By Nicholas Phoon on 4th May 2015
Green minded and planning to stay at a sustainability certified hotel? The GreenLeaders program from TripAdvisor is promising but be prepared for some frustration.
Introduced in 2013 with fanfare and expanding across the globe, TripAdvisor’s GreenLeaders program claims to be the biggest green ratings scheme for hotels in the world with around 8000 hotels currently listed and over 200 million followers according to TripAdvisor.
The aim of the scheme is to provide an online medium to link green hotels with green people creating a financial win for hotels, a win for guests’ consciences and a win for the environment.
As a GreenLeaders first time user I decided for this article to do a test run on the TripAdvisor website to find a GreenLeaders hotel. That is when I realised that there are some major issues with the program.
User friendliness of the website
Firstly, the GreenLeaders program is almost invisible on the TripAdvisor homepage. Influential tourism academic Harold Goodwin trumpeted that GreenLeaders was a game changer for the sustainable hotel sector. With support like that, one would fairly expect the GreenLeaders logo or option to select a GreenLeaders hotel to be featured somewhere prominently on the TripAdvisor homepage.
Not so. In fact, on the current TripAdvisor homepage, one has to look at the second last tab and then select the second last option of the accompanying drop down menu to find the first mention of GreenLeaders.
It doesn’t get better from there. Once you get directed to the GreenLeaders page, you need to trawl through a variety of filters before you can select a green hotel and find any GreenLeaders recognised hotels. There is even a forum on TripAdvisor asking how one finds GreenLeaders hotels on TripAdvisor.
Reporting hotel sustainability credentials
What makes the GreenLeaders scheme very different from the over 350 hotel sustainability and benchmarking programs in the market according to Hotel News Now is the emphasis it has on how sustainability information is assessed and reported.
If a hotel engages in sufficient eco-friendly activities and gains a minimum score under the GreenLeaders selection criteria to earn themselves a GreenLeaders badge, hotels are then permitted to self-list their green credentials on TripAdvisor. Any green claims generally remain unchallenged unless a hotel guest writes feedback on the TripAdvisor website to dispute them.
If a false claim is suspected then TripAdvisor can decide to audit the hotel. The Clare Inn in Ireland asked staff to write positive reviews about itself. The Clare Inn found out the hard way punished by TripAdvisor’s name and shame punishment policy which earned it an embarrassing Red Badge on its TripAdvisor listing for all to see.
This user policing system can to some extent keep hotel green claims in check backed up by random audits from TripAdvisor but it is not that simple.
A further major shortcoming of the GreenLeaders program involves TripAdvisor’s reliance on hotel guests to be able to understand the sustainability claims made by hotels. The issue of users experiencing difficulties with understanding green technical terms like ‘low carbon’ is also common to most other prominent sustainability schemes like NABERS, EarthCheck and Green Key etc.
Also most hotel guests cannot see the difference between a conventional shower head and a water-efficient shower head in a bathroom. Even eco-specialists would find it hard to verify green initiatives claimed by hotels. Why? Without access to back of house areas to examine the energy efficiency of heating or air-conditioning equipment or access to staff training records on sustainability courses attended, how can a guest evaluate the hotels advertised green credentials?
As an example, the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has a GreenLeaders Gold level badge. Below are some of the hotel’s self-listed waste management green practices that appear on its TripAdvisor listing. However, how well can a guest personally verify the following claims:
• Regularly measures and records waste
• At least 90% of furniture is recycled when replaced
• At least 90% of used cooking oil is recycled or used for biodiesel
• Safe disposal of hazardous materials such as paint
How GreenLeaders can still make a positive impact
TripAdvisor has an enormous global reach and user community. It is in a prime position through its GreenLeaders scheme to spread the sustainability message through empowering people to consciously make environmentally friendly decisions through their choice of hotels. A TripAdvisor survey found that two-thirds of American travellers place importance on whether hotels have eco-friendly practices or not.
Guests typically have the option of completing a general feedback survey about the room, food and services etc. when they check out. Sustainability certified hotels should re-focus surveys to cover in detail their hotel’s current green practices and ask guests how well they are performing them.
Guests also need to be given the opportunity to suggest green practices that should be taken on by a hotel. Is the use of renewable energy or a green roof important or is one more important than the other? Surveys can reveal the values and expectations of what guests really think.
Survey feedback can be used to develop sustainable practices that may encourage the growth of its repeat customer base.
The way forward
Therefore, TripAdvisor if you are serious about promoting your GreenLeaders program please make a prominent tab or dedicated section about it on your home page so that GreenLeaders hotels can be easily found by users.
Secondly, hotels please note that your typical guest is probably not an environmental engineer or ecologist. Consequently, sustainability information needs to be communicated in a transparent, easily verifiable and simple way that meets the expectations and values of potential guests.
Do you agree?