As countries around the world emerge from lockdown and open their borders, returning to travel and taking a well-deserved holiday is top of mind for many. Months of isolation and restricted movement have made exploration seem even more inviting, but the pandemic has also pushed us to examine how we travel and the industry as a whole. Tourism was one of the hardest hit sectors, with destinations worldwide welcoming 1 billion fewer international arrivals during 2020 than the previous year. As it starts to rebuild, there is an opportunity to create a more resilient and sustainable industry that prioritizes the environment, while still maintaining the financial benefits that tourism brings to millions of people across the globe. It is clear that going forward, hotels and the hospitality sector will need to continue to prioritize health and safety — while also increasing their sustainability efforts.
Travelers have witnessed their impact – and want to reduce it in the future
During the early days of the pandemic, strict lockdowns resulted in a drastic reduction in global transportation levels. Without passengers, highways, airports, trains, and waterways stood empty, resulting in noticeably clearer skies around the world. Startling before and after pictures from New Delhi, Beijing, and Los Angeles showed radically reduced smog while people’s movement was restricted: a 2020 study reported that lockdown events reduced nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in the air by 60% and 31% in 34 different countries. Images from last spring also showed wild animals exploring empty cities, with cougars venturing into Santiago and dolphins swimming further into Istanbul’s normally busy ports. With their travel footprint staring them in the face, many tourists came out of 2020 hoping that in the future, they could create a smaller one. In the American Express Travel “Global Travel Trends Report,” 65% of respondents stated that they are trying to be more aware of sustainability-friendly travel brands, 55% are interested in “carbon negative” travel, and 60% agree that they want to book airlines with a carbon neutral commitment. These statistics match up with another large-scale study done by Booking.com, which also reported strong interest in a shift towards greener travel: 73% of US travelers think sustainable travel is vital, with 46% saying the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably. With the interests of consumers trending towards a more eco-friendly industry, it’s a great time for companies to take actions in that direction.
Increased importance on corporate sustainability efforts
One of the many long-lasting and far-reaching impacts of COVID is its push for corporations to expand their sustainability efforts. The pandemic laid bare the potential of completely unexpected catastrophes, and in return, resilience is having its time in the sun. Companies now see the value of creating a sustainable business plan that can withstand serious shocks, and at the same time, the enormous human toll has inspired increased social considerations. A study by Globescan of 102 global companies from the end of 2020 reported 40% saying COVID will increase both the relevancy and expectations for sustainable business, and over a third predicted changing and additional expectations for those businesses going forward. Despite the financial strain that 2020 caused, many companies are doubling down on their sustainability efforts and seeing it as an opportunity to commit to a safer, greener, and healthier future. Sustainability representatives from Salesforce and Marriott emphasized the importance of working with partners, customers, and suppliers when trying to make progress on climate change while discussing the issue on a recent podcast: “it’s the next frontier of where some of the biggest innovation, collaboration, and breakthroughs are going to come from in rising the meet the climate emergency that we face.”
While international travel will return, interest in staying closer to home and smaller destinations will remain
Along with the restrictions of COVID-19 came an increased interest in travel destinations that were only drive away, or off the beaten path and less likely to see large crowds. Many safety-conscious travelers became more likely to plan trips closer to home, avoiding the exposure of long multi-step travel. One travel company looking at 2021 bookings by Europeans saw 60% of the most popular destinations within Europe, and COVID may have even saved the sleeper train: concern over flying in 2020 resulted in a resurgence in popularity for many long-distance rail lines. While the uptick in train bookings may have been mainly in response to safety concerns and airport restrictions, there is the hope that interest will remain for other reasons. Karima Delli, a French MEP who chairs the European parliament’s transport committee, supports train travel for the reduced carbon impact compared to flying – “Relaunching night trains is both a necessity and an ecological solution to the planet,” she said. In addition to staying local, COVID is pushing travelers towards both smaller and more meaningful destinations. A feeling of connection and support of local communities has risen in importance as the world witnessed the economic devastation on areas dependent on visitors: the American Express Travel survey shows 59% of respondents are interesting in making travel decisions to support a specific destination, and 77% want to be more conscious about supporting local businesses while they travel.
