The Growing Need for Green Travel Options with Travelocity’s Alison Presley
June 20, 2011
Alison Presley manages Travelocity’s Travel for Good program, an employee-founded program aimed at decreasing environmental travel concerns since 2006. Travel for Good’s mission statement, “Make the world a better place, one trip at a time,” truly encompasses the growing need for greener travel options.
The Travel for Good program provides an extensive, worldwide list of certified green hotels, carbon offset programs and hybrid rental locations. The site even features a grant-funded “voluntourism” package, where winners take trips aimed at volunteering and inspiring.
“There are a lot of little ways that you can go green on vacation,” Presley explains. “Many of these will actually save you money. For instance, get your home into ‘vacation mode’ before you leave. Pack a reusable water bottle. Skip the car rental. Eat local. Recycle when you can.”
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have with us Alison Presley, who manages the Travelocity Travel for Good program and Travel for Good website. Welcome to Green is Good, Alison.
ALISON PRESLEY: Thanks for having me.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Our listeners are so used to us taking them around the world. We do interviews, literally, in every continent from Europe to South America to Asia, and now we finally have the woman who can take them to these wonderful and distant lands the green way.
ALISON PRESLEY: That’s right.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Listen, Alison, share with us a little bit, first, the Alison Presley journey at Travelocity, which is one of the world’s great websites, especially for travel, and how you started there, why you started there, and how you evolved into this wonderful position managing Travelocity’s Travel for Good site. By the way, for our listeners out there, if you have your iPad, laptop, desktop open now, go to their website, Travelocity.com/travelforgood. Alison, talk about your journey.
ALISON PRESLEY: Sure. It’s actually a pretty good story. A lot of companies these days have cause marketing programs. Some executive dreams it up in a cubicle somewhere, but our story is a little different. In 2006, a group of very passionate employees came to upper management and said, “Hey, we’re really passionate about what we do, and we think that we should be ensuring that all of the positive aspects of travel are highlighted while we decrease the negative aspects.” Their vision for that is what eventually became our Travel for Good program.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: How long have you been there? You’ve been there since 2006, you said?
ALISON PRESLEY: The program kicked off in 2006. I was not yet here, but many of the original people who founded it are still. For a long time, it was managed by passionate employees when they had a moment. Two years ago, they decided to make it a full-time position. That is when I began to campaign really hard because I’d been helping for a while with the program, and I really wanted to do it. Lucky for me, I did actually score the position, so I’ve been in this role about two years now. Travel for Good, just so you guys have a great overview of it, its mission statement has never changed from the very first day. It’s to make the world a better place, one trip at a time. It really focuses on two main things, and that’s green travel and voluntourism. Both of those kind of roll up into a sustainable travel single goal.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. So, make the world a better place, one trip at a time.
ALISON PRESLEY: That’s right.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love that. Mike and I are on your site now. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but walk us through it because this is important for our listeners to hear. Green travel is here now, and it can be done and it can be done easily, right online, right in front of you. Mike’s got it up on his laptop. I’ve got it up in front of me on my iPad. This is easy stuff. Now, walk us through this Travelocity Travel for Good. What does the Green Guarantee mean? Just start there because it’s right on your cover page here. What does the Travelocity Green Guarantee mean?
ALISON PRESLEY: Sure. Really, the biggest piece of our green travel program is the Green Hotel Directory. One of the easiest ways to bring your footprint down while traveling is to choose a green hotel instead of a non-green. We have a list of more than 2,900 green hotels around the world and growing, and it’s a very tricky thing because we really want to stand by that list and want to make sure that the right hotels are flagged and we’re recognizing the partners who are really out there making a true difference. We established something called the Green Guarantee, and this is just our attempt to say, “Hey, you guys help us stay honest. If you stay at a hotel and you feel like it’s not up to par, let us know. If we fact check behind you and we agree, we’re going to go ahead and give you a $50 future travel discount, and we’re going to plant a tree in your name in a national wildlife refuge.” That is our effort to make sure that our customers are engaged and that there’s a check and balance here because it is important to us that this list is flagging truly green partners.
