New Deal Europe Weekly Update on Tourism to the Balkan Region, Week 53

News from the markets: Sustainable Coach Tour Operator

Toureasy was launched recently claiming to be the first and only sustainable coach tour operator in Europe. It was founded by this week’s guest, Sean Taggart, former Chair of the Coach Tourism Association. We decided to put Sean’s claims to the test and find out how a coach operation can be truly sustainable.

NDE: Hi Sean. Thanks for joining us today. Can you begin by telling us, with all the experience you have had in the industry, what made you decide to launch a sustainable coach tour operator?

ST: Thanks, Robert. For my sins I have now spent about 30 years in tourism, the vast majority in the group travel sector. I have run and owned an escorted tour operation in Australia, two group tour operators and the largest UK group tour wholesaler through my long-term ownership of The Albatross Group. I was also Chair of the Coach Tourism Association in the UK for over 10 years and have been a director of the European Tourism Association (ETOA) since 1999. Over the last 18 months we have all had plenty of time for reflection and so much has changed as a result of the pandemic. Whilst there has been a huge amount of pain for individuals and companies in the tourism sector in particular through this period, inevitably it has also created opportunities. Key examples of these are increased adoption of online purchasing and a desire for customers to feel safe and well looked after, both of which holidays by coach are perfectly suited to. At the same time, there can be no denying the crisis we face as a result of the damage we continue to do to the planet we inhabit.

Our decision to launch Toureasy was driven by our love of travel and the joy, happiness and value it brings to humanity, but now set within the context of the global climate emergency and the urgent need for travel to be more responsible. At Toureasy we want to help people balance their desire to have a fabulous time away with the need to stop damaging the natural world they so enjoy. We also want to show people that being responsible can be fun!

NDE: Can you explain how a coach company can be sustainable? Is it just about carbon offsetting or is there more to it than that?

ST: Good question. Unfortunately, hydrogen or electrically powered coaches are still some way off given the range they have to cover (unlike buses, which tend to travel much shorter distances) and we thought customers might not welcome swapping engines for pedal power….so for now offsetting is the only option.But as with everything, there is offsetting and there is offsetting. At Toureasy we want to lead the way and that means breaking new ground. For us, that means not only offsetting the travel element of the holiday but also every component part to ensure that the entire experience is net zero. In addition, we offset all of our back-office operations which means that, as an organisation, we leave no trace.

So, having invested in our own carbon offset assessment tool, we can calculate the carbon emissions from every tour we operate and then invest in high quality, verified carbon removal projects from across the world — and that’s the fun part! Although we haven’t operated our first tour yet, we have already invested in 100 tonnes of offset project ranging from tree planting in the UK through to combating deforestation in the Amazon and supporting the conversion of underground volcanic energy into clean energy above ground. As we speak now, we are technically carbon negative, having removed more carbon from the atmosphere than we produce! As we draw down on this investment, we will invest in new and impactful projects that will really make a difference. But as you say, Robert, it is not just about offsets. They are the sticking plaster but they won’t heal our broken world. That is why we work with our supplier partners to help them cut their emissions and also seek to work with suppliers that share our ethical and sustainable ethos. Sorting out the mess humanity has caused is certainly going to be a marathon relay rather than a solo sprint — but at least we are already on the track and starting to make a difference with our partners….

At Toureasy we want to lead the way and that means breaking new ground.

NDE: We’re talking a lot here about sustainability in tourism, but do you think that the public really understands what this means?

ST: I don’t honestly know. I am not sure that everyone understands the concept of sustainability full stop. There seem to be so many different interpretations. However, I suppose that at its broadest the public probably still associates sustainability in tourism primarily with eco lodges and green safaris. I think many believe it comes with a hefty price tag and is more relevant for a ‘luxury’ holiday rather than the everyday — and that is a specific perception that we are trying to break. Sustainability has to be something that the public in general can appreciate, and aspire to enjoy, if we are to change anything. At Toureasy our holidays are no more expensive than those of other operators and they are deliberately affordable for all.

NDE: Does sustainability sell seats on a coach?

