Although she wasn’t there, the spirit of environmental activist Greta Thunberg loomed large at the Ensemble Travel Group’s 2019 International Conference.

“Climate and sustainability are the biggest issues facing the travel industry today and the biggest issues facing your clients,” Ensemble CEO David Harris told the audience of travel agency owners, frontline travel advisors and suppliers during his opening remarks. “I call it the Greta effect.”

The conference took place October 22 to 27 in Seattle.

Noting that an estimated seven billion trips are taken worldwide each year, Harris said that travel has both good and bad effects on destinations.

“We have a responsibility to be mindful and to educate our clients about traveling to more sustainable places,” he said. “We will be introducing new supplier partners devoted to this. We need to make sure we are part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Among the steps Ensemble is taking is to enter into a partnership with Cool Effect, which has a tool that will enable travel agencies to calculate how much of a monetary donation their clients would need to make to offset the carbon footprint of their trips.

Ensemble Travel Group is not alone in its quest to come up with solutions to save the environment. Destinations, other travel agency groups, event planners, hotels, airlines, and cruise lines likewise are trying to address environmental issues, including overtourism.

The need for responsible tourism and business practices dominated most of the conference agenda whose theme was Travel With Purpose.  Suppliers emphasized their sustainability practices during their presentations, while keynote addresses featured Spencer West, a humanitarian with the We Charity and a double amputee, and MOD Pizza founders Scott and Ally Svenson whose company has provided numerous job opportunities for ex-convicts.

During a panel presentation on responsible tourism, Douglas Sabo, Visa’s vice president for global corporate responsibility and sustainability, said that multiple surveys show that travelers, led by Millennials and Generation Z, want to incorporate sustainability into their trips.

“Travelers are looking at the enormous impact of tourism and asking how it is benefitting the local communities,” he said. “People want to engage in local cultures and to protect the resources. There’s a new emerging view of travel and tourism born out of this crisis. The industry is responding.”

For its part, Sabo said Visa is responding through several initiatives, including a three-year partnership with Venice, perhaps the city most affected by overtourism. At Visa for Venice kiosks throughout the city cardholders can swipe their cards to make a donation to sustainability efforts in the destination.

Visa is also participating in Tap to Pay, machines that make it easier for visitors to purchase tickets for public transportation in various cities.

“Surveys show that the confusion in ticketing is the biggest barrier to getting people to use public transportation when traveling,” he said.

Marie Fukodome, director of environmental affairs for Hyatt Hotels, said that sustainability efforts on the part of hotels is leading to greater guest satisfaction.

“People like having sensors to give light when they need them or to have thermostats that they can control,” she said. “It’s created a win-win situation.”

Analytics is vital

Harris, who took on the newly created position of CEO six months ago, said during his opening remarks that “sustainability is also about the health of our organization.” He noted that the 50-year-old consortium had its best year ever in 2018, topping $1.4 billion in product sales with preferred suppliers, representing 8 percent growth over the prior year.

Ensemble Travel Group CEO David Harris in Seattle, Washington.

Harris said the numbers don’t actually reflect the real sales among
Ensemble travel advisors, which are at least $4 billion when transactions with non-preferred suppliers are factored in. An estimated $1.5 billion in air travel sales are going to non-preferred airlines, including $300 million to one non-preferred airline alone, he noted.

The consortium needs to do a better job of capturing this data in order to give it better leverage with suppliers, according to Harris.

“We have to look at the value of our untapped resources and harness the value of our unmanaged travel through better data and analytics,” he said. “In November we will be hiring a new vice president of supplier relations to help us become more strategic with our partners.”

In general, the effective use of data and analytics will become a bigger part of education for Ensemble members, Harris added.

“Data is king and agencies have to get on board with marketing intelligence,” he said. “It’s essential for building up your business. Analytics are needed to create efficiency. For example, if I know that August is the worst month for cruise sales, then I know that I should focus on something else then. I can make better use of my time.”

Stronger Industry Ties

Stronger ties with travel industry organizations have become a priority, under Harris’ leadership, most notably by the decision in August to require all Ensemble members to join the American Society of Travel Advisors. As a result, 242 Ensemble travel advisors who were not preciously members have joined the organization and the consortium now has a seat on its board of directors.

“The ASTA partnership was a no-brainer,” Harris said during his remarks to the crowd. “We need to participate in advocacy for our industry. ASTA is doing remarkable things.”

A new partnership with The Travel Institute was announced during the conference, with Ensemble becoming the first consortium to offer a scholarship to every shareholder member who goes through one of the Institute’s certification programs. For the next year, Ensemble will underwrite 50 percent of the certification costs.

At the same time, it was also announced that the Ensemble Board of Directors has enrolled in the Institute’s top-level Certified Travel Industry Executive program.

In a conversation with Skift, Harris said it is essential to support both The Travel Institute and the American Society of Travel Advisors, which he believes are playing valuable roles in maintaining the health of the travel advisor industry.

“There’s no barrier for anyone to become a travel advisor — you can just go online and sign up,” Harris said. “This is not a good thing. It’s important that people be qualified and capable. ASTA and The Travel Institute are important learning platforms. We have to do as much as possible to give people opportunities to sell travel and learn about customer relationships. One agency can’t do this alone.”

Carrying the conference’s sustainable tourism message forward is also something that will require cooperation from a variety of sources, he added.

“Sustainability has to be a collaborative effort involving suppliers, learning platforms, the press and others,” he said. “Government support will take awhile, but in the meantime we can be consistent and constant in delivering the message.”

Photo Credit: Tourists in an overcrowded Venice on June 17, 2017. Ensemble Travel Group CEO David Harris said it is the responsibility of travel advisors to send people to some of the less-touristed destinations. Ekaterina Vladinakova / Flickr.com