We recently had an opportunity to chat with Prue Stone, Head of Sustainability at Explore Worldwide about sustainably-minded travel, policy, and careers in sustainable tourism.
Explore Worldwide, is an adventure travel leader with a portfolio of over 500 trips to 120 countries. The company was one of the first in the travel industry to integrate sustainable travel policies into their organization. In her role, Prue focuses on implementing a functional sustainability strategy, operational decarbonization both overseas and in the UK, and collaborates closely with peers and charity partners to promote industry change.
In general, how does Explore Worldwide approach sustainable travel? What are the major concepts/components you look to include in your policy?
Sustainability has changed so much over the years. Even the verbiage within the travel industry has changed – from ‘responsible travel’ to ‘responsible business’ and then more recently, just to ‘sustainability’. We’ve seen buzzwords come and go, but Explore’s approach has always been a holistic one. It’s about being responsible, not only in our travels, but also in our business.
This shift is significant, and it forms the undercurrent of how we approach sustainability. Each part of the organization consistently strives to ‘do the right thing’ – by our customers, our staff, our suppliers, and by the environment in which we live.
Sustainability for Explore goes beyond climate change and the environment, although this remains a significant focus. The impact that we have on local communities is also of the utmost importance. We strive to always “be welcomed back.” That, to us, is a sign that we have enriched the lives of everyone involved.
The economic leakage often associated with travel is avoided wherever possible, and we do this by using smaller, family-owned hotels, local guides, local tour leaders, and local drivers. Our groups visit local projects or community initiatives, and we’re trying to include more women-owned cooperatives in that regard. Some of our trips include home stays, where our customers will stay in the home of a local family. This provides for a more authentic cultural exchange.
I think Explore Worldwide is very transparent in our sustainability journey. We know we’re not perfect and we want to continually make improvements. This invites openness, honesty, and the demand for feedback.
Do nature-based/adventure tourism brands have a larger responsibility than the broader industry when it comes to sustainability?
The short answer is ‘no.’ I think sustainability sits squarely on all our shoulders. Our product is inherently more sustainable by nature, with a smaller footprint versus other travel sectors. We employ local guides, local drivers, and we use locally owned and family run hotels. We like to eat in local restaurants and our average group size is 12, so we’re small. This is also the case for other adventure operators.
That said, over 80% of our carbon emissions results from air travel, which is a necessary component of our trips. So we’re not innocent. Ideally, more customers would join our trips via rail, but this isn’t always an option. We also encourage travelers to go on longer trips and take them less frequently. But every travel company can do better. This is a global movement and without everyone’s contribution, the global warming trajectory will continue.
How should a company take a topic like sustainability and ensure it’s infused into all organizational departments? To make sure it isn’t just a layer that sits on top?
This is key, since everyone plays a role in sustainability. It is equally as important that the support for sustainable strategies comes from the bottom up, as it is top down. At Explore, I am fortunate to have full director level support. Without that, my job would be significantly more challenging. With that support, I can create team and departmental-level strategies, so that each has its own focus that is relevant, with realistic goals.
For example, I’m speaking to the IT team about our data storage, or our place in the circular economy with our technology. With HR, it might be about remote working, flexi working, or car sharing; all ways to reduce our office emissions. Of course, a lot of time is spent with the Product team, who deal directly with our supply chain on the ground in destination. This encompasses everything from what we eat on trips to how we can leverage public transport to drive efficiencies.
As a global business, not only do our sustainability policies need to flow vertically within the organization, but horizontally as well. For example, our agents and suppliers overseas often times need to implement change on our behalf. But I don’t ever want the changes to be dictated from our headquarters. A big part of my role is creating training courses, discussion forums, idea exchanges, so I can really understand what the implications are for each partner, in each country.
All of this starts with the hiring process – in finding the right people who support our sustainability efforts.
What steps can companies take to ensure that their sustainability policies are having real impact on their bottom line?
I often think of sustainability as rewinding 50 years to when my parents were children. They ate seasonal foods. There were no vast supermarkets, so they shopped at local markets and were not wasteful. They mended clothes, instead of buying new ones, used every scrap of food, and kept furniture in good condition. They were resourceful and efficient.
For a business, this approach naturally flows through to the bottom line. If we all wasted less, if we were resourceful with what we already owned, our costs would naturally decrease. For any company, there are some very simple wins and measurement is key to success. As the saying goes, ‘what gets measured, gets managed.’
Some sustainability upgrades might take a while to show returns, such as investing in solar panels. Other simple measures, like switching to energy efficient light bulbs or decreasing your office space, will be realized more immediately.
Larger investments, like measuring your scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions, and then taking action to decrease them, ensure that your offsetting costs decrease over time.
