WHL.travel Caring for the Destination program

Worldhotel-link.com Limited (WHL) is owned and operated by a team from Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, Switzerland, the USA and Vietnam, working with local partners who do all the things best done locally (e.g. working directly with the local accommodation providers and with travelers), and WHL does all the things best done centrally (e.g. technology, web marketing).

Generally, we seek out experienced local tour operators as our local partners, although occasionally we also work with local industry associations or NGOs. In every case they are people with an intimate knowledge of tourism in their destination and people we are proud to be working with. We offer you, the traveler, access to these erstwhile little heard-of hotels, guesthouses and hostels plus local tours and activities via one e-marketplace network.

For example, in the Solomon Islands many of the properties listed on the WHL member site are on the outer islands and have no Internet access or even telephone access. Instead, our local partner contacts them via HF radio to pass on bookings, update allotment etc. To the traveler, it looks like seamless online booking such as you would make on any other travel site, but in fact there is much different process at play with us – what we call our digital to bicycle interface.

WHL Caring for the Destination Program

In doing the work of collecting and posting online information about small accommodation providers, WHL identified many small SMEs that are actively engaged in projects which, in their own way, are positive steps towards improving sustainable outcomes for the destination. None of the initiatives are “certifiable” to existing standards, but they address specific local needs, and are meaningful to the businesses involved.

WHL then started to write up some of these initiatives and highlighting them for travelers as “brand differentiators” for the respective accommodation providers. These initiatives were grouped under a “Caring for the Destination” banner, helping encourage the local businesses to deliver and sell unique experiences.

Initially, we thought the logic of what we were doing was compelling and that both our local partners and their suppliers would be happy to get on board – it was free after all and intended to help their businesses. Sadly, however, this wasn’t the case, which led us to re-evaluating the role of each of the key stakeholders: the local partners, the accommodation providers and the travelers, in order to work out what we needed to do better.

Part of the problem was that we didn’t recruit well enough in the beginning. We also underestimated the difficulty many of our local partners would have getting small accommodation providers to open up about what they were doing. It was a little bit of the blind leading the blind – one party not being too sure what they were looking for and the other party not knowing if they had it. The information they did collect in many cases was dry and uninteresting, and in other cases of very doubtful value.

To address this problem, the first thing we did was to improve our recruiting and induction of all new partners in the network. We now spend a lot of time screening new applicants and also training them in both why sustainable tourism is important for their business as well as how to source the information needed from suppliers. We have also worked with Dr Xavier Font and his colleagues at ICRT (Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK) to try and turn the information we do collect from accommodation providers into a story which sells the benefits for the traveler.

As Xavier has often told out network partners, “this hotel is saving water by not washing sheets and towels daily,” for example, is not necessarily a good story for the traveler. Initiatives like this are better translated into benefits the traveler can relate to: things that will make their stay more enjoyable in some way or help them save money. It may simply be a guilt alleviation benefit that is being offered, but even then a story about the impact of the particular water saving initiatives may provide a stronger message.

The next big challenge is engaging travelers. They need to drive the signals to the accommodation and tour suppliers that doing good is good business, i.e. accommodation providers doing positive work in sustainability need to be getting more bookings so that their compatriots in the destination will start to follow their lead.

We have had two problems here. First is that whl.travel being a relatively new player and a small player on the global stage, travelers don’t know us for the most part and the volumes of bookings we generate are still small by comparison with the big online booking platforms like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, etc. In other words, even if we drive proportionately more bookings to those suppliers that are ‘caring for the destination,’ the volumes we generate is still small – too small to be significant. Solving this is not easy, but we are trying to reach out to other online booking companies, in the hopes that if many others joined this effort, the impact could start to be felt.

The second challenge has been a bit of a brand conflict within whl.travel. We started life with a mission to help extend the benefits of tourism to the little guys in the developing world. In other words, we were more about pro-poor tourism than sustainable tourism. The whl.travel business model of having local partners in each destination was implemented to connect product from the developing world to the global market. Our brand, therefore, does not speak explicitly to sustainable travel, and those booking on the whl.travel sites will see listings without the “caring for the destination” rating, as well as those with the “caring” scores.

This means travelers with a real interest in sustainable travel may overlook whl.travel and opt for sites that mainly focus on responsible/sustainable tourism. To address this problem, we are also working on a new portal to be launched later this year, which will sell only “caring for the destination” product, alongside other travel product supplied from outside the whl.travel network.