Interview of Xavier Font, Director at respondeco and Professor at Leeds Beckett University

Interview of Xavier Font, Director at respondeco and Professor at Leeds Beckett University

Xavier Font, respondecoInterview of Dr Xavier Font, Director at respondeco and Professor at Leeds Beckett University

by Julia Guerra

 

Dr. Xavier Font is a leading expert on sustainable tourism marketing and has a PhD in the field of sustainable tourism certification. He is the Director at respondeco, a consultancy service that helps tourism businesses learn how to better market and communicate their sustainability efforts. They provide website analysis, action planning training, mentoring and destination reports.

 

What made you passionate about sustainability?

 

I grew up in a tourist resort north of Barcelona, where the tourists outnumbered the locals by three to one. I was really fascinated by all these foreign people, but I also saw a lot of hideous, poor behavior. Being on the receiving end of the social, economic, and environmental impacts, I hoped for a better way of doing tourism.

 

What was the inspiration behind respondeco?

 

The whole idea of respondeco came many years ago from when I was teaching the module on responsible tourism marketing and I kept finding that companies just didn’t get it.

 

We have an assignment for our students, which is to interview a company that’s well-known for its responsible and sustainable tourism initiatives and to ask them how it affects every stage of their marketing plan. Surprisingly, many of the companies said, "Marketing plan? What’s that?"

 

We kept thinking this is not possible. Surely somebody must be doing it right. We hadn’t yet realized just quite how much need there was for this kind of work. 

 

Then, one of my students, who happened to be the Director of Sustainability at Visit England, said to me, "I’ll put money behind this to write a manual that companies can use, providing that it’s easy to understand and can be read in 25 minutes." Before we realized it, we had the first manual produced.

 

Since then, we’ve written similar manuals for five different national tourism boards, adapting each to their own needs and case studies.

 

As a professor and researcher, what was the most surprising trend you discovered in your research?

 

How few of the companies that are famous for their sustainability initiatives are good at communicating it. I’ll give you an example. We’re currently working with Green Key Global to help their members communicate sustainability and we’re struggling to find good examples. It may be that those principles are communicated on the hotel premises, but not on their website or social media channels. I’ve got 15 students of mine looking for examples high and low. They say to me, "We find some things, but they’re not really informative and there’s nothing cutting edge."

 

Green Key has realized this and they’re doing something about it to help their members, but it happens all over the world. What we can offer at respondeco is really inexpensive and easy to do. It just takes a bit of imagination.

 

 

 

The first of 6 free lessons on sustainable tourism marketing on the respondeco website

 

 

What is the main challenge for companies communicating their sustainability initiatives?

 

They want to play it safe. They’re very afraid that what they’re doing will be considered greenwashing. So they prefer to just list a bunch of facts. They don’t understand that marketing needs to be creative. In the same way that none of us buy a lotion based on its chemical formula but rather, on the dream that we’re going to look younger. Companies think it’s wrong to communicate those customer benefits because it’s very easy for someone to copy those headlines without having the evidence of practicing sustainability in the first place. 

 

Do you believe that clients and travelers are even interested in sustainability?

 

Yes, if there’s a benefit to them. I’ll give you an example of a property in Wales, where there’s a lot of sheep. This lodge said on their website, "Due to previous complaints about being cold, we have insulated the ceilings of the bedrooms." And I thought, Wow. That really makes me want to stay there. So I asked, Did these sheep come from Wales? And he responds, "Look outside my window. It came from my flock of 400 sheep. "

 

So I rewrite the message for him and it now says, "We hope you’re really comfortable in your bed because our 400 sheep gave up their winter wooly coats to keep you warm at night, sleep tight." By turning it around, customers were coming downstairs for breakfast, asking how this was possible and could they buy some of the sheep’s wool themselves to insulate their own roof because they don’t want to buy someone’s chemical based stuff.

 

The point is to make it fun and to make it interesting. There are so many opportunities for communications in sustainability to increase customer satisfaction and expenditure. You need to play up customer benefits, not use the s-word.

 

What projects at respondeco are you currently working on?

 

Along with the manuals, we do training courses for tourism companies and destinations. A few months ago I was asked by the Zurich Tourism Board to go and train the different heads of departments in the city, as well as look into how the city could design a new strategy that embraces the concepts of sustainability and empathy. Next week, I’m meeting with Malta to train a variety of ecolodges and rural tourism businesses.

 

We find that the marketing teams want to communicate the company’s sustainability initiatives but the project managers don’t collect any information for them. Without that, the marketing teams can only talk about some really vague, abstract ideas about how wonderful they are. In the end, there’s no substance. A lot of the work we do in the training programs is understanding how different departments within a hotel or a tour operator can better communicate to one another. 

 

respondeco, responsible tourism communicationWe’ve also been working a lot on persuasive communication, which is looking at how wording things the wrong way won’t get the right message across. You can have the exact same sustainability actions, but if you communicate it poorly, you’re not going to get anywhere.

 

For example, you would never allow the marketing person of your business to mess with the boiler that controls carbon emissions at your hotel. The whole place would blow up. So why would you allow the boiler manager to mess with the marketing? Either we get the environmental manager to learn how to communicate, or we help the marketing manager to learn how sustainability makes a better holiday. At the moment, neither of them is equipped to do this job. There’s so much we do can do and the sector is not improving fast enough. 

 

What are you hoping to achieve at respondeco?

 

I’m hoping to get companies, particularly small companies, to gain the confidence and the skills to try inexpensive and easy-to-perform methods of communication. I want them to realize that customers appreciate it when you talk to them as a customer and not as the environmental police. The idea is so give them the confidence to slowly keep scaling up the quality of efforts, enabling these companies to market themselves as more exciting, authentic, and adventurous due to their sustainability initiatives.

 

 

 

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