Storytelling for a sustainable world – a career marketing tourism

What if you could help protect a rainforest ecosystem by telling the story of an ecolodge’s composting system? Or help safeguard a biosphere reserve by promoting a sustainable tourism initiative?

The answer is, you can. In this interview, Tartan Group President Deirdre Campbell shares how communicating sustainable tourism can support environment, business and community – and the skills you need to become a successful storyteller.

After Tartan launched as a traditional public relations company, President Deirdre Campbell felt compelled to bring sustainability to her clients.

After Tartan launched as a traditional public relations company, President Deirdre Campbell felt compelled to bring sustainability to her clients.

Five pillars of sustainable tourism

While it took roughly 50 years to reach a billion international tourists worldwide, explains Campbell, it will take less than 19 to reach a second billion – thus tourism’s impact on planet and people will only grow.

“Tourism has to be much more aware of how it can minimize its impact and benefit communities or else it will become a dirty word.” Many destinations thrive by tourism, she explains, but often benefits may

be captured by big-branded tour operators, while locals may see their environment polluted with garbage and their culture and customs disrespected.

Sustainable tourism is all about balance, Campbell says. “It has to have as much of a positive impact for the locals as it does for the companies that are driving it and it has to support the positive development of a community.”

Local livelihoods and culture are just as much a part of sustainable tourism as environmental impact. Credit: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr.

Local livelihoods and culture are just as much a part of sustainable tourism as environmental impact. Credit: World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr.

At its core, sustainable tourism focuses on five areas: environment, economics, society, culture and peace. The last two might come as a surprise. “Culture is about respect for the local or indigenous culture being shared – interpreting, celebrating, honouring and preserving it,” explains Campbell. Peace is about ensuring that people are employed, happy and that their voices are heard – to promote safety and sustain tourism that local communities rely on.

The sustainable tourism niche

Initially launched as a traditional public relations company, today Tartan is one of few agencies that specialises in communications and marketing for sustainable tourism and hospitality.

With her heart in tourism, a background in public relations and an MBA from one of the first universities to incorporate sustainability into their teachings, Campbell felt compelled to bring sustainability to her clients.

“How do you market sustainability?” her team asked. “Should we market it as a differentiator in order to

garner more business? Is it a proper business proposition? And we felt it was, but even more importantly, it was becoming an expectation.”

Today Tartan’s clients range from resorts in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, to adventure parks and ecolodges in Latin America, to the city of Quito in Ecuador. “We found that a lot of people were doing really good work in conservation and sustainability but they were scared to talk about it because of what they weren’t doing.” Tartan encourages their clients to share the good steps, but also not to be afraid to talk about their challenges, because that’s often the quickest way to find a solution.

The city of Quito, Ecuador, one of Tartan’s many clients. Credit: Scipio/Flickr.

The city of Quito, Ecuador, one of Tartan’s many clients. Credit: Scipio/Flickr.

Communications for environmental, economic and social change

The terms public relations and marketing are often linked with greenwashing (creating an environmentally friendly image without implementing sound practices), but are actually powerful tools for change.

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“We tell the story of how being sustainable has made our clients better businesses,” says Campbell. “That business case can be quite compelling to anybody who’s entrepreneurial.”

Transparent communications can make the different between a negative and a positive experience for tourists, Campbell says.

“When you understand what is behind a remote lodge’s lack of electricity and what you’re preserving – for example the idea that they have all these pigs that create methane gas and that methane gas fuels the staff kitchen – then it becomes this whole interesting world. The luxury’s more in the remoteness and the engagement with nature. Our job is to work with our clients to communicate those stories so that people connect the dots.”

Tourists are more likely to have a positive experience if businesses communicate transparently. Credit: the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)/Flickr.

Tourists are more likely to have a positive experience if businesses communicate transparently. Credit: the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)/Flickr.

A day in the life of a storyteller

A typical Tartan morning kicks off with a check-in to set priorities for the day, followed by regular meetings with clients via Skype or phone – and a lot of writing.

“Our job is to continually innovate and to tell their stories in different ways.” Tartan works with clients to share their sustainable practices via traditional media like magazines and newspapers, social media for younger target markets and hands-on experiences that allow guests to see sustainability in action.

When they’re not writing or Skyping, the team is attending conferences and events like the Adventure Travel Trade Association and volunteering with organizations like Travelers Against Plastic. This keeps them engaged and informed, and able to bring relevant information and connect their clients with the right people.

“It’s rare that any one of us would say, ‘Oh I’m going to come in, work on this one project all day and then leave.’ Some people love that because it’s so interesting and different; some people hate it because it’s confusing and they’d much rather focus on one task at hand.”

Skills of the trade

People with public relations, business, or other backgrounds can all explore communications work if they bring the right skills. If this work intrigues you, Campbell says there are five main boxes to tick:

  • Writing skills – Spotting a good story, providing accurate information and getting in front of people like editors to share your work;
  • Social media skills – Knowing how to share stories and engage people online;
  • Curiosity – Being on the lookout for what’s happening next, monitoring what people are saying online, building your knowledge base and bringing back new ideas and tools;
  • Social skills – Being genuinely interested in people’s stories and how to tell them in a way that engages them with the right markets (note: you don’t need to be an extrovert!)
  • Business acumen Thinking like an entrepreneur so that everything you do has a return on investment.
Supporting an ecolodge or adventure tourism company’s approach to sustainability takes a combination of curiosity, business knowledge, social skills and creative writing.

Supporting an ecolodge or adventure tourism company’s approach to sustainability takes a combination of curiosity, business knowledge, social skills and creative writing.

Experiencing like a local

Sustainable travel is not just about getting off the beaten track; it’s about authentic experiences that allow you to experience, understand and value a place or culture as its residents do.

That can be as simple as a hike with a knowledgeable guide, buying sustainably-produced products or having an authentic local food experience. “When I was in Jordan with the Bedouin,” explains Campbell,

“I had this fabulous experience of meeting elders and being served traditional Arabian coffee. And you realise, by just engaging this way versus going with the tourist trap of an activity, your money goes towards food for a week. It’s as simple as making the benefits of tourism more accessible to more people.”

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