Sustainability Crowd Meets in Hilton Head

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The Westin Hilton Head Island Resort & Spa was the host property for the 6th annual Ecotourism & Sustainable Tourism Conference in September. We spoke with co-chair Richard Edwards, founder of the consulting firm Ecoism and senior advisor of the Planeterra Foundation.

Richard, what is the mission of the conference?

It’s an annual tourism industry conference that brings together tourism professionals and sustainability experts to discuss what is currently happening in the field of sustainable tourism. When we started in 2005, the focus was looking at what’s happening in North America in the field of ecotourism. Since then it has evolved into a much more comprehensive and international event, and there’s a lot more interest from the destinations themselves and their tourism boards.

So the focus has evolved from travel’s impact on the planet to the more holistic field of sustainability, examining impact on community and economics?

Absolutely. Part of the reason for that organic development is the fact that so many destinations have tourism as one of their top sources of international revenue, so it’s a huge part of their development plan, which then trickles down and touches all sectors related to tourism.

Our audience is an early adopter of sustainability, so this is the group within tourism where you’re going to see some of those before-their-time discussions. That’s one of the things that attracts people to these conferences.

Why did you decide to host the event in Hilton Head Island this year?

One of the most important reasons is the engagement that we’ve seen from the local tourism office. In 2010 we were in Portland, which is a well-known sustainable city. Hilton Head Island is a very different type of destination with a lot of local drive for sustainable initiatives, but it’s not necessarily known for being sustainable. We saw an opportunity there to partner with them and help them become more sustainable and better communicate their story about their destination.

What does the future of sustainable travel look like?

I think there’s a lot of momentum behind mainstream travel and tourism. What we’re trying to do is incorporate that third prong of the bottom line where we help mainstream tourism understand that the social aspect is just as important as the environmental and economic aspects of doing business in a destination, so that all three of those components are working together to preserve the destination.

That’s where I see us gaining momentum in the future. There are more and more corporations starting to mention that even if they’re not extremely well informed at this stage about what that social aspect means, at least they’re starting to understand and mention it within their communications. That’s a step in the right direction.

How can planners better sell sustainability to their attendees and C-suite executives?
A quick way is the storytelling that you can create around moving into this new third component. The social aspect really deepens your marketing and makes it resonate better with your audience if you start to understand the communities your business is involved with. That is a way that any business can reach their target audience.

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