ST: Interesting. On the face of it, sustainability and the climate emergency are everywhere so you’d think it would. But all the consumer research indicates that whilst awareness and ‘concern’ are at record levels, there is a significant gap between that and people actually changing their habits and doing things differently, let alone the propensity of a significant proportion of the population to be ready to pay more for it. So, from our perspective, the answer to your question is that for some, yes it will sell seats on our coaches, but unfortunately for many others it won’t. I liken it to the adoption of the internet over the last 30 years where different cohorts and demographics adopted and embraced online habits at different speeds but in the end there was only one direction of travel. After the very early days of the internet, nobody ever argued there would be ‘less’ online activity or that it would not become more and more important. In our opinion people will adapt to and adopt sustainable practices in a similar way. The only direction of travel is more, not less, and I cannot imagine a scenario where anyone would credibly argue that sustainability will not be an issue in 5 to10 years’ time. For Toureasy that means that above all else we have to be a great tour operator with trips and holidays that people want to book. Sustainability has to come in addition and, right now, require no additional effort by our customers nor carry any price premium.

At Toureasy our holidays are no more expensive than those of other operators and they are deliberately affordable for all.

NDE: In that case how do you go about educating your potential clients?

ST: Well, I think the first thing to say is that we won’t get anywhere if they think they are being ‘told’. In my opinion, we have to focus on the carrot rather than the stick, which involves showing them how easy and inexpensive it can be for them to leave no trace. That means also focusing heavily on the fabulous projects that they are helping us to support whilst simply ensuring that they are aware of the carbon emitted on each holiday before we remove it. You are going to see much more on this over the coming months as we continue to evolve our website and invest in new projects.

As people start to travel with us, it will also help that when they return home they will get an electronic certificate confirming the amount of carbon that they have personally helped remove from the atmosphere. We hope these become talking points with their friends and families and that will just add to carbon removal being what we and our customers do, rather than a ‘thing’. Then we’ll know that we’re making real progress.

NDE: You are a long time member of ETOA. Tom Jenkins, Executive Director of ETOA was recently quoted at Global Travel Week saying that sustainability has to take second place to securing the future of tour operators, and that tour operators should be able to do whatever is necessary to survive. What is your view on this?

ST: Well, that obviously depends on what people understand by whatever is necessary. There can be no doubt that our entire industry continues to face significant and existential threats caused by the travel restrictions imposed over the last 18 months. So, I would agree with Tom that, as we stand here today, the industry’s first and sometimes only focus is getting through what will be our fifth successive ‘winter’. That means tour operator focus will, quite rightly, be set on ensuring their business can sustain itself through to next spring and summer. So, if sustainability is not already ‘baked into’ what they do, I cannot see them prioritising it over survival. But that still has to mean operating responsibly and I am sure that is what Tom means when he talks about ‘whatever is necessary’. Any business that wants to survive must be responsive to its customers and agile enough to adapt to new trends and demands — but they have to exist to do that…

NDE: At New Deal Europe we talk about sustainable and responsible tourism as we believe the two go hand in hand, and being a responsible tourist has more meaning to travellers than being a sustainable tourist, which is often thought of in terms of carbon offsetting. Would you agree and if so what are your plans to develop this element of your operation?

ST: Yes, I do agree that responsibility has more resonance with travellers than sustainability. My only caveat is that when someone books a holiday they are looking for some fun and escapism and probably to leave many of their day to day responsibilities behind them. It is a delicate balancing act to convince them that being responsible and having a great time and getting away from it all are not incompatible. We also need to walk the talk in every area of our business and show that responsibility is not only ‘just what we do’ but also something that creates great holidays and delivers exceptional results for our partners and stakeholders. This plays to our values as a company and our behaviour as human beings. So for us it is about both actions and words, as we use language, imagery and customer stories to persuade travellers that you can do both easily.

NDE: Over tourism is an issue affecting group tourism, particularly as the tourism experience has been altered significantly in some cities as destinations struggle to manage visitor flows. Are you planning to include hotspot destination such as Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Venice in your programmes or are you looking at ways of spreading the benefit of tourism to other destinations? If so, which areas of Europe will benefit from this?

ST: Thanks for that one! As I have said, if we are to succeed then our tour programme has to both reflect and lead consumer demand. Therefore, I am sure we will continue to feature some of the most popular European holiday hot spots, but they are unlikely ever to make up the majority of our programme. The joy of coach holidays is our ability to open people’s eyes to some of the less popular and less crowded destinations, and to do that in low and shoulder seasons rather than the height of the summer. We pride ourselves on the value, quality and range of experiences that are included on our tours and that is the perfect platform from which to build a diverse and sustainable tour programme.

