As the co-owner of Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality, a hospitality management company with a collection of sustainable luxury hotels in Costa Rica and Nicaragua (www.cayugaonline.com), you might expect a strong argument that sustainability should be at the forefront of a successful hotel’s promotion. Although CSH has won great recognition for our sustainable practices and leadership over the past years, has achieved certification at the highest levels, and has been given prestigious awards, I would like to argue the case against promoting sustainability in your operation. CSH was a pioneer in eco and green projects in the mid 90’s when green hospitality was really just for die hard tree huggers and hippies. At that time, Al Gore just began his Vice Presidency, and Global Warming was still considered a “conspiracy” by many around the world. Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality’s name, record and vision are all about sustainability; it is our essence, our reason for being. It’s why we get up in the morning and put in long hours and work weekends and holidays.
We believe there is no other way to run a hotel, resort or lodge but in the most sustainable way possible. If you review our vision, mission, values, strategies, operating manuals and checklists you will see that the concept of sustainability is omnipresent. Our managers’ performance is measured, among other things, on their sustainability record and we were among the first company to create sustainability coordinator positions and offer back-of-the-house sustainability tours to guests. We’ve experienced great results with this strategy and have been able to assist in the conservation of natural wildlife habitat, as well as impact the positive development of local communities. Although it has not always been easy, and in some cases quite costly, it’s been the right thing to do. It’s who we are as an organization.
So why am I arguing against using sustainability as a tool for promoting hotels? The answer is quite simple. It does not work – at least not in the conventional way. Location and the quality of infrastructure and service are still the strongest decision-making factors for the vast majority of travelers worldwide. Even in Costa Rica, which is considered a leader in ecotourism and sustainable hospitality, there are only very few guests that rank sustainability as the most important criteria when selecting a hotel. Recent research on green purchasing decisions suggest that many have the desire to make conscious sustainable purchase decisions, but when it comes time to sign the tab, most consumers make their decisions on other important attributes.
There is also quite a bit of confusion around sustainability, i.e., there are many shades of green. How green is your guest? Who does he or she trust? There are over 350 hospitality sustainability certifications and many hotels that I have stayed in during my travels in the past years that have a certificate hanging over their front desk do not even meet minimum sustainability requirements. Green-washing? Yes, of course it happens, and not always intentionally. Often it is very difficult to deliver on the best intentions of the hotelier. I know from personal experience that it takes a deep commitment, effort and follow-through to be truly sustainable and green. And it is an ongoing process – it’s never finished, never done.
I don’t expect many guests to stay at our hotels because we are a company that strives for the highest levels of sustainability or because we do things to protect the environment and help locals lead better lives. We still need to do our homework to promote our hotels through our websites, social media, public relations and travel intermediaries like everyone else. But there are some very interesting secondary effects that have helped our hotels and lodges outperform many of our not-so-sustainable competitors over the past years.
We have found that at our resorts, hotels, and lodges in Costa Rica and Nicaragua there are interesting secondary effects that positively impact the guest experience and lead to greater guest satisfaction and hence, great positive word-of-mouth publicity. In the days of Tripadvisor and other Social Media sharing tools, where word-of-mouth has become the “word-of-typing” a review of a hotel stay, this has taken on even greater significance.
Our guests often rave about our food. They love the freshness and local flair of our dishes. This is a result of a farm and sea-to-table approach, working with local suppliers and a strong focus on providing local culinary experiences. Food served in open-air settings also seems to taste better than in a sterile climate controlled environment. Guests at our smaller hotels or lodges in a more intimate setting are able to connect easier with staff and management. They experience a much more personalized level of service than at resorts with a more destructive footprint. It is also much easier to create a local feeling or “sense of place” in a small hotel or resort. Most sustainable lodging operations are set in areas of amazing scenic beauty with opportunities for exotic wildlife viewing and are often very difficult to get to. The feeling of relative isolation and having made an effort to reach a remote and unique destination provides a very special kind of guest satisfaction.
But even more so, what has the greatest impact on our guests and takes them from satisfied customers to “raving fans” is when they participate in any of the sustainability activities we offer at our hotels. This may be a visit to the local school to actively participate as an English teacher, an afternoon spent helping to clean up the local beach, or the participation in the sustainability tour where a guest observes first-hand the back-of-the-house efforts that make the hotel operation unique and truly sustainable. This means that marketing in this case is all about the sustainable experience and the product/service package we offer.
Sustainability does work as a marketing component in the marketing mix of the four Ps (Product, Price, Place and Promotion), but not necessarily within the P of Promotion, but within the P of Product, making it the product itself, not simply a promotional tool.
About the Author
Hans Pfister is a former member of Cayuga Hospitality Consultants.