Travelers are increasingly aligning their journeys with their values - sustainability being foremost - with a desire for a transformative or regenerative experience. The now-mainstreamed initiatives of hotels - from water-saving schemes to extensive recycling programmes - though commendable, only scratch the surface of the potential role they play in promoting a meaningful guest experience. Is there an unfulfilled potential to enhance meaningful guest experiences that the hospitality industry is missing?
Environmental stewardship and social responsibility have steadily moved from being optional features to integral guest expectations. Research suggests that if facilitated, an environmentally conscious stay can encourage loyalty among guests towards an entire range of eco-friendly hotels. Given this, can the hospitality sector really go beyond the established norms to engage guests on a much deeper, meaningful level? And in a 'double materiality approach', can the sector re-imagine and choreograph a transformative guest experience that leaves a lasting, positive impression on the environment and society?
Amidst rapidly evolving sustainable regulations, certifications, and standards, hospitality professionals must elevate their strategies. It is critical to rethink the purpose behind hotel sustainability practices and strategies through an ecosystems and people well-being lens and consider how to tackle local and global challenges such as public health, poverty, education, energy, social equity, water, and quality of life proactively, that affect direct or indirectly to hotel operations and business stakeholders. The hospitality industry bears the potential to lead transformative change.
Here are two critical inquiries we present before industry experts:
- What is a meaningful guest experience for you?
- Do you have examples of best practices in regards to sustainable hospitality and meaningful guest experiences?
 Booking.com (2023). Sustainable Travel Report 2023. https://globalnews.booking.com/download/31767dc7-3d6a-4108-9900-ab5d11e0a808/booking.com-sustainable-travel-report2023.pdf
 Kuokkanen, H. and Catrett, J., 2023. Ethically meaningful customer experiences: satisfying an evolving desire for purpose through CSR. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 31(6), pp.1464-1481.
 Merli, R., Preziosi, M., Acampora, A. and Ali, F., 2019. Why should hotels go green? Insights from guests experience in green hotels. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 81, pp.169-179.
 Hashmi, Z.G. and Muff, K., 2017. Evolving towards truly sustainable hotels through a "well-being" lens: the S-WELL sustainability grid. In Sustainability in Hospitality (pp. 117-135). Routledge.
Sustainability is critical in crafting meaningful guest experiences that go beyond comfort and convenience. It is about engaging guests in a journey of learning and contributing to sustainability, making them feel part of a larger purpose. It could be as simple as educating guests about local culture and conservation efforts or as immersive as involving them in community projects.
Numerous examples of best practices in sustainable hospitality include hotels that source locally produced food reduce carbon footprint, support local farmers, and provide guests with fresh, authentic culinary experiences. Similarly, properties that invest in renewable energy or water conservation save resources and serve as a testament to the commitment towards a greener future.
However, it is crucial to remember that sustainability is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each property has a unique context and must tailor its sustainability practices accordingly. This can create a genuinely transformative guest experience in terms of comfort and contributing to a healthier planet and fairer society.
As an industry, we must embrace the concept of 'Net Positive Hospitality', where we give back more to the environment and society than we take. We can create a ripple effect of positive change, making every guest experience truly meaningful!
I believe the true definition of a meaningful guest experience is one that drives someone to say, "You just have to go there!". Aside from delighting guests, exceeding expectations, and creating "wow" moments, great meaningful experiences can also generate curiosity, open minds to possibility, and become a catalyst for positive behavioural change.
Accommodation providers have a unique educational opportunity. Guests eat, sleep, and shower during a stay at a hotel. They consume resources like they do at home, and they spend time observing how things are done. When meaningful experiences are intentionally designed to be educational too, they have the power to become more than just a fond memory, they can incite us to change the way we do things.
A best practice example is from the Hotel Antumalal, Pucón, southern Chile where children are invited to pick cherry tomatoes, coriander, red onion, and herbs of their choice from the vegetable garden. They then prepare a fresh salad and herbal infused water which they serve to their parents on the hotel terrace. This simple but meaningful experience led to parents telling us on return trips that they had started growing tomatoes and herbs with their children at home.