MIKE BRADY: You know what’s really cool, Alison, is you vet the hotels first, initially, to become green partners and get the green recommendation, but there’s a continuing vetting process going on through customer engagement, which I think is really brilliant.
ALISON PRESLEY: Thanks. We do take it very, very seriously. When we first kicked off the Green Hotel Directory a couple of years ago, at that time, there was no definition of what it means to be green. We were really scratching our heads and were saying, “How are we going to define this?” We actually became one of the founding members of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and that’s a big group of non-profits and companies and the United Nations is onboard, and what we did is we sat down in a room and we said, “OK, let’s just hen this down.” They looked at more than 300 green hotel certification program criteria and decided let’s harmonize this into one global definition. So, that’s the definition we work off from today, and we accept certification programs that very closely align with that. We’re not judge and jury; we’re not out there certifying hotels. We don’t want that conflict of interest, but we are working with what I call the gold standard, the best of the best, certification programs, and they’re going on the ground to the hotels. They’re looking at their energy data, they’re looking at all the innovations and making sure that everything is in line. We’re very proud of that. It is a list that we stand by.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m looking at your list right here. You have so many certification partners. This is really well done, Earth Check, Green Key, Green Glove, Green Tourism. The list is comprehensive, so you really have laid out the case, been very transparent about who your certifying partners are. We’re on Green is Good today, and people really are yearning for this knowledge and for this information. Green travel, the term green travel, what does that mean to you, Alison? What does it mean at Travelocity and to your client base?
ALISON PRESLEY: Sure. Green travel is so important. Tourism is one of the very first industries and it’s an important source of revenue all around the world. If it’s not developed sustainably, it can have a negative effect on the local people and environment. That’s why, for us, it’s a passion. It’s what makes Travelocity different in some ways. We really are passionate travelers ourselves, and we want to make sure that travel is done right. When you take a holistic view of sustainable tourism,, this can mean everything from green innovations to fair practices when hiring local people, just anything you can do to ensure that both the natural environment and local culture stay intact so we can all enjoy these destinations for years to come.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. Talk a little bit about one of the words that I see on your website, and I’m not clear what it means, but I want you to define it and share it with our listeners, is this interesting word called voluntourism. What does that mean?
ALISON PRESLEY: That’s a great question, and it’s one of the big cornerstones of our program. We’re very proud of it. Voluntourism, or volunteer vacations, are kind of like a miniature Peace Corps experience. You, as a traveler, can go for just a week, or even up to three months, and you go and give back to the local community. Instead of just going and taking pictures, you go and you plug in and you donate your time. Often, they include room and board. They’re kind of a package deal. Many of these trips have an environmental focus. For instance, at Travelocity, we are a partner with Earth Watch Institute. This is a voluntourism organization where you can spend your time volunteering in South Africa to help save the endangered hyena population, or you can take a trip down the Amazon on a historic riverboat and monitor the pink dolphins. You name it, they’ve got it. You’re working side by side with really respected scientists on really important environmental research. It’s a once in a lifetime kind of trip, and it’s really life changing. Unfortunately, they can be a little expensive, so at Travelocity, we’re very proud of this. Since 2006, we’ve been giving away eight $5,000 vacation grants to deserving Americans. You can just hop on our site at Travelocity.com/travelforgood and learn more about that. Basically, you just enter and then if you’re chosen, you get this all expenses paid, incredible trip to the destination of your choice.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: How many times a year do you give out that $5,000 grant?
ALISON PRESLEY: There are two cycles for the contest. We give out four in the first cycle and four in the next cycle. The next cycle will open up July 1. We’re in the process right now of choosing our winners for the first cycle.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Do they have to earn it or is it strictly lottery-based, or is there some sort of criteria where people have to write an essay or send a video or something like that?
