Rob Holmes on the Power of Storytelling to Promote Sustainability in the Travel Industry

Published 07/10/2020

Rob Holmes, the founder of the award-winning content marketing agency GLP Films (GLP), is a master at telling stories of destinations and tourism businesses through captivating videos – and on a mission to promote sustainable travel.

In this interview, he shares how he highlights the stories from destinations around the world with a focus on making a positive impact on the livelihoods of the locals, their culture, heritage, environment, and wildlife. Rob also shares how his #TourismStrong video campaign highlights stories of optimism and community resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rob, what inspired you to use the art of storytelling to promote sustainable tourism?

I started in this industry through travel photography. I have travelled all over the world and really believe in the power of images to tell a story. After seeing Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which was so popular and influential, I saw the power of video to motivate and create change.

Storytelling is a powerful tool because when it’s done well, it connects people at an emotional level. Good stories are authentic, engaging, and real. Exploring a place or an issue through the eyes of another person is a great way to inspire and educate. And this is why stories work well to promote sustainable tourism. Travel at its best educates, inspires, and connects people.

How important is storytelling for encouraging tourism industry players and travellers to embrace sustainable travel – how can it help us obtain the critical mass needed to really see a change in practices and behaviour?

Building on the above, I think that good storytelling, to serve the goals of sustainable tourism, has to showcase real stories about real people, but ultimately focus on results. Any form of storytelling, whether text or pictures or video, if it’s authentic, people will engage with it, share it or use it to educate. This is true for individuals or businesses.

I can’t tell you how many people in the 12 years of founding GLP have approached me online or at a trade show, to tell me that they’ve used one of our films to educate their students, business colleagues, or consumers. And that tells me about the power of storytelling to inform and inspire change.

You have spearheaded a myriad of global content campaigns for top-tier destinations, airlines, brands, hotels, and non-profit organizations. Is sustainability finally becoming a core component of business and destination strategies – or is it still more of a promotional tool?

When I founded GLP back in 2008, “green” or “eco” tourism was at the periphery of tourism. Over time, businesses have seen that sustainable practices are more than a promotional tool, they can become cost-saving strategies by looking at systems, like water, waste, and recycling, and developing efficiencies.

When big companies started to put sustainability at the heart of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), investing their resources in it to make a difference, adopting new practices to differentiate, it evolved again.

Sustainability has really become the norm in doing business in tourism. And now, with the perspective of the coronavirus pandemic, it should become an even more essential part of doing business. A model where people come first, where communities come first, where nature, the environment, and climate are put first. Because that is what consumers are coming to expect and look for more and more.

Sustainability may still be used by some businesses as a promotional tool, but I think that the vast majority of businesses will make it essential going forward.

You are a Special Advisor to the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund. How do you determine the feasibility of the success of a grassroots project, before funding? What are the common challenges when it comes to funding?

The biggest challenge today globally, when allocating funding comes from the consumer’s concern that their money will not make a real difference. That it will go to other things like overhead or other areas where they don’t think it is making a direct impact. So, assessing an organization seeking funding is really important when it comes to feasibility. Questions we ask:

  • Will the funds go directly to solving a problem?
  • Will the organization be around long term?
  • Will the project really make an impact?

These are the most important questions that have to be asked.

The other challenge to be met is sharing the results and showing that donations have made an impact. We just produced two films through our #TourismStrong series to support a major anti-poaching campaign through ATCF and a question that came up was: how can we show that the money raised made an impact?

Also, the other challenge is to deliver the results quickly. People want to see that their dollars are making an impact in real-time. And demonstrating those results, in real-time, is putting increasing pressure on those organizations to show impact.

You are also a Board Member at the Global Ecotourism Network and Pacific Asia Travel Association. How do you see your role in these organizations?

Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed getting involved with top-tier organizations as a board member or as an advisor. It’s really been great connecting with like-minded individuals and organizations around the world.

With the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN), honestly, it’s just been fun to be in touch with great leaders in sustainable tourism around the world, to increase the awareness of sustainability within travel. And to have this network of peers and colleagues to listen to, to learn from, and to have our thoughts and ideas shared is great.

And with PATA, I’m on the Sustainability Committee and it’s been exciting to see how to make sustainability part of doing business. Overall, I think my role is to be active, to be outspoken. I do not mind causing a stir because at the end of the day I want to create an impact in tourism and you can’t make an impact unless you challenge the norm, shake things up and help move things forward. I’m not one for bureaucracy or standing around, I’m one for action. And so these board memberships have been a way for me, and GLP, to make a broader impact on tourism.

