Paul Tilstone On Balancing Business Growth And Environmental Awareness

Festive Road’s Paul Tilstone on Friday was involved in a gathering coordinated by the Climate Action Corporate Travel Urgent Sustainability initiative. This group aims to rethink how travel management should help achieve organizational objectives without losing sight of environmental concerns. This is a familiar topic for Tilstone and many others, but as the name of the new group implies, the urgency of the issue should vault it to the top of everyone’s agenda.


If you listen carefully to when Greta Thunberg delivered her first words at the United Nations general assembly in New York on Sept. 23 you’ll hear an eerie audience response. There was muted laughter — half laughing as attendees weren’t sure if she was serious and half serious as they weren’t sure if she was joking. This demonstrated the unease in the room about the message she was going to deliver. Here was a young lady about to pull no punches.

“My message is, we’ll be watching you.” This was her incredibly powerful opening statement, emphasizing that a generation of smart, dedicated, young global citizens is now fearful of the impact of climate change and deadly serious about making sure something is done about it.

The speech prompted individuals and companies around the developed world to start talking again about the impact on our daily lives of climate change and efforts around sustainability.

We’ve been here before. In 2006, David Guggenheim produced a film about former United States Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate people about global warming. “An Inconvenient Truth,” like the Greta Thunberg speech, wasn’t the sole driver of the debate, but rather a key factor in its acceleration. Of course, two years after the Al Gore campaign had started, a worldwide recession all but pushed climate change off the agenda.

Festive Road managing partner Paul Tilstone

A decade later we appear to be back where we started, with a rising tide of concern and demands for mitigating the impact of our actions on the climate. Except, this time it feels different.

Several media reports have attributed the decline in air passenger numbers in Sweden to “flygskam,” the flight shaming movement in the country, which is Greta’s home. According to Swedavia, operator of 10 Swedish airports, the combined passenger count in October declined 5 percent year on year.

A recent Climate Change Committee report in the United Kingdom took a swipe at airline loyalty schemes for inducing frequent travelers into so-called “mileage runs” or “status runs” to maintain their status levels.

Some of you may disagree that there’s actually a climate crisis. In some ways that’s irrelevant. If global consensus says there is, then all the businesses we work for will need to start taking action. Otherwise our customers and employees who start to factor sustainability into their choices will go elsewhere. The environment is becoming a driver of business decisions.

What does this mean for the business travel and meetings sectors? If you’re reading this, you either supply services in those sectors or create the demand for them. If we aren’t careful we will become arch enemy No. 1. Emissions from aircraft, cars, hotels, conference centers, etc., are easily identifiable contributors to climate change. The crucial contributions that business travel and meetings make to business growth, jobs and a more tolerant world will become of secondary importance.

Therefore, kick-starting our thinking on the environment right now is absolutely key. It’s an incredibly complex subject that deserves time and commitment. The strategies we adopt must be robust and deliver tangible results. Gone are the days when greenwashing was even remotely acceptable.

Travel buyers have a chance to bring a more sustainable approach to their travel programs. Travel suppliers and intermediaries need to clearly present sustainable attributes to customers at the point of sale — whether more fuel efficient aircraft, biofuels, electric cars, optional hotel room cleaning or the many other product changes likely to result from the focus on the environment.

Achieving the proper balance between driving business growth and reducing the impact on the climate might be hard but it isn’t impossible. Challenging myths about the impact travel has on the environment is important, but so is taking action. In the United Kingdom, a grassroots group of like-minded and passionate folk is advocating for greater sustainability. These people are forming the Climate Action Corporate Travel Urgent Sustainability initiative to help build a new travel management landscape which will celebrate our sector whilst minimizing its impact on the environment.

What are you planning to do? Greta will be watching.


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Paul Tilstone

Author: Paul Tilstone

Paul Tilstone is one of two co-founders of consultancy Festive Road. Prior to this he acted in senior roles for travel management companies for 13 years, CEO for the Institute of Travel & Meetings UK for seven years and chief global development officer for the Global Business Travel Association for a further five. In July 2017 he was appointed to GBTA's board, the first elected international director in the association’s history. Paul has received the U.K. Buying Business Travel Diamond Award for services to sustainability and was listed by the magazine in the industry’s 2013 “Hot List” as one of 30 professionals driving change in the industry. He has twice been listed as one of the world’s top 25 business travel industry influencers by Business Travel News for work in advocacy and sustainability. Connect with Paul on LinkedIn.

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Thad Slaton
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Thad Slaton

Great comments, Paul. Agree it “feels different” this time, and I hope it is!

Chris Dane
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Chris Dane

Paul is right on track and the good news is that the travel industry is indeed taking action. Planes, cars, hotels, etc., all have their own initiatives. With airlines and cars it is all about newer planes and cars, for hotels about being more energy efficient, recycling, and reduction in plastic to name a few. It all adds up reduced carbon emissions per passenger, per rental, per guest. But all industries need to grow to survive and the industry agrees that reducing carbon emissions is good for business

Marc Casto
Subscriber

Great essay, Paul. Yes, indeed it does feel different this time. And this time it has to be different as we are rapidly approaching the tipping point. While I greatly appreciate the continual focus on the larger issue, it is also the time for general communication on actual and practical solutions to implement. Specifically, each of us in the trade needs to move from the 35,000-ft. level and descend to grassroots. From the TMC perspective, our model needs to evolve from purely transactional to consultative on optimizing travel programs, with factors other than purely cost at the core. Thankfully, many… Read more »

John Harvey
Advisor

Paul is so right in saying we have been here before. Looking back at the dates, “An Inconvenient Truth” premiered in LAX on May, 24 2006. I remember the months that followed. With all the media coverage I was thinking that the corporate travel community was going to have to respond massively to the issue of travel carbon — so much so that I then registered a website in September 2006 called travelcarbon.com. I spent the next six months of my spare time filling it up with as much information as I could find about the environmental impact of travel.… Read more »