The way we look at sustainability is mostly driven by doing less harm than contributing positively to a better world. But we need to move on from a footprint approach to a handprint logic, which focuses more on how tourism can change attitudes and values if we really want to create change. Tourism is highly emotional, so should sustainability be in a tourism world. To be so, tourism should improve the relational quality between all tourism stakeholders like employees, suppliers and guests. If tourism actors see and accept this role, then tourism can for sure help to set a new rhythm for this world, which is urgently needed in this time.
For me, a meaningful guest experience is an experience that touches upon desires and emotions creating a change in attitudes and behaviours. When you meet an olive oil producer and the olive farmers in a five star hotel and taste a biologically produced olive oil, the guests are edutained. They learn about a healthier life and where their products come from. The same can be said when you offer guests to become a beekeeper for a day. Both are real examples within our projects and both were highly meaningful.
A meaningful experience should leave visitors feeling welcomed, valued, and understood, with their needs and preferences catered to in a way that leaves a lasting positive impression and fosters a connection with people and place. Meaningful guest experiences are dependent on the individual. For some it is a reconnection, others may need an escape or some may be seeking a transformation.
No matter what a guest is seeking, sustainability should underpin that experience - subtly enhancing it without shaping the experience, adding value. For example, from the moment you enter Crystalbrook at Byron Bay (an EarthCheck certified property), there are elements of sustainable management practices that enhance the visitor experience and leave you feeling connected to the people and place. Some great examples include their locally sourced menu - provenance is clear across the menu with the majority of ingredients found locally. As you walk through the stunning resort, the water bottle refill stations keep you hydrated, heathy and remove single-use bottles. Their bicycle hire enables guests to explore with minimial impact. All of these create more meaningful experiences, whether the guest was interested in sustainability at the start of their trip or not, they ended up travelling better by design.
A meaningful guest experience hinges on the profound host-guest relationship and deals with significance, purpose, and impact in actions, experiences, and relationships. The hospitality setting defines this relationship, shaped by staff interactions, while guest interactions with locals add depth. Immersing in a new culture reveals diverse customs and values. In hospitality, a paradigm shift redefines hosts as guardians of responsibility. This metaphor expands the host's role beyond guests, involving future visitors, the local community, and the whole supply chain. This holistic perspective, rooted in futurity and equity, reshapes host-guest dynamics, aiming for a more sustainable industry
Showing Guardianship in their actions, hospitality organizations can offer sustainable products, reduce Scope 3 Green House Gas emissions, and empower guests to choose eco-friendly options, all contributing to a greener future. The host's transformation into a guardian marks a pivotal moment in infusing sustainability and responsibility into the industry and provides meaningful experiences for guests. One example of this can be seen at the Dutch two-star Michelin restaurant, De Nieuwe Winkel with an additional Green star. They offer only plant-based menus to create a meaningful guest experience that helps to positively impact the world and make it better.
At Kerten Hospitality everything is uniquely curated, and that includes both our guest experiences and our sustainability strategy UBBU – United. Building a Better Universe.
We have created brands, projects, experiences that are always specially curated and based on the local community and culture.
1. What is a meaningful guest experience for you?
First it's crucial to recognize that we tailor each guest experience to meet individual expectations. Whether you are a local exploring your own country or a foreigner discovering a new land and culture, the guest experience varies accordingly.
For Kerten Hospitality, a meaningful guest experience involves guests gaining insight into the destination they visit, interacting with the local community, and making a positive contribution to the place they are exploring. We aim to evoke emotions through our experiences, going beyond traditional hospitality.
Based on local culture, standards, and guests’ expectations/preferences, A meaningful guest experience as it relates to integrating sustainability means also understanding the comfort of our guests, the right communication tools and adopting our sustainability practices to best suit the locality.
