Guest Post: Travel needs to rethink how it communicates about sustainability

Guest Post: Travel needs to rethink how it communicates about sustainability

One important sustainability step for the travel industry would be to improve the presentation of information in the search and booking process, says Matthew Chapman, chief technology officer of Vibe 

Is the future of sustainability in travel just about travelling less and doing more carbon offsetting? Do we need to think about alternative ways to solve this challenge? 

To explore this topic we held an event called ‘Great Minds’ at the Mercedes Benz World in Brooklands that was attended by around 30 representatives of travel suppliers such as bedbanks, transport providers and senior people from the main GDS companies.

During the day we held a panel session with Kirsty Given from Agiito, Sarah Grao from Bioscore, Nico Nicholas from Trees4Travel, and myself – with each of us sharing our opinions on the matter and both taking questions and hearing views from the audience. 

We at Vibe are well aware that greater minds than ours are working on the kind of actions the travel industry (and the wider world) need to take to combat climate change. Clearly, the top of the list is massively reducing carbon emissions.  

But we feel that there is one very important area that we have enough experience to provide meaningful insight and comment on: the way in which sustainability-related information is presented to the consumer needs to be rethought wholesale – and the debate held during our ‘Great Minds’ day both shaped and reinforced that view further for me.  

Right now as a consumer it is very difficult – and even confusing, no matter how informed or diligent you are – to try to understand what your potential environmental impact is when making choices about travel.

As a result of this, we believe that without clear, concise, easy-to-understand information then the very great and noble efforts being made to bring about change could flounder. I´m talking about information that can be assessed on an ‘apples-vs-apples’ basis by the average consumer. 

To focus our minds, let’s just drill that down into hard needs and examples. Standardised data and measures are key, and yes while we hear a lot of conversation about this, we somehow seem very far from a solution. 

What we hear less about, though, is that whatever metrics they settle on, they must be easily filterable: without that consumers will never make any sense of them. 

Ratings and certifications that are easy to understand, have clear meaning and definitions and are filterable are important. And then, finally, it is important that certain pieces of key information are consistently available and easy to find in the booking process. 

While consumers ultimately will foot the bill for this – as let’s not be naïve, sustainability actions come with an economic cost – it is nonetheless not their responsibility to drive this initiative or regulate it. 

But because businesses respond to consumer desires, which are price motived, we don’t feel that the trade alone can bring about change either.

Something bigger is needed and as my fellow panelist, Kirsty from Agito said, “it sometimes does feel like the Wild West when it comes to sustainability. 

“There are so many calculators, solutions, different people selling different things. It’s sprung up seemingly overnight. Regulation can have a role as long as it’s meaningful and doesn’t just benefit the large corporations and businesses that have the money to implement it effectively”.

Looking at this purely from the display of information perspective, ultimately we need to see regulation that firstly gives guidance and consistency, and secondly ensures that those firms that take action are not out-competed by those ducking their responsibilities. 

It’s very important to note that such regulation shouldn’t be solely about CO2, it must consider other aspects of climate impact and the wider sustainability theme.

Should all of this regulatory responsibility fall on suppliers? As booking tech providers ourselves, we are well aware that we can’t force airlines to burn sustainable fuels, nor can we make insulation obligatory in hotels or force them to use greener energy. 

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have any responsibility, and the provision of information and communication of said information should fall well within our remit – and we’re ready to embrace that at Vibe, as long as it is an even playing field. 

That’s certainly a view backed up by our suppliers, who fear that all of this could fall to them alone. To find out where our audience thought responsibility for change lay, we asked them to vote and they overwhelmingly said it was the whole of the travel industry’s responsibility (and not just them, as remember they were a room full of suppliers). 

As my fellow panelist Sarah from Bioscore pointed out, “this can apply not only to accommodations but also to airlines and OTAs”, in other words, the whole ecosystem.

Whatever we do, there’s been too much talk for too long and action is required immediately. As Nico Nicholas from Trees4Travel said, “I don’t want to get lost in the numbers, they are important but our tagline is ‘actions speak louder than numbers’ because if you just have numbers and don’t reduce emissions, well you don’t actually compensate. Our ambition is to give people the tools they need for tangible action behind those numbers”. 

If you have any ideas on how we should go about the display and communication of sustainability information in the search and booking process, reach out to me on LinkedIn and let’s see if we can work together to move this forward. As they say, information is power.