Sustainability Communications: How to Find and Promote Your Message

Best Practices and Tips on Sustainability Communications for Tourism Destinations

Effective sustainability communication strategies should promote your destination's messages focused on how you promote tourism that cares for people and places.

Expert Team at TrainingAid

Sustainability Communications in Tourism

How can destinations effectively communciate about sustainability?

Sustainability can be a vague concept and may be hard to grasp, but rather than focusing on the use of terms such as sustainability or sustainable tourism, effective sustainability communication strategies should promote your destination's messages focused on:

  • How tourism is a key part of the positive growth of your community.
  • How your destination works with local and regional stakeholders in an inclusive manner.
  • How you encourage opporunities through tourism that are economically viable for local businesses.
  • How your destination promotes tourism that cares for people and places.
  • How your destination creates travel experiences that are fun for hosts and for visitors.

Let's look at some ideas, best practices and tips on sustainability communications for tourism destinations.

Sustainability Communications: Do Travelers Care?

Communicating about your destination's commitment to sustainability is important not just because it supports your sustainability journey, but also because it makes good business sense.

Many travelers nowadays are seeking local, active, and diverse travel experiences that are unique and are in line with their values. So by sharing your passion for your destination and shining a spotlight on the people who make your destination special, you are creating messages that appeal to today's curious and mindful travelers.

According to the Booking .com's 2021 Sustainable Travel Report, "83% of global travelers think sustainable travel is vital, with 61% saying the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in the future".

Considering these emerging travel consumer trends, successfully engaging visitors in your destination's sustainability messages can mean significant short and long-term benefits for the destination.

Targeting the Right Audience

Different segments will respond to different messages, and not all travellers will be interested in or motivated by sustainability. It may be helpful, therefore, for destinations to identify the segments of travellers who are most interested and engaged in sustainability messages, to target them as "early adopters".

By focusing on those who are likely to respond well to your sustainability communications, you can increase the chance of your messages seen by more people through word-of-mouth, and of turning those early adopters into supporters and ambassadors who will play a key role in engaging other segments of your audience.

So how can you identify the market segments that are more interested in sustainability?

Here's a good example of market research conducted in the Lake District National Park in Northwest England, which aimed at reducing transport-related environmental burdens from visitors while maintaining economic benefit of tourism: "Reducing visitor car use in a protected area: a market segmentation approach to achieving behaviour change" by Davina Stanford (Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol. 22, No. 4).

The research first explored visitor transport behaviour using a social psychological framework, to understand what might best predict desired behaviour change such as reduced car use. Secondly, it used the persuasive communication strategy to develop and test different types of marketing messages with value propositions appropriate to different visitor types. And thirdly, it identified market segments with both a high propensity towards positive behavioural change and the highest economic contribution to the destination.

By monitoring visitor behaviour in areas such as spending patterns and environmental actions, as well as their response to your sustainability messages, you can identify the segments of your audience that you can focus on as the potential early adopter market. And remember: positive attitudes towards the environment don’t have to mean a loss in economic contribution.

Targeting New Markets with Shared Values

Tourism New Zealand's "100% Pure" campaign is another example of identifying and effectively marketing to a target audience with sustainability-focused messages.

Rather than finding existing segments that already embrace sustainability, the campaign focused on attracting travellers who form the most appropriate segment for the message of the "100% Pure" campaign, which encapsulates the essence of New Zealand's unspoiled landscape.

"Pure New Zealand Destination Marketing"

"Tourism New Zealand promotes the country's unique combination of landscapes, people and activities that cannot be found anywhere else in the world"

To target the "right" audience, Tourism New Zealand focused on a market they define as “The Interactive Traveller”, whose main characteristics include their desires to explore a wide range of tourism products; seek out new experiences; enjoy outdoor activity; interact with natural, social and cultural environments; and plan and book holidays directly.

This strategy has been effective in targeting those visitors that have values, expectations and aspirations that align well with what New Zealand offers. By taking an integrated approach to tourism development at the national level, Tourism New Zealand has been able to identify and then attract those tourists who contribute most to the economy, focusing on yield rather than merely on numbers of arrivals, and on spreading the benefits of tourism.

Context Matters

Data are important, but they are most effective when used in the right context. For example, this 2008 research examined the effectiveness of signs requesting hotel guests' participation in energy-saving programs: "A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels" by Noah J. Goldstein, Robert B. Cialdini, and Vladas Griskevicius (Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 35, No. 3).

According to this research, appeals using social proof (e.g. "The majority of guests reuse their towels") proved more effective than those that focused solely on environmental protection (e.g. "Help us save the environment!"). Moreover, the social proof-approach to these appeals proved most effective when describing group behavior that occurred in the setting that most closely matched individuals’ immediate circumstances (e.g. "The majority of guests in this room reuse their towels").

Storytelling is another great way of incorporating data to support your sustainability communications, placing your messages in the right context for your audience.

Rather than talking about what you do and why your actions are important for the environment or for the society, for example, your messages will be much more effective in engaging travellers if you focus on the benefits of such action, and illustrating the impact of your sustainability efforts in a tangible way.

You want your visitors to feel good about being part of your sustainability stories, not just see your sustainability statistics.

