In 2016, we created the Travel Vanguard to honor values-oriented leaders making positive changes in the travel industry. This year, we’ve expanded our lens to focus on entire organizations that walk the walk to ensure that travel is a force for good.
Out of more than 100 nominees, this year’s honorees include hotels, tour operators, a tourism board, a flight school, and a tech-savvy nonprofit. They work across all seven continents, and they’re grappling with everything from social and racial justice to accessibility and climate change. Read on to learn about the inspiring companies transforming the way we travel.
United Aviate Academy
For diversifying aviation
If you’re a woman or a person of color in the United States, your likelihood of becoming a professional pilot is slim: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, 94 percent of all aircraft pilots were male and 93 percent were white.
In addition to revealing a huge inequality issue, these statistics also show that flight schools are missing out on opportunities to find the nation’s best and brightest next-gen aviation talent, according to Dana Donati, CEO of the new United Aviate Academy (UAA).
That’s why, in December 2021, United Airlines launched UAA. The academy is diversifying aviation, as well as responding to a dwindling aviation workforce and the prohibitively high cost of flight schools approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
The academy’s mission is to create the broadest pool of exceptional candidates possible by removing financial hurdles and addressing the industry’s poor track record of recruitment efforts among diverse communities. For Donati, the mission feels personal. “Being a female in aviation, I know firsthand the barriers and financial struggle I faced to accomplish my own goals and dreams,” she says.
UAA is the first flight school owned by a major U.S. airline, and it intends to train 5,000 pilots by 2030, with 50 percent of students identifying as women or people of color. The inaugural class has already exceeded that goal, at 80 percent.
UAA reaches prospective students through alliances with such groups as the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Women in Aviation International, Latino Pilots Association, and the National Gay Pilots Association. It works with historically Black colleges and universities, including Hampton University in Virginia and Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. United Airlines also partnered with JPMorgan Chase to create scholarships for students needing assistance. Students train at the academy for 12 months before they fly for a United Express partner for two years, then eventually transition to United Airlines.
“It’s important to have a diverse pilot population,” says Donati of UAA’s ambitions, “because diversity of people means diversity of mind.”
For putting community first
Volcanoes Safaris, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, offers one of the best ways to see the endangered mountain gorillas of East Africa. But what sets the company apart is its long-standing commitment to making people a top priority for the business.
Founded by Praveen Moman, who was born in Uganda and spent his childhood exploring the gorilla habitats of the Virunga Mountains, Volcanoes Safaris runs four lodges in Uganda and Rwanda. Moman launched the company three years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. “The dream was so strong that I didn’t really work out all the different components initially,” he recalls. “But I just thought that this was a wonderful landscape that needed protecting, and one day, hopefully, it can help people here earn a living as it once did.”
An early player in the post-genocide return of tourism, Volcanoes led the way in bringing hospitality jobs back while also protecting communities that coexist with wildlife. The company overwhelmingly hires staff from East Africa’s Great Lakes region, where many families have been impacted by war and displacement. Women comprise more than 50 percent of the current management staff.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company partnered with the German Investment Corporation to offer relief to more than 10,000 people near its lodges, in the form of masks, water tanks, handwashing facilities, food donations, and more.
“If you want the wildlife to have a future, then your focus has to be on the communities,” says Moman, who believes local people should be driving conservation, rather than having it imposed on them. “They need that land for farming and food, to be able to build a home, to send their kids to school, and to have an economic livelihood. Conservation has to be part of the economic chain.”
The Schoolhouse Hotel
For committing to accessibility
More than 60 million Americans live with a disability, but the majority of hotels in the United States only comply with the bare minimum accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Charlie Hammerman.
Hammerman founded the Schoolhouse Hotel, the world’s first boutique property to incorporate accessibility into every part of the guest experience. Hammerman, whose daughter has cerebral palsy, is an attorney who left his Merrill Lynch job in 2007 to create the nonprofit Disability Opportunity Fund (DOF), which invests in small businesses that focus on accessibility solutions.
Opened in May 2022 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the Schoolhouse Hotel is the DOF’s first hotel project. “You’re designing an experience for different types of needs, and you are not going to cover every disability,” Hammerman says. “So we decided we’re going to try and think of 99 percent of them and anticipate new things that come up.”
The team consulted with experts on everything from visual and hearing impairment to neurodiversity. They did away with an early plan for ballroom wall sconces, because an unnecessary light source could potentially disrupt visual clarity for those relying on sign language or lipreading. Experts did virtual walk-throughs to help fine-tune color tones, room brightness, and carpeting texture and advised on a meditation room for visitors to retreat to when overwhelmed. The 30 guest rooms are equipped with voice command technology that connects to the front desk.
Hammerman is hoping to set an example for hotels that aren’t tapping into the $13 trillion in annual disposable income that the disability market represents. “We want the Schoolhouse Hotel to be a showcase,” he says. “We want the Marriotts, the Hyatts, and the Hiltons to stay here. We’re a nice little boutique hotel, but they can also learn from us.”
