National Geographic's Unique Lodges Showcase the Sustainable Future of the Travel Industry

Jun 15, 2016 9:00 AM ET

National Geographic convened a group of travel industry leaders at its Washington, D.C. headquarters for "The Transformation of Travel," an afternoon dedicated to the future of global travel and the ways the industry is embracing sustainability. The June 9 event featured the owners of some of the properties selected for National Geographic's Unique Lodges of the World program, a collection of lodges in locations around the world committed to operating sustainably, delivering unparalleled service and preserving the natural and cultural heritage of their local communities. The panelists spoke about how the lodges are creating world-class guest experiences that are as environmentally sustainable as they are luxurious. 21st Century Fox expanded its partnership with National Geographic in September 2015, bringing the travel businesses, including the Unique Lodges program, under the umbrella of National Geographic Partners, with 27% of all proceeds going towards the Society's scientific pursuits.

"Authenticity is the new luxury," said Costas Christ, Editor-at-Large for National Geographic Traveler magazine and Director of Sustainable Tourism at the Lodges program, who moderated the first panel. "At National Geographic, we believe the growth in travel and tourism presents opportunities for conservation, opportunities for the protection of natural and cultural heritage, opportunities for the social and economic well-being of people in need around our world. Those are the key criteria that underline the foundation of our Unique Lodges program."

National Geographic's Unique Lodges represent a collection of destinations at the forefront of the travel industry, all demonstrating that a commitment to sustainability and conservation need not interfere with the creation of an incredible guest experience. National Geographic rigorously vets each of the lodges' sustainability practices and regularly assesses each property throughout membership. As Christ told the crowd, 82% of the lodges in the program are directly supporting biodiversity conservation, 62% use renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydro, and biofuels, and 89% are actively supporting and protecting the cultural heritage of the communities where they are located.

"The very reason we're in business is to convert people to conservation," said Dereck Joubert, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence who owns several of the lodges in the Unique Lodges program, among them the Mara Plains Camp in Kenya. "We believe in a very delicate philosophy of conservation, which is, 'No more compromise.' If you're pro-hunting, don't come to our lodge... Our mission is to attract people of like-mindedness and then take them up a little through our program so that they leave us as conservation ambassadors."

The event's second panel consisted of travel journalists from major publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Skift, The Associated Press and The New York Times. George Stone, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler, moderated the discussion and asked the reporters to weigh in on current trends in the travel industry, as well as how they are seeing businesses and consumers alike address sustainability. Jason Clampet, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the travel industry outlet Skift, said that even if consumers don't name sustainability as part of their criteria for deciding where to travel, it is a principle they value.

"What we've found is that [conservation] is rarely on the top of their lists in terms of what's important to them about [choosing to stay] at a place," Clampet explained. "But if it's part of an experience, it only tends to heighten a guest's memory of that place. Sustainability is a part of the experience that consumers really, really enjoy."

Bringing together both lodge owners and leading travel journalists also led to a conversation about the value of storytelling. For Joubert, storytelling is valuable not only as a means of publicizing his properties but also as a tool to inspire the rest of the travel industry to raise their sustainability standards.

"[Storytelling] is basic to all of us; it's in our DNA," Joubert said. "Whatever standard we set needs to be the norm for the entire industry... There are many, many more organizations that want to join the Unique Lodges program, but they just don't qualify. Creating this prestigious program and basing it on sustainability means many more people will aspire to this, which forces them to raise their standards."

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