On 15th November, 2021, Booking.com launched a first-of-its-kind Travel Sustainable programme. The programme, which has been in development since early 2020, defines the standard for a sustainable property on our product.
This interview is with two of the people leading the development of the Travel Sustainable programme, sustainability lead Thomas Loughlin and group product manager Sina Mirgun.
Let's start at the beginning. Why does an online accommodations booking platform even need a sustainability programme like Travel Sustainable?
As a leader in the industry, we have a responsibility to do it. We have the scale to achieve huge impact and a platform that reaches millions of people, so why not use them to drive sustainable travel forward? I think there's also an expectation, from both employees and customers, to take an active role in driving change.
What we do is important and I believe this is why we have a responsibility to create something that delivers broader impact for our customers and our partners. Something that is as trustworthy as it is scalable. Over 80% of our partners and customers tell us they want to see sustainable travel evolve. This is how it evolves. I also believe we are contributing to a better world by pushing this forward. We have the power to create real awareness and create possibilities for our partners and our customers to initiate more sustainable travel experiences.
To customers, the Travel Sustainable programme is a badge on our product and to our partners a set of questions. But it is so much more. How did we get to where we are today?
There was an assumption from many partners that the only way forward with regards to sustainability was to earn a third-party sustainability certification. Yet many also told us they had already begun implementing some sustainability practises at their properties, but were reluctant to share these with their guests for fear they would be considered greenwashing. We decided to see if we could fill some of these gaps. So we began identifying which sustainable practises were applicable to accommodation partners – i.e what things could a property owner implement to reduce their negative impact on a destination – and which were the most impactful. We started with over 400 possible questions for our partners to determine what sustainability practises could be implemented at their property.
I'm guessing we narrowed this down a little?
Down to 32 in this first version. We worked with experts at Sustainalize to create a set of metrics that would simplify this list; for instance, which were already covered by third-party certifications or which required low financial outlay yet maintained a high level of impact reduction. We then matched this against the customer research we were doing to understand consumer perceptions towards sustainable travel, so we could better understand what would feel relevant to guests, such as opting in or out of room cleaning. The idea was to make it easier for partners and customers. We also wanted to make sure the impact methodology was sound and credible, that's why we had them independently verified by the Independent Advisory Group of Travalyst. It was a long process, starting way back in summer 2020.
How did this transfer to the product?
So we have this list of sustainable initiatives for a property, but how can we turn this list into a badge? There were a lot of variables to consider, which was the main challenge for our product team. For instance, you have different types of property, different size properties and all in different geographies. You have to take all this into account. Like so many things at Booking, Travel Sustainable needed to be locally relevant, but globally scalable. So we had to make sure the questions we were asking of our partners took all this into consideration, so that this balance would be represented throughout the programme. I think we have achieved a good level of understanding. Of course, it's not perfect and we will continue to improve and keep learning.
We've talked about how we formed the questions or 'practises' that our partners can select or not select to identify which of our sustainable practises they have implemented at their property but how did we turn that into something our customers would understand?
Well, in everything we do, we're always thinking about making it clear for users. The quality of info is crucial. There has to be trust. This is the challenge I was talking about before. Framing all questions in a clear way, so it's clear to both partners and customers. We then must turn this into an actionable feature. Sustainability means a lot of different things. We have certain actions a partner can take, such as removing plastic straws. But how do we ask this clearly to partners so they give a clear answer that translates into a facility on our product our customers understand. It's about understanding our partners, what they do in their daily operations, and creating human-friendly language around that. Then we have to make sure customers understand how this relates to sustainability in the context of travel. We had to turn theoretical thinking into everyday travel language.
Actually, this was one of our biggest learnings. After our first iteration, we discovered that some partners had misunderstood the meaning of one of the questions related to plastic, which meant we ended up having to go back through our attribute data and change everything that was wrong. We'd worked so hard to get everything online and suddenly there was something wrong with the data. We had done the research, we thought we'd hit upon the right language, but in the end some partners didn't understand and that was a bit heartbreaking. Then there was the rush to cover everything in plastic as a response to Covid. This would have totally undone everything we had been working towards with regards to plastic. So we worked with the Global Tourism Plastic Initiative to provide tips on how to stay Covid-safe without excessive plastic use through our free Partner Sustainability Handbook.
For any partners reading this, how does a property actually achieve a Travel Sustainable badge?
Well, the first step is to answer the questions in the extranet to identify which sustainability practises have been implemented. Then, using our impact methodology, an algorithm will determine if your property will receive a badge. Or, if your property is certified by one of the 30+ third-party sustainability certifications that we recognise, that property will also get a badge, because those properties will always reach the required threshold. Thresholds are set at a continental level, but each practise is weighted by country, meaning there is no minimum number a partner must select in order to reach a threshold, it depends on many different factors, such as purchasing power of that region, the availability of that attribute to the property and what government policies are already in place. The badge is just the tip of the iceberg, there's a lot beneath it.
Every 24 hours we check our system to see if new practises were added or removed by a property. Then everything is recalculated automatically. While coding the badge onto our product is not complicated, the time and effort went into making sure the algorithm was precise. We have also built dashboards to closely monitor everything to make sure we are on top of any issues. What we wanted to avoid most of all was creating something that simply collected data and didn't weight impact, because this wouldn't have given partners a baseline with which to grow their sustainability efforts from.
My final question is, what challenges did you both have to overcome bringing this programme to life and what have you learned from the process?
For me, the biggest challenge is the perception of sustainability. It's just not easy to satisfy everyone's expectations. I also think this is one of my biggest learnings, because I understand sustainability so much better than I did before I began this journey. We must keep investing in sustainability, as I believe it will have a positive outcome. We're not trying to make money from this programme, we're building awareness and trying to change behaviour to make a positive impact. It's an investment in the future of travel.
We're so used to bringing a commercial product to market but this was different. This programme made us rethink our metrics for success. I have also learned that you don't need to be an expert to move forward in sustainability. Everyone can do something. Perhaps if we all understood that we have a role to play, more people would approach the problem with greater enthusiasm.