In terms of specific destinations, there is no doubt that the cocktail of Covid-19 and Brexit has made European holidays a more challenging prospect for UK coach tour operators like us. Having said that, there is a huge amount of pent up demand from people who want to get out and travel again, and we think that will incorporate a demand to do things slightly differently. We believe that creates real opportunity for destinations outside the traditional hotspots to gain new customers and that certainly includes the Balkans, although it may be 2023 before both confidence and logistics are capable of delivering on that potential. People want a slower paced experience and a closer bond with nature and that is something the Balkans are certainly ideally placed for.

People want a slower paced experience and a closer bond with nature and that is something the Balkans are certainly ideally placed for.

NDE: Looking at cities or destinations in Europe, which ones do you think have got it right in terms of balancing local needs with the needs of visitors?

ST: There are good examples of cities setting themselves up to have more chance of succeeding — e.g. Athens. Another great example from the New Deal Europe region is Ljubljana. It scores high on liveability, green credentials, and appears to be doing a great job of managing visitor impact and encouraging product diversification -but it’s not got the ‘mass tourism’ of the Adriatic coasts. Petra Stusek, the boss of the local tourist board is highly effective. She is also second term president of European Cities Marketing, who are at the forefront of developing city tourism sustainably. That said, Slovenia’s national policy also expressly aims at spreading the benefit of the visitor economy.

A lot of that has to do with decision making structures and consultation practice, and very inclusive definitions of success. There are some narrow successes which arose from good dialogue, trust and creativity — for example Dubrovnik managing cruise arrivals to something tolerable rather than overwhelming. Ghent and Bruges both worked a lot with locals to work out what bothered them and influenced what they saw as good. Initiatives like allowing coaches to central hotels only when full of luggage, and requiring passengers to walk to pick up points, are worthy of further discussion (Visit Flanders put a lot of resource into this.) Vienna, for a tourist city, seems to have done a good job of creating magnets for both residents and locals alike like the Museum Quarter, and controls coach access, whatever we might think of that. Copenhagen reckoned to do a good job too. Our partners at Group NAO were in the thick of that when they worked at the local tourist board, ‘Wonderful Copenhagen’, inventing the term ‘localhood’. But the devil’s in the detail: a city might say it’s doing a good job, but both sets of constituents might not share that view. There aren’t really any objective success metrics. There are various hacks to do with ‘visitor impact’, and ‘carrying capacity’ is increasingly discussed, but it’s an area that needs work. At the other end of the scale, big cities like Paris and London can shrug it off, but it’s different in smaller places like Amsterdam, Florence or the historic centre of Barcelona where locals are under pressure to a greater extent.

NDE: What advice would you give to any coach operator looking to become more sustainable in their way of doing business?

ST: Take it seriously, keep it simple, commit to it and don’t try and reinvent the wheel.

NDE: Sound advice Sean. How do you see coach tourism developing in the future? Will there even be a market for it?

ST: I have always been a big fan of coach tourism and believe there will always be people who would prefer to travel with others and have everything taken care of for them. Given the industry’s eco-credentials as the greenest way to travel (other than walking or pedal power) and the societal changes that Covid-19 has brought about, I would venture to say that the future has never been brighter.

NDE: Are you the model for others to follow?

ST: I certainly hope we are the model for others to follow. We have always said that we are happy to share what we do and how we do it once we have proved that it works. We are an ambitious company, and we are committed to making it work. Our industry in the UK generates over £2billion of revenue each year. If we can play a part in transforming our industry and the customers we can attract, then that would be a fabulous legacy.

NDE: Finally Sean, if you were to pick one itinerary in your programme to highlight what you do best, which one would it be and why?

ST: We’ll stay close to home for this one, I think, and so I’d choose our tour to beautiful Northumberland in the North East of England. It is away from some of the traditional tourist hotspots but is packed with fabulous experiences and offers really outstanding value for money.

NDE: I know it well. Great choice. Sean it’s been a privilege talking to you. Thanks for being our guest this week and giving us this insight into sustainability and coach tourism, and how the two can work together to everyone’s benefit.

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(Questions by Robert Dee, cofounder of New Deal Europe.)

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