Marketing responsible & sustainable tourism

Cambodian woman, Grenada beach and Indian desert
Woman at Cambodian market, beach in Grenada & camel in Indian desert. Photos by , Pawel Kazmierczak and Nuamfolio.

We’ve been making a living marketing responsible & sustainable tourism since 2001. Responsible Travel earns its commission from marketing and generating sales for typically small and specialist tour companies. Our wages are dependent on being good at it! Here are our top 8 insights and tips.

  1. Marketing is much more than just figuring out the rights type of language to describe and communicate responsible & sustainable tourism. Positive ways of talking about improving local lives and sustaining environments will not be successful if you offer a product and service that doesn’t appeal to your target market; at the wrong price; with poor access or transport links, or without any distribution in the tourist originating markets.

    Marketing strategies start with defining and understanding your target audience; developing a product and pricing strategy that appeals to them; and creating a distribution strategy before thinking about communication. If a marketing strategy is not appealing to the customer base, or linked to an overall business strategy, which validates how you can cover your costs and generate a surplus to cover unexpected events or invest in the future, then it will fail.

  2. Just because you’ve built the most responsible and sustainable tourism experience the world has ever seen doesn’t mean that anyone will come! Customer research over the past 15 years has shown an increasing customer interest in responsible & sustainable tourism, but no research has ever shown that it’s the most important thing to them – the experience is always the most important thing.

    Of course these two things – designing tourism in a responsible way and providing a rewarding experience – are not unrelated. By creating an experience fairly around local people, their cultures and heritage, you are likely to create a wonderful experience. However remember to lead your marketing with the experience you offer, not with the community or conservation benefits or process you’ve been through (which can be interesting too, but not as your lead message).

  3. You are going to need some distribution if you wish to sell in international markets. This is essentially what we offer at Responsible Travel. You are likely to need some partnerships if you want to reach local markets. If you are planning to rely on marketing your business through Google search listings or via a Facebook page you might need to think again.

    • a. Google search positions are very, very competitive. Sadly it’s skewed against small businesses. Two of the ranking factors that Google uses are the number of links to your site from highly trusted sites – like news sites – and the number of searches done on your brand name. It take a long time, and a significant investment in marketing and PR over a long period of time, to achieve either. If your experience is very unusual you will find it easier to rank high on Google for these terms, but very few people will be using them – meaning you are unlikely to attract much business this way.

    • b. Facebook has changed its algorithm over the past 5 years. The vast majority (over 85%) of message from businesses Facebook pages are not shown in your followers feeds. Recent Facebook announcements confirm they are now taking this principle even further. Of course this doesn’t mean that clients who love their experience with you might not share it own their personal Facebook or Instagram pages and that this cannot be very effective.

  4. Despite everything that has ever been written about marketing the best way to market your tour or experience is through word of mouth recommendation. Every customer you have is also a marketing opportunity, but you must deliver something that really special if they are to do your marketing for you.

  5. Think about your unique selling points. Make sure your USP’s really are unique, and that they are motivating to customers. Many in tourism use lazy clichés for their USP’s that are used by almost every other business. If you can’t describe them in about 30 seconds they are not well defined enough. Make sure that all your marketing and customer services understand and reference them.

  6. Define your competition. It might not be who you think it is, especially if you are marketing to international clients. For example, when we ask tour operators marketing nature or wildlife vacations who their competition is they typically name someone doing something similar close by. Of course there is some truth in this, however when a client calls us they might say ‘I’m interested in wildlife and wondering whether to see bears in Finland, go to Borneo, or perhaps a safari in East Africa or whale watching in the Azores’.

    The point is that you are in a global market. You don’t just need to be better than the competitor down the road. You need to be better than anyone in the world in your sector targeting the same people.

  7. Don’t over claim when you communicate your responsibility or sustainability. For 13 years I ran The World Responsible Tourism Awards, we reviewed about 500 of the best examples of responsible tourism every year. Not a single one of them was perfect, and at Responsible Travel we certainly aren’t either. It’s a journey, we all get things wrong. What you learn or have to change is just as important to talk about as what you get right. Be honest.

    Try to talk about measurable impacts and results not outputs. For example, saying ‘we run workshops in the community’ or ‘we support a local conservation charity’ is just an output. It doesn’t mean the workshop changed anything, or that there has been an increase in wildlife number or habitat. I want to know what changed in the community, in numbers, and whether habitats or wildlife numbers or diversity has improved, and by how much.

    People are rightly a little sceptical about claims for responsibility and sustainability unless it’s backed up with evidence (as above) and a consistent approach across your business. The best way to evidence this is a company-wide summary of your responsible or sustainable tourism policy and achievements.

    Be wary of cherry picking a few good aspects to talk about if you have glaring problems elsewhere. For example, Thomas Cook trumpeted its animal welfare guidelines while continuing to sell trips to Seaworld to see Orca’s help captive in concrete tanks perform tricks. The inconsistency of this did not go unnoticed.

    You don’t have to be perfect before you start to communicate responsible tourism, but you have to be honest about it as a work in progress, avoid hiding difficult issues, and try to eliminate any glaring inconsistencies.

  8. Make it personal. Your ideas and policies for responsible tourism probably come from the founder, CEO or a number of other people in your business. It’s easier for customers to understand why you do what you do if they understand more about you as people. Bigger companies have management structures and blah blah, you have real, exciting and passionate people. Show customers your faces, stories and tell them what you like and don’t and why.
Written by Justin Francis