Your Answer to Finding Sustainable Tourism Around the Globe
The Mindful Tourist was just recently made aware of a global-yet-local travel company that is working to promote small accommodations for travelers. As you know, our standards are quite high for these companies. We have slammed others for presenting themselves as something they’re not (here, here, and here).
WHL started off as a project working to help small accommodations providers in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to access and leverage the internet to market their properties in order to be competitive with larger chain hotels. Since then, it has become its own company and now operates as a quasi-franchise type model with local partners in the destinations who do all the things best done locally (including working directly with the local accommodation providers and with travelers) and with WHL doing the things best done centrally (technology and web marketing).
While we do think the WHL website could be improved (it seems a little confusing and unwieldy sometimes), they are truly doing good work. We recently had the opportunity to interview their CEO, Len Cordiner, based in Sydney, Australia (thus the adorable spelling of words like neighbouring, recognise, realise, and organisations! Ha – we kid because we love, Len!).
The Mindful Tourist: What’s the reasoning behind what you do at WHL?
Len Cordiner: The story is a long one. We started as a project financed by the International Finance Corporation, part of the World Bank Group, looking at how to get small accommodation providers in the developing world online. It’s the same “last mile” issue which confronts most e-enabling projects in the developing world where you confront a mix of challenges (infrastructure, business skills, language skills, lack of money, etc.).
The solution we ended up with was to work with a representative within each local community who could help bridge these last mile challenges (i.e., who spoke English, had the skills and knowledge, had internet access, etc.) and we then supplied those things needed to support the local partner which they could not access elsewhere like the technology system, marketing/distribution, and online payment gateways.
That was the start. The approach worked and the result is that WHL became a sort of ASP and online marketing company. It has evolved however. For example everyone on the WHL team is very passionate about sustainable tourism, so we have made this a key mission. We can also see that being local …and bringing the knowledge and passion of local people into the mix with travelers allows us to deliver a different type of travel experience than most large online travel agents can deliver so we are busy now working out how to really leverage our key asset: the hundreds of local travel partners making up our network.
TMT: How did you yourself get involved in this work?
LC: I was managing the IFC project in tourism which became WHL and when the company was spun off as a private company in March 2006, I moved over to WHL. Prior to taking on the consulting work with the IFC, I had spent over 30 years in the private sector running businesses in numerous countries, and from 1998 onward I was very active in the e-commerce area.
TMT: What has been most rewarding for you about this work?
LC: Two things: First I have truly enjoyed seeing the WHL team and network grow and become like a large family. We all work in a true spirit of win-win and with a passion for what we are doing and this is a real buzz. The second aspect of what we do which I love is meeting small accommodations and tour operators who are the beneficiaries of what we have been building. They may not understand how their product gets sold ….but they really appreciate that it is.
TMT: What has been most challenging?
LC: The biggest challenges have been money (or lack thereof), and the fact that we have taken on a global roll-out. The money issue is a common refrain with most start-ups so nothing new here. The global piece however is something a little different. The problem with travel industry for start-ups is that it is a huge and fairly mature business globally so new guys coming on the scene are not really very interesting unless you have scale. Having 3 or 4 websites with products from only a few countries is not very interesting to potential distribution partners (like airlines, or the big travel agent networks), so you are forced to really build the network before you can start to build the relationships you need to drive the business. So, for the past 3 years since spinning off from the IFC we have been quietly building the asset. We are now at almost 200 destinations live in around 70 countries and are only just now starting to appear on the radar of the mainstream travel industry.
TMT: How does WHL find its local partners? What do local partners have to show you in order to become a part of your network?
LC: We have sales offices in each region of the world responsible for recruitment of the local partners. They tackle one country at a time researching the size and nature of the tourism business and then deciding on the number and location of WHL sites which they think will work commercially. Having done that, they work through local trade associations, do internet research, seek advice from existing WHL partners in neighbouring countries or regions, and come up with a list of local prospects. Essentially we are looking for local inbound tour operators with an established business, good reputation with local suppliers and travelers, a passion for their destination and a commitment to sustainable tourism. We don’t always get 100% of these criteria filled for every destination, but we come pretty close in most cases. The process for how the sales are done is on our recruitment web site where prospective partners can also see where we have live sites, where we have sites under construction (there are around 100 of these currently) and where we are recruiting now.
TMT: How do the local partners find the lodging and tours? Do they ensure all of their listings are socially conscious in some way?
LC: Being local and in the business, they usually already know the suppliers who are reliable and doing the right thing by the local community. The reality is that in much of the developing world the ideals of sustainable tourism (whether the critical issues are social, environmental, or cultural in nature) are second to making money to survive and so we find we end up with a mix of suppliers, those with some programs supporting a sustainable future (whether they realise it or not) and those without. For those doing something we recognise their efforts by highlighting it on our web sites (our “Caring for the Destination” program) and make this a point of differentiation from others doing nothing. We then encourage those doing nothing to also start, in the hope they will see that doing good is also good business.
TMT: What new things are coming up for WHL?
LC: Lots. Apart from continuing to expand our network (we expect to be operating in over 300 destinations in 90+ countries by the end of 2009), we will shortly start rolling out a new venture with Intrepid Travel to offer a branded range of short duration experiential tours across the WHL network. Intrepid is one of the world’s largest small group tour operators running thousands of tours every year and with a real passion for building a sustainable travel industry. Their tour development expertise, brand, and established distribution channels combined with WHL’s global local partner network and technology platform fit so well we just had to join forces and give this a shot.
TMT: Do you have anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
LC: I suspect your readers are on the same page as Mindful Tourist and WHL already, so not much to add. From an industry perspective I am a big fan of organisations like ours working together to share our stories with our collective readers. If 20 or 30 such groups all sharing the same values and vision for travel could work closely together we just might start a movement which would give us that visibility we need. I am grateful to you, Shadia, for taking a first step with WHL toward making this happen.
Aw, thanks, Len.