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  • Writer's picturesarahhabsburg

The Power of People and Storytelling in Responsible Tourism: Reflections from India

Kerala, India was indeed a joy to visit. As is to be expected from a conference on Responsible Tourism, many conversations were had about what the future of our planet will look like for the next generations. It is easy to feel despondent as we work independently on the same challenges from different offices and homes across the world. Getting together is so important, and a relief after the Covid years.

The conference injected hope, inspiration, and life into those conversations. So many inspiring examples were shared of the great work being done at grassroots level, of pushing government to change policies and outlooks, of changing lives in schools and communities.

There were stories of the smiling dolls made from ruined saris that kept women in work after the 2004 tsunami, and still continues today.

Of an initiative to employ and empower local women and people with disabilities that makes ballpoint pens from recycled newspaper each with a seed at the end to sprout a local tree.

Stunning pieces of signature jewellery woven by blind women.

There were also great examples of experiential homestays, locally guided nature trips, and wondrous night sky observation initiatives.

Choolala - statement jewellery piece made by blind women

I must of course mention the theme-based STREET project encouraging visitors to experience the specialty of rural locations across India. Green street, cultural street, village life experience street, experiential tourism street, agri-tourism street, water street and art street feature in destinations across India.

STREET stands for Sustainable, Tangible, Responsible, Experiential, Ethnic, Tourism hubs and was conceived by the State Responsible Tourism (RT) Mission, inspired by the “Tourism for Inclusive Growth” slogan of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), and led by the unstoppable Rupesh Kumar, India’s Responsible Tourism Coordinator and the impulse behind the RT Summit itself.

According to India’s Tourism Minister, Mr. P. A. Mohamed Riyas, the idea behind the project is to generate change within the tourism sector “by fostering mutually beneficial organic relationships between tourism development and the ordinary lives of people”.

While the outcome of each initiative is clearly essential to success, what stood out to me was how each person crafted their own story. Tales of action, when blandly told, fail to engage and captivate. When they are imbued with spirit and purpose, they cannot fail to do so.

Some narratives were a little dry, others fascinatingly captivating. What made the difference?

Emotion. Holding space. Considered pauses. A deep connection to place. Timelessness. Presence in the moment. And most of all, an abundance of passion and pride.

These are the perfect ingredients for great storytelling.

When these elements are successfully combined, there is no need for drama or cliff hangers. The deepest connection comes from the authentic moments of someone speaking from their soul and sharing details that matter to them, that inspire them, that drive them. That is both the essence of great storytelling and the mainstay of responsible tourism. Taking action that matters to you, and that generates change where it matters to others.

Of course, we cannot hide behind passionately crafted sentences. The physical outcomes need to be proven and constant. Interestingly they are also often more believable when they highlight certain failures that were experienced along the way. For example, a community project that has gone through many iterations, or an attempt at composting that failed three times before being successful.

We tell school children all the time that they should learn from their mistakes. And then we promptly forget about that as we head into adulthood.

So, how does this apply to you and to your business?

Let’s take a look at this concept of progressive learning when applied to real life situations.

An example is the journey of a hotel starting out with a goal to reduce food waste, send less to landfill, and recycle more. The goal is to tread lighter and reduce their carbon footprint. Big businesses are already under obligation to do this as part of the European Green Deal initiative. It will not be long before pressure on SMEs to report on this follows so those that get ahead now will benefit later on.

The property begins by committing to measure, monitor, and record their food waste. This will continue to be an internal, behind-the-scenes action, until they are confident enough that their measurement and recording efforts are now an integrated part of their operations and that staff understand why they are being asked to do things a little differently.

They then choose to move onto offering smaller plates at the buffet breakfast to manage portion size in combination with sharing why they are doing this with guests in a motivating and educational way.

Because this has been done correctly and with commitment, they will perceive a downward trend waste production in the data from their monitoring operation. This can then be shared with guests and other stakeholders in conjunction with stories and examples of locally sourced products, seasonal produce and the new dishes that have been created to incorporate them.

