It's fair to say, 2020 has been a challenging year. The global pandemic we continue to face has left a lasting mark on the world. However, there is hope on the horizon. As much as this year has been about recovery, it has also been a time of reflection and introspection – an opportunity to assess the journey we are on and what our next steps must be. Someone who understands this all too well is our Director of Sustainability Marianne Gybels. Her Booking.com career started back in 2014 and she has been leading our journey from corporate social responsibility to business strategic sustainability ever since. Marianne was kind enough to take time away from a packed work schedule to talk more about this journey. As this was a long journey, we've split it into three parts.
Let's go back to the beginning of your career at Booking.com, what was your first big win in your role?
Well, actually, the first big win came before I even officially started in my role, as the employee volunteer programme I was working on in an external role was announced at the Booking Annual Meeting, which – and i'm really going to sound like a dinosaur now – back in 2014 was the way you made big announcements. But you could say my first big win in my role, and there were many small but significant successes before this, but the first big win was seeing a 45% participation rate of employees globally opting to take part in voluntary projects in the first year alone. This was an incredibly high participation rate. Huge! Most companies would have been satisfied with 20% or even 10%. And that continued to grow as the business grew. Of course it required us to find the right mechanism to make sure everyone could participate but once we did, it really showed that this programme was the will of the employees. And it fed right into our initial strategy for it.
What was the initial strategy for the employee volunteer programme?
We wanted to create a community of travellers who took care of the communities they travelled to. We had a philosophy that 'we send all these customers to these wonderful destinations around the world, what do we do to make sure these destinations stay happy and healthy.' It was very much focused on our destinations, knowing that, with 200 offices around the world, we would have a presence across many major destinations. Our strategy was pretty clear, we would start with our employees and then move on to our partners and on to consumers. However, with this mechanism of volunteering, which for us was a very globally scalable but locally relevant approach, we also saw a challenge with integrating our partners. Many of our partners were already doing local community projects and didn't need our help setting something up. And while the organisations we volunteered for were doing great work in their communities, they were often very small scale. This posed a distinct problem for us if we wanted to introduce our volunteer programme to consumers, because would these organisations even be able to handle this influx of volunteers? We decided we needed a way to grow our impact outside of just volunteering. If we wanted to truly impact the future of travel, we had to look at the organisations doing things differently.
And that's when the Booking Booster accelerator programme was conceived?
Well, being a disruptor is where Booking.com began, so it fit perfectly with our company – focusing on startups who were innovating, looking to the future, using technology to change the industry in a different way. So that's why we created the accelerator programme, which gave these innovative sustainable travel-focused social enterprises the opportunity to come to Amsterdam, learn from us, benefit from expert mentorship on how to scale up and pitch for grant funding. At the same time, we're learning from them. Learning how sustainable travel is done from their perspective, with their challenges and their innovative solutions. By investing in these businesses now, we could see long-term benefits for our industry, focusing on impact and not only on profit. Then as we expanded our verticals, we could possibly connect them to our business. Both the volunteer programme and the Booster accelerator programme were an opportunity for us to explore the sustainable travel ecosystem; to understand who is out there, who is doing what, where are their frictions, why isn't it already easier to travel more sustainably. These two programmes helped us learn what challenges and potential solutions were out there for sustainable travel. And at the same time, we were doing a lot of research with consumers; experimenting with eco-labels and so forth on hotel pages, to really try to find out what customers were looking for when it came to sustainable travel.
Looking back now, that seems to be a pretty organic approach. Is there anything you would have done differently?
Ideally we would have been able to bring these amazing organisations onto our platform. We went out and found these really interesting, innovative companies, doing great stuff, but it was often really complex products that these companies were selling and we couldn't easily integrate them into our product. So we couldn't help them reach the scale that we would have liked. Knowing what we know now, I also wish we'd put more of an emphasis on helping encourage increased sustainability at the accommodation level from the very beginning, since this is so core to our business. That being said, I'm still very proud of the amazing organisations we have helped scale and continue to support.
Look out for part two of this interview in our next article, where Marianne discusses taking a holistic approach to sustainability, developing our product and what the future holds for sustainable travel.