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September 21, 2009

The Committed Consumer

World Savers

by Kathryn Maier 

Picture this: You're on a luxury cruise ship about to transit the Suez Canal. An auction onboard the ship is offering the highest bidder the chance to join the ship's captain on the bridge for the canal transit. Now imagine that the money raised from the auction will buy enough oral rehydration salts to save the lives of 33,000 children in a developing country. Talk about a win-win situation!

That was the anecdote told by Wendy Perrin, Condé Nast Traveler's consumer news editor and moderator of the most recent World Savers Congress panel. The ship was a Crystal Cruise ship, and the money went to the Five & Alive Fund, which supports malaria prevention and treatment, nutritional, and safe water programs for children aged five and under. In her panel, Perrin raised the question: As social responsibility becomes more of a focus, companies are finding new ways to engage travelers in their programs. How can they best spread the message?

Her panelists agreed that travelers all seem to care more about corporate social responsibility now than they did in years past. According to a recent study by Carlson Hotels, 76 percent of travelers said that a hotel's degree of environmental friendliness influenced their decision of where to stay. Some are willing to pay a premium to companies with a high CSR involvement; some simply expect that their companies will be good corporate citizens.

"The traveler's expectation is that the company is going to be green," said panelist Richard Edelman, President and CEO of Edelman Public Relations. "Instead of being the eco-cherry on the sundae, it's in the ice cream."

Perrin asked the panelists which corporate social responsibility initiative had worked best for their brands. The responses:

Gregg Michel, President and COO of Crystal Cruises, said that his guests are really excited about the Five & Alive Fund. Crystal holds about four auctions per year such as the one above, all benefiting the Five & Alive Fund. Through that fund, $5 can buy mosquito nets to protect a mother child from malaria for three years, or $25 can buy anti-malarial antibiotics for 100 children.

Carmen Baker, VP of Responsible Business at Carlson Hotels, said the best ways of engaging consumers are easy and non-intimidating, such as a giving tree located near the front desk of her hotels during the holidays.

Niki Leondakis, COO of Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, said that her company's involvement with Dress for Success is a hit with guests and employees alike. Her hotels hold fundraisers and clothing drives, and have started hiring women who have gone through the program.

Bruce Poon Tip, Founder and CEO of Gap Adventures, said that his company's dollar-a-day program, in which travelers are asked to give one dollar per day of travel, which will go toward a community program, has gotten a big response.

The strongest guest response, according to Tip, came for projects with specific aims, a beginning and an end, where guests know their money is going toward that specific project.

After the tsunami, Gap Adventures identified a specific fishing village that got washed away, and raised funds that went toward buying new boats and fishing nets for the villagers.

So how best to inform travelers of these initiatives? All agreed that new social media--such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs--is key.

Edelman advised that companies participate in all of these, wherever conversations are happening. "The conversation is happening with you or without you," he said. "You may as well participate and add to it."

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