2. Do you have examples of best practices in regards to sustainable hospitality and meaningful guest experiences?
To illustrate and provide an example of how we curate, we are currently developing a unique local experience in Cloud7 Aqaba, Jordan led by our team.
This two-hour tour is designed to provide our guests with a deeper understanding of Aqaba's rich history, culture, and heritage. Half of the proceeds from the tour is then donated to a local charity Cloud7 Aqaba is partnered with.
The itinerary includes the following stops:
- Aqaba Fortress
- Sharif Hussein bin Ali Mosque: If guests are interested, we offer basic information about Islam religion. As an example, yesterday, out of curiosity for non-Muslim guests we asked our Front Office Manager, to show the process of ablution before entering the mosque. We did it together and it was a very enriching experience.
Enlightening people is our mission to bridge gaps in knowledge and understanding between people.
- A visit to a traditional local bakery and the town's finest juice bar, where our guests have the opportunity to meet the owners, learn about their businesses, and gain insights into the local’s livelihoods.
This example ties into our UBBU Strategy. We have centered UBBU around locality and this is fluid throughout each and every business operation, property departments and decision making.
Sustainably is more than energy, water and waste and with UBBU, Locality means not only the standards of hiring local, purchasing local, but it also means designing with local artists, supporting local homemakers to create our hotel products and guest room amenities and immersing guests within the local community, businesses and culture.
The link between environmental and social sustainability initiatives and the guest requires urgent rethinking. Simple pledges to abide by a standard or donate money to a cause are not enough anymore, and many guests do not pay real attention to such activities. Instead, more travelers are looking for purpose in their travel, and hotels that synthesize sustainability with their guest experience design are well-placed to provide such purpose without the usual sacrifice associated with choosing sustainability. Practical examples of such experiences already exist (see Kuokkanen & Catrett, 2023, cited in the viewpoint introduction).
Creating such experiences is the first step in making sustainability relevant to the guest. The next step lies in stepping up the goal of such experiences from providing purpose to initiating transformation in the guests themselves toward sustainable behaviors through hotel design. While providing purpose to guests can help in gaining a competitive advantage for a hotel, transformation that creates responsible consumers could elevate the role of hospitality business to a new level and offer the industry an opportunity to become a societal influencer for good. I strongly encourage the industry to explore the potential of designing purposeful experiences instead of complementing customer experiences with sustainability initiatives.
For me an experience is meaningful when it touches my essence as a human being and helps me to understand myself, others, and nature more profoundly.
This summer I was a guest at the TCI Marina di Camerota Village (Italy). I went reluctantly to accompain my ageing parents. I say reluctantly because the village is an all-inclusive resort and I had assumptions about all-inclusive resorts.
I had to correct these assumptions. The resort is build inside an olive tree garden. I should better say: around old olive trees. Entertainment for pleasure is of course offered, but there are also guided excursions with a biologist to discover the flora and fauna around the village. Guests can go wind surfing and join the aqua gym lesson but also gaze at stars with an astronomer. Food is as far as possible locally sourced and food waste avoided. The staff I spoke with shared positive expriences while being open about how intens such a season can be. It was a wonderful week that brought me nearer to my parents and filled my soul with the awesome beauty of the nature of the country in which I was born. A menaingful experience.
From a sustainability perspective, a meaningful experience for guests can mean that they are certain of the positive impact their visit will have on the destination. Therefore, the host must always provide guests with consistent information about the hotel's sustainability efforts, while offering them meaningful and emotionally engaging opportunities to participate in these efforts. The Black Sheep Inn in Ecuador is an explicit example of such a practice: visitors are part of the sustainable operation that promotes local employment, local food and energy sourcing, meaningful cooperation between stakeholders, effective waste management and empowerment of local stakeholders, among others. When visitors need transportation, a guide, or an organized activity, they are informed by the inn's management of how it selects sustainable practices that contribute to sustainable actions, as well as of the inn's long-term strategic goals. In this way, visitors not only feel satisfied with their contribution to these efforts, but are also informed of initiatives that may lead to changes in their travel choices and practices in the future.