The culmination is to combine this operational change, proven results, guest/staff education, and local sourcing strategy with an initiative to grow their own in whatever capacity that might be. It could simply be growing herbs on an outdoor terrace to be used for fresh herbal tea, or a move towards developing a vegetable garden to begin offering a farm-to-fork experience.

The point here is that incorporating real sustainability into any business is a holistic process that takes time. Failures are part of the journey to reach truly regenerative endeavours, and it all starts with intentional, responsible decision-making based on your, and your destination´s immediate needs. It is the antidote to greenwashing, but none of this can have significant impact or be a positive commercial advantage influence if it is not communicated in the right way.

At the conference I had a few conversations about how ironic it is that a lot of what is offered up as a solution to the problems we face is to go back to a time where things moved more slowly. A time when broken items got fixed. When you stayed at the table until everything on your plate was eaten. When we grew some of what we ate. When we ate what was available seasonally. And when birthday and Christmas presents really were the only gifts that were received in the whole year.

Stories that understand this, and that bridge the gap between the past, present, and future are the ones that will win.

The tourism industry is rich in potential storytelling ingredients. From behind-the-scenes anecdotes to larger-than-life personalities, intensely fascinating cultural reveals to heritage stories that bring history back to life, they are all capable of generating those wow moments that stop the scroll, connect with people on an emotional level, and help us to feel more connected to our businesses.

Seth Godin captured this in his quote, "People don’t buy products, they buy relations, stories, and magic".

Knowing your why is fundamental. Bringing it to life in a way that shows your uniqueness is paramount. While it is true that someone else could tell the same story about a landmark, a tradition, or a local handicraft, they cannot tell it the same way that you do. The way you share your chosen stories is quite simply unique to you.

When tourism business owners ask me what is the one thing they should be doing today to help them stand out online and get more people to buy from them, my answer is always to get great at storytelling.

Right now, you are probably thinking, “I don’t have the time to write great stories”, or “I don’t even know if I can write or tell great stories”, or you might just not have a clue where to start. You might also be wondering what unique stories you can even come up with. I get it. I have been there wondering the same thing. But we all have a storyteller in us, even if we don’t know it.

I presented at the conference, and I was surprised by how many people came up to me afterwards and said “Wow Sarah, you are an amazing storyteller! I felt like you just took me on a journey. I was fascinated!”. Four people even asked me if I am a travel writer. If I can do it, so can you, so it’s time to share these skills that are in perfect synergy with my concept of purpose-driven tourism marketing.

You may not relish the idea of this process, but if there is one thing that will help you stand out in your marketing and get someone to choose you over a competitor, it is the stories you tell about your property and your destination. Getting it right will open doors to more sales and increased revenue so I invite you to my new storytelling workshop where you will walk away with a story bank that is unique to you, and a framework to work to help you build and share your stories.

Specifically designed for owners of all types of tourism businesses, you will also get the detail on what I believe is the biggest missed opportunity in tourism marketing to harness the global reach of travellers and of social media so that others become ambassadors of the cultural heritage and history that we share.

This is a serious workshop where you will get stuff done and learn skills that will help you with your marketing and messaging in the future. It is not just any old webinar that you register for, forget about out, only to then maybe watch half of the replay. For that reason, it is a paid workshop so your commitment matches mine in getting you results that will work for you today and every time you need to overhaul your content. We are all busy people, so we will channel energy and focus into this 2-hour workshop that is dedicated to teaching effective tools and generating renewed marketing confidence. If you are not serious about doing this work, this workshop is not for you!

Find out more details here.

I guarantee there is something you can tell, in your own way, just like everyone who presented the conference was able to. Yes, it might need coaxing out, and that is what we will do, as well as providing structure that will give you storytelling confidence and will change the way you do your hotel marketing from now on.

After all, as the sociologist Peter L. Berger said, “human life is rooted in narrative”!

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