Among the activists and influencers at the Condé Nast Traveler Travel Specialist Summit last week, it was Starwood Capital Group’s Barry Sternlicht who laid out the most moving business proposal in favor of sustainable travel.
The founder, chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, whose trendy W Hotels shook up the industry, now is focused on 1 hotels, a hotel brand designed to “capture the beauty of nature while sustaining it.”
On a panel titled “Playing the (Super) Long Game,” Sternlicht noted that to succeed, brands that do the right thing for the environment also must do the profitable and fun thing for investors and customers.
“If it’s sustainable, that means it’s profitable; and if it’s profitable, other people will do it, too,” Sternlicht said. “There’s no reason not to do this; enough people care and large investors are beginning to pay attention. We are not cheap, we’re running huge premiums over the competitive sets. I keep telling our revenue people they have to find the right price point. Brooklyn is more than Manhattan.”
Taking a stand and sticking to it
The big issue, of course, is when the goal of staying in tune with nature gets in the way of guest satisfaction. In hotels that shun “newspapers and cans of Coca Cola in the room, the real challenge is when guests want something that’s not sustainable. Do you piss off your guests?”
Well, yes, Sternlicht said. “You have to be unwavering, you have to stand for something. You can’t drift.”
Sternlicht’s personal vision of what a hotel should be started in Asia, where he noticed how hotels served as meeting places for the locals as much as a place for heads to meet beds. “I just wanted to make a hotel like a living room,” he said. “I think if your guests aren’t calling their friends and saying, ‘You have to see this place,’ you are doing something wrong.”
In the end, Sternlicht recalled the words of a professor he once had who said, “Find a freight train and get in front of it. I wanted to do something important, something to be proud of.”
Like at W Hotels, he hopes his personal imprint will create a brand that speaks to and moves his customers.
“I fight all the time with Arne Sorensen of Marriott about whether brands matter,” he said. “We outperform every brand wherever we are; you can do that today with the internet. If you have a cause and you are authentic and stick to your cause, some group of people will like it and they will find you and they will stick to you.”
Gloria Steinem and luxury agents define trends
On another panel, feminist, activist and journalist Gloria Steinem said there has been a definite shift in the definition of responsible travel, and offered up some basic rules of the road for when diverse cultures meet.
“Travel used to be voyeurism, not participation, but now you have the opportunity to learn, to be transformed and to teach,” Steinem said. “If you have more power than the group you are with, listen more than you talk. If you have less power, remember to talk more than you listen.”
The desire to learn about new cultures is spurring travel to new destinations, she added. “Americans used to travel out of a sense of inferiority; we went to England and France and felt colonized,” she said. “Now, we travel out of a sense of community; even in this country, we want to stay in each other’s apartments.”
A sense of social consciousness
Travel advisors should build on that desire to learn and understand by offering clients “books or films to create a lead-up to a trip, and a continuation afterwards.”
In the audience of top luxury travel advisors, meanwhile, the talk tended to trends in how customers are incorporating sustainable travel into their vacations.
“Top-down solutions, like the stereotypical orphanage in Thailand that has had the same wall painted 100 times, don’t work,” said Leslie Overton, independent travel consultant and head of board and major donor travel programs, at Passported, in New York. “They want a real experience where they have organic conversations and talk about what the need is.”
As an example, Overton is working with one human rights group that is going to the Dominican Republic, which “actually has some anti-gay and anti-Haitian laws on the books,” to meet with grassroots groups and see how they can help.
“I like doing those trips because people affiliate with groups in the United States who bring the activism back,” she told Travel Market Report.
David Marc Rubin of David Travel agreed that, for many of his customers, the best trips add a sense of social consciousness to a true luxury experience.
“When they can travel responsibly and not seriously sacrifice, then they are very happy,” he said. “It’s very smart what companies like 1 hotels are doing, combining something that is economically viable with where the culture is going. I was impressed with 1 hotel Miami, with the vibe there and the property itself. And, the sustainability story made me even more impressed.”