How to communicate sustainability in travel and tourism is a question we hear often. Which is why we asked sustainable travel communications expert Jeremy Smith for advice on how destinations should communicate about sustainability. Here are his seven golden rules for marketing sustainable destinations.
1. Remember that you are people’s home first, a destination second
While it is mostly visitors that stay in your hotels and take your tours, they are not the only ones to use the utilities, travel the roads, eat in the restaurants, or breathe the air. Wherever possible any effort to make your destination more sustainable should also be making it more desirable a place to live.
Cycle lanes, enhanced green spaces, congestion charges, local food markets – these all improve life for the people who live there all year round.
When the Slovenian capital Ljubljana won World Travel and Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow award for best destination last year, the judges noted: “What makes its progress particularly impressive is that its efforts to become more attractive to tourists have been done by making it a better place for residents to live.”
This isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the sensible thing, especially when it comes to communications. No one spends more time talking about a place than the people who live there and have a sense of belonging.
For them it is not a destination, it’s home. If they are proud of the efforts to make it a better place to live, they will talk about them; they’ll tell their friends to come and visit; they’ll support your marketing campaigns; and welcome visitors when they arrive.
2. Social media is your best friend, and should be at the heart of all your communications strategies
It’s cheap. It’s omnipresent. You’ll reach a lot more people than a billboard.
Almost all your visitors are using it to talk about you while they are staying in your destination, and all your residents use it too.
And remember, by social media we are not just talking about Facebook. There’s Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, Vine, and whatever new platforms are most exciting people by the time you read this.
3. Tell lots of stories
The standard thinking on marketing a destination (or anything for that matter) is that to stand out in a crowded and noisy market place you need to find your Unique Selling Point. What is it that is so special about your lake that it should be at the heart of all your communications to make you stand out?
Considering that there are even two ‘Boiling Lakes’ in the world (in Dominica and New Zealand), the chances are that whatever you think is remarkable is happening somewhere else too. If you have ever walked round a large travel trade show and compared the brand identities of the world’s countries, you’ll soon see how forgettable and interchangeable most of them are.
My advice therefore is to not to dwell solely on the core message, but instead be a lot more nimble and aim to tell as many stories as possible.
Got a new cycle lane? Give some tourists a Go Pro camera and get them to film themselves on it to share on YouTube. Funky food market just opened? Promote a hashtag at the market and encourage shoppers to post photos of themselves on Instagram enjoying their favorite foods.
Cleaned up the water in the local river? Film the mayor drinking it and share a video (in which he maybe challenges other mayors to do the same with their water).
And if you aren’t sure what stories to tell, or how to tell them, get someone who does to help out (hint, that could be me).
4. Your main job is not to tell your destination’s stories. It is to help others do so
As I said in number 2, “Almost all your visitors are using [social media] to talk about you while they are staying in your destination”. As are your residents. That’s thousands of amateur journalists walking around filming and writing about what is going on in your destination and sharing it with their worlds every day. It’s as if there’s a giant fam trip happening all day long, every day, everywhere.
Your stories are being told, and the best you can do is to do everything possible to make sure the stories they share are casting you in a good light. If there’s a problem with rubbish on the high street, make sure it is cleaned up, because otherwise people will take photographs, share them with friends, start a Facebook group, and grumble about it on TripAdvisor.
And yes, this does indeed mean that rubbish maintenance is now a communications issue. As is anything else that someone might talk about to their friends, family, global social media network. In other words, everything.
The job of making a destination a better place to live in and a better place to visit – and the job of communicating those efforts and their results – are becoming so closely intertwined as to be almost the same.
Ask yourselves these questions: Who is communicating your sustainability efforts? Are they involved in developing the actual initiatives, or just told about them when they are finished and asked to tell the world about them then?
5. Don’t try to hide anything
As mentioned more than once above, people share everything.
Transparency is the buzzword for progressive businesses right now. If you aren’t transparent about what is happening in your destination, then there are potentially millions of people using TripAdvisor and Facebook to reveal exactly what they think about you to the world.
If a destination is dishonest about a problem, a disgruntled employee, nosy teenager or irate guest may decide to satisfy their anger by sharing the news you wanted hidden with the world.
As a destination striving to be more sustainable, you have a good story to tell. At the same time, people don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to be honest.
Transparency should be at the heart of all destination communication strategies because it builds trust. Trust is the central currency of social media. For travel companies like Airbnb it is the basis of their phenomenal success.
Destinations can use honesty to stand out in the marketplace. Not a lot of people go to Bangladesh on holiday, so they produced posters with the line “Visit Bangladesh – before tourists come” that made a selling point of being off the beaten track.
Everyone knows it rains in Wales. So rather than waiting for a sunny day to film their video, they celebrated the joys of getting muddy. Both campaigns are a lot more memorable than yet another destination claiming to be the most perfect place on earth.
6. Don’t exaggerate
When people claim their sustainability initiatives are more powerful than they really are (like cards in hotel bathrooms that suggest not washing your towels for a day will somehow ‘Save the Planet”, it’s called greenwash. And people will call you out on it.
People increasingly trust the recommendations of their friends and social peers more than any other group (especially corporations and government bodies talking about that they are doing). Therefore do the right thing, be modest (and honest) about its significance, and let the world decide for themselves how big a deal it is.
7. Be interesting
That may sound like the most obvious piece of advice in the world, but when it comes to talking about sustainability – and sustainable tourism in particular – it often gets forgotten.
People are coming to your destination to relax, escape the humdrum and be inspired. They aren’t looking to be lectured at, spoken to in technical jargon, or expected to decide where to stay on the basis of a percentage reduction in waste sent to landfill. When you communicate what you are doing, you need to connect your efforts to your visitors’ experiences – be it better tasting food, a city that’s more pleasurable to get around, or even air that’s fresher to inhale.
One final note. The good news is that while all of the seven rules above apply to all destination marketing, they favor anyone who is engaged in being more sustainable. After all, you aren’t looking to cover up bad practices, but to fix them.
You have no need to exaggerate what little you are doing, because you are making a real effort. And since you are deeply connected to a community that trusts you and likes what you are doing, you should have lots of positive stories and lots of supportive people willing to help you share them.
About Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith is the editor of Travindy.com, which reports on the innovations and issues shaping a sustainable future for tourism.
This post was originally written for the Sustainability Leaders Project and published on Sustainability-Leaders.com.
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