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"Marketing Ecolodges in an Ecological, Ethical & Effective way"
by Antonis B. Petropoulos

This is a work in progress based on an online Presentation at the Responsible Tourism Marketing One Day Conference
16 January 2009, International Centre for Responsible Tourism, University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

With the world economy and society in a precarious state that reminds us in so many ways of the 1930s, and a world that urgently needs to change its course so as to avoid irreparable environmental damage, we must remember the famous Gandhi quote from that era “be the change you want to see in this world”.  But Gandhi also said that “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”. These two elements, taking the initiative to work for progressive, constructive change, and being persistent and consistent in theory & practice – practicing what you preach - are the cornerstones of ethically promoting ecological & responsible travel in an a effective manner.

This article is aimed at briefly presenting the art – because it is a more of an art rather than a dry science or business – and the urgent need to promote small, eco-friendly accommodation facilities around the world, rather than unsustainable, but increasingly green-washed, coastal mega-resorts, condominiums, golf and holiday home developments, frequently funded through shady & corrupt deals and even money laundering.


Ecolodges are small, low-impact, family-owned (local or expat it does not matter in my view) or community-owned, accommodation and sometimes also providing local tours, that meet and diffuse ecological, social & cultural criteria to their local society, and in so doing, become beacons of sustainability and real progress in poverty-stricken resource-poor rural areas (but even in inner cities), areas threatened by neglect, injustice and the extremism that these breed. There are no precise figures on their numbers, however based on the right of...self-determination there are around 3,000 lodges that define themselves as Ecolodges worldwide, out of which a fifth (rough guesstimate) fully follow ecotourism principles such the five key ones that we use, and which are:

  • minimising their own environmental impact

  • funding or actively engaging in environmental conservation

  • reducing poverty

  • respecting human rights (including employee rights)

  • promoting environmental & cultural knowledge & intercultural understanding

Markets & Marketing:

Seeking a relevant, 21st century content for marketing, in a situation of world markets & neo-liberalism collapse, we should consider a broader meaning for the word “market”, looking back to the time when the market (still called agora in Greek) was the same place and the same thing as the forum, the roman forum and the ancient greek agora, inextricably linked with politics, culture, the community. It is no longer relevant to analyse the market as nothing more than the classical textbook interaction of demand and supply, of consumers and producers, hoteliers and guests. And this is why the expression “tourism product” or worse “ecotourism product”, is something dated, certainly to be avoided when talking to prospective guests. We must rather think and express ourselves in terms of experience, pleasure, personal and societal benefits, interpersonal relations, and human development. Today’s marketer, whether advertising something concrete like eggs or milk or something abstract like a life-changing trip, has to be politically aware and culturally sensitive, to have grasped and accepted the deeper meaning & use of social & environmental responsibility, personal and corporate, which is much more than a gimmick to increase sales and win awards.  The eco & ethical marketer must make their ideological position clear at the outset, even at the risk of some ‘clients’ running away scared. This is a market, where money does not buy everything. Recently I was asked to explain to an agent of a coastal condominium developer in a developing country, why we could not promote them.

To the common 4 p’s of marketing (product, place, price, promotion) we must add at least three more p’s: partnerships, politics and progress, as we are dealing with a peculiar type of tourism which tries – in the face of cynicism - to make the world a better place, one journey at a time. While Tourism Marketing deals with “Anticipating Change”, Ecotourism Marketing and Responsible Tourism Marketing also deal with “Initiating Change”.  When we talk about the Ecotourism Market, we are not talking about a small niche, but rather, about the rapidly growing green market, the emerging green economy and a possible Green New Deal, that can generate many and meaningful jobs and increase international understanding & tolerance in an increasingly polarised world, by harnessing cheap communications,  green technology, cheaper and hopefully greener forms of travel.

How does marketing an Ecolodge differ from marketing an ordinary Lodge? In two key respects – firstly, the Ecolodge is not just a place to stay but part of the attraction, even the attraction itself. The reason is, and this is the second respect, that the audience is different. An Ecolodge naturally attracts a more environmentally & socially aware audience, more affluent and better educated, and also appeals to their higher instincts of philanthropy. A number of visitors to an Ecolodge also has a vested interest, be it a hobby or a professional interest – think of photographers, journalists, guidebook writers, artists, ornithologists, academic researchers, even aspiring eco-entrepreneurs.

Ecological Marketing:

The green means justify the green purpose. When you market something green, you have to start by being green yourself. Which can only mean online, paperless, journeyless. Better than glossy paper is recycled paper, but even better is no paper. Cutting down on unnecessary travel – and you will see a lot of this at a time of economic crisis especially in the luxury business travel segment (no tears from me) – saves money and time. This allows for more and deeper networking, and more deals, and is becoming less impersonal (a frequent criticism of emails) through the advent of cheap, live videoconferencing, as well as new tools such as twitter.

