“I’m living the life travel bloggers always talk about—only without the pressure to record every minute of it. And I’ve been lucky enough to make a good living doing it," says Richard Edwards a.k.a. @greentravelguy on Twitter and Instagram.
In just the two quarters preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, Edwards visited Rio, Oaxaca, Havana, Toronto, San Diego, Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Machu Picchu, Sweden, Costa Rica, Spain and Melbourne. The trips were all work-related, but also afforded him time to genuinely experience each and every destination.
Edwards is a Condé Nast Top Travel Specialist. His company, Greenspot.Travel, designs custom vacations and local experiences for upscale eco-conscious travelers at the finest ecolodges and resorts in Central America and select locations around the world.
A former executive in one of the biggest adventure travel companies, he’s also a long-time advocate for sustainable travel. His success and connections in the industry have brought him lucrative opportunities to consult with international travel brands, tourism boards, and NGOs on how to market sustainable travel to the public.
Lately, Edwards has been living the life in Costa Rica while taking on smaller projects, like the SEO work he and I have recently partnered on. I took the opportunity to ask him to share some insights on growing a travel business.
How did you get started in the travel industry?
Life was good at the time. I was working on sustainable development programs and policies within a division of the Organization of American States in one of its larger sites in Costa Rica. This was before sustainability was on the minds of too many people and we knew it would soon be everywhere. So, it was very interesting work. But in a word, it was slow.
I wasn’t really looking for a change, but one week an ad popped up in the Sunday paper (a clue that this was some time ago) for the Director of Sales of the most well-known ecotourism company in the country at the time. I answered it, somehow got the job, and have worked primarily in travel ever since.
You’ve worked with a lot of different travel brands on their marketing, what have been some of your favorite projects?
Growing a travel business from scratch is fun. Working with talented people to do it is even more fun.
For example, I had the opportunity to guide a small team from the United Nations Foundation in laying out the original branding for the industry-wide Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). We worked alongside creative people in travel and marketing (like Bob Minihan from MERGE), to create a brand new entity for sustainability.
When you have that many different people—from huge multi-nationals to boutique travel companies to tourism non-profits to travel media—all working together, there are going to be, and were, a lot of opinions about how to represent the effort to the world. But the branding we created is still largely being used today, so the intricate process we went through was worthwhile.
Even more fun is updating an existing brand for a company or destination that’s already doing well.
For example, when leading marketing for UnCruise in Seattle, the initial challenge for me was to create a framework for the new brand that passed the eye test for people who already knew the company. They need to be able to still connect with the brand in their heart, since they have an affinity for the way things have always been.
Then we had to be sure that the new look, feel and approach performed with positive, measurable business results. That’s all that really matters in the end. When all those results come together as agreed and get positive results, it hits home as the “why” within all the marketing we do.
What advice would you have for those interested in growing their travel business?
That is a very timely question right now.
Actually, post-pandemic, the answer for how to grow a travel business hasn’t really changed, and is even more of an imperative than before: engage in great story-telling that reaches your customer in a way that creates a connection between them and what you do. They need to know how those experiences feel when they experience them with you.
Content like that is now even more vital with all the changes that are coming to digital marketing. As audience targeting and the ability to do anything resembling “push marketing” becomes more limited, we’re going to have to pull travelers in. So your stories had better be good. And plentiful. And compelling.
What is the biggest mistake that you’ve seen travel brands make when it comes to online marketing?
Mistakes in all marketing in this space generally tie into consistency... or lack thereof. Even if your techniques aren’t the most up-to-date or efficient, strong consistency in putting a certain set of marketing activities out into the world will get some results.
But it’s very difficult to be consistent when you’re setting goals that aren’t tied to regularly measurable and reportable results. And it’s also difficult to reach goals if you aren’t setting any!
“We’re going to improve our SEO” isn’t a goal. If you plan on growing your travel business, make sure you’re setting highly specific goals that can be tracked using various metrics and analytics.
What marketing tools/apps do you find indispensable when working on a campaign?
Google Analytics. AdWords. The relevant analytics tool connected to an organization’s e-marketing. And TripAdvisor, or wherever the organization has the most reviews.
I can’t think of a marketing project or campaign where I wouldn’t want the insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the existing marketing and existing customer base that those tools combined will provide.
If I had to choose one, it would be the source of customer reviews, if there are enough of them. Content campaigns and e-marketing can be built around a healthy mix of reviews and some experience marketing to travelers. The rest comes through ongoing measurement and adjustments.
You’re an advocate for green travel, what do you think the industry needs to do to become more sustainable?
That’s the big question.
In short, it’s socioeconomic equity. Travel is a constant battle between the competitive, large travel companies who squeeze margins and push small, local companies out of business or to unlivable profit levels.
Ideally, consumers would continue down the path many have been on of having real, local experiences on their travels that are difficult, expensive or impossible to replicate for the big companies that extract profits from destinations.
However, I’m fairly certain consumer buying choices alone aren’t enough. So the longer answer to your question—though it by no means touches on all of the variables and needs—is that the larger travel companies, who aren’t going away, are going to have to truly put the proper value on maintaining intact destinations and cultures in the places they visit. That should be a priority, since those destinations are the product.
Such valuing must be done in part by involving those communities--those people--in the business. And more fairly compensating them so that they have incentive to maintain their true way of life and care for the natural world around them as they have, in many cases, for centuries or millennia.