Big Ideas: “Traveler Social Responsibility (TSR); A commitment from visitors to tread lightly on their host environments and cultures” with Greg Klassen

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Klassen. A travel and tourism industry strategist with 25+ years of leadership experience with blue chip organizations, including CMO and CEO of Canada’s national tourism organization, Destination Canada (DC), Greg […]

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As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Klassen.

A travel and tourism industry strategist with 25+ years of leadership experience with blue chip organizations, including CMO and CEO of Canada’s national tourism organization, Destination Canada (DC), Greg is an expert in the development and execution of tourism strategies and marketing in the age of tourism disruption.

At Twenty31, Greg advises senior leadership teams on helping destinations and tourism organizations develop their unique competitive advantages. His projects include developing a brand position for Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, a national tourism strategy for the Jordan Tourism Board, a three-year strategic marketing plan for Ras Al Khaimah, UAE and The Pew Charitable Trusts Ocean Legacy Project developing sustainable community-based tourism for Island nations around the world. He is a renowned thought leader on disruption in destination marketing and the links between travel and tourism and economic development and frequent keynote speaker at tourism conferences around the world.

While serving as the President & CEO and Chief Marketing Officer, Greg led the enhancement of Canada’s Future Brand ranking from 12th to 1st position, positioning Canada as the most recommended destination in the world to visit according to Reputation Institute.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I had completed my MBA and was interested in marketing roles. After a few false starts, I landed my “dream job” in the early 1990’s working for a major US telecommunications company helping to market calling cards to international travellers which introduced me to the tourism sector. After a few years, I met someone at a party. When I asked what she did, she said she was working with an International NGO helping to educate and retrain women in Southeast Asia to help them get off the streets. She then asked me the same question. My response “I try to get more people to make more long-distance calls.” I realized it was time to re-think my career path, which brought me to more fulsome roles in the tourism sector.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I’ve had the opportunity to work in almost 40 countries helping to develop tourism strategies, each with an interesting story. One of those countries was Belarus which until only recently was relatively closed to international travelers with a cumbersome visa regime. Belarus welcomed only 100K international visitors compared to neighboring tiny Lithuania which had 2 Million and other neighbour Poland with closer to 20 Million. We had a scheduled meeting with the Minister of Tourism to discuss relaxing the visa regime to open up this stunning country to international visitors. The Minister was beyond intimidating…. right out of central casting to audition for the role of Russian General #1. He had, we learned later, played a significant Military role in Afghanistan in the early 1980’s and quite literally had a bullet hole in his head. Well, he was not too amused with our meeting nor our suggestions and more focussed on retaining the integrity of its borders from international visitors. It was scary to say the least. Something may have clicked, though…as less than a year later the Belarus visa regime is significantly relaxed and Belarus is open to tourism — a beautiful country worthy of a visit.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

The business of tourism has taken hits these days. Over-crowding of tourist sites and cities, the impact of Airbnb on local communities, effluents from cruise ships and more, tourism is at risk of taking its place alongside dirty oil. And while negative tourism is making the headlines, little is being told of the impact of travel on sharing and understanding of cultures and values and its promise to live a life less ordinary.

So how does tourism find its feet again? Corporations for decades have developed CSR and environmental stewardship programs. In tourism terms that’s mostly been reusing your shower towel and its not enough. For tourism to thrive and keep its promise, tourism brands will need appeal to a more refined segment of travelers and hold them to account. This was done recently by the tiny nation of Palau in their Palau Pledge — a legal commitment of sustainability stamped into visitors’ passports.

We call this new idea Traveler Social Responsibility, or TSR. A commitment from visitors to tread lightly on their host environments and cultures; a key differentiator for tourism brands targeting Millennials and Millennially-aligned travelers increasingly seeking meaningful experiences over things. Travel is a privilege. Our visitors have responsibilities. It’s time we asked them to step up.

How do you think this will change the world?

Tourism: From hero to zero

  • Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries in the world. It took one thousand years from Marco Polo to 2012 to reach the first billion international travelers. It will take less than 20 years for that to double to 2 billion. In its current trajectory, tourism will go from one of the world’s most beloved experiences to a shameful industry of mass tourism, severe overcrowding and environmental polluter.
  • Tourism is commodifying quickly. Brands are deteriorating in pursuit of low value, high volume travelers ($495 for a week for a cruise?); destroying the uniqueness of the tourism experience, the culture of the local community and the environmental impact of too many people…and worse, its mass model is turning that unique and authentic travel experience into everything beige.
  • This mass travel is having a devastating impact on global communities, cultures and environment and government policies from developed to developing countries around the world as they chase the volume and the foreign exchange revenue dollars from tourism.

Enter Millennials

  • At the same time, Millennials are seeking the experience of travel to fully express themselves. Uninterested in the same trappings as their parents — buying cars, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and the white picket fence are trappings and barriers to freedom. They prefer to seek meaning in the experience of travel, and the more Instagram-worthy, the more aligned with their values, the more that travel supports the proof of their lives less ordinary.
  • They (and those boomers and gen X’ers that align with them) choose products, experiences and services that align with their own values and will increasingly buy products and experiences they believe are doing good. They will favour brands and destinations that ask them to meet them half way. These brands will command a premium and differentiate themselves through this accountability.
  • Tourism is, at the same time, the very best way to reduce prejudice and fear and embrace our collective values and instill peace.