ALISON PRESLEY: Yes, it is merit-based. What we ask is that people make a video talking about how they’re already giving back in their local community, and which of our voluntourism trips inspires them. They upload it to our site. It’s very easy. And then the first round is you send it around to friends and family for voting. What we’re really looking for is the kind of person who’s a leader and is willing to talk about their passion to friends and family. From there, we’ll have our 25 finalists, and then a group of Travelocity judges will look at 25 finalists and assess them on passion, how much they’re already giving back right now, the quality of the video, and will choose our four outstanding volunteers.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. For our listeners out there, if you’ve just joined us, we’re so excited today to have Alison Presley on, the manager of Travelocity’s Travel for Good website. If you want to travel green, go to Travelocity.com. You can look at Travel for Good at Travelocity.com/travelforgood. Alison, when you started two years ago, how many “green hotels” did you have in your directory then, and how many are you adding a month now? Is this really a trend now where the wind is at your back?
ALISON PRESLEY: Yes, absolutely. It’s amazing how fast it’s growing. When I first came on, I think they had like 700 green hotels. Today, we’re at 2,900 and growing. I always say, I want to make sure we’re not just adding hotels to add them. We want to add the right ones. As travelers are demanding this when they travel, it’s becoming more and more popular. What’s really exciting is we’re seeing hotels at every price point that go green. I’ve got plenty of budget-friendly hotels all the way up to extreme luxury. You name it, you can find it. One of the coolest parts about shopping for green travel today is in the early days, you had to go to a special microsite. We have a microsite on our site. Absolutely visit it to learn more, but you can actually now find these hotels by doing a normal search on Travelocity.com. You, as an average consumer, maybe you’re just beginning to go green, buying a little organic cereal, thinking about your purchases a little bit more. When you do a normal hotel search for most major destinations around the world, in the search results, you will see very clearly marked all of your green options. You can even sort by green so you can price compare among the green options.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just so great. In the metrics of when your colleagues started dreaming this up in 2006 and putting some energy towards this and sensing a trend and then they brought you on a couple of years ago, and now you’ve continued to build this, when you’re looking at the metrics that were your goals, how are your goals being achieved at Travelocity? Are you happy with the traffic and the use of this? Is it far exceeding your original dreams and goals? How is this going?
ALISON PRESLEY: Absolutely. We did it because we’re passionate about it, but the numbers are the kind of thing that make the CEO smile also. For us, not only is there a huge increase in choice from our hotel partners coming to us and saying, “Hey, we’ve gone green. Can you help us highlight this to our customers?” But also we’re now seeing some really interesting trends. For instance, we’ve recently learned that green hotels get better customer reviews than non-green hotels. On Travelocity, you can give a hotel a number of smiley faces if you liked it, and our green hotels get more smiley faces than our non-green hotels. That’s a really neat thing. Now, are they marking them green because they noticed the eco efforts? Maybe not, but I think a hotel that’s bothering to go green, they’re looking at that experience as a whole and taking more time to think about how the customer will feel, what they can do to make it a better experience. That’s really translating to our customers, so that’s a really neat thing. We’re also having huge success with our green hotel sales. We’re just now at the tail end of our annual Earth Month sale. Every April we have a big sale on green hotels, and it’s always incredible to watch those bookings pour in and see people getting passionate about going green and saving a little money. There’s no reason this needs to cost more.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: So interesting. One of the common themes of our show, Alison, when we talk to CEOs or founders of these amazing brands, both small and large, is the word passion, which you’ve used consistently throughout our interview. One of the things I love, your passion for what you do definitely comes through to Mike and I and to our listeners. I’m on your great website, Travelocity.com, the Travel for Good section, and I clicked onto the employee passion. Talk a little bit about the employee passion at Travelocity and how you guys give back.
