Sally Davey thought it was a hoax. In 2019, while working on sustainability initiatives at Tripadvisor, she received a phone call from someone saying they were with the office of the Duke of Sussex, and would she come to Kensington Palace to meet with him about a travel initiative he was thinking about?
Doubts notwithstanding, she went and learned that, indeed, the call was legit. And joining her at the table with Prince Harry were representatives from Booking.com, Visa, Skyscanner and Ctrip.
During that meeting, she recalls, she was "blown away" by the prince's knowledge of travel and sustainability and his desire to create a clear, consistent and trusted sustainability rating system that could be adopted across their platforms and others.
All those present acknowledged the need for such a framework and understood that, although there was no lack of well-intentioned initiatives and good efforts in tourism, there wasn't a shared understanding about how one even defines "good." There were thousands of different labels and schemes bandied about to assess sustainability in tourism that, for the most part, just ended up confusing both operators and travelers.
The prince felt the group might be able to collaborate to create a credible program at scale, but he shared concerns about potential challenges. First of all, could these extremely competitive consumer brands actually work together? Could they produce results and not just talk and make pledges? And could they, working together, ultimately bring reliable data about sustainability into the mainstream?
Flash-forward three years. Davey is now CEO of the effort, which is called Travalyst. Two other partners, Google and Expedia, have joined the original five companies. Darrell Wade, chairman of Intrepid Travel, a tour operation that's an acknowledged leader in sustainable practices, is chairman of the group.
And Prince Harry is as deeply involved as ever. "He understands the issues," Davey said. "His knowledge about subjects related to travel sustainability is just profound. He's president of [the nonprofit] African Parks, and that cuts across multiple sustainability issues -- environmental, social and economic -- and he understands the complexity involved in sustainability and that there's a broad spectrum of issues impacted by a range of factors."
Prince Harry convened a group of 50 researchers to look deeply into the topic, and they created "a file this size" -- Davey held her hands about five inches apart -- "and he read every single page of it, wrote notes on every single page."
Davey considers that the pilot program, which wrapped three weeks ago, was a success.
"We proved that we could get these guys around a table and have them play nicely together, and that we could get them to actually build something meaningful that we could implement effectively," she said.
What, exactly, has been built?
"We call it a framework," Davey said, "a unified framework for reporting sustainability."
The framework consists of two parts. The first is a list of attributes or key data points that need to be collected about a property in order to calculate a score. The second is the methodology that assesses the attributes.
"For example, you would collect information about energy and water usage from a hotel as well as policies for their employees, community engagement, etc.," Davey said. "You would then apply the methodology, and the methodology spits out a calculation for a hotel. Or, in aviation, a score for sustainability on a specific flight based on an emissions calculation."
The program is already live on Expedia and Booking.com, and the attributes Travalyst took into consideration are listed on the hotel page.
"Depending on the platform, you might see a label that says, essentially, that this property has a travel sustainable badge because it achieved a suitable threshold," Davey said. "It's the exact same framework on all of our other partners' sites. And so, over time, regardless of where consumers are looking or booking, they will see the same information, consistently presented."
The next stage, she said, is to make it open source so that anybody can plug it into their booking site. "On the aviation side, it's already underway: Google is hosting the aviation framework so that anybody can take it and plug it in, completely free of charge."
Other partners are working to roll these out on their sites in the near future, said Travalyst chief marketing officer Tess Longfield.
Davey said she is in discussions with GDSs, large travel agencies, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and others and expects to be making announcements about additional partners when she addresses the European conference of the Global Business Travel Association in Brussels next month. She envisions companies from small travel agencies to large booking sites incorporating the framework.
She said that, although the initial focus is on aviation and hospitality, a goal is to involve others, including tour operators, as both partners and subjects of evaluation.
"There's a very ambitious and exciting road map ahead for growth," Davey said.
All of this sounds very compelling and hopeful. But I did raise a concern about something that I felt had undermined the various badges and certifications that appeared during the pandemic and which purported to certify that a hotel, airline or even a destination was "Covid-safe." Most of the programs that I came across, even the one rolled out by the WTTC, relied on self-reporting rather than an independent audit. How, I asked, did Travalyst ascertain sustainability while also safeguarding against greenwashing?
The company currently does rely on properties self-reporting, Longfield acknowledged. "But our partners have the unparalleled opportunity to leverage the collective strength of technology to tackle these issues at scale for the first time," she said. "We're harnessing the high volume of bookings as well as moderation, for example, from reviews from our technology partners. Moving forward, we plan to continue evolving these systems to make it easier to include proof points for certain sustainable practices -- energy bills, for example -- leveraging certification data and possibly conducting audits if earlier methods indicate that an audit might be warranted."
"There's still a very clear role for auditing and certification, but we first need to solve the scale problem," Davey added.
Earlier in my career, I was publisher of a group of titles in the U.S. and U.K. that rated hotels. One used an algorithm to assign a rating on a scale from 1 to 10, another used an algorithm that assigned categories that tour operators use when building itineraries. Yet another publication had human correspondents who visited and critiqued hotels, assigning 1 to 5 stars to each property.
The most difficult part of establishing criteria for any of these rankings was the range of factors that might legitimately limit what even a fine hotel could offer. For instance, if we had concluded that to be considered a five-star hotel, a property must have a swimming pool, that would eliminate the Waldorf Astoria and several other great hotels in Manhattan.
And so, as regards sustainability, I would imagine that conserving water would be critical for a hotel in Los Angeles but perhaps irrelevant for a castle in Scotland. How can a technical solution accurately evaluate the myriad conditions that may be important in one location and pointless in another?
"I couldn't agree more," Davey said, "and this is exactly what our methodology does. It takes variations into account, not just geographically but also based on lodging type, because you can't compare a safari lodge or a guesthouse to the Waldorf. It's such an important point, one that so many people miss. There's a lot of complexity in sustainability, and ultimately all that complexity has to live behind the scenes and be accounted for."
The search for a unified vision to assess sustainability has been the holy grail for quite some time. In 2009, I joined the steering committee of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism Criteria, formed by Ted Turner. Travalyst's terminology echoes the goals of the partnership, which were to reduce the confusion and clutter created by the hundreds of competing sustainable certification programs that were already in existence 13 years ago.
Turner called for a "framework" that would provide a "universal" understanding and application of sustainability in travel. Major travel companies, including Expedia, Hyatt, Choice Hotels, Sabre/Travelocity, ASTA and the American Hotel & Lodging Association were also on the steering committee.
I wrote at the time that defining terms for sustainable tourism certification would be "a very big deal" if it came to fruition.
It didn't happen as envisioned. The criteria were drawn up but never universally applied.
Looking back, perhaps what doomed it was, ironically, the drive to be inclusive: Input was sought from 2,500 conservationists, industry leaders, governmental authorities and U.N. bodies to develop guidelines, and drafts went to 80,000 people for comment before a document was produced.
Despite this wealth of feedback, I wrote at the time that the resulting report "was mostly bone and little meat." It lacked benchmarks and data-based guidelines to measure compliance. Subsequent meetings I attended became unfocused, diffused by the expression of too many points of view.
Which speaks to the wisdom of Prince Harry beginning this with just five partners and constructing a pilot to test whether even this relatively small group could be productive together before expanding further.
So, once again, I have hope that what we are looking at what could be "a very big deal." Of the myriad programs out there that have come to my attention, this is the one I'll be watching most closely.