Lonneke de Kort left a long career working in senior management in the fashion industry, to found BookDifferent.com in 2012. The site is a hotel booking engine, but also a social enterprise with a mission to make tourism more social and sustainable. She spoke with Anula Galewska.
This article is part of the interview series with Speakers of the GSTC Conferences in Suwon, Korea and Athens, Greece held in October and November 2016.
Anula: What is BookDifferent?
Lonneke: We are a hotel booking site, registered as a social enterprise, with a mission to make travel greener and social. We wanted to introduce greener travel to day to day business by a smart use of already available data. We use Booking.com’s database, so we have the same number of accommodations at the same price. This also means that you don’t have to pay more for more sustainable choices.
At the beginning we started as a fundraising tool. Every time a customer booked a hotel with us, 50% of their booking would go to a charity of their choice. We realised that covering only the social aspect was simply not enough. The concept of sustainability is broader than just the social, and in case of tourism the environmental impact of the travel component is enormous. That’s why we added environmental indicators to our offer, to help customers make more conscious decisions.
Anula: What kind of environmental data is available on your website?
Lonneke: We started by showing accommodations that have ecolabels, and only those which are third-party assessed. We currently work with 16 certifying bodies, which include Travelife, Earthcheck, Green Key, Green Tourism, Green Globe, Austrian Ecolabel. We update the information every 3 months.
Right now our database consists of 800,000 hotels and only 6,000 are eco-certified by third party-assessed labels, which is 0,6% of the whole offer. It’s nothing! It means that in most places you go, you won’t find an eco-certified hotel.
Scalability is a problem for everyone. For example, I know that Booking.com wanted to show eco-certification in their search results, and they were really researching if it was possible. However, this was impossible as the availability of properties and scalability are import conditions for Booking.com.
We faced the same problem. And in the process, we learned that for consumers, eco-certification doesn’t really mean much. The sustainable tourism professionals know about existing certification schemes, but this is not enough. We had to find some kind of data that would say something about all our hotels, something that is tangible for the customers and scalable for the business.
A big question for BookDifferent is how to find the right wording to help holidaymakers make the right choice. I believe that so far, we made it really clear. We have a green leaf placed at the top of the page, we have a page where we exactly tell what we do and which labels we work with, we also have a carbon footprint indicators. So if you’re green feet, it means you’re doing better that the orange feet, and if you’re red – this is advice from us that you shouldn’t choose this property.
Anula: Where do you take the environmental footprint from?
Lonneke: We use an algorithm developed by ANVR, Breda University of Applied Sciences (NHTV) in cooperation with a number of Dutch tour operators. It’s called Carmacal, and it was one of the winners of this year’s WTTC Awards. They won the prize because its the first solution that enables tour operators to calculate the complete carbon footprint of their tours. On average, 90% goes to the air transportation, 5% is the accommodation, and 5% is travel within the destination.
To calculate a hotel’s footprint, they took mean of an average output of carbon footprint based on the square meters of a room (small/medium/large) and they identified which variables influence this mean. So if you have a very luxurious wellness connected to your hotel, you are very likely to have much higher carbon footprint than a conference hotel, which space is shared by many people and energy usage is much lower.
Anula: Does this take into account things like whether they use renewable energy?
Lonneke: This we don’t know yet and it needs to be developed. Nevertheless, on average, the current algorithm is pretty accurate. It’s a deviation of 10% plus, or 10% minus. So this means that if a hotel has a red feet, it will never have a green feet. The problem is only if it’s on the edge between green/orange or orange/red.
However, we want to get real data, not only to make sure that consumers make greener choices but also to encourage hotels to be aware of their eco-efficiency.
Most eco-certification bodies are already gathering this information, so we could start sharing this one. However, ideally, we shouldn’t only have the eco-certified hotels but also those small hotels, which are absolutely carbon neutral but might not be certified. They are the ones who set new standards and lead the change, and they should appear on top of the search results. Also I believe that our consumers would prefer to stay at these small boutique hotels rather than in the big chain hotels.