Ethical Marketing:

It is easier to define unethical rather than ethical, similar to describing what an elephant is not. It is clearly unethical to say that a lodge (your own or that of a client) recycles when it does not, or that it pays fair wages if it abuses its employees with long working hours and no health insurance. It is also unethical to invent tall stories about the contribution of the owners to the community, exaggerate the satisfaction of guests, and create imaginary testimonials from enthusiastic repeat guests. And to reproduce (as an owner or marketer) all this in 3rd party websites, blogs and guidebooks creating hype, so as to trick judges into offering awards. (In recent years tourism awards have been improving, although opaqueness and conflicts of interest are still not avoided.) Or to steal the wording and keywords from others websites to describe yours or your client’s lodge. Or to promote the clients of a competitor without him or the clients knowing (it has happened...). Or to sabotage someone’s advertising campaign using the exact wording. And much more, but I think I have given you enough negative ideas. The tricky question is, how does the ethical marketer defend herself / himself from the unethical without dropping to their level? Honestly, I do not know...

Effective (& cost-effective) Marketing:

Effective is essentially what works, what leads to durable results without costing a fortune. Splashing out on attending a trade show at the other end of the world, is probably ineffective and certainly not ecological. Nor is creating a flashy website where potential travellers can navigate in 3d through every room, when what you need is essentially is a good story, inspiring yet truthful, creating confidence but still leaving room to the imagination. That said, ability to communicate with prospective guests in real time, is useful, if lodge owners or employees – invariably hard-pressed and overworked can find time. But an effective, courteous & prompt reply to emails can have the same or even better effects.
Some effective, conventional and unconventional, marketing tools for Ecolodge owners, falling under the 7 P’s of Ecotourism Marketing (product, place, price, promotion, partnerships, politics, progress) include:

  • Branding – creating a memorable, unique name that can be copyrighted and is relevant to the location, destination , location, culture, history.  (e.g. do not use an unpronounceable Inca mountain village name for an Aegean island guesthouse, using a word that means nothing, or that means something funny or insulting in another language, or a name already in use by many more businesses) . A good brand will enhance perception and achieve positioning. The brand must be consistently used in as a website address, name for websites, blogs, usernames etc. and along with a relevant logo, preferably designed by a professional, unless you have a talent.

  • A Website – friendly to humans and animals (aka search engines), that really does justice to the location and its sights, and the local community without forgetting to highlight the lodge amenities and sustainability but not in a pushy, arrogant or intimidating manner. For example, think of a website full of nationalistic glory containing the strange theories of the owner, with matching links. Equally a lodge website containing advertisement to a match-making service or a casino.

  • Electronic Newsletter (also a must, maintain relations with past guests, encourage honest feedback). Due to the proliferation of spam however, this method is less effective.

  • Turn the ‘temporary ownership’ aspect of tourism on its head, by involving guests and offering incentives to encourage word of mouth. Creating a circle of “Friends of XYZ Lodge” and even a charitable fund.

  • 3rd party benefits for guests, linking-up with other lodges and services for joint-marketing. Encouraging sustainable forms of transport for arriving & departing (special rates for those arriving by bus or bike).

  • Participating and advertising in relevant online forums.

  • Applying for key Awards, starting from local ones and moving on to international ones.

  • Green Certification & Quality assurance (Encourages quality & eco discipline, attracts discerning guests)

  • Participating in Quality Carbon-Offsetting schemes (rather than “click here to offset your emissions” ones)

  • Initiating or participating in Local Projects – Educational, Community – Poverty Reduction Programs

  • Participating in Environmental NGOs, professional associations, civil society movements, political parties (preferably green ones :) , running for municipal office (hoteliers are good housekeepers as mayors).

  • Ecolodge-Branded EcoProducts (generate income, word of mouth effect)

  • Participate in (or even host) Academic Conferences (inexpensive, may attract savvy if rather inquisitive guests)

  • Organise arts & crafts & culinary workshops, local fairs

  • Participate in Local, National & International Trade Expos (whatever works best, expensive)

  • Being mentioned in major Guidebooks as well as local ones (very effective, may also harm if too much of a good thing)

  • Being featured in (and distributing) Free press publications  

  • Producing small Guidebooks & Maps (income generating, effective)

  • Producing free to download Electronic Guidebooks (viral effect)

  • Contributing articles to relevant, pro-green Websites, Newspapers & Magazines (effective as long as you can add your website link in their online version)

  • Supporting Research (appearing in academic journals)

  • Using new quality Internet tools & social networks (effective but time consuming)

  • Cooperating with University Programs & alumni groups, affinity groups, corporate incentive programs, state programs for low-income earners.

  • Offering Internships & Volunteerships

  • Acting as a Green Technology showcase & learning centre

  • Not neglecting old tourism distribution channels (travel agents, networking with ancillary service providers (restaurants, car rentals, official tourist information offices, destination management organisations, tourist boards, airlines, in-flight magazines, etc.).

Final Thoughts

There is a need for a new, potent and politically-aware Ecotourism movement, with a clear ecological message in sync with the broad green movement, which makes full use of the internet and direct democracy to speed up change in the largely conservative, fragmented and slow-moving world of Tourism. Genuine Ecolodges must be the solid basis for this new sustainable & responsible tourism model and their success also depends on a new, inspiring, alternative, green marketing.

About the Author

Antonis Petropoulos is the Director of ECOCLUB.com - International Ecotourism Club (Web: www.ecoclub.com)

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