Online platforms are conquering the travel booking space and mobile has become the number one travel trend. And yet, not much has been said about online travel in the context of sustainable tourism.
In this interview series we invite leaders of top OTAs and booking platforms to share their thoughts on corporate responsibility and the role of online brands in supporting the growth of sustainable tourism.
In the first interview I spoke with Kei Shibata, angel investor and Co-founder & CEO of Venture Republic, which runs various online travel media and metasearch sites including Travel.jp, Hotel.jp, Trip101.com. I asked Kei what initiatives his businesses take in order to promote responsible travel. We also discussed ways in which OTAs can influence travelers decisions on different stages of their journey.
Before we jump to questions…
In the beginning of the interview, Kei genuinely admitted he is still confused by a definition of sustainable tourism. In the course of our conversation it was clear that for him, sustainable tourism is narrowed to ecotourism and being environmentally friendly. Surprising? Not really.
Although 2017 is the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, still the majority of tourism professionals (my assumption) wouldn’t be able to define what sustainable tourism means and how to implement its principles in practice. In particular, when it comes to online and technology solutions.
I hope that these interviews not only will help us translate sustainability jargon into terms understood by everyone, but also find a way to integrate a People-Planet-Profit approach into the world of online travel.
ANULA: For those, who don’t know you, please describe briefly what you do.
KEI: Our company was founded 16 years ago. Our biggest business is Travel.jp, the largest metasearch in Japan, with 13 million monthly users, which is quite a size of media. We have a business in Singapore, an online travel media purely focused on consumers called Trip101. We also run a business in Korea, Allstay.kr, which is another metasearch but focused on accommodations on mobile.
ANULA: Does any of your business support sustainable tourism?
KEI: We’re approaching sustainable tourism through media – publications and articles – that are published on Travel.jp and Trip101. Our aim is mainly to inspire travelers.
The way we create media business is different from others. We created a network of travel bloggers and travel influencers, who know travel in depth and we syndicate them. We are working with more than 700 travel bloggers from around the world. Together we have published 20,000 articles, which is a lot of content. Most of them are covering destinations, and also hotels and private accommodations.
Among these, you will find more than a few articles that purely talk about sustainable tourism. We cover sustainable tourism based tours and activities, in Thailand or India for example. We also write about accommodations that are eco friendly, like the one in Belize. Many articles in Japan cover agritourism, which is a big trend there.
Unfortunately up till now, we haven’t been able to do much with our clients, which are travel agencies. We work with more than a few hundred travel agencies in the world, a big number is coming from Japan. And they are still behind in terms of designing new tours and packages based on a concept of sustainable tourism.
ANULA: But sustainable travel is not limited to ecolodges and agritourism. Sustainable travel also means searching for authentic experiences and adventures. We see the rise of explorers, immersive travelers, who are interested in culture and experiential tourism. How are OTAs adapting to the new types of travelers?
KEI: We have to be clear about the type of business OTAs are generating right now. OTAs are still handling hotels and flights. Those two segments are, let’s say, 90% of businesses run by OTAs. These are simple products, easy to book online. That being said, most of the OTAs don’t care much about sustainability. When you think about flights or hotels, the concept of sustainable tourism is hard to apply. Maybe some hotels are becoming more environmentally friendly but perhaps it’s still not very common.
What we are are trying to do, is to push small to medium sized hotels, independent hotels, sometimes small inns, and all Ryokans – a type of accommodation in Japan, which is really devoted to protecting the environment and trying to benefit the local communities. We are trying to promote them by highlighting them through the articles.
Generating content that encourages travelers to choose greener options is one thing that OTAs, including metasearch and travel media, can do right now.
But besides the most typical OTAs – there’s the next big thing: platforms for booking tours and activities, like Viator, TripAdvisor, GetYourGuide or BeMyGuest in Singapore. I think that OTAs for tour and activities are the most relevant in the context of sustainable tourism. They are directly involved in sourcing the local tourism products and activities, which is pretty much spot on in terms of relevance to sustainable tourism.
ANULA: Generating content might influence travelers in the “inspire” part of the their journey. Is there a way OTAs can influence consumers’ choices at the moment of booking, for example by adding new filters that would help travelers choose the right options?
KEI: The problem is that it’s hard to standardise, and there are no definite measurements. That’s why we think that creating content is one of the best solutions for now. When you publish the content like ours, it is like an in-depth hotel review embedded into an interesting story. So if a hotel is eco-friendly, we will tell its green story. But at the same time it’s difficult to break down all the sustainability elements into specific categories, for the users to be able to search for them.
We are a metasearch on one hand and a media company on the other. And we’re trying to integrate the two. The results from our metasearch are connected with our database of articles, so for example if a green hotel has an article written about it, a user will see its story in their results. In this way content may also help travelers decide at the booking stage.
ANULA: Do you choose which properties to write about, in order to feature the more sustainable options?
KEI: No. All articles are basically generated organically by our bloggers, except a small portion of sponsored articles. But even if it’s a sponsored one, we always tell the true story.
ANULA: I believe that you cannot promote sustainable tourism if you’re not trying to be sustainable yourself. How do you integrate corporate responsibility principles into your businesses?
KEI: I’m pretty sure that all online travel companies have some policies and standards around corporate responsibility. We are not as big as booking.com or Expedia but from time to time we try to be involved in some local activity, a local project, or donate money for a good cause. For example we supported local communities after the big earthquake in 2011 in Japan. We donated web servers which we didn’t use much to the local offices in the affected areas. And then we try to share our commitment with our users and encourage them to join the cause by promoting the story through social media for example.
ANULA: Do you think you can do more than this?
KEI: Yes, I think we could do more. We don’t have any team or a person in charge of corporate responsibility but we need to set up something. We do from time to time we engage in some projects but we want to do more.
ANULA: When it’s a good time for a company to start thinking about their impact? Is it something that only big companies can do?
KEI: No, I don’t think so. You have to behave responsibly from the day one. Every single startup has to think that way. Otherwise, you won’t be able to keep up when your startup is going to grow. Being responsible can be a small start but for giant steps.
ANULA: But still the majority of startups don’t think about their social and environmental responsibility.
KEI: They have their reasons. They prioritise growth but it can’t be an excuse for them not to do anything. They have to.
Of course once a company grows it’s easier to manage your impact – we have more resources, more people. But having limited resources doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t think about your impacts. There’s no excuse. Every company has to take some social responsibility.
ANULA: Is social responsibility one of the criteria when you look at possible new startups to invest in?
KEI: Yes. When I look at startups I’m about to invest in – even if the founders are super smart but they lack something in terms of ethics or social contribution, I definitely won’t deal with them.
ANULA: The theme of Web In Travel 2017 is “reimagine”. Are you planning to include any elements that talk about sustainability into the program?
KEI: Possibly. It’s a great agenda and something that I want people in the industry in Japan, South Korea, China and the rest of Asia to understand better and act more on.