The secret of good tourism communications (or why I hate towel reuse schemes)

swimming pools and elephants… popular with holiday makers.

This time of year is very much awards season – the Golden Globes, the Baftas, the Oscars. And as of last year, the first award scheme in the hospitality industry to recognise which hotels have the most luxurious towels.

The Fluffies – as these awards are known – is an award scheme with a hidden agenda. What it really is is a clever piece of marketing tourism communications by a cleaning product company, who organised the awards, decided which hotels won, sent out the press releases, and then saw its name appear all across the travel press for weeks to come, generating countless column inches, associating its brand with some of the best known hotel brands in the business, and creating so many inbound links to its site in one go that it must have done wonders for its SEO.

And the entire thing was based on one eternal holiday truth – people like nice towels.

Seeing how widely these awards were talked about made me think about my long held dislike of that most ubiquitous hotel sustainability initiative – the towel reuse scheme. Please understand that I do think these schemes are important, as they serve to reduce energy and chemical use and thus should be part of any hotel’s sustainability practices. My issue is not that they lack relevance or ambition, or that by 2014 I would hope all hotels were doing this as a matter of course.

My problem is that, in their current form at least, they should not be at the heart of responsible tourism communications. Yet 9 times out of 10 they are. These little messages are often all a hotel communicates to a guest about its sustainability / responsibility initiatives.

Yet they are speaking the wrong language.

How not to do tourism communications

First, they position hotel sustainability as simply being about minimising the negatives. But hotels can be local hubs, connecting people to wider communities, serving as outlets for products and services, providing employment and opportunity. Are there not far stronger stories to be told about sustainability by a hotel that is doing some good?

Secondly – and more importantly – they speak a message of sacrifice to people who have paid for the opposite. They ask people to focus on (global) responsibility at a time when they are looking to forget about their (personal) responsibilities. In short – they don’t resonate with most people’s reasons for booking holidays.

This matters because there is no point investing time and money and manpower in your sustainability improvements, if you have to close down in 12 months time. The best way to ensure your sustainability initiatives succeed is to fill your rooms with guests who love what you are doing as a hotel and want to come back; who tell their friends, share their photos on social media, and review you positively on Tripadvisor. But have you ever seen a review on Tripadvisor, or in the guest book of a hotel, where a guest mentioned the little towel reuse cards in the bathroom? No, because as a form of tourism communications, they just don’t connect.

How to get the message right

rewarding tourists works better than asking them to sacrifice

Compare this to the House of MG in Ahmedabad that gives discounts to spend in its gift shop for using less electricity in your room. Or the Angsana Velavaru in the Maldives that invites guests to come snorkelling and to plant coral gardens to help shore up its atoll against climate change. Or Beechenhill Farm here in the UK, whose website provides the perfect example of how to connect your sustainability efforts with your guests’ experience. It reads:

“Because we have made green choices you will have a better time: our biomass boiler is providing heat and lashings of hot water at any time of day or night, so you’ll be cosy and warm and our induction hobs cook quickly and efficiently so you will spend less time in the kitchen.”

That first line should be the mantra for all tourism sustainability marketing: “Because we have made green choices you will have a better time’.

How To Get Responsible Tourism Communications Right

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

One comment

  1. internationalguy says:

    The problem with the towel reuse scheme, is that it is obviously a green initiative that also just happens to save hotels money. This sends the message that hotels are only interested in being green if it pads the bottom line-that customers are supposed to make small sacrifices, while hotels reap the benefits, but pretend that they really care.

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