From social excellence in operators to the responsible tourist destinationI have worked in the field of promoting social responsibility in businesses and organisations for many years, choosing more recently to focus on the tourism sector. My reasons stemmed from my conviction that strategic sectors for the country need to make great leaps forward in assimilating the principles of CSR, for the benefit of each company, the sector as a whole, and for the country and its brand. Tourism is clearly a strategic sector for Catalonia, and there are many advantages to incorporating CSR into the world of tourism. In its modern sense, which goes beyond mere philanthropy, CSR involves creating shared value. The tourism industry generates negative impacts which need to be corrected, but there are also great opportunities for generating positive impacts, which can be better exploited using a carefully responsible approach. This poses a number of challenges, including that of 'creating better places for people to live in and for people to visit', as called for in the Cape Town Declaration.
In addition to making grand declarations, CSR requires us to take on board the concerns of each stakeholder, establish dialogue, identify best practices, innovate to solve problems, and tackle challenges. Complexity and a diversity of stakeholders and viewpoints are the hallmarks of the tourism industry, providing organisations with many opportunities to use CSR to create trust and work together to meet the challenges of sustainability.
The challenges facing large companies in the tourism sector are indeed great, some of them an inherent part of their activities, such as environmental impacts, the saturation of tourist destinations, seasonality and working conditions, poor practices in the supplier chain or by sub-contractors, etc.
Frequently, and not only in this sector, corporate responsibility is perceived as the preserve of large companies, when in fact it is SMEs that more often take it into consideration, albeit more or less formally, and use it to differentiate themselves and develop their products.
In small family-owned businesses, such as rural bed and breakfasts, we find many examples of good environmentally friendly practices, involvement in the community, local procurement, etc. All these practices are linked to sustainability and have positive effects. However, they have often been unable to convert these personal values into the values of the company, the business. This may seem to be a minor detail, but it is what makes the difference between running a business as an extension of ourselves or our own home and building a company, however small, with its own clear identity, business strategy and responsible approach to society, i.e., to its stakeholders.
A hotel chain may make great strides in improving its CSR scores, but unless the owners or managers are truly committed, it will be seen as little more than risk management or even a marketing strategy. A family-run restaurant, meanwhile, whose owners demonstrate notably human values and where there are some social commitments, may appear to be run on philanthropic or even paternalistic lines, despite having no real CSR policy.
CSR does not mean carrying out a few good deeds or incorporating a few good practices. It means making a commitment to certain values and improving outcomes based on a thorough, integrated management approach that guarantees results. The tourism company that behaves responsibly, for example:
• Wants to make money today, but also thinks ahead to the medium and long term and wants a sustainable future.
• Is aware of the impact of the seasonal nature of its business and looks for ways to minimise it.
• Feels committed to the region and tries to forge alliances with local operators, who also have a sense of social responsibility.
• Is convinced that tourism only makes sense if it improves the wellbeing of host communities.
• Understands that its profits come not only from its investments, but also from the assets of the region, and therefore tries to pay something back into society, both in tangible and intangible terms...
Another important issue, among the many we could discuss, is how to manage diversity. This is a key problem for tour operators, and vital in the case of restaurants: every day there are more people with special requirements, for reasons including health, allergies, culture and religion. This increasingly complex market may cause headaches for traditional companies, who put it down to over-finicky customers making it difficult for the company to keep its range of products simple.
But a company which is open to CSR will make the effort to understand diversity, develop respect for it throughout the company and try to manage change to allow for as much diversity as possible, basing its commitments on the utmost transparency and honesty. This is the organisation that wants to learn as opposed to the one that knows it all and doesn’t want to hear anything new; this is the company that is aware of its social surroundings and its market, compared to the one that acts as if it owes nothing to the area in which it operates; one that tries to understand its responsibilities to all its stakeholders rather than one that believes its only responsibility is to comply with the law.
A CSR approach should enable the company to manage continuous improvement in a way that adds the concerns of stakeholders (customers, employees, partners, suppliers, the community, or social and environmental organisations) to the usual issues of quality, with sustainability as a key concern. The company that actively applies this management model improves its results, at least in the medium and long term, creating a more sustainable, more competitive organisation which is better able to gain the trust of the community, is more focused on strategy and is better placed to develop its own markets.
For tourists, it is a delight to find a company with such a strong sense of commitment and responsibility. In fact, for many nowadays it is one of their decision-making criteria. This is not always easy: finding a company which announces its environmental policy on its website is one thing, finding one run with a real commitment to CSR is quite another. Users' critical opinions spread via today's social networks, representing a risk for operators that don't perform well: poor quality will get you thrown out of the market.
CSR is now seen as a plus point, and customers will often recommend the hotel whose highly responsible approach impressed them. But many experts believe we will soon reach a point where a commitment to CSR will be a necessary condition for operating in the market: customers, employees, the public, the local community, partners, finance providers, etc., will all limit the opportunities for development of those companies which do not demonstrate an honest commitment to their stakeholders.
From the company to the destinationThe commitment and good practices of one specific company are not enough, however. The customer’s delight and satisfaction does not necessarily mean they will return: the destination as a whole, not just one operator, will be the deciding factor. Even a top-class destination, such as Catalonia, with its great diversity of landscapes and resources, cannot guarantee that customers will return, however satisfied they were with the perceived quality!
The tourism market in becoming a lot more demanding. Operators and users take this to mean higher quality, more features, a wider range of products, or greater luxury, which may be because many of us find it difficult to understand or express the fact that we want something different, that what we are really seeking is authenticity. The challenge of providing 'an experience' leads us to focus on the form without realising the importance of authenticity.
The real tourism experience (excluding that of the specialised tourist seeking the thrill of, for example, a high-risk sport) is the sum of all the factors provided by the different operators and by the destination. No matter how good the quality or how correct the service is, what is the point of advertising campaigns proclaiming a passion for the region if, when we arrive, the people attending us do not demonstrate any such passion? It does no good creating a regional brand if operators in the destination behave as free riders without helping to develop the sense of authenticity which marketing campaigns should be communicating, not inventing.
We need to develop responsible tourism destinations (RTD), but this needs to go beyond the actions of one company: we must take a more forceful approach which encompasses the business community and the entire region, business alliances and package tours, and the entire supply and value chain.
Some destinations have taken on board the concept of sustainability, in terms of its final impact. But RTD is not just about results, it’s also about the management process which will produce these results, which depends on the commitment of operators and agents.
When a region tries to create a brand from the top down, it runs the risk of becoming something that reeks of marketing and which pays lip service to sustainability and responsibility, but which has little depth and no authenticity. Working with the operators in the region means the process is both top-down and bottom-up, and the brand itself becomes more credible and more sustainable. Where before we risked a mismatch between the planned and perceived quality, the great risk now is that of a mismatch between the intended and perceived levels of responsibility.
Catalonia is not one destination but rather a collection of highly diverse destinations. For the brand to have an identity which makes sense, it must be imbued with a combination of attributes, in which it is vital for responsibility to play a role, as an attribute of the country. We may not be leaders in environmental sustainability, but we have the potential and an opportunity to show leadership in terms of responsibility, transparency and dialogue, and in human, social, cultural and democratic values, in good, honest and genuine dealings, and in excellence and innovation.
Josep Maria Canyelles
Expert in corporate social responsibility
Partner/consultant in Vector 5 Excel·lència i Sostenibilitat