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Accommodation owners make great efforts to be more sustainable, but often fail to communicate it to their customers in a way that clearly shows how their experience will be superior. This is a great missed opportunity to increase revenue, reduce seasonality, retain loyal customers and increase customer satisfaction. Taking seriously how you communicate sustainability will improve your overall efficiency, motivate staff and allow you to achieve more in less time.
Research has shown that there are many missed opportunities in communicating sustainability because firms are shy about 'green-washing', but also because they haven’t thought about the connotations of sustainability for customers: that it often produces a higher quality and more interesting experience, making customers feel good and providing new activities or attractions.
Trouble is, when sustainability is left to the environmental engineer, you end up with a dry message (you wouldn’t trust your marketing manager to mess with your boiler, but why can the engineer mess with your sustainability communications?). When you leave it to your marketing team, they get carried away and 'greenwash'. Where’s the middle ground? Here’s some tips:
Who do I tell?
Figure out your target audience. Is it clear who you have written your sustainability messages for? Picture the people that you want to be influenced by your message. You will have many types of customer, but that’s no excuse, you still need to identify a segment large enough to make sustainability communications a viable business proposition. The challenge for the marketer is to learn how to think like a customer and put forward the most favourable side of the story, the one that speaks to the selfish customer parting with hard earned cash. Why will sustainability be better for them, as a client?
Why do I tell?
Write with a purpose. Is the intention behind communicating sustainability clear? If you are unsure what you want your customers to do differently or how you want them to react, then your message doesn’t make sense. In our research, customers thought a hotel using solar panels to heat hot water could only offer lukewarm showers and would therefore avoid it. Conveying a message like “with the air conditioning at 24 degrees you will sleep comfortably- at 20 you will catch a cold” is more likely to work than “turn down the air conditioning to save planet earth”. If you are not sure, use humour or antidotes as opposed to really formal, doom and gloom, policing style messages.
What do I tell?
It’s all about content. Is the message you put across engaging or simply listing facts? You want your customers to have better, more fulfilling experiences - so communicate first the aspects of sustainability that will help you achieve just that. Sustainable food may sound dull to some customers, but when it is fully explained - where the food comes from, who it has come from and why it therefore tastes better, customers will show genuine enthusiasm.
Where do I tell?
Location, location, location. There are so many places to talk about sustainability, and yet too many businesses have only a simple tab on their website called environmental policy. Match the right contents with the most appropriate channels so you can say a lot more, where it matters. If you want guests to recycle a coffee cup, write it on the cup, rather than just on your website. If you want to suggest ways your clients spend the day, use the placemats at breakfast to make suggestions rather than yet another leaflet. Think of where customers are most likely to engage with the green and sustainable agenda and focus communications there.
How do I tell?
Persuasiveness. It’s all about compelling language. Are your sustainability messages written in a way conducive to behaviour change? Are your messages clearly put across in a way that they can be understood? If so, do they help customers to be active? When customers are told the consequences of their actions, they are more likely to participate (one towel= one tree planted). And when they feel a sense of belonging they are also more likely to take action. For example, in a study Xavier recently conducted by informing guests that “most clients staying in this room reuse their towels” 65% went on to actually do it, compared to “most clients staying in this hotel…” 45% or simply saying “please reuse your towels", under 30% took action.
From strategy to implementation
If you are comfortable with the six points above, it is time to apply these throughout your communication channels and nowhere is more important than your website and your social media. Without good communication platforms, you will struggle to put your message across. Here are three key principles:
Quality is king. Your website’s contents must be accurate if you want to be taken seriously. It also needs to be regularly updated. Use a blog to write quick news items to keep customers up to date on all your sustainable and green news.
Performance. After accurate, your website must be user-friendly. It must do the job well, seamlessly taking your customers from one step to the next. You need to think about the customers and decide how much you want to hide or make sustainability prominent, where it belongs, how you use it, how you test different propositions. Information has to be placed where it helps the customer take decisions. If you want to encourage guests to arrive by public transport, make this clear in the 'How to get there' section, not just the green policy. Tie this in with suggestions of how the guest is going to make the most of their stay without the car too - to demonstrate that you understand from their point of view.
Connectivity. You must use sustainability practices to market yourself through social media. Nobody likes spam, and too much web based content comes across that way. The good news is that sustainability gives you content, i.e. the reason to engage in a conversation with past and prospective customers. Whether you organise competitions, share photos, tell us about improvements in your destination or seasonal changes, it is your choice. Engage with past customers by offering prizes for uploading content from their stay with you - favourite green features, wildlife spotted, eco lessons to take away etc.
Xavier Font with Leeds Metropolitan University has set up a new online tool that allows accommodation providers to learn more, visit www.responsibletourismcommunication.com
For more information see our article on How social media is driving sustainability communications