Increased awareness of the interrelated risks of habitat and biodiversity loss with climate change and future pandemics
While COVID lockdowns did allow for some animals around the world to venture into human territory, the pandemic devastated conservation efforts in some of the most economically insecure and biodiversity rich areas around the globe. Paused conservation efforts, halted ecotourism, economic disruption, and increased food security all played a role in seeing biodiversity protection take a big hit during 2020. Illegal fishing and poaching skyrocketed due to a lack of patrols, deforestation increased, and millions of people fell into extreme poverty, which is linked to biodiversity loss as people rely more on local timber, bushmeat, and fuel out of necessity. At the time, the global health dangers of biodiversity loss were exposed: nearly 75% of emerging infection diseases in humans come from other animals, and increased land-use and exploitation increase infectious disease risk by bringing people in close proximity to pathogen carrying wildlife and disrupting the ecological processes keeping diseases at bay. In addition to health, biodiversity is essential for the economy – roughly $4 trillion of economic value generation (more than half of global GDP) is dependent on nature and its services. Biodiversity has often been a lower priority than climate change, but post-2020 government and business leaders are realizing they must be addressed in tandem. As many countries return to some degree of normalcy, we also must return to and expand conservation efforts and protections. Increasing our efforts in this area is essential for both future economic stability and growth, as well as preventing the outbreak of another deadly pandemic.
What does this mean for hotels?
As hotels start to re-open and travel restrictions are lifted, the hospitality sector must pivot to a new normal. While they work to recover from the devastating economic blow of the pandemic, businesses must respond and adapt to the changing behaviors and expectations of their customers as well as the safety recommendations for preventing coronavirus infection outbreaks. Ideally, this will be done in conjunction with forward-thinking plans for increasing resilience and sustainability in the long-term. To succeed in the post-2020 environment, there are several ways hotels can successfully move in the right direction:
- Commit to high standards for ensuring your customer’s safety: it will be imperative to show that hotels have committed to enhanced healthy and safety protocols. Travelers want to see increased transparency around cleanliness and sanitation, and to know that companies are going the extra mile to keep their customers safe. For some, this may include pledging to follow industry-wide standards, such as the “Safe Stay” program launched by the American Hotel & Lodging Association. It may also include making some changes that arose during COVID permanent, such as contactless check-in, expanded use of UV and other disinfection methods, and touch-free technology inside guest rooms. While implementing these plans is critical, they can also be done with sustainability in mind. Choosing eco-friendly cleaning products, investing in systems that reduce touch-points in hotel rooms (such as QR codes to replace in-room menus and magazines), and reducing food waste by limiting potentially hazardous and hard to manage breakfast buffets are just a few of the ways sustainability can be incorporated into hotel safety precautions.
- Expanded guest engagement: trust and communication will be essential in rebuilding the customer experience as well. Many travelers are still experiencing stress around travel, and and hotels will need to ensure that they are listening to their guests and demonstrating their desire to reflect shifted preferences. Communication around all the safety steps that are being taken will help build back up trust, and clear and consistent messaging is pivotal. This rings true for any efforts around sustainability, as well: customers want to know if they are supporting green efforts with their visit. Publicizing any steps being taken to reduce energy and water usage, use responsible sourcing, and invest in environmentally friendly technology will help customers feel that their interest in supporting sustainable companies is acknowledged and supported.
- Increase your sustainability efforts through expanded measuring, monitoring, and tracking: as discussed above, many travelers are looking to see renewed commitment to sustainability efforts post-COVID. There is significant interest from consumers in knowing that their chosen hotels are making concrete changes to reduce their carbon footprint, and being able track and showcase data is an effective path. The Greenview Portal is the only sustainability software designed for hotels, and it is a powerful tool for collecting data, tracking performance and progress over time, reporting activities in a transparent way, and ultimately improving your sustainability performance. The use of increased measuring, monitoring, and tracking helps keep sustainability initiatives on track, while also illustrating commitment.
These recommendations are only a small piece of the recovery puzzle, but they are an essential starting point. Hospitality organizations will need to find the right balance between investment and conservation as they work to recover, but it is a pivotal moment. Decisions made now will have far-reaching impacts, and it is critical for companies to implement the right strategies to position themselves for success in the changed world.