As an experienced marketing, sales and operations executive Melissa Foley has created international networks and relationships and is always benchmarking best practices.
Her superpower has always been an unsurpassed ability to cultivate strong relationships with stakeholders, and trade partners via social networking, marketing campaigns, trade associations and exhibition representation.
Utilizing 20 years as a Vice President of Marketing and Business Development in Corporate America, combined with extensive global travel experience, Melissa has been able to provide a unique perspective on tourism development.
She has spent the last 9 years consulting for various NGO’s in Greece, India, Cambodia, Thailand Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa supporting community development and integrating socially and environmentally ethical tourism.
Most recently as a marketing and operations consultant to local tour operators, lodges and the largest safari vehicle manufacturing company in Africa, Melissa Foley has gained valuable insights to Africa tourism industry specifically the market conditions of East Africa.
Melissa Foley on Developing Meaningful Travel Experiences
Melissa, your previous career background was as a marketing executive in commercial real estate in America. How has that experience guided and helped you in the consulting and advocacy work you do now?
We are living in a global economy and collective society where many of us share a growing concern about the dangers of excessive capitalism and consumerism. The collision is often in direct conflict with the ethos and principles of social and environmental sustainability. My past corporate life experience and insights have given me a unique ability and insight to help guide and channel this marketing and buying “power” for brands and businesses to reevaluate their operations and supply chains by supporting more local products and organizations that will have significant benefits to the community and stakeholders.
Together we can create genuine stories that will differentiate themselves from their competitors and educate travellers about the potential influence their wallets hold. When integrated sincerely and effectively, this is truly a collaborative model that is scalable, easy to duplicate in other markets and will have a meaningful and lasting impact.
Your first experience in sustainable tourism was working with multiple stakeholders for a Sea Turtle conservation project in Greece. What insights did you take home from this?
Originally, I began as a volunteer and quickly realized that my marketing and business development background would be a valuable resource to assist with public awareness and create a more organized and multi-beneficial collaboration between the various stakeholders such as the hotel industry, local municipalities, foreign tour operators throughout Europe and the UK, other conservation organizations and tourists.
One of the keys and most critical elements of the Sea Turtle Protection Organization’s conservation management plan protecting some of the most precious and vulnerable nesting beaches in the Mediterranean required the daily stacking of sunbeds in front of the hotels during nesting season and proper management of beachfront lights during hatching season. It was an interesting and challenging period during the economic crisis having to convince Greek hotel owners and managers to incur these added expenses. Greek islands are a major tourism destination for operators such as TUI, Kuoni, and Thomas Cook (then) who often insist on hotels maintaining various certification schemes such as Travelife, Green Key and Blue Flag that fortunately require cooperation and compliance with local conservation efforts.
Naturally, there was scepticism and reluctance at first. But subtly creating micro and macro layers of friendly competition to see which hotel, operator or island could be the most “turtle friendly” broke down the resistance. With some coaching and inspiration, and by providing training and content, to incorporate into their entertainment, kids clubs, marketing, and social media programming we saw far more engagement and support from the stakeholders. The immediate feedback from the hotel guests and visitors was so tremendously positive it convinced everyone.
It highlighted the importance of collaboration and the benefits of strategically creating a healthy competitive environment. However, once again, there must also be a larger driving force to incentivize businesses and the government to change or “do the right thing” with a monetary gain or at a minimum, experience a reduction in costs.
After years of travelling around the world doing pro bono work for various NGOs, what was different about the tourism landscape in East Africa that inspired you to focus on Intra Africa's sustainable tourism development?
I originally arrived in Moshi, at the base of Kilimanjaro to do some pro-bono consulting with a local NGO supporting an outreach program for street youth with incredible entrepreneurial spirit and talent. Eventually, I also started marketing consulting with the largest safari vehicle manufacturer in Africa, which became my fast-paced introduction to the African safari industry.
Working with many local operators and businesses throughout East Africa, I quickly recognized an obvious pattern. Expats who have established foreign-led safari companies seemed to have an inherent competitive advantage over many local companies with their marketing outreach and client communications. It presented a gap in the marketplace to coach and assist smaller owned brands, primarily emphasizing the importance of locals supporting locals. Combining my network of various social enterprises and conservation NGOs, and integrating them with SMEs throughout the region seemed obvious but had not yet been implemented at a consistent and scalable level previously.
Recalling my experience in Greece and particularly the allure of an internationally recognized certification such as Travelife, we reached out to them as they had not yet been introduced to any of the African markets. The timing was ideal as Travelife had received some EU funding to launch a pilot program and specifically was looking at beginning in Tanzania. Various stakeholders organized and engaged in a multi-day session to review the TL criteria to collectively agree on what was applied and feasible to the local logistics of the market and region.
Tanzania specifically has a unique layer of social sustainability to consider that is often overlooked by both the tourism industry and visitors regarding the human rights of the highly exploited porters and mountain crew on Kilimanjaro. For over 10 years, a tiny underfunded grassroots NGO the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project, now known as Kilimanjaro Responsible Tourism Organization, has been advocating for and monitoring the ethical treatment by local climbing companies of porters and mountain crew through a very transparent and highly effective certification program.
