“Make It Count” is a free guide written by Peter Richards, published in partnership with The Travel Foundation and Leeds Beckett University. In an insightful interview, Peter reveals what inspired him to write this guide and shares key lessons learned during his research.
Peter Richards has 15 years of professional experience in Thailand and the ASEAN region, working at the crossroads of responsible tourism and community development.
Anula: For a good start, please explain our readers what “Make It Count” is about and who is it for?
Peter: Make It Count is a guide for outbound tour operators and ground agents on how to work together, to scale up the sales of sustainable tourism products. The guide aims to help tour operators to move beyond tokenism and significantly increase the quality and quantity of enjoyable, sustainable experiences which they source and sell to tourists.
Make It Count is based on in depth interviews with tour operators. In simple language, the guide presents a collection of proven, recommended actions showing what leading tour operators and their ground agents are doing to sell more sustainable customer experiences.
Case studies come from 11 UK tour operators and 13 ground agents based in destinations as diverse as Brazil, Cyprus, Costa Rica, India, South Africa, Thailand and Nepal. Contributors include some of the world’s largest tour operators; established leaders in small group travel; and smaller, expert, niche operators. Recommendations are organised in three chapters: i) inside tour operators, ii) between tour operators and ground agents and iii) to market.
Anula: What inspired you to choose this subject?
Peter: My motivation for writing the Make It Count guide is that, after two decades of hard work, there are now literally thousands of products which combine great experiences for tourists alongside tangible benefits for local people and the environment in destinations. Working on the supply side of tourism, I experienced many enjoyable and inspiring ‘sustainable’ products first hand: from exceptional ‘green’ hotels to community based tourism.
It increasingly struck me that, despite support and pressure to improve sustainability performance along tourism supply chains; buying and selling explicitly sustainable products is often approached as an act of good will, or an extension of CSR, rather than good business. This even happens when sustainable products get great feedback from tourists.
I wanted to learn where the bottlenecks are; how to get beyond tokenism; and how to get more of these great products to market? I interviewed UK tour operators and overseas ground agents, which had successfully scaled up sales of sustainable experiences, to see what concrete actions they had taken? How had they cooperated, between departments and companies, to push more sustainable products along their supply chains to market?
Anula: “Make It Count” was written as a result of your graduate research. Most graduate works remain in the academic libraries. What made you go an extra mile and bring it to the business readers?
Peter: Many committed people are working across sectors to make tourism more sustainable. Our different career choices and specialisations gradually build deep but limited knowledge. For sustainable tourism to make progress, tourism stakeholders across sectors need to leave our comfort zones, illuminate the edges of our own knowledge, listen, learn and work together.
I returned to education after working for more than 15 years in the field, inspired by a very specific question: how can we make all of the hope, hard work and resources being invested into developing sustainable tourism count? I felt I had reached a limit of ‘learning by doing’ and chose to pursue this question through academic study, so that I would have enough time and resources to do the question justice. My aim was to harness rigorous academic process, to produce knowledge which could be genuinely useful for people working in the tourism industry. I approached The Travel Foundation in the beginning, to explain the aim of the manual and request access to their network of UK tour operators and ground agents.
The Travel Foundation team gave great support to the project, introducing me to several major, UK tour operators. We were up-front with the tour operators that this was academic research, which would have a practical outcome. It was a potential opportunity to showcase best practices and success stories. My academic supervisor, Professor Xavier Font was also a great inspiration. He fully supported the aim of making academic work useful and relevant.
I hope Make It Count is useful for people working in the core roles of product, operations, sales and marketing. This is where the crucial decisions are made on a day to day basis.
Anula: What is, in your opinion, the number one mistake outbound tour operators make when it comes to communicating sustainability to their ground agents?
Peter: During the interviews for the Make It Count guide, Mr. Willem Niemeijer, the founder and CEO of Khiri Travel emphasised that much more sustainable tourism would get to market if outbound tour operators were simply more proactive requesting their ground agents to propose more sustainable options. I think that this is a telling and important observation.