To speak about meaningful experience would directly lead to a subjective answer as each of us possesses a different definition of "meaningful".
I believe in the tourism positive social impact. Knowing that we have the power to improve underprivileged groups' lives during a stay in a hotel represents for me the highest level of meaningfulness.
The example I want to share comes from the Turkish owned Tasigo hotel chain. I worked with them in the past years and I was amazed by a project implemented in Kazan Palace hotel located in Tatarstan, Russia. The General Manager, Ms Sevda Oztetik created a special event for Christmas called: "Letter for Santa Claus". Seventy-three letters written by local children with disabilities and orphans were displayed on the hotel's Christmas tree. Guests and hotel staff had the opportunity to fulfill the children's dreams by taking any letter from the Christmas tree and sending the gift to the kids.
In a few days all the letters were taken by individuals willing to support these kids, anonymously.
This kind of action represents for me the essence of a meaningful experience.
A meaningful guest experience entails genuine human connection(s) with local host(s) while being able to embrace and respect the sensitivities of natural ecosystems within a destination. Some of the most inspiring and memorable guest experiences I've had were those where I made friends, learned new skills, tested my own abilities, and challenged my thinking. Meaningful experiences also broaden my horizon on new ways of living and doing better business, for example, learning how to upcycle waste materials creatively in design and construction, or to innovate with local ingredients and materials.
Meaningful experiences typically inspire me to take home "learnings" that I can implement in my day-to-day life. I aspire to experience comfort yet adventure, a sense of responsibility in how I consume and travel, and a feeling of novelty. I find meaning when afforded the opportunity to learn and grow as a person. Much of that learning and growth comes in the form of identifying and observing sustainable- and in some (rarer) instances regenerative practices as well. I'm more likely to remember and take back learnings from an experience that challenges me and nudges me slightly out of my comfort zone.
A meaningful guest experience is flawless, personalised, and infused with real acts of kindness.
A flawless experience makes guests feel at home. They can watch their TV favourite shows (Chromecast ports and HDMI cables have become a must) and minimise the downtime spent on administrative procedures: fast check-in/out (via mobile or self-service kiosks) and bills sent automatically via e-mail. They have free and fast WiFi, and can make easy F&B orders and payments.
A personalised experience means flexible check-in/out via instant messaging the reception desk. Staff's time is freed for higher-value functions that customers really care about, like record-time answers to questions asked via smartphones. Guests have complete and seamless control of their room. At citizenM, clever tech allows personalisation of climate and other features (which means less environmental impact when the room is empty).
Real acts of kindness are genuine actions of care towards guests and the wider community. citizenM empowers guests to jointly change the world and donates 3 EUR to the citizenMovement charity on their behalf every time they say no to room cleaning. Together, we have secured almost 8,200 bicycles positively impacting the lives of over 41,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Slow travel as a tool to Meaningful Experiences
Alexander von Humboldt, the celebrated explorer, wrote:
I was spurred on by an uncertain longing for what is distant and unknown, for whatever excited my fantasy: danger at sea, the desire for adventures, to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvellous world.(1801).
His travels were not just about discovery (and slow), but also about appreciating and preserving nature, cultures, and fostering shared understanding.
I would argue that meaningful travel refers to the idea of traveling with a purpose to understand and learn from the world around you. Beyond respect for culture and learning from communities, it involves a sense of responsibility towards the natural environment.
Slow Travel - my experience
While cycling over 3500 kilometres crossing seven countries recently, I discovered villages that did not make themselves "pretty for the tourists" but offered excellent hospitality. I met hosts that shared stories (and history) of their place; I shared a beer with the local hotelier and met farmers along the way (and refilled my water!).
I would think other slow forms of transportation do the same; it is an enabler to the path of meaningful experiences.