I’m not well-known for holding my tongue, although I’m improving at it. I definitely have more moments now where the voice that says ‘Say nothing, let it go…’ wins out over the voice saying ‘Speak up, this needs to be said…’ While a guest panellist at a Tourism for Conservation conference about 6 months ago, it was the 2nd voice that won out.
This conference, amongst other things, presented the work of the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark with tourism enterprises in the Burren Ecotourism Network. There was particular focus on a project that I had worked on - the Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism. The Code evolved to being a strong, localised framework of sustainable tourism practices which had been collectively adopted and implemented by over 60 businesses in the Geopark region.
A question came from the floor wondering if we should just ‘call a spade and spade’ and acknowledge that at the end of the day, these businesses were really just about making money. !Aren’t they just in it for the money?” the delegate asked. In acknowledging the question, a fellow panellist rather apologetically conceded that yes, we’d have to acknowledge, that some of the tourism businesses were making money from tourism and yes, that some of them may even be in it for the money.
The response, more than the question triggered an immediate reaction from me. The 2nd little voice was so loud that the one advising ‘say nothing’ just didn’t stand a chance!! “Well we better bloody well hope they are!”, it started to rant “Would it be better in our pursuit of a sustainable destination if they weren’t making money? They need to make money if they’re to be considered a business. They need to be profitable to stay in business. If they don’t stay in business, we don’t have employment, tax contributions, visitors and ultimately communities. Why the hell are you discussing ‘making money’ as if it was a bad smell or an unwanted guest at the sustainable tourism party???”.
Yes it was a rant in my head. My actual contribution carried the same message but in a somewhat more measured way. My concluding contribution was to say that not only should we acknowledge that sustainable tourism businesses make money in their business, we should celebrate this and congratulate their owners and managers.
In the tea break shortly afterwards, a few people came up to me to tell me I had made a good point. One person said ‘I’m glad somebody said it’ and another ‘You’re brave to be so direct about it.’ I then noticed two texts that had come through to me during the panel from people in the audience. Again, one said ‘a good point well made’ and the other said ‘you’re a brave woman’. That’s twice that the word brave was used and I thought to myself “Really? Is it actually ‘brave’ to say that a sustainable tourism business should be profitable. Is that risqué??”. (That’s the point where the first voice started to get vocal again, offering something along the lines of ‘I told you to keep quiet but you just wouldn’t listen….)
This week, I found a wonderful articulation of similar thoughts on this subject by Ari Weinzwig, author of “A lapsed anarchist’s approach to building a great business.” The book is based on his own experience of co-founding and running a highly successful, purpose-driven food business over more than 30 years. The book shares some of the philosophies, processes and practices that have led to the Zingermanns Community of Businesses becoming and remaining a highly profitable, sustainable food business in the US town of Ann Arbor.
I strongly recommend it for anybody seeking to run a purpose-driven business that also makes a profit. I can’t improve on Ari’s points and how he makes them so I’ve opted to share them with you here as I believe they’re relevant to the sustainable tourism conversation.
“…the truth is that just staying in business is actually a pretty significant achievement. Seriously, it’s way easier to go under than it is to keep going!”
This is the central tenet of Ari’s views on sustainable business. He points out the common supposition that a business sets out just to make money. Like at the conference, the sub-text is that this is to the detriment of the local environment or local community. While being profitable is essential, it is not enough to be considered a sustainable business. Instead, the main point of a ‘purpose-driven business’ is to master the art of constructively and creatively staying in business in a way that builds positive benefits for all involved (the community, the people who work in the business, suppliers, investors and of course customers). A purpose driven business is not a gambler, building up its chips and then cashing in and getting out at the highest point of profit. To be sustainable, the point is to keep playing, and in the process, to create wins for all the players at once while the pool gets ever bigger and ever more rewarding for all involved. It purposefully intends the leave the world a better place than it found it in.
“One thing I’ve come to realize over the years is that most businesses are not flourishing. A handful thrive, others survive, and the vast majority are actually in some stage of going out of business.”
This one really does bear thinking about. Ari argues the absolute need for small and medium sized businesses to be profit-minded so they can actually stay in business for a long period of time. Ari specifically counsels to resist the constant push for lower prices, particularly in his own industry of food. He argues for the need to price appropriately because the reality is that higher prices allow healthy, sustainably minded businesses to stay in business. Businesses need to have the courage and the support to charge what they need to charge to stay in business in a healthy way If a barely surviving business eventually collapses with impacts on staff, suppliers, customers and community, it ends up leaving the world worse off than before it arrived.
“By staying in business for a long period of time an organization helps build solidity and continuity for the community.”
Giving back to the community is a characteristic of a purpose-driven business. Sustainable tourism frameworks often encourage the obvious contributions of giving money, time or information to help those around us. Ari also highlights the contribution businesses make by keeping jobs and buying from local businesses. He contends that perhaps a more important contribution lies is just being in business, sharing good business practices with staff, maintaining a business neighbourhood in a place and giving great service.
“I don’t for a second suppose that there’s some simplistic, black and white answer that will magically make a business sustainable and successful. Rather I’ve learned enough to know that pretty much all this stuff comes at us every day, every hour, only in shades of gray.”
The short-term goal for all businesses is the stay in business i.e. short-term sustainability. Balancing this with achieving long-term benefits for all involved does sometimes create a struggle. The challenge is to embrace the struggle and find ways to achieve both. One can only admire and applaud the businesses that face this struggle and take decisions related to it every day. Ari calls this ‘getting good with gray’. Sustainable businesses are constantly faced with difficult businesses decisions. An example from his own business is the decision as to whether its more responsible to forego foods that don’t grow locally in the winter or to support indigenous growers in warmer climates. There are no easy answers and nothing is black and white.
“To me, that’s the crux of what sustainable business is all about. Staying in business in order to sustain the lives and livelihoods of the people and the producers of the community.”
Like Ari, I have certainly observed that the experience of being a tourism business is challenging.and the pursuit of creating a sustainable tourism business even moreso. It sometimes seems that the topic of how to be a good business receives far less attention than the obligations of serving the visitor, being a good citizen to the community as well as a good guardian of the natural and cultural assets. Let’s acknowledge that a profitable business is an absolute pre-requisite to achieving a sustainable business. A collection of sustainable tourism businesses is an absolute pre-requisite to achieving a sustainable destination. Let’s celebrate those that pursue it and achieve it.