Strange things are happening in the world of certification and sustainability. It’s all to do with a campaign called DearTripadvisor, which is urging the world’s largest travel review site to let it’s users rate hotels on sustainability, and then for Tripadvisor to include their rating alongside the ratings for cleanliness, service, food etc.
Last year, Tripadvisor launched the Greenleaders scheme in the US, enabling hotels to apply to sign up. Earlier this year it launched in Europe. In the last month it has announced that it is expanding into Australia, New Zealand, the Caribbean and South America. It’s already the world’s largest sustainability certification scheme, with more than 8,000 hotels signed up, and it’s about to get a lot larger.
Thing is, when you go to the Tripadvisor website, it’s not very visible. Click on ‘More’ on the Navigation and it appears in a dropdown, but then the page that comes up just introduces the scheme. There’s no obvious way to find all the Greenleader hotels in a certain destination. Typing ‘green hotels London’ into the search box brings up lots of random hotels in Green Park etc. Typing ‘Sustainable Hotels San Francisco’ is equally ineffective. However a search for ‘green hotels San Francisco‘ brings up a list of Greenleader hotels in San Francisco with little sign stating that this in ‘beta’. If this is a sign of things to come it looks good. And it looks better still when you click on one of the signed up hotel’s pages.
On the listing of a hotel, its Greenleader ranking – from Platinum through to Bronze – is very prominently displayed, at the top right, below the hotel’s overall ranking, number of reviews and any Travellers Choice Awards it has won. And if you click on the accompanying green leaf logo you get info on the hotel’s green practices, where you are encouraged to ‘report incorrect information’.
This was not good enough for Nordic Comfort Hotels which – through advertising agency Supertanker and in partnership of the Rainforest Foundation Norway – has launched the DearTripadvisor campaign. It is asking Tripadvisor to go further, and to include sustainability alongside the other metrics that guests can rate their stay on, namely: Location, Sleep Quality, Rooms, Service, Value and Cleanliness.
I have some issues with Greenleaders, and I have written about them elsewhere on this blog. But the fact Tripadvisor has partnered with the likes of the Green Building Council, Carbon Trust and UNEP says to me that they are serious about getting this right. Likewise for their recent launch in Australia they agreed with Ecotourism Australia that any of its certified properties would automatically be Greenleaders. Of course this gave them an instant volume of properties, but it also gives them credibility, while acknowledging the expert status of Ecotourism Australia. The DearTripadvisor campaign disagrees with this approach. Spokesman Simen Vinge, who is also Director of Marketing for Comfort Hotel, said: “TripAdvisor’s legitimacy lies in a rating system based on uncensored public opinion. The fact that applying hotels are subject to expert review, rather than customer evaluation, contradicts the democratic philosophy on which TripAdvisor is built.”
This is the crux of the argument, and is where I come down firmly on Tripadvisor’s side. If I don’t sleep too well in a hotel room, I can give it a rating based on my experience. If the room isn’t clean, I can judge it on that. But how do I know how effective the recycling scheme is? Or how many chemicals get put through the laundry? Most of the significant energy and resource-saving activities happen out of sight of guests.
On the other hand, it’s easy to plant a herb garden in the front or give the name of the farmer who reared the lamb on the menu. Such visible actions could easily be seen by a guest as being a symptom of good sustainability, for which they might then rate the hotel highly. The result would risk accusations of greenwash, with hotels focussing on high profile gestures that impress the guests simply to get good rankings rather than long term behind the scenes investment.
However, I do agree with one underlying principle of the DearTripadvisor campaign. I like the idea that a hotel rated five stars by its national or regional star-rating body could only get five stars if it had a five star concern for the environment, its staff and its community. I’d love to see environmental and social practices factored significantly into general star-rating schemes. They could even follow Tripadvisor’s model and get the many eco-certification schemes to supply the information.
I just don’t think it should be up to the public to decide.
I’m posting this in my personal capacity 😉 This means I’m actively bypassing the Dear TripAdvisor bit for now, and just wanted to comment personally on your point Jeremy about “If I don’t sleep too well in a hotel room, I can give it a rating based on my experience… But how do I know how effective the recycling scheme is?”
