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Marketing Strategies for Sustainable and Ecotourism Certification
By Amos Bien
Since early 2004, TIES has been studying two of the central issues facing green tourism certification programs: 1) what is the current industry and consumer market demand for sustainable and ecotourism certification; and 2) what strategies will help increase the demand. This article examines some of the recent findings and recommendations of this study. It will be useful to both existing tourism certification programs in formulating their marketing strategies, and other stakeholders, including certified businesses, consumers and policy makers.
Primary research for this study involved focus groups and interviews in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Secondary research was principally based on analysis of published research, a survey of consumer and business demand for sustainable tourism products and certification, and an analysis of constraints of international trade agreements and organizations on certification programs. Special emphasis was given to the successes and failures of certification programs in other industries, such as organic agriculture, forest products, and energy-saving appliances.
Well-known quality programs in tourism, such as AAA, Mobil Travel Guide and Michelin, offered important lessons in direct marketing. Existing sustainable tourism certification programs in Europe, Australia, Costa Rica, South Africa, and elsewhere also provided critical reference, especially those programs that have been most successful or unsuccessful.
The following are a few of the most important findings of the research:
1. Consumer demand takes time to build: Successful certification programs have almost never been created because of pre-existing consumer demand for certification. Instead, demand develops over many years – long after industry decision-makers and intermediaries have begun to use certification as part of their due-diligence and purchasing criteria. This contradicts the position of a number of vocal critics of sustainable tourism certification who maintain that certification should not be developed or promoted because there is little existing consumer demand for it. Case after case has demonstrated that consumer demand develops after a certification program with a credible standard is well-established.
2. Marketing of certification should focus initially on intermediaries: The true demand for the standards usually initiates from large purchasers, such as wholesalers, governments, or other intermediaries. Marketing of certified products to consumers is usually most successful when done by the final intermediary, who retails products directly to the consumer. For instance, EnergyStar certified appliances have been successfully co-marketed by retail stored directly to the consumer. Similarly, the adoption of a purchasing policy for certified timber by large retail chains (such as Home Depot and Ikea) greatly increased the demand for certified products.
3. For consumers health, safety, and quality standards must be incorporated: Market research has shown that tourists seek to ensure the safety of their vacation (from wars, diseases, crime, or natural disasters) in a destination that offers the attractions that they are interested in, at a price that is in accordance with the quality of service. A significant number of consumers has indicated that environmental and social responsibility is important, but only once their demand for safety, quality, and price have been satisfied. In other words, a consumer who is offered a choice between a certified and a non-certified business might well choose the certified business, if all other factors are the same. The experience of coffee and organic food certification programs indicates that they only began to gain popularity when they incorporated quality along with environmental and social criteria. Stressing quality, price, and value, therefore, is an essential ingredient of any campaign that intends to promote certified tourism businesses.
4. For businesses, certification improves performance and can save money: It is now clear that, unless a program is long-established and has excellent brand recognition, simply adding a certification logo to an advertising campaign will not increase occupancy. There are, however, two other important gains that tourism businesses can receive from certification: 1) improved standards through compliance with recognized norms of best practices; and 2) cost savings in energy and water. Reports from certified businesses also indicate dramatically improved staff morale and commitment, when they are involved in implementing a sustainability policy. Improved environmental and social quality greatly increases a business's reputation and hence, over time, its occupancy.
5. Voluntary certification is not likely to violate trade agreements: There has been concern that the large number of binding trade agreements will affect voluntary certification and the incentives that can be offered to certified businesses. According a study conducted by Professor Barton Thompson of Stanford University Law School, voluntary certification of sustainable tourism is unlikely to have negative effects on international trade agreements – including the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) – as long as certification programs are internationally recognized or comply with generally accepted international criteria. There are many additional conclusions from this work, far more than can be summarized in this article.