This month the International Tourism Partnership is holding a stakeholder engagement event with member companies in Asia Pacific to help them hear the concerns of stakeholders in the region and collaborate for solutions and best practice.
To highlight how important - and useful - it can be to listen to industry stakeholders, we interviewed Stewart Moore, CEO and founder of EarthCheck  to share his big picture view of sustainability in the hotel industry.
Green Hotelier: Tell us a bit about your background in sustainability and tourism, how you came to be involved in this field and responsible business.
Stewart Moore: I graduated as a Regional and Town Planner in 1982 and worked as a natural resource planner for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) and then with Tourism Queensland which had a strong focus on ecotourism and nature based tourism. The first reef management and conservation plans were being prepared and this provided the perfect environment to understand the principles of sustainable and responsible tourism.
After completing a Masters Degree in Regional Science specialising in sustainability and tourism planning, and postgraduate degrees in finance and heritage, I was fortunate to be awarded with a scholarship to work with British Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland. This helped to cement my understanding and passion for the business of heritage and resource conservation.
I became the General Manager for the National Centre for Studies in Travel and Tourism which was Australia’s first dedicated research centre specialising in travel and tourism. In 1997 the National Centre became the research and commercialisation arm for the Co-operative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism (STCRC), then the largest research centre of its kind in the world.
The STCRC developed the IP and the patent for the EarthCheck benchmarking and certification program for sustainable tourism in 1999. EarthCheck was built on the principles of Agenda 21. Due to its focus on scientific metrics and operational performance it quickly became the world’s leading certification program.
When the STCRC finished its tenure as a research centre in 2010 I led the management buyout of the centre together with all of its commercial IP including EarthCheck. Today EarthCheck  still runs a not for profit research centre  specialising in climate change and sustainable tourism and our certification program services clients in over 70 countries across the world across 32 sectors in six langauages.
GH: What trends and changes in sustainability have you noticed since you first began working in the field?
SM: When I started my career in 1982 sustainability was barely a buzzword and tourism was still in its infancy in Asia Pacific. Over the past 30 or so years tourism has transformed itself into a major economic driver for growth globally.
With this growth has come the realisation that the industry has a substantial environmental and social footprint that needs to be better managed. This relates to our consumption of energy for travel and accommodation, our use of water, our capacity to create enormous amounts of waste along the entire supply chain and the indirect impact the sector has on biodiversity and cultural heritage.
Sustainability has changed from a well-intentioned discussion to a critical need for immediate action. If we were being honest about it, the vast majority of operators are still not doing enough despite changing consumer expectations for more responsible tourism and increasing vocal concerns from local communities. Scientific performance metrics and evidence based data is now the key thing that separates the ‘green wash’ from serious programs.
Traditional mass tourism has continued to level out (sun, surf and sand holidays) and new growth sectors such as business and events, nature based tourism, ecotourism, adventure, cultural and wellness tourism have grown. Visitors at all levels now expect safer, and more environmentally friendly destinations and leisure experiences.
Entire hotel brand, product and service philosophies are being re-thought to appeal to new luxury, business and leisure consumer markets who have a heightened awareness for more sustainable practices.
Smart brands such as Banyan Tree  and Alila  are also creating business models based on providing lifestyle and wellness solutions which directly speak to the new conscious traveller. This is not just about having a green certificate on your website but about delivering a sense of place and authentic experiences.
Sustainability has now matured into a more holistic concept which addresses the whole site from hotel design, construction, operational performance, refurbishment, supply chain and risk management .
GH: How successful has the hospitality sector been in raising the profile of sustainability over the years – both within the industry and with guests / travellers?
SM: The industry has generally done a good job in raising awareness of the need for responsible tourism growth and development. Tourism represents 5% of global GDP and contributes to more than 8% of total employment. The sheer size and reach of the sector gives it a voice.
Sustainability, at the end of the day, is about what you do; it is not a label or a stamp. Unfortunately, in response to the call for ‘green action’ the industry has responded with a proliferation of environmental programs. These range from complex global reporting solutions such as EarthCheck to a myriad of self- assessment reporting tools which are big on promise and short on delivery. The sheer number of programs has had the effect of both overwhelming and confusing consumers and operators.