GLP is the only three-time winner of the #1 Adventure Travel Film accolade and has also been awarded Travel Weekly’s Magellan Award for Best Marketing Video. What does such recognition mean to you personally and how do they benefit GLP’s efforts towards sustainable tourism?

We have won many awards over the years and with each award, I have a lot of pride and personal satisfaction. Our entire team has a lot of pride and satisfaction.

I think the most important thing about these awards is that they come from our industry: the people we work with, destinations, tour operators, consultants, and the media. To me, having your industry peers support and applaud your work, there’s nothing more powerful or satisfying.

One of our goals is to always have sustainability in some aspects of the stories we tell, in order to help move the tourism industry forward. So, awards show us that the stories we tell matter, inspire, and educate and that we are making a positive impact.

What motivated you to start your latest video series, #TourismStrong – what is it all about?

When the global pandemic hit, our team rallied together and asked, what can we do to help? What can we give back to help our industry? And although we are a full-service content marketing agency and could offer many services, we felt that our storytelling expertise would make the most impact.

It’s the heart of what we do and in a digital world, it gave us an opportunity to connect with our network of global film partners to share their stories. We’ve worked with over 150 organizations over the years, and it’s a wonderful network of amazing people. The pandemic hit everyone, so we thought, what better way for us to lift our industry than by sharing authentic stories that could provide some positivity or inspiration through these really challenging times.

We listened to the struggles and challenges everyone faced and were struck by the resiliency and strength. There were so many examples of businesses pivoting and innovating. The passion, dedication, and commitment from all these people and organizations in the travel industry were amazing to see.

I can say, without question, that #TourismStrong has been the most rewarding campaign that we’ve done in our 12 years. We did it 100% on our own, self-produced, not to make money, but to help our industry. And based on the global response and the feedback we’ve received, it seems to be making a positive impact, and that’s the most satisfying.

That’s the reason we do the work we do and that’s why it’s wonderful to share these great stories.

Do you think the travel industry will rise to meet the challenges of sustainability, post-COVID-19?

We’re in a new era. So, yes, I do believe that the travel industry will rise to meet the challenge because consumer demand is changing. The rise in interest in the outdoors, nature, wellness, and safety from consumers will drive the industry. In order to be successful, as a destination, brand, or government, you will have to respond to the demand and meet these new expectations.

The businesses that are passionate and committed to do the hard work involved in making sustainable practices the core of their long-term strategy will survive and be stronger. Sustainability has to be a part of the tourism industry moving forward. There are organizations that already do that, but for others, it will be a lot of hard work to pivot and innovate for a successful future.

Having visited more than 100 countries, in which regions of the world do you see most interest and momentum for tourism sustainability?

That’s a great question! And it could be a very long answer, but basically, I see three groups who are the most interested in sustainable tourism.

Emerging Destinations: They’ve watched the growth of travel globally. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, so they have an opportunity to do it right. And when we at GLP talk to these destinations, it’s clear that they know that sustainability is critical.

Fragile Destinations: These are places where there could be critical communities, indigenous peoples, protected wilderness, or ecological zones. Examples could be Palau or the Azores. In both cases, embracing sustainable tourism is essential, not just to differentiate themselves as a destination, but to protect their cultural heritage or unique natural resources. These are their assets.

Overtourism Destinations: For many destinations in this category, they have seen that mass tourism, inexpensive travel, and promotional models have really negatively impacted them. For those who’ve learned the hard lessons of overtourism, sustainable tourism will have to be the path they take for recovery. Attracting high-value travellers, encouraging longer stays with low impact, and creating products that appeal to the responsible traveller will be critical.

For example, our latest content marketing campaign with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is helping reposition and rebrand Thailand as a premier sustainable tourism destination. The entire video series specifically focuses on authentic sustainability-related products and experiences to attract wellness, luxury, adventure, and responsible travellers. It was really exciting to see the success of the community-based tourism model in the villages we visited. You can watch our film shot in the CBT model village here (and below).

Anything else you’d like to mention?

During the lockdown, our team had some long discussions about how we could help, but also how we wanted to evolve for the future. And we dug back to our foundational roots. We’ve always had sustainability as a key theme to the work we do, but we are now putting that at the centre.

We want to work with like-minded partners to develop marketing strategies and create content that tells the stories of amazing people and organizations that are innovating and working to make change happen. We want GLP to be an important part of that change and to have a positive impact.

Thank you, Rob.

Connect with Rob Holmes on LinkedIn. Make sure to check out GLP Films on YouTube and Facebook.

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