As part of our interview series highlighting stories of leaders and entrepreneurs who are inspiring role models for professional women, this article features professional and business insights by Irene Lane, Founder and President of Greenloons.com, a leading online resource on certified ecotourism experiences around the world.
Irene Lane, Founder & President, Greenloons
Before starting Greenloons, what problems did you see in the tourism industry, and which ones in particular were important to you?
I first heard about ecotourism in 2010 and immediately saw the potential for authentic ecotourism efforts to alleviate poverty, conserve wildlife and habitats, bring greater cultural understanding, and of course affect climate change. However, when I dug deeper, I began to understand that there was a lot of misinformation about ecotourism and very little transparency about the "green travel" industry. For example, the mass media at the time was incorrectly equating ecotourism to other types of tourism including sustainable, cultural, adventure, responsible, and nature tourism. They are all distinctly different, but these terms were being used interchangeably, which was causing consumer confusion.
Secondly, I saw that the industry itself had created an intricate web of green awards, certifications, and rankings that in some cases were just self-assessments performed by the tourism company itself and other cases, very rigorous independent audits of a company’s entire operations. Again, the message was getting muddled because consumers were hinting that they were willing to pay more for “green travel”. So, I decided to start Greenloons as an online resource that would make it easy for eco-conscious travelers to figure out how to choose authentic eco-vacations provided by companies that were not just talking the talk, but walking the walk when it came to exemplifying the foundational components of sustainability.
What was your vision for ecotourism and what are you doing to help reach that vision?
My vision for ecotourism is for travelers to establish deeper, longer-lasting connections with the regions they are visiting, thereby not only learning more about themselves, but about how they can make a more positive impact on the world. This can only happen if there is enough demand AND supply. Therefore, I feel I am contributing to the industry in two specific ways.
First, from the demand perspective, Greenloons.com is an online marketplace that makes it easier to book eco-certified travel experiences. Also, though partnerships, we've created an effective ecosystem of customers, suppliers, regulators and non-governmental organizations all working toward what travel is supposed to be – socially, economically and environmentally beneficial to local communities.
Second, from the supply perspective, I've developed a financial / return on investment (ROI) model that takes into account applicable costs and benefits so tourism businesses can more reliably budget, plan, market and anticipate the operations, community, employee and customer changes that come from implementing sustainable processes, which eco-conscious travelers are coming to expect. In effect, by using this ROI model, tourism businesses around the world can anticipate the specific bottom line financial benefits from implementing eco-certification standards, thereby increasing green investment and, effectively, the supply of ecotourism businesses.
Prior to founding Greenloons, you had diverse professional experiences in fields ranging from IT to philanthropy to media. How did you decide on which area to focus on?
I think it was an evolution, rather than a decision. I've always been interested in industry disruption, accountability and transparency. When I began to understand the possibilities for green travel to catch up with technology, the potential for positive impact (i.e. bringing customers closer to supporting local communities) was too great to ignore.
Also, the advantage for having had such a diverse career path has been that I am able to apply these disparate skills toward running Greenloons. I can honestly say that my academic and professional background, consisting of science, finance, consulting, research, writing, software implementation, customer service, and political research skills, has been quite beneficial for being a company founder. It’s enabled me to come into the travel industry with a different mindset and, frankly, being in boot-strap mode, save a lot of money as I could do many tasks on my own.
"I've always been interested in industry disruption, accountability and transparency." - Irene Lane (@GreenloonsEco)
Greenloons is both a place to find certified eco-tours and to access educational content about ecotourism. How did you find this focus? Did you know the direction of Greenloons from the start, or was it a trial-and-error process to get to where it is today?
After analyzing the trends in the travel industry, which showed that "green travel" was growing faster than any other segment, it was confusing for customers to find "green travel" and that the industry was still defining "green travel", I knew from the start that offering an easy way for travelers to find eco-certified trips and providing useful and practical information about ecotourism would be a viable launch strategy for Greenloons.
Offering content actually solved two problems. First, because it was such a focused market, I knew that quality content would result in high Google organic search results. Second, I realized I could save a lot of money on advertising / customer acquisition costs. That said, it took a very long time (approximately 18 months) of consistently publishing articles until it started to pay off in the form of revenue.
In your experience establishing Greenloons' international community, what has been some of the most important lessons you've learned about business growth? Which skills do you think have had most significant impact on achieving success?
I think the most important skills for my business growth have been preparedness and perseverance. Specific to preparedness, prior to investing any money, I developed a thorough business plan. I gave the plan to people I trusted and asked them to give me their honest opinions about the idea and the company's financial viability. It was clear from the beginning that because I did not have the instant rolodex of contacts in the tourism industry, that I would need to start developing a strong network. This led to me attending an Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference (ESTC) before I even had a company, service or product to sell. During the conference, I gained commitments from two companies, which I believe was due to my being prepared with knowledge about the market, the customer, the product and the opportunity.
Specific to perseverance, I realized early on that a tremendous educational effort would be needed in order to reach the consumer market about the importance and benefits of authentic eco-certified travel. So, I honed my writing, speaking and networking skills while I waited for the market to respond. Within 18 months (and by no means do I take any credit for this), the mass media started to report on distinguishing green travel from greenwashing. Given that I had so much content available on the website, when people started to Google "eco-certified vacations", "green family travel", "ecotourism travel" or other similar search terms, Greenloons was at the top of the list and I was able to develop a healthy clientele.
Presently, my focus is to expand the list of eco-certified trip offerings, which is why I'm talking with certification bodies and tourism boards about how my ROI Model for Sustainable Tourism can determine the economic value of going "green".