This is a response to Finja Hansen’s article: Tourism with a conscience – An empircal investigation of the perception of travelers on CSR-certification of tour operators based in Germany
The thesis of Mrs. Finja Hansen investigates the customer awareness, knowledge, and perception of CSR Certification schemes. Moreover, the analysis looks on the side of the tour operators and the motivation of running the certification and communicating about it
The finding that the CSR certificate is still widely unknown to the traveler is unfortunately correct and not very surprising. TourCert started in 2008 as a pilot project with the certification of five tour operators, all members of the association forum anders reisen e.V. in Germany. At the present moment, 93 tour operators are certified with the Tourcert label. Looking at the German travel market, this represents only a very small proportion of businesses. According to the data of the German travel association (DRV) there are around 2,500 tour operators on the German market. None of the big tour operators has an external certification, but 70% of all organized trips of customers are booked through the big seven internationally known companies. Therefore, the wider dissemination of the certification is still missing. This explains the lack of customer awareness.
In 2008, the members of forum anders reisen decided to make certification by TourCert (formally started by KATE) obligatory for membership. The objective was to demonstrate the sustainability performance of the members, and use a transparent system to make this measurable and comparable. The certification was additional to the commitment to the sustainability criteria developed by the members themselves. This set of criteria is however very descriptive. Hence, we wanted to transfer the criteria into a system that was based more on numbers. To raise credibility, we decided that independent evaluators should monitor this process and certification should be made by a third-party decision. The most important part of the certification is the optimization program which secures a continuous improvement of sustainable performance.
If we now look to the question of communicating this process, marketing of the CSR label itself is not the focus of the tour operator. The certification scheme is a tool for behind-the-scenes improvement rather than a marketing USP. The main message in the communication of smalland medium-sized tour operators are the specific kind of tours they offer. This is their core business. They like to attract travelers with the individual and creative way of travelling including environmentally friendly, economically fair and socially acceptable aspects. It is more important to communicate how sustainability is integrated in the tours than to talk about certification.
The CSR system is a data based, highly analytical, and a rather abstract ‘background tool.’ In communication towards customers, the focus should be the impact of sustainability on the traveler and on the destination: What does it mean for her or his tour? How can (s)he feel the improvement? What is her or his profit in travelling the sustainable way? How does it help to make the destination a better place to live and to visit? Marketing should always look towards the interest of the traveler. He or she is planning his holiday, not looking for a business case.
Certification can be a way to distinguish between greenwashing and real sustainable engagement of enterprises. Marketing is not the right motivation for being certified, but marketing sustainability is among the values of a company.
The thesis is interesting because it makes clear that different target groups have different knowledge and understanding of what certification means. The customer is one of the most important stakeholders in the tourism business. Her or his feedback––quantitatively and qualitatively monitored––is part of the CSR System of Tourcert. Feedback tools and direct talks with the customers are an important part of organizing relationships with them, and part of the daily business of a tour operator. The idea to involve these stakeholders even more is good and important.
But in the end, the customer is not buying a certification, but a personal dream of a holiday. Thus, he or she is looking for a destination, an activity and a special experience. CSR-certification is relevant on a second level of the decision making process – it is a sign of guaranteed quality. The real importance in tourism is to stimulate more and more travelers to travel sustainably. Various surveys show a growing interest of customers for social and environmental aspects, as Ms. Hansen mentioned, but in the decision making so far only a small group of customers behave accordingly. An increase of this group can only be achieved by communicating the positive impacts for the traveler himself.
About the author and her background
Petra Thomas is general manager of the forum anders reisen, a business association of small and medium-sized tour operators. The association promotes gentle forms of tourism based on sustainable development. For this purpose, its members have committed to comply with a comprehensive set of criteria, which are monitored through a CSR process. The umbrella organization is organized as a registered association (e.V.). It was founded in 1998 and comprises 135 members (May 2017). Before joining the association Petra Thomas has been working for the tour operator a&e erlebnis:reisen, specialized in tours for small groups with the focus on social and ecological aspects. In this position, she was responsible for the product development and the CSR management.