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Analysis - August 13, 2007

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August 2007

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Print Sustainable tourism,

Understanding the certification jungle

Welcome to the jungle of quality labels and certification programs! There is certainly a lot to choose from. Are these marks of recognition a sign of quality, a guarantee of success or simply a marketing tool? Do travellers care about them and can they distinguish among them? The following article explores many of these questions and provides a few answers. It was prepared by Michèle Laliberté of the Tourism Intelligence Network of the ESG-UQAM Chair in Tourism (University of Quebec at Montréal):

Everyone wants to boast a mark of distinction

Among the most prestigious international distinctions is “UNESCO World Heritage Site.” The European Union recently announced plans to develop a similar quality label as a way of developing culture and heritage tourism and enhancing its prestige and educational value.

Europe abounds with a variety of eco-labels, Tourism Australia has launched an ecotourism certification program, and the Quebec adventure and ecotourism sector boasts a quality program managed by the Bureau de normalisation du Québec. The Ministère du Tourisme du Québec is restarting its Démarche Qualité Tourisme total quality program. Under the aegis of the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and with funding from both the Quebec and Canadian governments, the World Center of Excellence on Tourist Destinations (CED) recently opened in Montreal. It is currently developing criteria to measure the excellence of destinations.

In the US, five hotels are proudly displaying their certifications from the US Green Building Council. Every year, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) hands out its Tourism for Tomorrow Awards and is currently studying the possibility of establishing an accreditation for organizations which meet sustainable development standards. In Quebec, Grands prix du tourisme recipients proudly feature their awards in their advertising campaigns. And, although primarily a marketing association, the prestigious Relais & Châteaux hotel chain, synonymous with luxury, is not open to just anyone.

And the list goes on. Classifications, certifications, social labels, quality labels, labels of origin, eco-labels, major awards, luxury banners… if recognition is what you seek, there is certainly a lot to choose from!

It goes without saying that growing consumer awareness of the environment and the negative impacts of tourism has led to an inevitable reassessment of tourism practices. Certification is one way to prove one’s commitment and provide a guarantee of good practice. More and more, the principles of sustainable development are key to establishing criteria and creating new labels.

Advantages for businesses

Committing to a certification program or total quality approach is not easy. It is very time-consuming and can even lead to a complete overhaul of work processes. In a business climate where customers are demanding and often enjoy a wealth of options, more and more companies are looking for a seal of quality, recognition or distinction to:

  • improve their services and product quality
  • reassure consumers and provide a guarantee
  • distinguish themselves from the competition
  • enhance their visibility and reputation
  • access new markets
  • improve business practices and increase productivity
  • and, to some extent, reduce the negative impacts of tourism

Even certification has its failings

The stars used to rank hotels are undoubtedly the most recognized travel rating system in the world. But who awards these stars? They can come from tour operators, the hotel itself, recognized organizations with very different criteria from one region to the next, or even – with the advent of Web 2.0 – internet users (also read:
You haven’t heard the last of Web 2.0!).

As a traveller, how often have you lamented the disparities in evaluations from different regions and the lack of uniformity among the various programs? In fact, many organizations would like to establish an international certification system, but this may only be a pipe dream.

The challenges? How can international standards take into account the realities of different regions, and how can mass tourism products and niche tourism products meet the same standards? How can a community have a say in the decision-making process, and how can small businesses rally the technical, financial and human resources to take on heavy, costly procedures?

These same questions apply domestically as well. To be “certified” means to ensure that something is true, to provide a guarantee of… what, exactly? Many companies, having understood the promotional benefits of certification, will go so far as to declare themselves certified, even if they are not. This is not uncommon in the case of various “eco” products.

Ambiguous surveys and an ideological debate

Can a “seal” truly influence consumer choices, and do travellers care about evaluation criteria when selecting a certified business or do they simply have faith in the “seal”? Do travellers know which criteria distinguish a 4-star hotel from a 2-star hotel? And do they know that rating systems differ from one country to the next?

In response to these questions, here are some survey results to answer these questions and point out some contradictions:

“Green” programs are definitely very popular! A survey by the Hotel Association of Canada shows that 60% of Canadians feel that membership in an environmental program is a major factor in their choice of hotel. In Quebec, this percentage is 72%, the highest of any Canadian province. Many other surveys illustrate the popularity of environmental programs, both in Canada and around the world.

If something has a “green” label, then it must be good! Various surveys indicate there is still a high level of confusion and lack of understanding when it comes to eco-labels. Consumers support certifications and quality labels, but they are rarely able to distinguish among them or understand their true meaning.

When travellers are on vacation, their principles take a break as well! On one hand, an Orbitz survey reports that 63% of people would pay more to stay in a “green” hotel and 67% attach importance to the “eco-friendliness” of a destination. On the other hand, according to a Starwood survey, most Americans leave their environmental conscience at home because 70% of frequent travellers state they do not waste water at home, while this percentage drops to 18% when they are in a hotel.

Although respect for the environment is now an integral part of contemporary mores, vacations are associated with freedom and a lack of restrictions. Consequently, high principles and good habits also go on holiday. Consumers are exhibiting an openness and commitment to the state of the environment, but tourists’ positive attitude towards eco-labels is not a guarantee of environmentally responsible behaviour.

Says Marie-France Turcotte, “Certifications have the potential to make a modest contribution to meeting a major challenge, that of changing business practices and tourist consumer habits.” So, the question is, should travellers purchase a product on the pretext that it is certified, or do we need to become accountable as travellers, companies and social actors? The answer is, no doubt, both.

With the growth of certifications, businesses will probably face the same dilemma they do vis-à-vis distribution channels: which one will improve their position in the wonderful world of competition, increase their visibility and make them the chosen one of consumers? Start strategizing!

Sources:
– Boyd, Christopher. “Green Hotels Are Cleaning Up – Embracing an Eco-friendly Philosophy Resonates with Tourists,” The Orlando Sentinel, July 9, 2007.
– Breaking Travel News. “Survey: US Travelers Stress Eco-friendly Travel,” April 12, 2007.
– Delisle, Marie-Andrée and Louis Jolin. Un autre tourisme est-il possible? Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2007, 144 pages.
– ehotelier.com. “Survey: Most Americans Drop their Green Habits when They Check-in to Hotels,” July 10, 2007.
– Le Figaro.fr. “Vers une liste du ‘Patrimoine de l’Europe’,” May 22, 2006.
– Hotel News Resource. “As Hotels Focus on Environmentally Friendly Programs, Awareness among Hotel Guests Lags,” July 24, 2007.
– Hotel News Resource. “Leaving Home often Means Leaving Green Routines behind according to New Survey from Element Hotels,” July 10, 2007.
– HSMAI. “Asian Hospitality Leaders at HSMAI Roundtable Call for Standardization of Ratings System for Asian Hotels,” July 17, 2007.
– Karantzavelou, Vicky. “Six out of 10 Canadians Want To Stay at Green Hotels,” [www.traveldailynew.com], June 10, 2005.
– Parnières, Émilie. “Le tourisme responsable: Convergence de deux démarches de labellisation,” Veille info tourisme, May 2005.
– Salerno, Neil. “Stars & Diamonds – Do They really Matter any more?” Hotel News Resource, January 31, 2007.
– Turcotte, Marie-France. L’écotourisme entre l’arbre et l’écorce – Labels et certifications d’écotourisme et de tourisme. Le contexte et la portée, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2006, p. 348-369.
– World Travel & Tourism Council. “Big Companies Must Show how Green They Are,” November 24, 2006.

 

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