I completely agree this is key and wanted to share an experience I had last week.
I was staying in a hotel for the week and as it had been booked for me I had no idea about their eco credentials…until I stayed there. At various points during my stay I noticed things that impressed me – recycling bins in the rooms, notices about energy and water saving policies, etc. The best thing came after my stay – they emailed me to ask me to rate them, directly, on their environmental credentials. Brazen! I loved it!
So I started to reply on all the things I’d noticed and then I thought: “Hang on, I’ll go to TripAdvisor, rate them there (as I was planning to anyway… of course!) and saw their Platinum status badge.
Wow! I thought, and then I dug deeper into how they’d been awarded this status. Granted, some of it I couldn’t comment on directly… or so I thought. I got to know that their guest appliances are Energy Star rated. Ah! I realised. I remember now that I’d been impressed (but since forgotten) that I hardly needed the heating on during a freezing cold week. I thought this was because the curtains were well lined and the air con system must be very efficient. The GL rating also told me they have a set temperature specifically to counter over-use of heating. Great!
This is all hugely interesting to me: the hotel takes their environmental commitment so seriously that they directly asked for my feedback on that very commitment? Wow. What’s more, this then prompted me, almost accidentally, to find out more about those policies, which in turn empowered me to comment more…. WHICH MAKES ME THINK ABOUT IT MORE WHEN IT COMES TO OTHER HOTELS! I have a comparison point, I have some learnings to take forward, I’m generally more aware.
I think this is incredibly powerful, no?
And it makes me wonder why not put power in the hands of the people, if it’s power PLUS knowledge, to make us into an army of engaged, vocal and increasingly knowledgable environmentalists?!
Addendum to the above, for anyone who doesn’t know (as I simply assumed many reading this would!) for the sake of full transparency I work at TripAdvisor ( with Tripbod now being a part of TAMG).
I sincerely appreciate Sally’s proactive engagement with sustainability issues. This is a ‘best possible scenario’ in terms of successful guest engagement. And, I agree with her that tourism businesses should communicate with their customers about their sustainability actions and performance. But, I agree with Jeremy that it is not appropriate or realistic for non-specialists to be able to judge hotels’ overall sustainability performance. Becoming “increasingly knowledgeable” is great, personally for consumers, but it is not good enough for the hotels and other businesses, who deserve to be assessed by “already very knowledgeable” professionals. Good quality green labels assess a very broad spectrum of back office issues. Businesses work incredibly hard to deal with countless details to get green awards. Auditors are trained professionals, with detailed knowledge, which they work hard to buiild, over a long time-frame. Non specialists cannot replace specialists as sustainability auditors.
I’m not sure that guests are intended to be sustainability auditors. Guest feedback is supposed to trigger an independent sustainabilty audit.
I agree, Jeremy, on your points about the challenge with relying on guest feedback to rate sustainability (levels of knowledge can’t be ensured, it might end up encouraging green-washing activities, etc.). Where I do think “uncensored public opinion” could play a role is sharing guests feedback specifically on experiences related to sustainability efforts – based on things that guests are well-positioned to comment on: e.g. did they notice information about the hotel’s sustainability efforts? were they informed of sustainable food choices at the restaurant? did they feel that the hotel was actually walking the talk when it comes to putting into practice what they say they do? etc., etc.
I think that education and engagement (engaging guests through effective communications and encouraging guests to participate in more sustainable choices during their stays) are a key part of sustainability practices by hotels, and it would be great if programs like the Greenleaders incorporated guest feedback (not rating, but comments) on how staying at a green hotel inspired them. Like Sally said in the above comment, reflecting on and writing about their impressions of a hotel’s sustainability efforts, I think, will help travelers become more conscious of their experiences (and maybe next time they’ll be more likely to proactively seek more sustainable options).
ayakoezaki I love your ideas on this. Hotels that make the efforts to discuss the issues in Green Leaders and how the establishment does its bit and then seeks buy in from the guest to do do their bit can only be beneficial. Guests learn best by seeing good practice in action and learn even more by practicing themselves, so much better than just reading about it in a brochure or on a noticeboard.
In this way guests should be able to make constructive comments for Dear TripAdvisor.