An excerpt from a deep-dive analysis by sustainability expert, Hervé Houdré
For the full interview, please visit The Insider
In the last few years, the travel industry has been criticized as a destructive force on our planet. Travel is an easy target and one that is not without blame when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and over-tourism.
With his balanced perspective on the issue, sustainability expert Hervé Houdré suggests adopting the triple bottom line ̶ profit, people, and planet ̶ can propel the industry and our world into an era of economic prosperity, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability.
NIKOLAY MALYAROV: Hervé, it’s very nice to meet you. One of the key elements of today’s conversation is to talk about sustainability and to clear up some misunderstanding or misconception as to what sustainability is to the average person. Because when you ask somebody, "are you sustainable or not?", they immediately think about environmental sustainability. So let’s start by asking, what was the lightbulb moment for you that lit the fire of inspiration when it came to sustainable development?
HERVÉ HOUDRÉ: I can almost trace it to the early 2000s when I read a book written by John Elkington who coined the term triple bottom line in his book "Cannibals with Forks," published in 1997. My lightbulb moment was when I read the book, and I realized that as a business person, I could make a difference.
I was always saying it’s fantastic when you see or hear Bono giving a concert and donating 100% of the proceeds of that concert to research against AIDS in Africa or helping communities; at the same time, I was always thinking, "what can I do…?" And when I read John Elkington’s book, which says you can still make a profit while taking care of both the environment and the communities, that was my moment, and I started to do that and practice it as well.
That was the early 2000s, and I must say at that time, there weren’t many people talking about sustainability. In English, there was still this issue of language. Do we call it Sustainable Development, because that was the term coined in 1987 by the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission — to leave the world in a better place for our children and their children? Or ESG (Environmental Social Governance) or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) or C.R. (Corporate Responsibility)? I saw everything back then. You just mentioned Environmental Sustainability. You said it and a lot of people said it as well. To me, sustainability is really a holistic approach to the triple bottom line — profit, people, and planet.
NIKOLAY MALYAROV: As you look at the various aspects of travel, and as we become more socially aware of our common goals, what do you think are the things that we will more readily give up and perhaps not even miss? And, what are the things that are so ingrained in the fabric of what we do and how we operate as humans, and the conveniences of life that we’re accustomed to, that we would have the most difficult time letting go of — even if it’s for the sake of a bigger goal?
HERVÉ HOUDRÉ: Again, I know we don’t want to talk too much about COVID-19, but I think there’s really the “before” and the “after,” and I think now everyone has realized this. I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter, and the younger generations are being hit by the same pandemic as we are — even older generations like mine. I’ve never seen this before. I’ve seen terrorist attacks in Paris, I’ve seen, like everyone, the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, the 2008 crash, 2001… all these things. But this is really touching everyone.
So, I think that people are ready to give up a few things now, and that’s what I’m working on presently. I want to try to bring my two cents to the whole discussion. What will people expect in a restaurant? What will people expect in a hotel? I guess they will all be respectful of everything that has to do with hygiene and sanitation, and they will all respect that, which they may not have before. Now people will accept it, and I think that’s a very important point. When we travel as well — on a plane, in a restaurant, or in a venue where there’s a group of people — we will accept the fact we may need to be split up.
I still believe that people will travel, and it’s okay, as long as they travel sustainably. They will still go and do the things that they like. If someone likes surfing, they will still want to go to Australia or Hawaii or the southwest of France because that’s their passion. And they will accept the collateral issues that they will have to face when they travel. They will be more patient.
NIKOLAY MALYAROV: This will be an incredibly challenging year for the travel industry as a whole. And the effects of this year will be felt for several years to come. If you were to have your three wishes that you’d want to see come true, what would they be?
HERVÉ HOUDRÉ: I really hope that this situation has opened the eyes of the people to the Earth, to the planet. And I’m not a tree hugger, I’ve never been a tree hugger. I’m concerned about sustainability as a whole, but I hope that people will understand the damage that we do. That’s my first wish, to the planet, to Gaia. I don’t want to say, but is this a cry from the Earth? Is it something that we must have at one point so that we wake up? And I hope it’s a serious wake-up call, and I hope it’s going to be understood.
I hope, as well, that people will take care of people — that they will understand that the African cultures and Asian cultures take care of the elderly. They live with them. Maybe it’s an issue in Italy, for instance, where there aren’t so many retirement homes, and the older people were living with their families, and then, being more sensitive to the COVID-19, they got sick and got some others around them sick. But the point here is to say let’s embrace that we are all generations together and really take care of each other.
And then the third wish would be that, because I’m in the tourism industry, I really hope that tourism will remain one of these forces for good — that tourism will embrace all the UN Sustainable Development Goals that we can pursue because we want to do good. We don’t want to do what we were doing: the over-tourism and sometimes the money that tourism would bring in certain areas of the world was not doing much good if people were not working because they felt that just by begging it was sufficient.
We need to be responsible and, by the way, we’ve been talking about sustainability, and I’m happy to close on that, but I prefer to talk about responsibility. I think responsibility is a much bigger, much larger word than sustainability. So to close, the gentleman I mentioned at the very beginning, John Elkington, the writer who created the triple bottom line, has just published his 20th book, called The Green Swans, which I just started. He kept the triple bottom line, but he surrounded it by the three Rs: Responsibility, Resilience, and Regeneration. This is why I think of his book because responsibility to me has always been at the forefront of my engagement in sustainability.
NIKOLAY MALYAROV: Thank you so much, Hervé. It’s very inspiring how you see the world, and I’m happy our readers will see it as well through this interview. I wish you good health and very good luck in everything that you do in life and business.
HERVÉ HOUDRÉ: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
About Hervé Houdré
Hervé Houdré is among Europe’s and America’s most respected hoteliers. He was born in an inn in France’s historic Loire Valley, known for its Renaissance architecture, lush gardens and world-famous wineries. Hervé Houdré managed such properties as the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, New York, the Hôtel de Crillon and Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, the Willard InterContinental in Washington DC, the InterContinental Barclay in New York and held the position of Chief Operating Officer for Kempinski Hotels and Resorts.
Houdré was recognized as the 2006 Independent Hotelier of the World by HOTELS magazine readers.
A leader in sustainability, in 2006 he published Sustainable Hospitality© – Sustainable Development in the Hotel Industry, a white paper promoted by Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research. He co-edited a book, Hotel Sustainable Development: Principles and Best Practices, published in 2011 by American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute. Hervé’s efforts and passion to promote sustainability in his industry have been highlighted across a wide spectrum of media in the US and abroad. He teaches Responsible Tourism at New York University and has lectured at New York Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Tourism College of Zhejiang, China, and in trade conferences such as the New York Hotel Show, America’s Lodging Investment Summit and many others.
His leadership earned him the 2009 Condé Nast Traveler World Saver Award, the DC Downtown Citizen award and the DC Chamber of Commerce 2009 award. Hervé has been one of the world’s strongest advocates of sustainable hospitality since 2004. He ensures the hotels he runs become standard bearers of a business model integrating the Triple Bottom Line of Profit, People and Planet in their strategy.
Since late 2015 he has been using the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a platform. He has always been engaged in the local community where he operated and held board positions in various associations such as The Leading Hotels of the World, New York State Hotel Association, United Nations International School, American Hotel & Lodging Association, Downtown DC BID, Global Sustainable Tourism Council. He was the Chairman of the Board of the Hotel Association of New York City (HANYC) and served on the Board and Executive Committee of New York Destination Marketing Organization, NYC & Company, where he chaired the sustainability committee.