Justin Francis claims to be the first travel agent to offer "more-authentic experiences that are better for destinations and local people."
And speaking at the recent European Travel Commission's annual Transatlantic Conference, he all but thumbed his nose at those who are working toward certifying "green" experiences with seals that indicate a hotel, tour or cruise ship has been measured against a specific standard for sustainability and declared compliant.
Rather than seals, Francis promotes storytelling. Before getting involved with travel, he had been the director of worldwide marketing for the Body Shop, a chain that sells earth-friendly skin care products, and he credits much of that enterprise's success to its ability to tell stories on its packaging.
For example, rather than simply stating "Made in Indonesia," a label might explain how a tribe on a remote island in that country gathers a rare berry whose essence is the key ingredient in that particular soap. An oblique promise is also made that by washing yourself with that particular cleansing bar, you, personally, improve the lives of tribe members.
Declaring that he believes in "principles and profit," Francis also put forth the rather appealing idea that while "organic food is more expensive, there is no reason why responsible tourism need be."
He noted that fair-trade, organic green tea costs more but tastes no different from the not-organically-grown leaves picked by opportunistic multinational corporations. However, he believes, a sustainable-travel experience is different and better without having to be more expensive, giving travel's responsible practitioners an advantage over other principled marketers.
"Experience for money is as important as value for money, and we are seeing experience inflation," he warned.
In response, his approach to marketing authentic travel is, as it was with the Body Shop, to "connect people who buy things with the people who make things."
After he spoke, it seemed to me that storytelling became the subtext of the conference.
In a subsequent panel, the audience heard the head of marketing for Bentley Motors, Joe Ashworth, make the astonishing admission that "nobody really needs a Bentley."
Not to be outdone, fellow panelist Larry Califano, vice president of sales and customer development for the pen maker Montblanc, followed up with: "Nobody needs a Bentley. And nobody needs a $500 writing instrument."
These guys are marketers?
Actually, while they might have appeared to be denigrating the products they peddle, they were in fact bragging. They were saying that they are such clever and inventive storytellers that they can persuade someone to pay $450,000 for a car and $500 for a pen.
And while the producer of a 621-horsepower automobile is unlikely to make the case that his product promotes sustainable travel, Ashworth's marketing techniques are virtually identical to those employed by ResponsibleTravel.com and the Body Shop.
When making his pitch, Ashworth will tell how it takes nine weeks to produce each car -- 15 hours are spent just stitching the leather covering over the steering wheel -- and then he invites his best customers into the factory to see for themselves.
"They become like children," he said. "When they sit at a bench in the factory, playing with balance wheels and bridges, it's a very powerful experience."
Likewise, Califano reported that Montblanc "invites collectors into facilities where the product is made. They're now part of the process; they can make a bespoke piece. They have the product and there's a story behind that product."
The final example of storytelling at the conference came from Kate Muhl, vice president and consumer strategist for Iconoculture, a trend-tracking integrated marketing company. But she didn't suggest how to construct stories for consumers; rather, she told how consumers have rewritten their own story about what a vacation can be, to better suit their new aspirations and budgets. We had better listen carefully, she advised.
Muhl said consumers have distilled their past vacations to discover the essence of what they enjoyed, and later seek those elements in a less expensive trip. She told how, in a focus group, she listened to a Florida resident say she wanted to go to Hawaii, but if she couldn't afford it, "give me a beach anywhere along the east coast of Florida" with a covered pier to fish, a condo with a beautiful view of the beach and the sound of waves to put her to sleep at night.
"She defined the benefits of her dream vacation," Muhl said, and those benefits, rather than the destination, became the story of her next holiday.
It's important to note that, although those elements sound somewhat generic (they can be found on coastlines around the world), they are nonetheless part of a highly personal story.
And that personal element is perhaps the common thread that connects the responsible-travel experience, a visit to the Bentley factory and lazing on the east coast of Florida.
Storytelling is, and always has been, at the heart of sales and marketing. But the storytellers at the European Travel Commission conference seemed to say that the nature of today's commercial storytelling has changed. Whether one's customers are sitting around a campfire in Zambia, polishing a pen in the Montblanc factory or taking a shower with a very special bar of soap, they must be the central characters in any story you tell.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.