The Travel Corporation
For measuring sustainability efforts
Whether you’re floating past centuries-old villages on a cruise along Austria’s Danube River or learning about Aboriginal fishing techniques near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the trips you take through The Travel Corporation’s brands are now being measured against the company’s sustainability strategy.
The Travel Corporation (TTC), which owns and runs 40 travel brands, including Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, Red Carnation Hotels, Contiki, and Trafalgar Tours, released its first-ever annual Impact Report in May 2022. The report tracks the company’s progress against 11 sustainability goals aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Among TTC’s aims to reach by 2025: using 50 percent electricity through renewable sources, combating overtourism by expanding offerings to less visited regions by 20 percent, and reducing food waste by 50 percent. TTC also ensures that all wildlife experiences adhere to an animal welfare policy created in partnership with World Animal Protection, a London-based nonprofit.
The first report, which captures data from 2020 and 2021, is part of a five-year strategy called How We Tread Right. Reporting creates transparency, according to Shannon Guihan, chief sustainability officer for TTC. “Data doesn’t lie, and it helps us to identify what’s working and what’s not, enabling us to shift gears to ensure the best results,” Guihan says. “From the travelers’ perspective, it allows them to do their research and make their own decisions as to what travel provider is walking the walk.”
As its sustainability strategy unfolds, TTC is becoming increasingly ambitious. Since the launch of its strategy in 2020, the company’s primary goal is to achieve net zero. In the spring of 2022, it submitted its greenhouse gas emissions targets for review by the Science Based Targets initiative. Once approved, TTC will become the largest privately held travel company with verified science-based reduction targets.
For empowering travelers
More than 80 percent of international travelers today, according to a recent survey by Booking.com, say sustainable travel is of vital importance. Yet travel companies have had few ways of showing potential customers how their hotel or flight is a green choice.
Enter Travalyst, a nonprofit founded in 2019 by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. It offers information and tools that help conscious travelers make more informed choices about what to book.
Travalyst brought together global companies with powerful digital platforms—including Tripadvisor, Booking.com, and more recently Google and Expedia Group—to create common sustainability measurement standards in both hotels and aviation.
“We know that to truly make sustainable travel mainstream, it’s not going to be one company or one organization or one nonprofit,” says Travalyst CEO Sally Davey. “It has to be a collective effort.”
For hotels, the coalition created a set of sustainability standards that includes running on 100 percent renewable energy and investing a certain amount of revenue back into community and conservation projects. The measurements were rolled out in the form of Booking.com’s Travel Sustainable badge in 2021, followed soon after by Google Travel’s hotel search tool, which now includes an “eco-certified” filter. For flight data, the coalition aligned Skyscanner’s emissions calculator with Google’s, so that consumers can simply search for flights and opt for one with lower carbon emissions.
Travalyst is now identifying other key partners and expanding its independent advisory group. The advisory group includes Dr. Anna Spenceley, chair of the World Commission on Protected Areas (part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature), and Jeremy Smith, the cofounder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency.
“Many consumers don’t realize just how profound tourism is as a sector,” Davey says. “Travel is an incredibly powerful force for good when done right. As consumers, we can truly make an impact by making better choices.”
For eliminating plastics
Hotel brand Six Senses has, since its founding in 1995, considered environmental sustainability to be a key aspect of luxury and wellness. And as Six Senses continues to evolve—with 21 hotels and resorts in 17 countries, many in remote, biodiverse settings—so does its commitment to do right by the planet.
“Sustainability is part of who we are,” says CEO Neil Jacobs. “How we build, operate, and engage with the community encapsulates our philosophy. We’ve been doing it for close to 30 years, and it’s engrained in our company culture.”
In 2020, Six Senses was one of the first signatories to join the U.N. Global Tourism Plastics Initiative. The company’s biggest push today is plastic elimination: This year, it worked to remove every scrap of single-use plastic from the guest experience, and it is now tackling single-use plastic in back-of-house operations.
All Six Senses properties have full-time sustainability officers who identify projects that will make the biggest impact. At the recently opened Six Senses Fort Barwara, in India’s arid Rajasthan state, a rewilding effort is helping to combat desertification. In the Maldives, Six Senses Laamu has a team of on-site biologists dedicated to marine conservation. Six Senses Yao Noi in Thailand installed filters that deliver clean drinking water to more than 107,000 residents.
According to Jacobs, the long-term goal is to preserve the places their guests travel far to experience. Because beyond high-thread-count sheets or sumptuous spas, the experience of a thriving, bio-diverse destination is the ultimate luxury.
USTOA & Innovation Norway
For combating climate change
In May 2022, 40 travel executives from around the world gathered in Bodø, Norway, to discuss how their businesses needed to evolve to address climate change. They tried some of Norway’s most eco-friendly travel experiences, including Brim Explorer’s silent fjord tours on a hybrid-electric ship. They heard from such speakers as Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru, founder of Black Girl Environmentalist, a community rooted in principles of environmental justice.