Anula: Have you seen the demand for green accommodation growing since you started BookDifferent?
Lonneke: In terms of individual customers it’s difficult. First of all, it’s a very difficult task to be on the top of the Google search results as a very small company with a very limited budget because online marketing is a very competitive market. On the other hand, consumers are not looking yet for sustainable accommodations. We have noticed that they have started searching for carbon footprint data, and this is something where we pop up, but still not very often for a sustainable hotel or green holiday.
I see additional interest for sustainable accommodation from the organisations that deal with corporate travel. It is a direction we want to take.
I see additional interest for sustainable accommodation from the organisations that deal with corporate travel. Actually there are many people, who find what we do interesting, but when it comes to booking – they still go to booking.com or other major booking platforms. But definitely, corporate travel is a direction we want to take.
Anula: Do you work with corporate travel?
Lonneke: This is the next step we want to work on right now. We would like to use the database to create a agent-facing platform for corporate travel, which would have features like a company dashboard with favorite hotels, favorite destinations, invoicing and all sort of things these companies need. There are already several organisations willing to work with us, from a big bank in The Netherlands to smaller companies. Wish me luck, as I will soon be pitching my corporate travel plan to 30 investors. I really hope to get funding to make needed changes and boost green business travel bookings, and also bring additional revenue stream for our business.
Anula: Looking at consumers again, you did a very interesting survey looking at what travelers require to help them make more of green holiday choices.
Lonneke: Yes, we did a survey among 100 BookDifferent customers and 100 visitors to a green lifestyle fair, so they were into sustainability already. We asked “what do you need to travel more sustainably”? The results were pretty interesting and surprising.
First of all, consumers need one platform where they could find all parts of green holidays, from hotels to destination, transport and excursions. There are many initiatives already that offer responsible ways of traveling, trips and tricks, and activities. I think we should find a way connect this type of data. Instead of fighting for the customers individually, we should get our ego out of the way, collaborate and create one big platform.
Secondly, consumers would like to have a community and a way to share my green experiences with my friends.
This is very much related to the third point – peer reviews. There are many reviews available but they do not include sustainability data. People would like to be able to read about these things. But this cannot be technical data. We, as tourism professionals, should be able to translate sustainability information into something more tangible for the customers, something they will understand. And then we need to teach holidaymakers what questions to ask, so they know what to look for and review afterwards.
We, as tourism professionals, should be able to translate sustainability information into something more tangible for the customers, something they will understand.
It would be great to have some sort of index that people would relate to easily. Instead of being so serious about sustainability, we should do some funny things. Instead of talking about carbon footprint, we could show other icons that indicate different – responsible – experiences guests have. For example if a hotel purchases food locally, which means the food is tasty and fresh. The problem is that this type of data is not available publicly, and therefore not possible to be gathered and shared on a wide scale. The general problem with sustainability indicators is that data is not available and we still lack the technology to connect all the dots.
The last finding was about sustainability labelling. Customers don’t want to bothered with 16 different labels and awards. They just want to know they place they stay at is green. So hotels are expected to be sustainable and transparent but sharing what certifications they have won’t influence the customer’s decision.
Anula: What does it say about the benefits of being certified? Does eco-certification mean anything to a consumer?
Lonneke: In my opinion, it doesn’t and it’s really a pity. All the certified hotels are in general very green. The carbon footprint is just one layer of sustainability. So hotels should be communicating all sorts of great things they do. Sharing information about your eco label is simply boring, or doesn’t mean anything at all.
Also when I research my bookings, I don’t see a bigger part going to eco-certified hotels. I’m really wondering what it actually does, what eco-labels mean for the majority of consumers, those who are not the ecowarriors.
Anula: In that case, what role does certification play? Do we need it?
Lonneke: Yes, I believe that we need certification schemes to verify the data. Certification bodies are there to check the quality, especially as there is still a lot of greenwashing.
