tourism development projects.
While many of Yugen Earthside’s clients arrive at her doorstep interested in sustainable travel, that’s not always the case.
“My clients are not just die-hard but also people in that neutral but curious ground or people who genuinely don’t know what look for or what is possible,” says Matson. “We have also helped some clients where it doesn’t seem like sustainable is a big a focus for them.”
Matson says it’s important for advisors to convey that sustainability is simply a feature of the trip and that clients do not have to sacrifice what they want to get out of their vacation
“Sustainability is nothing to be afraid of or cautious of,” explains Matson. “Travelers can still have the experiences they want at the end of the day, and that’s where we come in—to make it happen sustainably.”
O’Connor also suggests there are small steps advisors can begin taking on the path toward more actively advocating for sustainable travel choices for clients.
“What if you start asking every hotel you work with how they handle their waste?” says O’Connor. “If they start to hear that from enough high-producing advisors, then it becomes something they have to start taking seriously and thinking about in a real way. Travel advisors have a pretty significant sphere of influence.”
You can also ask suppliers to tell you about their sustainability practices and how those practices are measured and monitored. Doing this opens up the conversation, says O’Connor.
These suggestions may sound daunting or even intimidating, but as Bush points out, there is no alternative anymore when it comes to protecting the planet and the roles we all have to play.
“There’s a reason why we’re called advisors. We’re there to provide advice, information, and leverage the information we have,” says Bush. “If we’re going to be true advisors, we should really help people look at their actual impact. If advisors want to have a vibrant industry that they can work in for perpetuity, we need to start doing things differently. Because if we don’t, there’s not going to be any place for people to travel anymore.”
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