From a guest and consumer perspective there is a lot more that needs to be done to truly engage the visitor market in sustainability initiatives. The challenge is to engage with guests at a level they are comfortable with and to turn sustainability into a rewarding experience for the guest and the destination. Smart hotel groups excel at guiding guests through the hotel or resort’s sustainability story, giving them a role to play in conservation initiatives and empowering them to realise they are part of the solution and not part of the problem.
It surprises me that many hotel groups and individual operators who are doing excellent work in sustainability seem to be still hesitant to share their stories.
GH: What are the biggest sustainability challenges facing the sector at the moment?
SM: To achieve the Green House emission targets set in Paris through COP21, the private sector, the community and governments will need to learn to work together to design and implement clean energy technologies across the tourism and travel supply chain. In 2016 the tourism industry has the science and know-how to make a significant contribution to a reduction in emission targets. All that is needed is consistent leadership from the tourism industry and government (top down) and bottom up from operators on the ground.
Energy, water, waste, extreme weather events and the spread of infectious diseases remain critical issues for the future health of the tourism and travel sector. Over 75% of tourism operators in Asia Pacific have high business risks related to water scarcity and recent research undertaken by Ecolab, Nalco and EarthCheck shows that tourism operators in Asia Pacific are under-valuing the true cost of water by over 70%. The creation and mismanagement of waste is a well-recognised challenge.
Many sustainability challenges require a destination-wide approach to resource management. As Professor David Simmons from Lincoln University says, “You can’t hope to build a sustainable tourist industry in an unsustainable destination.” Tourism needs to align itself with government and community destination planning and development programs.
Tourism needs to have a more consistent set of reporting metrics on its environmental and social footprint. TripAdvisor now has a green reporting expectation and stock exchanges in the Asia Pacific region including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Shanghai and Singapore have in recent years moved towards corporate social responsibility and/or sustainability reporting requirements from incorporated companies. Others such as Australia and Bombay are also considering voluntary reporting of environmental and social impacts in an attempt to improve corporate governance to align with the growing global performance reporting trends.
GH: Which programmes / issues are EarthCheck focusing on at the moment?
SM: EarthCheck through its not for profit research centre the EarthCheck Research Institute has a commitment to a wide number of ongoing research programs. This year our focus is on four core research and consulting projects:
- Continued research into the relationship between water and energy use at major hotel groups
- Developing the tourism workforce of the future through labour and skills development, certification and mobility in the APEC region. A skilled and mobile labour force remains a major challenge for all destinations
- Development of a global sustainable travel and tourism indicator set which can marry demand side factors such as aviation, and accommodation with supply based issues such as water waste, energy and social impact.
- The development of building performance measures to track the efficiency gains associated with good design for buildings, precincts and communities.
EarthCheck is also working with SGX  to ensure that our global certification standards are aligned to their new reporting guidelines.
GH: Which initiatives do you think have the biggest sustainability impacts in hotels?
SM: Tourism businesses which systematically manage their resource use through scientific measurement and benchmarked improvements can save tens of thousands of dollars from their bottom line annually. This was shown in the results of a world-first study released by Griffith University in September 2015, which analysed historical data from 1,047 hotels participating in the EarthCheck Certified benchmarking program over a seven year period.
The greatest sustainability outcomes are often achieved through the application of simple practices and principles. A clear vision, smart design, more efficient operational management of buildings and equipment and a clear understanding of your operational footprint is a good place to start.
GH: If you could change anything within the sustainability field / debate, what would it be? What change would make your life easier?
SM: You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Every operator should commit to collecting sufficient data to understand their operational footprint. The data needs to be accurately collected and benchmarked to allow them to understand how they are performing against their peers and their own business plan expectations. We can’t as an industry take action on future water, waste and energy initiatives if we don’t fully understand what we are using now.
[This is why ITP built the Hotel Water Measurement Initiative (HWMI) this year with the collaborative action of its 15 member hotel companies, and why over 24,000 hotels worldwide now use the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (HCMI) to measure their carbon footprints.]
GH: What programmes you’ve developed are you most proud of and why?
SM: Our flagship product, EarthCheck Certification , has helped clients in more than 70 countries realise over $500 million in operational savings while reducing their footprint on the environment. The program now services clients across 32 sectors and is delivered in six languages. We have recently added CSR indicators to our program.
