Working the Web: Sustainable Tourism Online

Treading the line between minimal footprint and a sensible online presence is not easy. Marcus Cotton of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in Nepal explains to Jeremy Torr how his low profile approach has worked.

Kathmandu, October 2015. Marcus Cotton says he never meant to be the manager of a successful eco-destination in the Himalayas, but things just turned out that way. Given the accidental nature of his role, he shows remarkable dedication to the place - and its environment.

Marcus Cotton has been manager at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge for the last 14 years. "I had previously worked with the Nepali National Trust and at Tiger Tops lodge, but wasn't looking for a job here in Nepal. Then the opportunity came up, so I came to Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge (TMPL)," he says. It's not a bad place, with panoramic views of three of the world’s eight-thousand meter high Himalayan peaks, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and Mansalu. Understandably, he's been there for the last 14 years.

Environmental goals

Cotton's key goals at TMPL are environmental conservation, empathy with the local culture and putting back in the community. As a result the lodge employs as much local staff as it can, grows its own vegetables for a mainly Nepali menu, and is in the process of introducing a grey water recycling system using reed-bed filters. TMPL is hoping this will cut laundry water waste by 90% and also supply water irrigation to the lodge's organic vegetable gardens.

But the challenge of getting a coherent, targeted message out to potential visitors who know what to expect at such a place - and as importantly, who value the goals it lives by - is a big one, says Cotton. He says that the internet is a key platform, but not the only one.

"It's easy to say, oh, we will go on Facebook," he says, "but it's much more than that. You can't simply put everybody in one basket. You need to know what the expectations are from the people who you are talking to."

Cotton says that for an enterprise like TMPL, the important issue is to recognise both the market segment that is being targeted, and the mechanisms that exist for taking their bookings. He argues that for a specialist product that is aiming at people who are already interested in conservation, it really is not necessary to offer a super-connected, one-click, immediate response booking offer.

"We have what we think is a good website, with plenty of information and some beautiful pictures - people love looking at pictures not long and wordy descriptions - but simply offer a contact form for further information," he says. "For us, it's not about booking immediately, its about providing information," he explains.

Valid information

Cotton is aware, however of the importance of providing information on the site that is believable; including from third-party organisations as well as visitors. TMPL has commissioned a UK company, JUSTReports, to carry out a regular environmental and sustainability audit of the lodge's performance. These are posted online to support TMPL's claims to be a good corporate citizen; it's not just about saying "we are best" and hoping potential customers will believe it says Cotton.

Tiger Mountain prides itself on a sustainable approach and minimal water usage

Tiger Mountain prides itself on a sustainable approach and minimal water usage

That JUSTReports was spun out of Manchester University under the guidance of Professor Harold Godwin, a notable Sustainable Tourism expert, speaks volumes to his target market, say Cotton.

"We can put a report on our website verifying that we are doing what we say we are, and that is very important," says Cotton.

The other issue that TMPL is very aware of is the positioning for a product such as it offers. In such a highly segmented market TMPL still takes some 60-70% of its business from specialist tour operators; as a result says Cotton they would likely lose up to 50% of their existing business if they went online only.

"Once you go outside the traditional agent business approach, you need to be very careful," he says. "Once you are online you need to remember that it's all about shopping around for the best price and undercutting agency prices," he adds.

The decision to stay with an agency-driven model doesn't mean, as Cotton says, that an operator has to be "a Luddite" and completely reject net-based marketing and booking.

In fact TMPL lodge deals with global online booking agency Agoda though a local representative. Cotton says that TMPL is more than satisfied with the results they get through the internet-only travel giant.

"The key thing we have found is you need to stay in control of your online content," he says. "It must remain a tool not a tyrant that sucks up vast amounts of time and effort."

Being online is about presentation, control and rich images, says Cotton

Being online is about presentation, control and rich images, says Cotton

As such, TPML has stuck with a "page-based" website layout; Cotton says it is deliberately designed to replicate a print brochure and to be an information tool - but without pop-ups, clickable everything and wholesale interaction.

"There is a psychological difference between paper and email, and we try to keep our interactions as personal as possible. I always start my emails with 'Dear David' or similar. Just saying 'Hi there David' on the first line doesn't convey the same effect to the kind of people we are talking to," he says.

Cotton's final advice to any niche operator wanting to use the internet to make good business in the sustainable tourist market is simple.

"It's something we all need to embrace, but at the same time [you] need to be cautious and sensible. Don't get too excited about being on the internet. There's plenty of greenwashing on the web, so be upfront about what you offer and what you don't, and put it in the public domain."

"And don't get too passionate about new technology," he adds. "That way it runs the risk of clouding your judgement about what works and what doesn't."

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