ALISON PRESLEY: Absolutely. What’s so fun about this is I have a very personal story. Part of the reason I probably landed this job, I never actually asked them, but we at Travelocity, in addition to giving away eight voluntourism grants to consumers, we give away four every year to employees. Any global employee anywhere in the world can apply. My story is that I applied. It’s pretty competitive, and I did win. Before becoming the manager of the program, I took my own voluntourism trip and traveled to Peru and then worked in an orphanage for a week. It was a really important, life changing moment for me. That’s just a part of who we are at Travelocity. These grants are something that employees are very proud of. The winners are extremely impressive, people that we love to highlight internally and externally, and that’s a big part of the program, and it has always been since the very early days. Additionally, my employees volunteered their time to help me read or grade the consumer applications for these grants, so I had a huge fleet, I call them my Travel for Good people. There are 50 of them and they’re in offices all over the world, and they donate their time to me to help the program be even better.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: It also says here that every year you guys host a global volunteer week called Give Time Together.
ALISON PRESLEY: That’s right. It’s coming up just next week. Good timing. You have to keep in mind that we’re owned by Sabre Holdings, so there are 9,000 of us strong in every country, almost, in 54 countries. We take one week out of the year, and we, as a company, give time in all of our local communities. Here in San Francisco, we’re actually doing a big solar cell installation for a local public school. I’m very excited about that project. Offices all over the world will be doing similar kinds of things, from soup kitchens to outdoor trail work. It depends on the office.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: It says here that your CEO says it’s his favorite time of the year. It’s his favorite week of the year, and that means right from the top down, this isn’t just a good talk at Travelocity; this is actually a DNA issue. It’s a good walk.
ALISON PRESLEY: Exactly. Our CEO is Sam Gilliland, is so engaged in our program, and in fact, took his own volunteer vacation with his wife and kids. I think that’s such a strong statement because he doesn’t, obviously, have much time off, but he took last year and went down to Mexico and did a medical project. They made a big video about it, so that we internally could share it. It’s so exciting to see that go all the way to the top.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s great to hear that you guys have a great green culture there. Let’s go back to the travel options for our great listeners out there that are going to use Travelocity after they hear this show and they want to go green in their travels. Talk about the different spectrum, Alison, from dipping their toe in to being a little green their travel, or, as you guys call it, going green to the extreme.
ALISON PRESLEY: Exactly. There’s actually a lot of little ways that you can go green on vacation. Maybe you’re not ready to book a green hotel, but you are willing to do a few things. Many of these will actually save you money. For instance, set your home to vacation mode before you leave. Put your lights on a timer or turn them off. Set your large appliances to vacation mode. Unplug all unneeded electronics. Pack a reusable water bottle. I hammer this one again and again. I do it personally. Once you make the switch and train yourself to do it, you’re going to save so much money on bottled water, and it’s so much better for the environment to not be filling up the landfills with these plastic bottles. Skip the car rental. In most destinations, you can figure out a way to take public transit or walk. There’s a way to make it around without getting a car. Eat local. That’s something simple we can all do. Don’t go to the big chains; dip in and see what the local offering is. And then also think a lot about your hotel room when you’re there. Even if it’s not a green hotel, there is still a way to green it yourself. Recycle when you can. Leave the lights and air conditioning off when you leave your room. Participate in the recycling program that the hotel offers. They’re just small things, but they add up in a big way.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: We like that. We like small initiatives that can add up. Small action steps add up in a big way, and we can all work together and change the world. Speaking of changing the world together, again, I’m back on your great website, Travelocity.com/travelforgood, and I’ve clicked on now the button that says Massive Good. We love that here at Green is Good. You’re using that word good. Explain what massive good is.
ALISON PRESLEY: Massive good is a really fun thing that we’ve participated in, and we still are supporting. It’s a micro-donation that you can make to the foundation, and just $2 can help save a child’s life. It goes to very important medication to fight tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria. These three things, we have developed drugs that a child could grow up and live a normal life. Just $2 can make the difference, so we asked our customers, we ran ads in the confirmation e-mails saying, “Hey, if you have $2, if you have a moment, do something to give back to another culture around the world.”