In addition, we have suite of sustainability programs from Building and Precinct Planning  to Master Planning  for entire communities. This year we launched our refreshed Leading Destinations of the World Program , and the EarthCheck Destination Standard  provides destinations with a framework for environmental, cultural, social, and economic sustainability.
Tourism research shows 80% of businesses without a continuity plan don’t survive two years after a major crisis. We also know that for every dollar invested in disaster mitigation, three dollars is saved in recovery costs. EarthCheck’s Risk App  assists tourism businesses to prepare prior, during and straight after a crisis, even offline, and in multiple languages, allowing outdated, paper-based plans to be integrated into a customised and easily accessible mobile app that employees and stakeholders can use in an emergency event. The program, entitled “Ready, Set, Go! – Building tourism business resilience in the event of a natural disaster”, is currently being trialled in New Zealand and Peru.
GH: If you could look into the future, what would you most like to see?
SM: The industry still has an enormous potential to lead change at a site and local level. Our work with leading communities and corporate groups across the world demonstrates that the best outcomes are achieved when you have both bottom-up (staff, community and SMEs) and top-down (big government and corporate) support for sustainability initiatives.
We need to reach a stage where sustainability is embedded in business plans and reflected in everything the industry does. It needs to become a key value add and selling point to the communities in which businesses operate. At the moment it is still treated by many tourism businesses like an optional add on.
I would like to see systems level thinking being used by the industry at a destination and precinct level to address the way we manage water and energy and how we could more effectively recycle waste. Sometimes ‘big picture thinking’ is needed. A good example would be Singapore’s Housing and Development Board which is building networks of sensors to capture real time information on temperature and humidity which in turn triggers technology responses from community buildings. Sometimes sustainability initiatives can be championed and supported by integrated resorts or other key tourism infrastructure such as airports, convention centres and urban precincts who have the capacity to build sustainability outcomes into their forward planning.
As The Egan Review (UK 2004) found, “Places that people want to visit and live – and that are sustainable – do not happen by chance. They are a product of visionary thinking and commitment by corporate investors, developers and civic leaders.”
GH: Is it ever difficult to convince people of the worth of what you’re doing? What’s the best way to demonstrate the value of responsible business?
SM: The concept of sustainability has many different interpretations. The biggest challenge is convincing management that sustainability sits at the core of your business model and not on the outside as an optional add-on. At the end of the day, the aim is to help operators to address the operational challenges that they are facing in a more sustainable way.
Sustainability and profitability should not be mutually exclusive goals. Our research demonstrates that sustainable and smart business practices help improve the bottom line and will lead to a stronger top line performance. Well trained staff who understand sustainability principles can deliver as much as 5-15% of efficiency and performance gains without investment in plant and equipment. Year on year benchmarking data also proves genuine ROI is achieved by tourism operations who commit to measuring and managing their environmental footprint.
Every company sees sustainability with a different set of drivers and challenges. We recognise that when EarthCheck talks to operators we need to both listen to their concerns and calm the discussion down to focus on actions and outcomes that managers and asset owners can both relate to and understand.
EarthCheck helps businesses achieve:
- Improved business performance, lowered operating costs, efficiency gains and asset management
- Smarter technology options
- Reduced risk management
- Systems level thinking including energy efficiency and reduced waste
- Better understanding of expectations and needs of customers, local communities, shareholders and staff
- Responsible supply chain management and procurement and
- Effective governance, compliance and reporting.
GH. What advice would you give to any hotel or resort starting out on their own sustainability journey?
SM: Ensure that sustainability sits squarely in the middle of your brand and business strategy.
Start with addressing the basics. If you are designing your own resort or hotel ensure that your design team incorporate smart operational practices from day one. Good operational performance is a direct reflection of smart design. If you are looking for inspiration have a look at the design principles used by resort groups such as Alila and Banyan Tree who use the EarthCheck Planning and Design Standard.
Commit to measuring and monitoring your operational footprint using a consistent set of sustainability metrics, compare your performance against those of your peers and make a commitment to improved outcomes over time. Remember, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. And after all, our planet deserves more than half measures.