I think it’s fair to say that in the past two decades, most of the pressure and responsibility to create more sustainable products has fallen onto the shoulders of ground agents and DMCs. However, outbound tour operators can make a huge contribution to scaling up sustainable tourism sales, by giving ‘preferred treatment’ and proactive marketing support to excellent, sustainable products. Outbound operators and certification schemes expect supply side partners to invest, and take on risks, in product development. Outbound operators should at least hold up their side of the deal by investing more in marketing sustainable products.
Anula: And what is the main mistake local responsible tour companies make when speaking with the outbound operators?
First, local responsible tour companies must show more clearly how their products are much better experiences for tourists, and secondly show concretely how they benefit local people and / or the environment. Ground agents should lead with the quality of the customer experience, and focus on how sustainable elements add value to customers’ experience, e.g.: through interaction with local people, or fresher locally sourced fruit and vegetables.
During the research, ‘resistance to change’ emerged as a key bottleneck. For busy outbound tour operators, product development must be carefully balanced against the work needed to market a new product, or replace an existing product. Product development usually takes place during a very short and busy period, with multiple deadlines. Writing new brochure or web copy, sourcing photos, training sales teams, etc. are all very time consuming.
Exodus’ case showed that progress can be made by focusing on one or two popular trips per year, and looking in detail at how they can be tweaked to improve the customer experience even more, through adding sustainable activities such as eating a meal with a local family.
Anula: From all the case studies you described in the Guide, which one really inspired you, and which one could be easily implemented by any travel company?
Peter: I was very inspired by Thomas Cook’s Local Label Excursions. This case study showed clearly how a massive tour operator could systematically scale up sustainable tourism sales. Thomas Cook used the Travel Foundation’s Greener Excursions Criteria to assess their excursion programs across 80 global destinations. They identified which suppliers were only sourcing and employing locally, celebrating local culture and not engaged in wasteful practices. The most sustainable were promoted as “Local Label Excursions.”
Crucially, these excursions were then given solid marketing support. The Thomas Cook team created training packages, presentations and supporting documentation for overseas agents, managers and representatives. They engaged their sales reps to write marketing content about Local Label excursions for resort guides, focusing on features and benefits to customers. They also sent sales reps on familiarisation trips, which made them enthusiastic to sell the trips. Existing excursions that gained a ‘local label’ achieved an 18% increase in pre-tax profit, compared to a 1.5% increase in pre-tax profits for non-labelled excursions.
On a smaller scale, I was highly inspired by the case of The Blue Yonder, in Kerala, India. The Blue Yonder team donated 5000 EUR of Lifetime Achievement Awards and scholarships to local artisans to create recognition for their contribution towards local arts and culture; and stimulate youth to learn ancient skills. 90% of The Blue Yonder’s Kerala tours visit the region, participating in crafts workshops, which have welcomed over 1000 guests in 2015. Direct purchase of souvenirs by their guests now averages $80 to $100 USD per person.
For a great idea which could be implemented inside any company, check out the case by Rickshaw Travel. The company established a team of ‘meaningful travel warriors,’ from across departments, who cooperate to get more sustainable tourism to market.
Anula: When it comes to real business, often the only thing that counts is numbers. What arguments can product managers use to convince top management and sales teams that developing new sustainable products can bring more profit than the “oldies but goldies” (products, which are maybe not that responsible but have high demand)?
Peter: The cases in Make It Count prove that, from mainstream operators to specialists, a wide variety of sustainable tourism experiences are satisfying customer expectations and making good business sense. For example, in 2015, sales of Thomas Cook’s ‘Local Label Excursions’ grew by as much as 400%; sales of ‘TUI Collection’ sustainable excursions grew by as much as 250%; and smaller specialists like the Beyond Tourism Company and Rickshaw Travel added value to their brands, by investing in more sustainable products and winning awards.
