The thesis underlying this article investigated the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) commitment of tour operators based in Germany. Tour operators are organizations that have the power to influence the journeys that tourists experience. The research uncovered that certification of tour operators and the communication of sustainable tourism through CSR-labels is an emerging issue . The focus was specifically on the TourCert certificate and the awareness and perception of German travelers on this label. The certificate has been awarded to European tour operators for more than seven years, to identify CSR practices and what could be improved.
With the immense growth of the tourism industry over the past six decades, to become one of the largest economic sectors in the world (UNWTO, 2016), and the existing evidence of its negative impacts (Luu, 2011), certification and labeling programs have been developed to protect tourism destinations. Certification ensures that businesses meet sustainable criteria in line with the aspects of people, planet and profit. Today, more than 150 certificates are circulating within the tourism industry worldwide (ECOTRANS, 2016) and are presented by means of e.g. green leaves stickers or blue flags in hotel lobbies and tourism bureaus. The high amount of certificates implies that consumers can hardly distinguish which label is trustworthy and regularly monitored by an examiner (Plüss & Zotz, 2012). Furthermore, it is debatable to what extent a certificate is beneficial for a tourism business, considering the efforts, costs and changes involved in the certification process.
Accordingly, the aim of is the thesis was to investigate CSR-certificates from both the supply and the demand side. First, it attempted to uncover German travelers’ perceptions of CSR-certificates of tour operators and to find out if they recognize a difference in quality, responsible behavior, and credibility between certified and uncertified tour operators. Second, the potential and challenges of undergoing the certification process for tourism businesses were examined. Finally, advice was formulated on how to properly integrate the CSR-certificate into customer communication and develop consumer’s awareness about CSR and certification positively.
The research was based on a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. The qualitative method consisted of semi-structured interviews with seven customers and six experts who are familiar with CSR-certified tour operators. The quantitative method consisted of a customer survey with 315 participants. While the survey data was analyzed with SPSS to identify the perception of the wider population and to test hypotheses from the literature, the interview data were investigated with a thematic content analysis to unfold patterns and recurring opinions.
Findings and discussion
The research revealed that German travelers strive to contribute to sustainable tourism, since they put a high priority on ecological and social engagement of tour operators and on personal encounters with the local community of the visited destination . However, the CSR-certificate is still widely unknown and does not lead in attracting tourists. In contrast, the quality of the product and the price remain the determining factors in the decision-making process. Tour operators considered the certification process as beneficial for business operations and environments. In this process, strengths and weaknesses of the business operation could be unfolded by evaluating the firm’s activities at hands of specific and sustainability criteria. Therefore, most tour operators primarily utilize certification for their internal business improvement and regular quality management by external auditors. They do not consider the CSR-certificate as a unique selling point to attract customers or to gain a competitive advantage over other tour operators. Hence, they limit their marketing activities accordingly.
Regarding a perceived difference between certified and uncertified tour operators, the German travelers did not associate the certificate with an enhancement in product quality, although tour operators stressed that the certification process has the advantage that the CSR and product quality is constantly improved.
Besides, this study revealed that younger travelers belonging to Generation X and Y, who have a lower education and lower income, and those who have already experienced a trip with a certified tour operator, had a more positive perception towards the certificate and believed that a certified tour operator performs better than an uncertified one . Higher educated respondents and those with a higher income were most critical towards the certification. As this group is the main target group of most certified tour operators, there is an urgent need for proper clarification to counteract this critical view.
Lastly, the hypotheses testing results showed that if travelers consider a certificate as positive (trustful, quality assured, etc.), they in turn tend to respond with positive word of mouth, loyalty and the willingness to pay more for a certified tourism company . This outcome demonstrates the importance of increasing the level of customer awareness about the certificate.
The findings lead to several practical recommendations that can be effective for tour operators. Due to the lack of awareness, enhancing marketing and communication activities is crucial. By making the label more visible on catalogues and websites, by creating an exchange platform for interested and experienced travelers to encourage electronic word-of-mouth and by cooperating with bloggers, who inform about the certificate, the awareness and knowledge of CSR-certificates can be effectively increased.
Moreover, it is crucial to involve customers and let them participate in CSR developments, so that they can feel the benefits of the CSR-certificate at first hand. Thus, communication should not only take place from businesses to customers, but also vice-versa from customers to firms as well as amongst the customers themselves. This customer co-creation and innovation can be encouraged by organizing post travel events, for instance. These encounters can be used to collect additional feedback and to brainstorm with customers about improvements and potential future projects. By actively involving customers in business development, their understanding of the implementation of sustainable projects and the certification process can be increased and the demands and expectations of tourists can be directly integrated.
In addition, there is a need to focus on training and involvement of employees and partners. It is suggested to hold frequent workshops about CSR for all employees to enable dialogue and allow them to bring in fresh ideas. This way, all employees feel involved and responsible. Awareness of the content of CSR-certificates and believe in the advantages are important preconditions for the staff to educate and inspire customers.
Finally, continuous evaluations and improvements of the certificate are necessary for a long-term success. Thus, cooperation and co-creation between the certification company and tour operators should be strengthened to use collective creativity to evaluate certificate criteria and to develop new marketing strategies.
To conclude, the tour operating industry should strive towards a situation whereby CSR-certificates positively influence the decision making of customers. The market is already willing to travel in a sustainable way. It is, however, lacking sufficient information about the advantages of certificates for destination countries and for themselves as tourists. More tour operators should become CSR-certified, including larger tour operators, and CSR-certificates and their meaning should not only be communicated to but felt by tourists – by actively involving them. These are the first steps towards more awareness and knowledge among German travelers about CSR activities and CSRcertificates.