The Case for NOT Promoting Sustainability at Your Hotel, Resort, or Lodge
By Hans Pfister
So why am I arguing against using sustainability as a tool for promoting hotels? The answer is quite simple. It does not work - at least not in the conventional way. Location and the quality of infrastructure and service are still the strongest decision-making factors for the vast majority of travelers worldwide. Even in Costa Rica, which is considered a leader in ecotourism and sustainable hospitality, there are only very few guests that rank sustainability as the most important criteria when selecting a hotel. Recent research on green purchasing decisions suggest that many have the desire to make conscious sustainable purchase decisions, but when it comes time to sign the tab, most consumers make their decisions on other important attributes.
There is also quite a bit of confusion around sustainability, i.e., there are many shades of green. How green is your guest? Who does he or she trust? There are over 350 hospitality sustainability certifications and many hotels that I have stayed in during my travels in the past years that have a certificate hanging over their front desk do not even meet minimum sustainability requirements. Green-washing? Yes, of course it happens, and not always intentionally. Often it is very difficult to deliver on the best intentions of the hotelier. I know from personal experience that it takes a deep commitment, effort and follow-through to be truly sustainable and green. And it is an ongoing process – it's never finished, never done.
I don't expect many guests to stay at our hotels because we are a company that strives for the highest levels of sustainability or because we do things to protect the environment and help locals lead better lives. We still need to do our homework to promote our hotels through our websites, social media, public relations and travel intermediaries like everyone else. But there are some very interesting secondary effects that have helped our hotels and lodges outperform many of our not-so-sustainable competitors over the past years.
We have found that at our resorts, hotels, and lodges in Costa Rica and Nicaragua there are interesting secondary effects that positively impact the guest experience and lead to greater guest satisfaction and hence, great positive word-of-mouth publicity. In the days of Tripadvisor and other Social Media sharing tools, where word-of-mouth has become the "word-of-typing" a review of a hotel stay, this has taken on even greater significance.
Our guests often rave about our food. They love the freshness and local flair of our dishes. This is a result of a farm and sea-to-table approach, working with local suppliers and a strong focus on providing local culinary experiences. Food served in open-air settings also seems to taste better than in a sterile climate controlled environment. Guests at our smaller hotels or lodges in a more intimate setting are able to connect easier with staff and management. They experience a much more personalized level of service than at resorts with a more destructive footprint. It is also much easier to create a local feeling or "sense of place" in a small hotel or resort. Most sustainable lodging operations are set in areas of amazing scenic beauty with opportunities for exotic wildlife viewing and are often very difficult to get to. The feeling of relative isolation and having made an effort to reach a remote and unique destination provides a very special kind of guest satisfaction.
But even more so, what has the greatest impact on our guests and takes them from satisfied customers to "raving fans" is when they participate in any of the sustainability activities we offer at our hotels. This may be a visit to the local school to actively participate as an English teacher, an afternoon spent helping to clean up the local beach, or the participation in the sustainability tour where a guest observes first-hand the back-of-the-house efforts that make the hotel operation unique and truly sustainable. This means that marketing in this case is all about the sustainable experience and the product/service package we offer.
Sustainability does work as a marketing component in the marketing mix of the four Ps (Product, Price, Place and Promotion), but not necessarily within the P of Promotion, but within the P of Product, making it the product itself, not simply a promotional tool.
Hans Pfister is the President and co-owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality. He brings over 20 years of experience in the hotel business in all capacities from trainee to General Manager. Born and raised in Germany, Hans' career began with the European tradition of apprenticeship as an introduction to the industry, rounding out his education and training with a degree from Cornell's School of Hotel Administration and experience in various properties in Europe, Asia, North- and Latin America. Hans is a frequent speaker at sustainability conferences and was invited to share his experiences in the field of sustainable hospitality at the Harvard Business School and the Cornell Hotel School. His company won the Conde Nast World Saver Awards 2010 in all categories on a worldwide level in the category of small hotel chains. Hans is a member of Cayuga Hospitality Advisors' Ecotourism / Sustainable Tourism Services Group
About Cayuga Hospitality Consultants
Cayuga Hospitality Consultants is a network of highly experienced independent professionals, all with an average of more than 30 years of hands-on industry experience. Each of our consultants has held ownership, executive, and senior level positions within the vast hospitality business, and also in related industries such as real estate, development, financial services, engineering and design. Cayuga's seasoned professionals have provided services in more than 100 countries, with many spending extended periods developing strong relationships and understanding of a variety of cultures and languages. Given our consultants' experience, they understand how to manage their assignments with the least possible interruption of an ongoing business, working effectively and efficiently with the assigned client team, and delivering superior high-impact work product to fulfill our client needs and expectations. Owners, Investors, Operators, and Senior Executives across the Industry have come to rely on Cayuga Hospitality Consultants experience, innovative thought, and industry-leading resources for both domestic and international assignments.