What can the rental industry learn from the 51st Earth Day?

Worldwide: 22 April is Earth Day, celebrated each year since 1970 to acknowledge the wonder of our planet and to come together to recognise our impact on it and take action.

The topic of climate change is ever more present in the news and today there is a virtual summit of 40 nations committing to further carbon emissions reductions towards net zero by 2050.

So today on Earth Day, ShortTermRentalz has asked two vacation rental hosts, both passionate advocates for making our sector more environmentally friendly, three questions about the implications of climate change on our industry.

Nikki Mattei is the owner of Villa in the Vineyard, an eco holiday rental in Italy. Mattei is also the sustainability marketing specialist for Wayaj, a sustainable travel platform which connects properties with conscious travellers.

Bob Garner is the owner of Casal Dei Fichi, six environmentally sustainable apartments in Italy. He is also a regular writer and speaker on the importance of sustainability in the short-term rental industry.

STRz: What is your assessment of the vacation rental world’s readiness, or not, for the green travel revolution?

NM: There is a growing sector of hosts across the world who are committed to protecting the destinations they are promoting. But these are in the minority. However, evidence comes out on a regular basis by global insight organisations that consumers want to buy from companies who are doing their bit for the future of the planet.

So this means that travellers will be much more aware of initiatives which have a positive impact. They will have higher expectations from hosts. I​ always say, if you were looking at two properties and one was actively taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint and save our precious planet, which one would you choose if the price and facilities were similar?

This approach does not take anything away from the guest experience – it actually enriches it. Many hosts are probably doing sustainable things already but don’t even realise it or don’t tell their guests about it. The social side of sustainability is also important – one of Earth Day’s themes is climate literacy and education – hosts have the opportunity to offer experiences to guests which are enjoyable but also part of leaving a destination better than you found it, i.e. trying e-bikes, taking part in beach clean-ups, wildlife conservation etc.

BG: To be brutally honest, pretty low. We are aware that globally we have to be carbon neutral by 2050. But to have any chance of achieving this we must cut our emissions by an average of 50 per cent by 2030 – in nine years’ time! That is every person, every country, every business – including in tourism. That is you, me and probably almost everyone who is reading this article.

Additionally, we know from the regular survey data that there is already a massive demand for eco-friendly travel and accommodation. Each year, Booking.com carries out a survey of traveller trends and expectations. Its 2021 survey revealed that 69 per cent of respondents expect our industry to provide more sustainable travel options.

Tourism accounts for approximately eight per cent of global greenhouse gases, so our industry needs to take action as we head towards a net zero world. In my experience, most vacation rental professionals have made modest progress except with some headline eco steps like recycling or reducing plastic. Many simply don’t know where to start and so it becomes one of those topics that gets put in the ‘too complicated to deal with’ box.

This needs to change and our industry needs to be having these conversations and taking action now while there is still just enough time to manage the transition in a planned and effective way. Vacation rental professionals need more support and guidance.

STRz: What are the biggest challenges / recommendations for vacation rental professionals in becoming more environmentally sustainable?

NM: To start there is a lack of knowledge and understanding about what sustainability even means. As I have already mentioned, it covers both environmental and social changes. Hosts probably think about the eco side of running a building, like reducing energy, which is important but may not be that exciting for the guests. Hosts need to think about the sustainable initiatives they are taking which will appeal to guests. This could be offering organic toiletries which do not contain toxic chemicals which pollute our waterways. But from a guest perspective they will enjoy the best quality products with amazing natural fragrances from essential oils.

It’s a good idea to take a look at the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and choose those which appeal to you or are appropriate for your part of the world. You can then decide on things you want to do to work towards those goals. Guests will be interested in what you are trying to achieve and feel a connection where they are actively involved in, say, a tree planting project.

You might also want to engage with other hosts in your area who are interested in sustainability. The sustainable community tend to work together [like me and Bob!] rather than in competition. You might even think of setting up a group to maximise your impact. This could include vacation rentals, small hotels and restaurants etc.

