Upstairs, Celebrity Cruises President Dan Hanrahan was talking about how cruise ships were usually designed from the top down: The guest experience is created first, then a hull is built underneath it. However, his newest ship, the 2,850-passenger Solstice, was done in reverse order: First, a very fuel-efficient hull was designed, and then the passenger areas were created above the footprint of that hull.
"The design process usually takes about 18 months," Hanrahan said. "This added about a year. But the whole ship is designed to save energy. We're using an LED light that is as good as halogen but operates at a fraction of the cost."
He went on to describe how Celebrity partnered with 3M to create a window coating that reduces the amount of heat passing through a pane without reducing light. He talked about carpeting that wears slowly.
Downstairs, Lindblad Expeditions President Sven Lindblad was confessing that "our passenger ships are not the greenest ships. In an ideal world, I'd love to build state-of-the-art ships that are as efficient as possible, but a ship like that for the 100 to 150 passengers we carry would cost $100 million to $200 million. I don't know how to get a return on my investment at that price. It's hard to live with that contradiction."
These upstairs/downstairs statements were made on concurrent panels at the Conde Nast Traveler World Savers Congress last month in New York. Though I had to go back and forth (and up and down) to catch what I could from each, I came away with a unified theory: When it comes to implementing energy-efficient hardware and cutting-edge sustainability initiatives, midsize companies are disadvantaged.
Small companies seem to be able to focus on sustainability issues with some ease. Almost every winner of the Conde Nast Traveler World Saver Awards handed out that day was a small enterprise: A camp in Kenya that helps alleviate local poverty; a jungle lodge in Brazil that buys plots of old forest to protect it from logging; a hotel in Laguna Beach, Calif., that gives poor children a chance to learn firsthand about marine life; a safari lodge that repopulated big game to an area where wildlife had all but disappeared; a tour operator in Cambodia that provides local villages with clean water.
The sole exception was Vail Resorts (which shared first place with the Brazilian lodge), for offsetting its electrical use.
The runners-up were all well-known brands, including some very large ones: Accor, Disney Cruise Line, Banyan Tree, Air France. While it's heartening that these large companies and Celebrity are making serious efforts in the quest for sustainable travel, it's ironic, almost heartbreakingly so, that Lindblad and other midsize companies aren't showing up as winners or runners-up.
Travel's middle class -- the companies that lack the economic efficiencies of large scale but are too big to source efficiently with local green providers -- are in an uncomfortable position with sustainability.
Lindblad's father, Lars, practically invented ecotourism, and Sven's commitment to the environment is, literally, in his DNA.
On a day when most people were extolling their company's environmental programs, Sven Lindblad did no bragging. Yet his candid comments carried moral authority and gravitas: He didn't have to convince anyone that he cares deeply about the planet, and his comments reflected both his experience and the longevity of his commitment.
I spoke with him afterward about the economics of being a midsize company with environmental ambitions.
"There are pluses and minuses in every endeavor," he said. "We will not have the ability to build the most fuel-efficient and greenest ships and then cost-effectively amortize them over time with only 150 passengers per trip. But we can deliver certain experiences that have the capacity to change the world, or systems, or even legislation in a meaningful way.
"I don't feel disadvantaged," he said. "Perhaps the only disadvantage is a personal feeling. I'd love to do it all. But I can't."
Since Lindblad wasn't able to leave the dais to hear Hanrahan's upstairs panel, I described some features of the Solstice.
"I applaud him," Lindblad said. If there was even a trace of resentment in his voice, I didn't catch it.
Two weeks later, I found myself immersed in issues surrounding the U.N. Foundation's proposed framework for a universal definition of sustainability (SEE COVER STORY). Lindblad had said he was not in favor of global standards for certification. "It's never going to happen, and it never should happen," he'd said. "We shouldn't get drawn into who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. ... If people are trying to find their way through these issues and improve their behavior, they should be rewarded for any sort of staged improvement."
As a new member of the U.N. Foundation's steering committee of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Travel Criteria, I will keep Sven's positions, both philosophic and economic, in mind. While I believe there's more benefit than downside to universal standards, at the end of the day people in positions like Lindblad's should not be disadvantaged by a template that doesn't fit neatly around their approach.
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Because issues of sustainability and certification are on my mind, now seems a good time to announce that our print edition will soon be switching to paper that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to be 80% recycled. Certification required that our parent company, Northstar Travel Media, be audited by the Council, as was the paper mill.
Also, I'd like to call your attention to "Make a Difference," a recent supplement to Travel Professional, the official journal of The Travel Institute and also produced by Northstar Travel Media. A lot of passionate industry people were deeply involved in this project, and their chorus of voices makes significant contributions to the ongoing dialogue on sustainability. To read it, go to TravelWeekly.com, click on the "e-Learning" button on the bar below the logo, and choose "Partnered content." Then click the link on "Travel Professional: Make a Difference."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].