Developed with insights from James Bland, Dr. Christopher Warren, and Prof. Xavier Font.

As the effects of climate change become increasingly visible, travellers care more about the impact of their travel than ever before. 80% now view sustainable travel as important, and 66% say they want to leave places they visit better than when they arrived.1 The intention to support sustainability initiatives is clearly present amongst hotel guests, but in practice, it’s not always clear how, or to what extent, hotels should engage guests in sustainability practices. Some even opt for ‘greenhushing’, the ‘deliberate under communicating of sustainability practices’, for fear of disrupting the guest experience.2

So how can hotels better involve guests in their sustainability efforts and equip them to make sustainable choices with ease, promoting more successful sustainability strategies and increasing guest satisfaction? We asked three experts to share their insights.

Understand the guest

The first step is to understand who your guests are. Although we know that many guests care about sustainability, people of different ages and/or parts of the world place a higher emphasis on the various elements of sustainability.

“In Europe, the environmental issues tend to rise higher up the list of priorities whereas in the Americas it tends to be the societal impact. Even within those broad categories there will be huge local and regional variation.” – James Bland, Managing Director, BVA BDRC

It is crucial for a hotel to understand their guests’ needs in order to succeed in delivering on their sustainability strategy.

However, understanding a guest’s priorities does not always correlate with how they actually behave. In other words, there is often a gap between what we say versus what we do. This is made more complicated by the fact that many guests are on holiday, Bland explains, and are therefore in a ‘treat myself’ mindset where they are likely to be less disciplined than they would be at home.

In this context, guests are not intentionally behaving unsustainably, but they may not be as likely to go out of their way to behave sustainably on holiday.

“Say Jack was at the hotel and he finished the plastic bottle of water he bought (because the shop was so much closer than the refill fountain).  He looks around for a recycling bin but can’t find one. There isn’t one in his room, either. Does he flatten it and take it home to recycle? Or does he, just this once, use the hotel’s general waste receptacle – it’s right next to him and, after all, it’s their problem not his. They could choose to separate out the waste, it’s not on Jack if they don’t. It’s not like he meant to put it in the wrong bin, he just didn’t have the opportunity to put it in the right one.” – James Bland

Hotels not only need to understand what their guests think about sustainability, but also what they are actually doing. “Particularly when no-one is watching”, Bland notes, “otherwise a whole load of effort and planning can be rapidly undone”.

Curate meaningful participation

Once you have understood the priorities and behaviours of your guests, through informal conversations, surveys, observation, or monitoring of guest behaviours, you can move to curating effective ways to communicate with and engage them in your sustainability efforts.

Over the past few years, we have seen a huge rise in sustainability labelling and certification. However, a badge on its own will not be enough to attract customers and generate sales. Customers need to understand how it is relevant to them, and their experience needs to be curated to allow them to meaningfully engage in your sustainability agenda.

Sustainability should not be seen as something you do to guests, but with them.

“The most successful communication method is interpersonal communication where hosts and guests discuss the sustainability experience as a conversation. Hosts talk persuasively to the guests, encouraging them to support initiatives. The guests choose of their own free will to join in and adapt their behaviours or not.” – Christopher Warren, Founder and CEO of WISE Sustainability that offers My Green Butler to tell your sustainability story to guests.

One effective way to do this is to empower guests with information about their impact during their stay. Just as with a smart meter at home, if a guest is able to see how much water they have used, or how many hours they have had the lights on, they will be more mindful of the resources they are using. You can even take this one step further, by showing them the savings they have generated through reducing their consumption, and how this money has been donated to support local initiatives.

Another effective way to do this can be to create thoughtful and personalised opportunities for guests to get involved and experience sustainability in action. For example, you could let them know about local businesses offering guided tours or activities in nearby natural areas. Or you could invite them to join the chef in harvesting produce from the hotel’s vegetable garden to be used at dinner. These examples go beyond simply engaging guests, to focus on active participation.

“Guest engagement is a passive single channel communication approach where a property presents its activities, and justifies its sustainability claim. It is a passive one-way communication approach. While guest participation is a dynamic two-way conversation which stimulates guests to take responsible actions that positively contribute to the property’s progress.” – Christopher Warren

A core element to doing this successfully is to ensure your team are engaged and informed about the initiatives you are introducing. There is no point offering an opt-in room cleaning service if your housekeeping team end up cleaning the room regardless!

Communicate effectively

Once you have designed sustainability into the guest experience, you then need to know how to talk about it. To support companies with effective sustainability communication and marketing, Xavier Font, Professor of Sustainability Marketing at the University of Surrey, has created a free training course available online with numerous tips and suggestions. The course suggests starting with the following question:

“What do I want my sustainability communication to help me achieve as a business?”

For example, you may want customers to select your hotel based on your sustainability progress, for guests to reduce their negative impact during their stay, or to recommend the hotel to others after they have left.

Once you have answered this, try implementing some of these tips from Font’s training course:

  • Focus on the messaging – Put time and effort into designing your communications. Think about the different audiences you want to engage (e.g. families versus people travelling for business), and design messaging which is appropriate to each of them. Humour can be very effective; it doesn’t all need to be doom and gloom!
  • Help guests make informed decisions – Make sure to back up claims with evidence and information to help guests make more informed decisions. Keep it specific and relevant to their experience. Rather than offering generalised statements (“By reusing your towel you are saving the planet”), keep it personal to their experience (“Reuse me tomorrow. Just like at home”).
  • Make it easy – Make the sustainable option the default option. For example, switching to an opt-in housekeeping programme for stays shorter than three days. For actions which require proactive behaviour, do most of the work for them, and then ask for engagement at the right moment, where it is easy for them to act straight away.
  • Celebrate success stories – Share the pride of the difference you have made together, and reinforce the perception that guests have done the right thing. Engage guests with compelling storytelling to bring your initiatives to life. For example, sharing pictures or messages from suppliers or projects supported.

“Normally, sustainability is perceived as a trade-off, not as a means to achieving what the customer wants. Your sustainability messages need to improve the perception of quality, convenience and location, justify the price and reduce perceived risks.” – Xavier Font