BG: As I have said, vacation rental professionals often don’t know where to start. I have written a lot about what our industry can achieve and I published a Ten-Step Eco Road Map to guide hosts on what they can do without disrupting their business or spending lots of money.

But my primary recommendation would be to start by acknowledging where you are now and accepting where you need to be in the mid term – by 2030. Tourism Declares is one of the leading organisations speaking up for the tourism sector, guiding and supporting businesses to make the transition to a lighter carbon footprint.

Hundreds of businesses have already signed up to Tourism Declares which entails developing a ‘Climate Action Plan’, over time cutting emissions and working together to help each other and advocating for change.

In practice, the first step is making a declaration to take action which I see as an overarching statement or sentiment that you know that you want to be part of the eco solution and not just a part of the carbon problem. This will give you a framework to work within.

Tourism Declares is helping many in our sector to measure where they are now and create a clear pathway to 2030. As organisations go down this route it makes it easier for others to follow, learning from those who went before them.

It is exciting to see the progress all types tourism businesses are making as they collaborate and learn from each other. Membership is free, all you need is the willingness to make changes in your business as we collectively plan for a better future in sustainable tourism.

STRz: What does an environmentally sustainable business look like and why does it appeal to guests/clients?

NM: The sustainability side of a business actually offers hosts the opportunity to stand out from the crowd by being caring, authentic and in touch with the modern traveller, particularly younger generations.

As I mentioned above, it is important to present your sustainable initiatives in an appealing way to guests. Take time to work on your own eco story which is linked to why you are taking this action personally.

At Villa in the Vineyard, it was my career and my passion for creating a resilient planet, which is fairer and healthier for all its inhabitants, which came first. We bought our house specifically because it was built as an eco house using the original materials but using state-of-the art technologies: low-energy pump for the chlorine-free pool, heat exchange pump for cooling and heating, photovoltaic panels for electricity, solar panels for hot water, thick insulation in the walls, rainwater harvesting. My husband and I decided to rent out the ground floor as a vacation rental as we feel very proud to share it with others.

So, as an example of how to communicate eco tech to guests, we don’t talk about the workings of our heat exchanger [although some guests want to visit our engine room!]. Rather, we tell them that they will enjoy blissfully cool rooms in the summer months due to our underfloor cooling without energy intense and unhealthy air conditioning. And we save money on costly electricity bills from air-conditioning!

BG: Revelation – guests are no different from any of us! We are all much more aware of the climate emergency, we read about it or watch on the news programmes almost daily. Plus, of course, there are articles in the press each week about how we can have a greener holiday, the impact of flying, what to look for in an eco-friendly accommodation etc. Understandably, travellers are connecting the dots between their holiday behaviour and the impact on the planet.

The Booking.com survey [2019] found that 73 per cent of travellers intend to stay in an eco-friendly accommodation in the year ahead. Also 70 per cent said they would be more likely to book an accommodation with green credentials even if they were not originally looking for an eco-stay! As guests make greener choices in they personal lives, it is not surprising that they would want to reflect this shift in their holiday choices too.

Of course, a vacation rental needs to tick all the other boxes that appeal to guests in terms of quality of product and customer service. Environmental sustainability is, I would argue, one component amongst other features of a fabulous place to stay.

The success of the growing number of eco-focused OTAs certainly seems to be rubbing off on the bigger players in the market. The likes of Booking.com, Airbnb and Vrbo are finally waking up to demand for sustainable tourism by establishing badges and criteria for eco stays on their sites.

If there is a large and growing demographic of traveller looking to be more eco-friendly and they are telling us what they are looking for, my question is why wouldn’t any savvy host not want to provide it? Remember introducing some green initiatives in your business isn’t going to turn anybody off but it will certainly turn a lot of people on!”

Contact Bob Garner and Nikki Mattei for more information as we work towards a net zero carbon economy.