How to Prioritize Your Sustainability Actions and Messages

It's going to be difficult to do everything and to do it well. Focus on what your priorities are, and try to do that well before moving on to other initiatives. An important part of prioritizing your sustainability practices is thinking about your destination's core values.

Ask yourself: What are the key values that define our destination? Which sustainability goals are most important for us and why? What actions take into account the needs and considerations of all stakeholders – including visitors and local businesses?

In identifying the range of actions that are relevant to your destination and the sustainability practices that you want to promote as part of your destination’s sustainability stories, it will be helpful to use some of the established guides for sustainable destination criteria, such as:

  • UNWTO Indicators of Sustainable Development for Tourism Destinations: This guidebook describes over 40 major sustainability issues, from natural resources management to cultural heritage preservation, with suggested indicators and measurement techniques for each issue, and a procedure to develop destination-specific indicators.
  • Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Destinations: Developed by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) these criteria for destinations were developed based on existing criteria and approaches including, the UNWTO destination level indicators and nearly 40 other widely accepted principles and guidelines, certification criteria and indicators.
  • European Tourism Indicator Toolkit for Sustainable Destinations: The European Commission, in collaboration with University of Surrey, Sustainable Travel International and the INTASAVE Partnership, has developed this toolkit as a way to promote a locally owned and led process for monitoring, managing, and enhancing the sustainability of a tourism destination.
  • European Charter for Sustainable Tourism in Protected Areas: Developed by EUROPARC Federation and its partners, this Charter is a practical management tool for ensuring that tourism contributes to a balanced economic, social and environmental development of protected areas in Europe. 

How NOT to Communicate about Sustainability

When it comes to sustainability communications, many destinations make assumptions based on common myths and misconceptions about what works, with whom and where to share stories, and how to reach and engage more travelers.

With a little soul-searching, fact-gathering, and updating of your current marketing approaches, your destination can avoid these mistakes and achieve more through your sustainability communication efforts.

TrainingAid Webinar "Keep It Real for Destinations" (Dec 8th, 2014)

*The presentation is based on the "Keep It Real for Destinations" toolkit developed by Visit England and Leeds Metropolitan University, designed to help DMOs and any other organizations involved in promoting and managing destinations to effectively incorporate the "Wise Growth" principles in their communications with visitors, residents, and businesses.

#1: "It's marketing. We need catchy copy and cool photos."

Marketing your destination - and in particular using your sustainability stories for communicating to your audience about what makes your destination special - should not be limited to catchy copy and cool photos. Memorable copy and eye-catching visuals are, of course, an important part of any tourism destination's communication efforts, but you also need to tell your stories using various communication tools including text, photos, videos, and interactive web content. Showing can often be much more powerful than telling.

#2: "Destination marketing is the job of the DMO."

DMOs are leading forces of effective tourism destination marketing and communications. But tourism stakeholders involved in developing, managing and promoting destinations can think creatively and find opportunities to collaborate with each other - through working relationships, consultation and cooperation - to craft effective and inclusive sustainability communications approaches for the destination.

#3: "We need to communicate only to our visitors."

Local business and residents are not only the "characters" that make your destination's sustainability stories special; they should also be engaged in your communications efforts, so they share your vision and can spread your message.

#4: "Our iconic attractions speak for themselves."

While your destination may be blessed with iconic sites and famous brand ambassadors whose popularity alone can both market your destination and attract visitors. Instead of relying only on the existing reputation of your iconic attractions, however, you can enhance your destination's image and attract a wider audience by strengthening your messages with key elements of pursuasive communications, such as: social proof, sense of urgency, celebrity endorsement and seals of approval (e.g. certification).

#5: "We have 1000s of brochures printed for trade shows!"

In addition to the conventional marketing channels (which tend to be one-way), take advantage of online channels - such as email, blog and social media - which offer the opportunity for your destination to promote your content in a more targeted and flexible manner, taking into account the context of how travelers are interacting with your content. Combining a mobile app, blogs, and social media networks, destinations can promote local travel experiences while at the same time raising awareness of the sustainability practices that visitors can be part of.

#6: "It's best to focus on what has worked in the past."

It's of course important to take advantage of and learn from what has worked for your destination in terms of your marketing and communications efforts. But don't stop there: don't be afraid of thinking outside the box and branching out to spread your sustainability messages in new ways. This may mean exploring new platforms on which to share your stories in addition to your website and other marketing channels you're familiar with. Or, it may mean redefining your brand identity by exploring different ways of telling your stories in ways that resonate with your target audience.

#7: "We just need to target those who are considering to book."

Marketing and sustainability communications should happen throughout the traveler's customer journey (the paths visitors take from becoming aware of your destination to booking a trip, to visiting your destination, as well as hopefully going home with great memories and becoming repeat visitors), and storytelling can be an effective way to engage travelers at a much earlier stage of their journey as well as after they've visited your destination.

Sustainability communications can be an effective part of your efforts to engage travelers at all stages of the customer journey - for example, to attract attention of prospective visitors with unique stories, to help travelers plan their visits to your destination in a responsible manner, to assist visitors with practical information during their stay, and to continue engaging them after their stay in the ongoing efforts to protect and maintain the great experiences that your destination offers.