In general, certification should be perceived as an internal tool to prove that you’re doing the right thing, as a business management system that helps a hotel take care of their business better and improve their sustainability operations.
One aspect of it is managing the natural resources. Changes a hotel needs to make to become certified, will help them improve their energy and water efficiency, and this will help them save money. Sustainability it’s not only about supporting a good cause – it’s the smart way of doing business.
The problem is that hotels don’t know how to translate sustainability into stories. Travelers are not interested in technical data and numbers. We need to tell stories, like who made your breakfast, where did it come from, etc. Stories that are funny and engaging. It’s time to put the engineers and creative minds work together!
There is one Dutch company called Landal Holiday Parks, which is very successful in communicating sustainability in a language consumers understand. They really do tell their story in a funny and creative way.
So yes, we need certification but we need it in a different way.
In my opinion, if we wait for consumers to be ready for sustainable travel, then our Earth will really suffer. We, as an industry, we need to do something.
Anula: Which is…?
Lonneke: TUI for example is doing a really good job. By changing their procurement policy, they are forcing the change in their whole supply chain. So if TUI can be green, everybody can do this. For example, if booking.com said that all sustainable hotels get a preferential treatment, get a discount or pay less commission, that would encourage many properties to do something. As a sector, we need to move ourselves and not wait for the consumer to ask for it.
Anula: Why do you think booking.com hasn’t done it yet?
Lonneke: Booking.com is trying to do a lot but still their mission is to sell as many hotel nights as possible, which they need to report to their shareholders and they are the ones to decide. If it doesn’t add up, no matter how sustainable the change is, it simply can’t be implemented.
In one way or another, they are not urged to change anything. Although everyone is alarmed about the climate change, it seems that tourism businesses pretend, or really don’t see how it is influencing them. Earth is their main asset – as soon as nature is no longer there, they will simply lose their business.
Anula: But OTAs are far away from the problem. They sell products online, if Thailand doesn’t sell anymore, they will switch their Google Ads campaign to another destination.
Lonneke: We have to have more TUIs and more Crowns, the big ones that treat sustainability seriously and prove that change is possible and feasible. Then OTAs, like Booking.com will join as well. But every change needs time and requires small steps. Big players won’t become green overnight.
We need to provide OTAs with an evidence that it’s working. Maybe instead of talking about sustainability, we should talk about circular economy for example, something they can relate to more easily.
For example Airbnb is the most logic partner for sharing sustainability data. They’re growing fast but facing challenges in many countries. For their own economic well being, they should be looking at sustainability data. Airbnb is already a member of GSTC, so GSTC should work closer with them.
Anula: You say about showing the evidence. What kind of evidence is that?
Lonneke: We need to start gathering qualitative and quantitative data. As for qualitative data, I will do further research with The Breda University of Applied Sciences on what is clients’ motivation to book our hotels, combined with neuromarketing. This is one way of finding the triggering spots. After implementing and learning from the results, we then will be able to prove that it’s working.
As for quantitative data, we at BookDifferent already have a lot of data that other people don’t have. So now it’s a matter of analysing and sharing the information
And on the other side, we should be doing impact assessment of the holiday experience, which includes how much money stays in the communities, who benefits from the holidays, impact on nature, culture, etc. TUI has done such study in Cyprus, also in The Netherlands five tour operators measured impact of their tours. But we need more of these.
We need more startups in the sustainable tourism business! We need more tech people to help us to analyse data and make the use of technology. We need tech to be able to collect, measure and share data from all different initiatives that already exist, and to make the change happen faster!
Last but not least, we need more startups in the sustainable tourism business! I know that EarthCheck and Booking have started their own accelerator programs. We need more tech people to help us to analyse data and make the use of technology. We need tech to be able to collect, measure and share data from all different initiatives that already exist, and to make the change happen faster!
GSTC Regional European Meeting took place in Athens, Greece in November 2016. To view presentations from the past conference and learn about upcoming GSTC events, visit GSTC website.