The Big Idea

  • The big idea is that if international tourism destinations seek to differentiate by positioning themselves based on their values; preserving the integrity of their local and authentic culture and heritage, their sacred places and their environment, we will not only save tourism from an unstainable massive growth, but educate visitors on their own responsibilities to their host destination and values they can retain when they go home.
  • If by (holding travelers to account), we re-create that social contract between the visitor and their host destinations, de-commoditize tourism, reduce its impact on culture and environment and like all brands that are able to differentiate themselves, command a higher premium for their trips and destination and support the role of visitor as advocate for that destination and that culture.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

It’s hard to anticipate the unintended consequences of developing destination brands that align with the social and environmental goals of the ideal visitor they seek to target. The strategy, is, however designed to de-commoditize the business of tourism and by intention increase the price of travel to account for the full (societal) costs of the experience. One could argue that international travel could, once again, become the purview of the elite visitor only, leaving the lower income traveler out.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

We were working on a tourism strategy project on the tiny Micronesian island of Palau. Palau had just taken the bold step to declare their entire marine region surrounding their many islands as a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in order to eliminate illegal over fishing practices of Northern Asian nations where 95% of what was caught in their nets were destroyed in search of the perfect Ahi Tuna. With this MPA declaration, Palau would experience a decline in some national revenue attributable to this fishing but with the hope of making it up and more through the development of a more sustainable, community-based tourism industry built on targeting visitors attracted by their commitment to sustainability.

However, while the people of Palau were absorbing this policy impact, they continued to see the affects of over tourism on their land and marine environments. Were they simply substituting one egregious practice (overfishing) for another (over tourism)? Uninformed travelers were standing on the sensitive reefs, extracting coral for souvenirs and, largely ignoring their own impact on the fragile local culture and environment.

The tipping point for me was when a group of dedicated volunteers — three women in Palau that developed a simple but powerful communication tool to inform visitors of their obligations and commitments to the children of Palau to tread lightly on their culture an environment…and importantly, achieved a commitment from the government to make that commitment law as each visitor to Palau must sign the pledge stamped directly into their passports. They called this the Palau Pledge. If a tiny island of firsts could achieve this, imagine what nations could accomplish by holding their visitors to account under a Traveler Social Responsibility commitment.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

For the business of tourism to be sustainable, it needs to take a much more strategic approach. First, we need to stop pricing tourism like a commodity and account for its full and true costs. Then we need to attract a segment of travelers seeking unique and authentic experiences and to hold those travelers through a travel social responsibility commitment — even when they are traveling for a week of rest and relaxation in sun and sand. Finally, we need to develop tourism experiences that reflect these values in a culturally and environmentally sustainable way. Without a more concerted focus, tourism will collapse under its own weight and this precious opportunity to learn and engage through travel will be lost.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Best summarized as two ideas:

1.Travel (like Anthony Bourdain); There is nothing that will take you out of your comfort zone and correct misperceptions about the world than through travel. A couple of quotes from Anthony Bourdain summarize this idea:

“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel — as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them — wherever you go”.

And, in another quote.

“Drink Heavily with locals wherever possible.”

Travel like this for me was scary. Language, culture, safety, customs? Everything looked scary. It took me thirty years to figure out just how powerful an educator this kind of travel would be.

2. Find your confidence. See point 1. Not arrogance, but confidence learned by being successful at school because you studied something that truly interested you (I didn’t); consistently learn; think critically, be curious; ask questions; walk in someone else’s shoes and then decide. Find your purpose and then your voice! That too took me decades to figure out.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Machine learning; big data and artificial intelligence are all threatening to take over jobs of the future. But these are tools that support decision making based on predicable and consistent behaviour. But what if behaviour is not consistent? We will need big critical thinkers in our future. Those that can see around corners; assess behaviours and draw on multiple disciplines to help make the big hairy decisions we cannot even today contemplate. Study philosophy, religion, anthropology and social entrepreneurship not just business and computer technology. And please learn how to put a sentence together.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

A million dollars would support the development of a foundation that would serve to educate our industry on the true externalities of the business of tourism beginning with a focus on Traveler Social Responsibility. We see a pledge on evGery booked trip — online, on the ticket at Airport arrivals, and reminders in hotel rooms to create greater awareness of tourism as a force for good. The benefits of real authentic travel are critically important. Governments the world over, and in particular those governments seeking easy solutions to their developing economies need to be aware of the impacts those decisions will have on their local cultures and environments and ultimately on the long-term sustainability of the tourism industry.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Summed up in these three quotes. I had never put these together before, but I guess I’m guided by the idea that in order to succeed we have to take ourselves outside our own comfort zones. Life is messy; business is messy. Changing the world is messy. If it were easy, it would have been done by now.

  • “A ship is always safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships were built for” — J. A. Shedd.
  • “No mud, no lotus” — Thich Nhat Hanh
  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” — Kelly Clarkson

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Funny, I just finished a book called Mindset. The new psychology of success by Carol S. Dweck, PHD. It’s about retaining and practicing a growth mindset. Always a work in progress…managing change with the openness to grow and learn every day.

So many organizations throughout history that had once been at the top of their game somehow lost their growth and learning mindset…resting on their laurels of success and then blaming competition or a fundamental shift in tastes for their demise. Think Sears and their failure to adapt to a whole new generation of shoppers. Bill Gates said “success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Tourism is the world’s fastest growing business. It is one of the top foreign exchange earners in over 140 countries and around the world and almost always straddles the murky territory of public private partnerships. It’s also an industry in massive transition. Tourism requires a much more intellectual and strategic approach to its management and yet there are no significant consulting agencies — no McKinsey’s, no BSC’s that truly understand the power of a strategic focus on tourism. Sure, those consultancies dabble in tourism but from the corners of their respective desks. I’m talking about true, focussed strategic expertise. An investment in Twenty31 Consulting will significantly accelerate the development of a global tourism industry-based consulting model.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: Greg Klassen


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @klassengreg

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