Travel companies have had plenty to think about over the last two years.
Their very existence was put under threat as COVID-19 tore away any chance of a normal year of operations in 2020, with 2021 not faring much better for many as new variants hit the chances of a full relaxation of travel restrictions.
Some brands took the opportunity to evaluate how they run their businesses, from how they fill their offices (or not) to what kind of company they want to be when they can finally emerge from a global pandemic.
The reemergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the minds of people (it was actually created in 2014) following a string of incidents in the U.S. in May 2020 shone a light on the diversity and inclusion of brands (again, or not).
And, finally, the decades-old discussion about the environmental impact of the travel industry on the planet has come back to the fore, driven in part by the success of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg in 2019 on raising awareness of the issue at considerable scale.
The first problem will eventually go away. The second requires cultural and business practices to be overhauled and maintained. The third, however, is arguably the trickiest for the industry to address, as it threatens their viability to operate (and that of how society functions).
Action on sustainability in travel
In what might be considered a watershed moment in the industry's understanding of how important climate change is to its future, Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation, indicated at The Phocuswright Conference in November 2021 just how far the sector needed to move away from its current practices.
He had, some might argue, a pretty radical idea that could be put in place immediately and would have a huge impact on the sustainability efforts of the brands that do it.
In short: stop the crazy use of billions of dollars on marketing and do something valuable with the money instead.
Delegates and fellow panelists knew exactly which brands that he was singling out: online travel companies such as Expedia Group and Booking Holdings, a duo that collectively and regularly spend north of $10 billion in a pre-pandemic year on digital marketing with platforms such as Google Adwords.
Some might suggest that there is no logical argument against Sampson's suggestion, at least if companies want to take their leadership position seriously and do the right thing.
But travel companies are not taking his idea seriously. They have strategies and practices around customer acquisition that are part of their marketing DNA over years and - otherwise, presumably, they wouldn't do them - extremely successful.
Last week, Booking Holdings released its "inaugural climate action plan" in an effort to detail how it wants to achieve near-zero emissions for its operations by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2040.
The report follows a similar drive from Expedia Group, published in April 2021, to outline how it proposes to play a role in the sustainabiliy discussion.
For Expedia Group, it wants to provide "the best tools and information for customers to make the most educated decisions for their travel."
"By giving customers different options to reduce their footprint with the same comfort and budget that they expect from Expedia Group, we can encourage them to do as little or as much as they like to continue on their sustainable travel journey," wrote Katherine Cheng, the organization's head of global and community impact.
Booking Holdings is following a similar pattern, saying last week: "As a company, Booking Holdings believes that it has a responsibility to help ensure the world remains worth experiencing and to promote a more sustainable travel industry.
"Booking Holdings is focusing its efforts on two key areas that ultimately rely on each other to succeed: 1.) Supporting the company’s partners to become more sustainable, which in turn increases the number of sustainable travel offerings; and 2.) Supporting the company’s customers to make sustainable choices."
There are nuances to their respective approaches but the over-arching trend from both (and numerous other brands) is to empower customers to make the right decisions on sustainability and work alongside partners to inspire them to act in more eco-friendly ways.
These are laudable goals but perhaps not as far-reaching or comprehensive as they could - or should - be.
Proactive action (or not)
It is extremely unlikely that, at least at this stage, companies such as Expedia Group or Booking Holdings will follow the idea put forward by Sampson on their marketing tactics.
But could they be more proactive when it comes to how they push certain products ahead of others, based on a partner's sustinability credentials?
Hotels, for example, can be awarded a "Travel Sustainable" badge from Booking Holdings-run brand Booking.com if they reach certain criteria.
Booking.com says: "Our system reviews submitted attributes against our independently validated model of sustainability criteria that takes into account geographic specifics related to the accessibility and cost to implement certain practices. Based on this input the assessment determines an overall impact score which informs eligibility of receiving a badge."
Visual cues in search results, for customers looking for sustainable options, are a move in the right direction but, again, perhaps not aligned fully with the considerable power that mega-brands can actually wield.
When asked last week why, for example, Booking.com couldn't commit to listing eco-friendly properties (with their well-earned badge) ahead of those not deemed to be eco-friendly, the company is cautious in its response.
There are no plans currently to overhaul search results in this way, an official explains, adding: "We recognize there is significant work still to be done in this space, and our Travel Sustainable Program and Climate Action plan are important steps towards driving meaningful change.
"Ultimately, we believe these measures can be truly impactful as they represent our commitment to working with as many properties as possible to encourage and promote sustainability initiatives, which will continue to help travelers experience the world in a more mindful and responsible way.
When pushed on the issue, the official says: "We fundamentally believe that this step to include options for our consumers is important. What’s critical, is training more partners to implement sustainable efforts and we believe that is very impactful for the long term."
Booking Holdings is not being singled out for attention in this regard - it's just the latest company with a powerful role to have stated its position on the subject of biasing against companies that do not match the requirements of an eco-friendly agenda (Trivago CEO Axel Hefer said the same in an interview in the PhocusWire Studio at The Phocuswright Conference last November).
The belief is that customers MIGHT make the right decision with their travel purchases if brands are giving them the right information to do so.
Again, it's a step in the right direction but, some might argue, consumers are still in many respects determining their travel choices based on price, convenience and the experience, POSSIBLY alongside whatever sustainable credentials that a product might have.
Biasing products ahead of others would be a more proactive approach, perhaps even delisting unsustainable products would be an even greater way of triggering action partners.
Perhaps relying on consumer behavior to make the right decisions is no longer enough.
Some might suggest that the power such companies have (any company that can spend millions or even billion of dollars on marketing should be considered to have some considerable influence on consumer behavior, let's face it) is yet to be fully utilized.
* Here is the panel discussion featuring Sampson alongside Aaron Gowell, CEO of SilverRail, and Megan Morikawa, global sustainability director for the Iberostar Group...
Travel's Dilemma - Are We Making Our Mark or Leaving One? - The Phocuswright Conference 2021