They had gathered as part of the first-ever Sustainability is Responsibility summit, which was hosted by the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) and Innovation Norway, a government-owned company that brings exports, investments, and tourism under one strategic umbrella. At the summit, Innovation Norway shared the practical logistics of meeting its climate goals, including how to navigate financial and governmental hurdles.
Norway, a world leader in sustainability, is tackling climate change with metrics that have been approved by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. The country aims to end all sales of new gasoline vehicles by 2025. Today, thanks to tax incentives, more than half of new cars purchased in Norway are electric. By 2026, western Norway’s fjords will only allow zero-emission electric ferries, cruise ships, and tourist boats. By 2030, the capital city of Oslo plans to have lowered 95 percent of its carbon emissions.
“We are in the first stage of building a sustainability community that will move forward for the next 50 years,” says Terry Dale, president of the USTOA, the travel trade association representing close to $19 billion in revenue and 9.8 million annual travelers. “Everyone was very transparent and honest and willing to share.”
According to Hege Barnes, Innovation Norway’s regional director for the Americas, sustainability is never a fixed point and requires continuous collaboration and improvement. “There’s a term in Norway called dugnad that means ‘everybody on deck,’” she says. “We all must help make this happen. You need constant education and a constant reminder that even small things can make a big difference.”
For driving bookings through responsible travel
In 2010, Melbourne-based tour company Intrepid Travel became carbon neutral. In 2018, it became the travel industry’s largest B Corporation—that is, a certified social enterprise. In 2019, it hired a climate scientist, Dr. Susanne Etti, to lead the organization’s decarbonization efforts for its trips and its global operations. In 2020, Intrepid became the world’s first global tour operator to create verified science-based emission targets. And by 2035, the company wants its emissions to be in line with the Paris Agreement threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, the company has grown rapidly, having doubled its revenue between 2016 and 2020, according to CEO James Thornton. “We can be commercially successful, but we can also have a very strong purpose,” Thornton says. “And if you get those two things right, having a strong purpose can drive commercial success, and having strong commercial success means you can invest more in your purpose activities.”
Intrepid’s next area of focus is to become a more active participant in racial and social justice, which Thornton sees as intersecting with environmental justice. In 2019, the company created a Reconciliation Action Plan to strengthen ties with First Nations groups in Australia. Meanwhile, U.S.-based offices are creating relationships with BIPOC-owned businesses and representatives from such groups as the Crow Nation, the Lakota people, and the National Blacks in Travel and Tourism Collaborative. Intrepid’s U.S. itineraries now include an experience in South Dakota told from an Indigenous perspective.
“[In the past], we’ve been much more climate-driven than social injustice–driven,” Thornton says. “And that’s why we’re starting to take those first progressive steps in terms of including BIPOC voices.”
Virginia Tourism Company
For welcoming everyone
In 2019, as the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC) prepared to commemorate the quadricentennial of the arrival of Africans to Virginia, the company surveyed Black visitors regarding their experiences in the state.
“Some of the reactions were ‘We did not feel welcomed,’ ‘We were talked down to,’ ‘We were not told the truth,’ and ‘We were not given the whole story,’” recalls Rita McClenny, the CEO of VTC, which partnered with the marketing firm JMI on the survey.
For McClenny, a Black woman born and raised in Virginia, these responses weren’t surprising. But the hard data served as the catalyst she felt the organization needed to drive a more inclusive approach to tourism. “Images do make a difference. If I don’t see myself in the story, then I don’t believe necessarily that I’m welcome there, because no one looks like me.”
Using these insights, VTC adopted a wide-ranging approach to making Black travelers feel more welcome in Virginia, working closely with its ad agency, destination marketing organizations, and freelance photographers. Since 2018, the organization’s 12-person board went from including only one Black woman to having five people of color. VTC has worked with iconic Virginia museums and sites, including Montpelier, Monticello, Jamestown, and Fort Monroe National Monument, to tell parts of Black history that had been forgotten or buried. Monticello now showcases the lives of prominent Black residents such as Sally Hemings, a woman born into slavery in Virginia who had several children with Thomas Jefferson—a story most docents previously weren’t equipped to tell, McClenny says.
VTC is starting to see the impact of its efforts. In 2021, the company’s annual Visitor Profile survey showed 74 percent of Black travelers to Virginia were “very satisfied” with their trip that year, a rate on par with that of leisure travelers overall. But the work is never done, according to McClenny. Her team is strategizing on highlighting Black history as part of the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution in 2026, while also ramping up efforts to identify and remove biases against other groups, including Asian Americans, LGBTQ travelers, and visitors with disabilities.
“It’s all about protecting what we honor,” McClenny says, “and preserving your beliefs to share with others to appreciate. It comes down to love.”
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