The Thomas Cook and TUI cases also illustrate how large scale tour operators can begin by identifying the most sustainable products from their existing offer. In both cases, TUI and Thomas Cook used credible criteria to assess existing products and give the most sustainable products preferential status. They increased sales through differentiated branding (‘TUI Collection’ and ‘Thomas Cook Local Label Excursion’) and proactive sales and marketing.
Many companies featured in the guide reported additional positive impacts from supporting sustainable tourism, such as increased staff moral and retaining committed staff for longer.
Nevertheless, tour operators in the guide were only able to successfully and profitably scale up sustainable tourism sales because they took systematic action inside their companies and worked proactively with their partners to source and sell more sustainable products. Make It Count shows how and where tour operators can start. If operators are interested to go further, and raise their sustainability performance across the board, the guide provides links to programs such as the Travelife Sustainability System for Tour Operators.
Anula: Your research focused on UK outbound tour operators. How are the suggested solutions applicable for companies from other countries? I’m not thinking about Europe only but also Asia for example.
Peter: The manual was developed based on interviews with UK outbound tour operators, and their ground agents located around the world. The guide definitely reflects the priorities of UK tour operators, for example through the emphasis on UK health and safety. The ‘market’ recommendations are informed by culturally specific opportunities created by UK market demand for local, authentic experiences, responsible wildlife viewing, etc. where there are some natural synergies between sustainable practices and outstanding guest experiences.
I think that the manual will be a useful resource and source of ideas for any tour operator which is motivated to increase their sales of sustainable tourism. In particular, the recommendations for actions inside and between companies will be useful. For example: using criteria to identify sustainable products, motivating product and sales staff with clear goals, catalysing cooperation between departments and rewarding staff achievements.
Beyond this, the principle of adding value to sustainable experiences by communicating how and why tourists will enjoy them more is probably still useful. However, more work would need to be done to discover what particular aspects of ‘sustainability’ resonate with different cultures and countries. It sounds like an interesting question for future research!
Anula: “Make It Count” is published. What’s next? Any big project or new publication you’re working on?
Peter: Currently, I am back in the field, working as a consultant for cultural tourism tour development and market access in Kayah state, Myanmar. I am working with colleagues at the International Trade Center (ITC) to develop inspiring, community based cultural tourism experiences, and market these experiences to tour operators in Yangon, through to Europe.
As a priority, I hope to harness the lessons learned in Make It Count to motivate responsible tour operators to include these awesome experiences in their offer for 2016 / 2017.
Beyond that, it has been a great privilege to conduct a full, academic research project, and re-package the results in a simple way for the industry. It was quite a challenge to spend a year focusing on study, and I feel really grateful to everyone who helped to make it possible. It’s definitely something I would like to do again, but I’ll wait for the next burning question!
Anula: And the last question – who is your personal guru in tourism, and why? A person, who is making a real positive change in travel and motivates you to do the same.
Peter: My role model in sustainable / responsible tourism is Potjana Suansri, a Thai social worker and community based tourism (CBT) expert. Potjana is a compassionate, committed, deeply intuitive and highly skilled community worker. She was one of Thailand and ASEAN’s first pioneers in CBT development. She has worked alongside community members since 1994 to develop deep, living, learning experiences. Many of these initiatives are still providing great memories for tourists and benefits for local people today. Most importantly, the work which Potjana initiated two decades ago, and steered through a dynamic socio-political landscape has directly lead to local community members having significantly increased benefits, voice, and influence over the direction of tourism development in rural Thailand. She is a legend.
I don’t limit ‘sustainable tourism’ to only local experiences. However, experiencing the kinds of benefits and the meaningful interaction which sustainable tourism can deliver on the ground continues to motivate me to engage with business and keep pushing forward.
Thanks for the interview Peter!
To download Make It Count, visit The Travel Foundation website.
To find out more about Peter Richards and his work, visit his LinkedIn profile.