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How to equip tourism employees with green skills

Employers are training employees in sustainability to help futureproof their businesses against climate change and environmental concerns

Barely a day goes by without a new headline about climate change, the environment or the damage being done to sensitive ecosystems. How the tourism sector responds to this growing concern is critical and organisations need to ensure staff have the right skills to meet the needs of ‘green tourists.'

On a recent trip to Uganda via Rwanda, I experienced firsthand the complexities we face. It was only once our plane had landed that the crew explained that plastic bags are banned in Rwanda. They all had to be left on the plane and returned to Amsterdam, where the flight originated. Even if tour operators alert their customers, the fact that plastic bags are still being used by airport shops and duty-free outlets demonstrates a real lack of joined-up thinking across industries.

This example is far from an isolated case. To understand what businesses can do internally to better meet external customer demands for environmentally-friendly activities, products and services, we recently surveyed 250 HR, training and development directors across a range of UK tourism businesses.

The findings highlight that while employers identify ‘green skills’ as increasingly important to their organisations, employee skills levels and awareness of environmental and sustainability issues are still fairly low.

Indeed, developing green skills is a high priority for many employers who are investing in this to futureproof their businesses. But there are still wide variations across the sector.

For example, almost half (46%) of destination management organisations currently provide training in relation to environmental skills, considerably higher than the all-sector UK average of 32%. But less than a quarter of visitor attraction organisations (24%) provide this type of training.

The challenge the tourism sector faces is how to change behaviours. For training and development professionals and HRDs, it’s generally agreed that the starting point has to be to increase the basic awareness and understanding of the broad and often complex range of issues that inform climate change and sustainability.

BCD Travel, a global provider of corporate travel management solutions, is one company that has put sustainability at the heart of its business, and training and development is an important pillar of this. This year BCD rolled out an environmental awareness training course to all employees via an online learning system. It also measures employee engagement on its environmental programme.

BCD also has an objective to ensure that partners and suppliers align their sustainability objectives. In 2017, it launched a training programme to improve sustainability practices among its major suppliers and implemented a system of training, support and sharing of best practice. It has also assessed 32 major suppliers using the EcoVadis criteria (examining environment, labour and human rights, ethics and sustainable procurement).

Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL) is another example of a company extending training and development into its supply chain. As part of its wider commitment to operate sustainably, RCL recently announced that it was making available 1,400 sustainable tours that provide its cruise guests with responsible options while ashore. A critical part of this has been to get the independent operators offering these tours certified to the UN-created Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) standard.

This meant equipping staff with sustainability skills to run these tours. Together with the GSTC, RCL has educated its tour operators about the importance of certification and sustainable operations as well as how the process to become GSTC-certified works. RCL also partnered with GSTC-accredited certifier Travelife to provide training materials and reporting tools to help operators gain the certification.

These two examples highlight the importance of HR co-operating closely with the operational side of the business, as well as other key stakeholders involved in shaping the environmental agenda.

A collaborative approach will also facilitate the development and roll-out of what can be fairly complex educational and communication programmes, which will also need to be kept updated and relevant.

Jane Rexworthy is executive director of People 1stInternational