Arnie WeissmannThis is the story of a bootmaker interested in bovine digestion and three GDS CEOs. It also involves an upscale consumer travel magazine, a former U.S. president and millions of commercial airline passengers.

And in the end, it reveals how travel agents can help change the world.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the bootmaker.

Although Jeffrey Swartz describes himself as a bootmaker, he's better known as the third-generation CEO of Timberland, a company that makes hiking boots and outdoor clothing. His father and grandfather had already built Timberland into a $156 million company when he took over. As CEO, he has dedicated himself to finding the intersection of commerce and justice and has worked to make Timberland a model of corporate social responsibility.

In his 11 years as CEO, Swartz has done well by doing good. Under his leadership, Timberland has grown into a $4.1 billion company.

I heard Swartz speak Sept. 21 at Conde Nast Traveler's World Savers Congress about some of the programs his company has initiated. The day-long Conde Nast summit is designed to showcase travel companies that support the environment or make meaningful contributions to the communities in which they operate. Speakers and panels explored topics related to the travel industry's involvement in green and community involvement projects.

I have now attended three of these annual conferences, and an interesting thing has happened: So many companies, large and small, have instituted corporate responsibility programs that there's a certain sameness to the stories, particularly those of large travel corporations (panelists represented Carlson, Starwood, Ritz-Carlton and RockResorts, among others).

Although many companies talked about instituting energy-efficient hardware or community outreach programs -- and some were quite creative -- after three of these summits, the stories were beginning to sound familiar. I didn't doubt the sincerity of the speakers' efforts, but I began to feel a vague impatience.

Swartz's keynote speech clarified the issue. He said we should no longer feel content to address issues related to sustainability and social responsibility one company at a time. Instead, he said, competitors must come together to address problems that can't be solved by one company alone.

As an example, he said that in thinking about his supply chain, he focused on cows. The source material on which his company depends for leather releases so much natural methane that the emissions have been compared unfavorably to the levels of environmental damage done by airplanes.

To address a problem this huge, Swartz wants to sit down with Nike and other competitors and study cows' digestive processes in an effort to reduce the amounts of methane they produce. He challenged the Conde Nast audience to think about what their industry could do, rather than just what their company could do, and to entertain the notion that to achieve results, they would have to work with their competitors.

The panel that followed Swartz included both Hyatt CEO Mark Hoplamazian and Taj CEO Raymond Bickson. During the question period that followed, I asked Hoplamazian and Bickson to identify a problem in hospitality that could benefit from working with competitors, as Swartz suggested. Hoplamazian replied that hotels were by their very nature local and needed to address local concerns. He suggested that perhaps Swartz's admonitions weren't relevant to hospitality.

Bickson agreed.

As soon as that session ended, Gregg Michel, president and COO of Crystal Cruises, approached me. The cruise industry, he said, through CLIA, was an example of competition working together on standards for recycling, pollution, cleaner propulsion and stack emissions.

"On the technical side, there's a lot of collaboration," Michel said.

Michel is the current chairman of CLIA, which has recently found itself in a public fight with Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization that had graded cruise lines on their earth-friendliness; the highest grade, earned by Holland America Line, was a B. Major mass-market players Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean International received a D-minus and an F, respectively.

CLIA fired back, charging that the standards Friends of the Earth used were not based on regulations but rather on the organization's own "flawed" and "unscientific" criteria. Acknowledging that the cruise industry has been a regular target for environmental activists, Michel said the criticisms were outdated.

"There's an earnest objective within each company to do what we feel is right," he said.

I don't doubt that the cruise industry, like most large industries, works hard to increase fuel efficiency and invest in technology to handle waste more efficiently. And it's in the lines' self-interest to produce ships that exceed current environmental standards, because cruise ships have a very long shelf life, and it's less expensive to build to assumed future standards than retrofit when regulations become more stringent. It's smart business as well as good public relations.

But a stunning example of competitors working together for a common cause came Sept. 23, when it was announced that competing GDSs Sabre, Amadeus and Travelport (which owns Worldspan and Galileo) have come together in support of a purely altruistic initiative projected to raise $1 billion over its first four years to finance child and maternal health care for poor people around the world.

The project, called MassiveGood, is dependent upon travel agencies in order to be effective (see related story, "Nonprofit used GDSs to raise money for charity."). 

The backstory of MassiveGood is a case study in how competitors can collaborate to benefit humanity on a significant scale. Its unlikely origins lie in a mandatory tax on airline tickets that's imposed by 18 countries and is hugely unpopular within the travel industry. The money is distributed by Unitaid, affiliated with the World Health Organization, to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries.

Jean-Francois Rial, president of Voyageurs du Monde, a combined travel agency and tour operator that is France's sixth largest travel company, had supported the tax, but he knew it was unpopular in other countries. Rial began thinking about how to expand the program and came up with an elegant solution: Enlist the GDSs to collect voluntary donations in countries not covered by the mandatory tax agreement.

As simple as the idea sounds, its execution was complex. Europe-based Amadeus was the first GDS to sign on, and it agreed to develop the underlying technology. Travelport was the next to enroll. But Sabre was still considering the proposal earlier this month.

Federico Serrono, director of strategic partnerships of the Millennium Foundation, which raises funds for Unitaid, said that the tipping argument came during the National Business Travel Association conference in San Diego. NBTA keynote speaker Bill Clinton, whose Clinton Foundation's HIV/AIDS Initiative works with Unitaid, met privately with representatives of the three GDSs after his speech and sealed the deal.

Other travel groups are involved with the project, as well. Mondial Assistance, the parent company of travel insurer Access America, will be providing call centers to answer consumer questions about the program, and although the initiative will first focus only on leisure travel, corporate giants American Express Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit Travel, No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on Travel Weekly's Power List, have pledged their support.

If all goes as planned, starting in the first quarter of 2010 travel agents will have the option of allowing a GDS prompt to remind them to ask clients if they'd like to donate $2 per ticket for Unitaid.

Sigrun Mogedal, Norway's ambassador for HIV/AIDS and global health initiatives, who also helped facilitate the program, believes that travelers will be more than willing to donate. "A mandatory tax will always be controversial, but a donation takes it out of the debate about how the public sector spends its money. This links crossing borders with a responsibility to care about people living in countries that one visits, and that has a lot of value on its own."

Amadeus CEO David Jones, Travelport CEO Jeff Clarke and Chris Kroeger, senior vice president of global accounts for Sabre, all told me that the cooperative dialogue among the GDSs will enable their companies to more easily sit down and discuss other, less altruistic initiatives, such as setting technical standards for booking unbundled airline fees.

As the bootmaker indicated, good things can happen when frenemies get together. "We have gotten to know the others better through this process," Clarke said. "This is a real substantive example of technical cooperation that can extend to other things.

"Of course," he added, mindful that the line between trust and antitrust was fuzzy, "we will have lawyers in the room."

Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.

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