But we shouldn’t forget the intangible side of sustainability. The employee who experiences favorable working conditions, creating a good work/life balance, and who works for a company who truly cares about their employees, is likely to be loyal, hardworking, and more productive. Retaining a happy workforce also means less time, and money, spent on recruiting and onboarding new employees. It’s all about the ‘3 P’s’ – People, Purpose, Profit.
How does Explore ensure that the concept of sustainability is digestible for customers, who may or may not know much about responsible travel?
This can be tricky, and something we are continually reviewing. We find that our customers are not necessarily booking with Explore because we are a sustainable travel company. There are other factors and benefits that first attract travelers to our products, like our immersive style of travel. That said, sustainability is central to our brand, which can be seen across our consumer touchpoints.
Much of our sustainability marketing starts with our emails. We send a monthly update to our database with at least one sustainability story. We find this frequency does not overwhelm the customer with “green” messages, while still ensuring a presence. We also have a double-page spread in our brochure this year that provides an overview of some of the initiatives we have underway. On social media, we use Facebook and Instagram for briefer snippets of news and updates, which also includes sustainability content.
We measure every piece of communication that touches our travelers, so have our pulse on what is resonating, and what might need to be further examined.
How can tourism businesses ensure transparency and measurement regarding the impact of sustainable travel policies e.g. on the climate, on local communities?
As an industry, we can be afraid of failure. There’s a push to be ‘first’ or ‘best’ in some areas of sustainability. It sounds simple, but I think you can only ensure transparency by being transparent yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail – taking climate action and not hitting all of your targets is better than not taking action at all.
At the same time, take pride in your accomplishments. Talk about them, and help others make similar changes.
I think so much comes down to good internal communication. Making sure all your staff and suppliers are on the same page, and then communicating it externally – managing expectations of customers and then openly discussing the pitfalls and successes of each choice.
As an example, we have a goal of going plastic-free on all of our trips. Now, I am sure bits of single use plastic will creep into trips here and there and customers will let us know in their feedback. But only by aiming high can we fall somewhere shy of our ultimate goal. It’s still progress.
Explore was a founding signatory to Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency. Can you briefly explain the concept behind this and then more specifically, what Explore’s declaration entails?
Late 2019, we saw different industries outside of travel declaring a climate emergency, by clearly articulating their climate action steps. This was in combination with mounting pressure on governments around the world to act regarding climate change. The simple concept of Tourism Declares is collaboration, sharing knowledge, and learning from one another regarding sustainability measures.
We ‘declared’ and signed on in early 2020, before the pandemic changed the face of tourism forever.
Our declaration focuses on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) most relevant to Explore, and where we can have profound impact. Some of these are well underway, and others have been adapted due to the pandemic and its impact on our business.
1. Climate action
Reducing our carbon emissions in the office and on tour using science-based targets.
2. Life on land
Refine and enforce our animal welfare policy.
3. Quality education
Develop sustainability training for all staff and increase commitments with our partnered academic institutions.
4. Responsible consumption and production
Eliminate single use plastic globally on our tours and analyze our full supply chain for resource management.
5. Partnerships for the goals
Strong collaboration within the industry, and wider, to push for governmental policy to address the climate emergency.
Sustainability is often viewed mainly through an environmental lens. But Explore also just introduced a new animal protection policy. Why is this important for industry leaders to act on?
Humans have built our societies on nature’s shoulders and we find ourselves in a position where our foundations are crumbling. We need to protect our ecosystems, the natural environment, and the animals within. Animals of course don’t have a voice, and so it’s up to us to be mindful of our collective impact on them and their wellbeing.
On a more basic level, it is simply the right thing to do. Many of our trips are wildlife centric, or use domesticated animals as part of the highlights, and it is our responsibility as a tour operator to do everything possible to protect the animals.
We’ve seen big societal changes over the years. Documentaries such as Black Fish are really shifting the mindset of the average traveler. Poor animal management, simply for the cash transaction, is no longer acceptable for most people.
Regarding sustainability, what advice would you give to those looking to launch a career in tourism?
My best advice would be to remain patient. Remember that the business world is very different from academia. Theories and concepts, while providing the foundation for your professional work, need to be boiled down to digestible action points for internal colleagues. Strive to think practically, versus conceptually.
Regarding helpful resources, here in the U.K., I use Environment Jobs to get a gauge on the local job market for sustainability. I also subscribe to Edie – a daily news digest for sustainability and clean energy professionals. It’s not travel focused, but provides interesting insights into other industries and the issues they’re tackling. It’s important for me to stay informed at a higher, industry-agnostic level as well as within travel itself.
Above all else, love it! Show your passion, and you’ll continue to make an impact. Rally your internal troops – more people than ever recognize the need for sustainability platforms and policies. You just need to show them the way.