In 1271, Marco Polo set sail for Asia. In 1492, Columbus made landfall in what would become America. In 1969, man visited the moon. In 2012, the world welcomed its one billionth traveller. And by 2031, it will acknowledge its two billionth. The next 15 years will witness unprecedented growth in global tourism and as competition for visitors intensifies, there will be winners and losers. According to Oliver Martin, a partner at Twenty31 Consulting, a progressive tourism and travel consultancy based in Vancouver, the organizations that will find success will be those that champion "recognized leadership."

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By Oliver Martin, Partner, Twenty31 Consulting

THE NEED FOR LEADERSHIP in travel and tourism has never been more critical. As a society and industry, we are grappling with large-scale global and regional challenges – climate change, overcrowding at tourism sites and the resulting strain on infrastructure, and social and economic inequality in many destinations – that require a new type of leadership from progressive entities, aligned with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

Most governments appear unwilling or unable to lead. And what about tourism boards? The issue is that many national tourism organizations follow agendas dictated by those same dismissive governments, some of which still see overtourism as “a nice problem to have.” Civil society, while highly engaged on sustainability issues, typically does not have the scale or infrastructure to deliver the required change. And multilateral associations, including the United Nations World Tourism Organization, seem beholden to the political whims of national members.

Despite low levels of consumer trust, all signs point to more committed and effective leadership on the part of travel and tourism businesses as one of the key engines to drive more sustainable and prosperous destinations. This is also in the self-interest of global travel and tourism enterprises; a global company can’t be successful and profitable in a chaotic world.

However, the return on investment of progressive corporate leadership has, in many cases, been underwhelming.

Despite the promise of strong social and environmental performance to drive business value (i.e., enhanced reputation and brand equity, stronger policy influence, deeper consumer and shareholder loyalty, increased market share, and greater talent attraction and retention), all too often there have been obstacles between a company’s commitments and the pledged benefits.

Twenty31 Consulting recognizes that one of the fundamental obstacles to creating more value for the enterprise from its sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy is the limited understanding and appreciation a company’s customers and stakeholders have of these commitments. Without stronger engagement and recognition of a company’s commitments, business value remains limited. The solution can be found in building and nurturing the concept of recognized leadership, an idea pioneered by global reputation and sustainability experts, GlobeScan.

Why should the travel and tourism industry embrace recognized leadership? It can be argued that the only type of leadership that is enduring and can stimulate positive change, is one that is recognized. Recognized leadership delivers value to the business in multiple forms: It inspires industry stakeholders; it creates virtuous competition among competitors; and it turns trust deficits into surpluses which yields business from high-value travel consumers. The simple but potent insight here is that in order to accrue the benefits of enlightened commitments, travel consumers, travel trade and industry stakeholders need to understand what you stand for as a business and how you are executing on your corporate purpose.

Collectively and in general, travel and tourism companies have done a poor job engaging with their employees, travel consumers, suppliers, communities, investors and NGO partners in this area around a shared vision and benefits. This goes well beyond marketing and communications and way past public relations (where, unfortunately, many CSR and sustainability programs reside).

Recognized travel and tourism leadership requires the thoughtful alignment of a number of moving parts that includes strategic vision, integrated performance and communications/engagement. A public relations or branding campaign is insufficient to deliver recognized leadership without it being deeply tied into business performance. Sustainability and CSR initiatives must be credible and measurable. Similarly, strong vision and performance is an insufficient approach if it lacks a way to deeply connect with travel consumers, travel trade and stakeholders.

Travel and tourism companies such as Jetwing Hotels, Intrepid Travel, &Beyond and Soneva resorts have taken a more holistic approach to vision, performance and engagement, and are driving the agenda and increasing business value. Industry associations such as The Pacific Asia Travel Association can also play a role given their unique ability to facilitate engagement between business and government.

Twenty31’s approach is to build recognized leadership strategies based upon a clear assessment of the business context and through primary research and internal and external stakeholder engagement. The challenge is developing an integrated strategy that manages risk, optimizes opportunities and community contribution, as well as best captures the imaginations of travel consumers, travel trade and broader stakeholders – all in ways that build positive recognition for the company. When executed with success, it closes the loop on business value, which in turn leads to greater social impact as the organization derives greater economic and social benefits.

The world is on the cusp of a new era of corporate engagement that will fulfil many of the promises of the business case for corporate sustainability. We have a better understanding of the challenges we face and the actions required to secure a better world. Recognized leadership can help progressive travel and tourism companies mobilize their capabilities for a brighter and more sustainable future.

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