Given how extremely competitive and oversaturated the Tanzania and Kilimanjaro market is, with fixed park fees being the biggest expense of a climb, it’s always the crew who suffer when companies are underbidding to win clients. The bare minimum ethical and rarely enforced government requirements are often not met by a large portion of the local operators.
Ensuring porters are given basic amenities like those mentioned below are the key elements of the monitoring program.
- three meals a day
- proper sleeping conditions
- paid at least the minimum government-required salary within two days of a climb
- transparent tipping process
- proper gear
- being looked after if they fall ill
KPAP (now KRTO) has and continues to accomplish incredible work with tremendous impact with little to no resources. I realized the potential for greater impact if more local climbing companies participated in this free program. The missing elements were educating local climbing companies about the program, demonstrating marketing advantages and creating international public awareness to drive tourist and agent demand.
For those willing to be transparent and implement reasonable best practices, these two certifications have become a way for local brands to earn independent verification and credibility in the eyes of their clients and partners and set them apart in a market full of the same standard product offerings.
Little did I realize that living just below that majestic mountain how passionate I’d become for the protection of her people. I later became a board member of the International Mountain Explorers Connection which is the founding organization that created the monitoring program utilized by KRTO. It’s our goal to duplicate this model in other trekking regions globally such as Nepal, Peru, etc.
You are active in creating public awareness and advocacy for ethical climbing on Kilimanjaro. How did IMEC and KPAP, the organizations you support, support the porters during COVID when there were no climbers on the mountain?
We viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to repurpose our work in areas we were not previously familiar with and acted quickly in creating a small group of relevant participants to serve as an advisory committee to help direct us in the roles and support we could provide. We served as the coordinator of a collaborative effort among the partner companies and special experts to guide partner companies in managing the consequences of the pandemic.
We identified the immediate need for COVID safety measures and developed a phone tree method to educate the mountain crew, families and neighbours. We noticed the demand from clients to trek with a vaccinated crew and created a vaccine awareness class so that the crew could make an informed decision regarding their choice to get the vaccine or not.
We recognized that alternative income-generating projects would be needed during this extended period and designed a special class accordingly. We capitalized on Tanzanian’s farming capacities and helped them improve their practices. We utilized a Trainer of Trainers approach for the classes outside of the farming workshops and employed mountain-related staff who were laid off during the pandemic.
We introduced the Village Savings and Loan methodology to help people gather their financial resources together and become independent in their abilities to support each other financially. We realized that the mountain crew needed instruction in the basics of budgeting and money management to identify the essentials and preserve their limited savings for these.
What tips or suggestions do you have for newbies entering the tourism industry keen on making it more sustainable?
I would suggest we need more collaboration and a healthier balance between those individuals with valuable academic credentials and those with practical, tangible experience and insight from the field and day-to-day interactions.
There are so many cultural, legal, logistical, educational, and environmental aspects and challenges to consider when addressing sustainability holistically within the tourism and the supply chain. It simply cannot be done from abroad without understanding real-world practicalities and barriers.
There also needs to be more space for the actual business owners and employees to have a voice in the conversation, and share their experiences, challenges, successes and stories with the responsible/sustainable tourism community, rather than all the 'experts’ constantly talking to each other.
To your mind, is tourism a strong enough tool for protecting eco-sensitive regions and species conservation?
I believe the potential is there. However, it requires sincere and consistent participation and meaningful collaboration of all stakeholders involved. Everyone must have a seat at the table, with a benefit or gain for everyone, for any solution to be equitable and sustainable. And, in the spirit of consistency with my above theme, I still believe that public awareness and consumer demand will always remain a vital part of this equation that must not be forgotten when trying to motivate engagement on a local level.
How has your view of tourism changed over time?
Not to play the cliche COVID card, but I believe it was a much-needed reality check as the ultimate disrupter. The way we have been living and working simply was not and is not sustainable environmentally, physically, socially, or emotionally. We’ve seen so many businesses and industries globally reevaluate their operations and strategies. Specifically to tourism, COVID has brought some much-needed consolidation into some of the inundated markets, weeded out some of the bad actors and woken up some of the companies to operate more efficiently and stably.
Regarding consumers and their commitment to responsible tourism, the data and surveys always seem to suggest travellers are more sensitive and aware but on the ground, it doesn’t always translate into action. Therefore we must be better storytellers. Obviously not greenwashing, and thankfully consumers are starting to see through that noise. But if there truly is consistent integration in one’s business operations and supply chain that has positive holistic ramifications throughout the local communities, that can be beautifully weaved into the messaging and it will resonate with the right client demographic.
I also feel it's time the industry recognizes its collective obligation with a more profound effort advocating for ethical principles for wildlife, and cultural heritage protections and implementing some form of charitable impact as an assumed standard part of their product offering. We also must be more consistent in educating and advising visitors of best practices, especially in highly sensitive cultural areas. What happened in Zanzibar during COVID, for example, is an absolute disgrace and completely inexcusable.
Anything else you would like to mention?
As we know, the tourism industry has the greatest capacity to lift and empower communities. Together we all have a role and obligation to continue to evolve and do better for our people and planet. We simply must not continue to remain complacent and carry on as we once did. Innovation, evolution and collaboration will benefit us all. Where do you want to be on this journey?
Thank you, Melissa.
Enjoyed our interview with Melissa Foley on how certifications and technical assistance can help nature conservation and small businesses? Thanks for sharing!