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Love it. I didn’t realize this, but through your efforts at Travel for Good, Alison, you guys also plant trees?
ALISON PRESLEY: That’s right. We do have a carbon offset partner, and we’re very proud of who we’ve selected. It’s the Conservation Fund. We’re proud of them for a couple of reasons. One, they are based right here in the U.S., so we’re not sending this money away. What they do is they plant native trees in national wildlife refuges. What’s so cool about that is these are open to the public. This is a place where you can go and fish, you can have a picnic. You, as a traveler, can go and enjoy these trees. This is something we ask people to do when they’re flying. Flying is a tough piece for travel because, obviously, it’s very necessary, but on the other hand, there’s no such thing as a low-powered plane. I wish there were, but there’s not. So, until that day, this is something you can do to fight the carbon emissions and also make sure that your local national refuge is getting the support it needs.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. I see here on your website, again, Travelocity.com/travelforgood, you have a button that says, “Make it Earth Day every day. Click onto the window seat blog.” Explain to our listeners what your window seat blog is.
ALISON PRESLEY: Sure. This is a really fun part of Travelocity, and it’s a great read for anyone, green or not. The window seat blog is the official travel blog of Travelocity, and I blog on there very regularly about Earth Day. This is a great way to keep up with what’s new and emerging. I’m, actually, just about to do a review. I’m so excited. I’m going on a camping trip to the Grand Canyon, and I got a solar cell charger for my phone because I actually read all my books on my phone. I’ve gone paper-free on books, so I needed a charger. Anything like that, any fun way you can go green on vacation, I blog about that on the window seat.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: How about for our listeners out there that are hotels? We’ve had green hotels on. Actually, we had the managers of the greenest hotel in Paris on our show from Paris. They came on for the Hotel Gavarni. We know this is a growing trend. How about if there’s green hotels out there that want to now be part of your Green Hotel Directory? How do they contact you and become part of this great directory?
ALISON PRESLEY: That’s a great question. Anyone can e-mail me anytime at email@example.com. I always love to hear from people, particularly hoteliers. Since we work directly with certification programs, they usually send us their list every month of not just who has been added, but also we try and get information out of them about how the hotels have fallen out of your program. Did they not stay up to standard? Because we do take it very seriously, and we will unflag a hotel, so that’s an important piece. For a hotel that’s entrusted and they want to reach out and find out maybe how to get certified, which certification program they’re working for, they can work with their Travelocity market manager, and they probably already know who that is, or they can e-mail me directly and I’m happy to help.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Alison, we’re down, unfortunately, to the last minute-and-a-half. Of course, we’re going to have you back on again to continue the great journey that Travelocity’s on here in the green space. Share with our listeners, as we have to sign off here, some words of wisdom from you. So many of our listeners want to be the next Alison Presley, or they want to create their own website that does green for good. Explain to them your journey and some words that you have for the people coming behind you.
ALISON PRESLEY: Sure, absolutely. I would say if you’re looking to be in this space or you already are in this space, the big thing I think that we have done right, and has really helped strengthen our program, is we’ve brought green to the mainstream. There’s no time to wait for the dark green people to spread the message. It’s important to be hitting a broader audience. We haven’t gotten very bogged down in labeling. We’ve really stood by our list, but we’ve also made it easy to see at a glance, so that’s what I’m talking about when I say you can just do a normal shop on Travelocity, and you’ll see the green hotels right away. I think that’s something that everybody should be thinking about in the green space. How do I make this message compelling to someone who’s just thinking about going green?
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. For our listeners out there, please go to Alison Presley’s great section on Travelocity’s website, Travelocity.com/travelforgood. Alison Presley, we’re so honored you came on. You’re always invited back. Mike and I learned a lot today. Our listeners learned a lot today. You’re a passionate leader of Travelocity’s Travel for Good, and truly living proof that green is good.
ALISON PRESLEY: Thanks for having me on. It was my pleasure entirely.