Working to Become a Guiding Star for Small, Local and Responsible Companies
15 years ago I decided to make a living out of my hobbies. I loved climbing, skiing, surfing and spending time outdoors. Back then I was living in a city, but it only took a couple of weeks before I had to move back to Northwestern Norway where I grew up. Back to nature. I wanted to start an adventure company, and I named it Norwegian Goosebumps.
This was how I stumbled into tourism. I had no experience, except a lot of traveling, and I really had no plan B. But I really wanted to do this, and I tried to convince a couple of friends to join me. Luckily they did. We were new to the industry, and we wanted to do things differently. We wanted to create experiences no one had seen before and in a way that would benefit the surroundings.
But my sustainability journey started a long time before I started this company. I grew up on a small island and the ocean and mountains were our playground. We were outdoors most of the time. Hiking, skiing, rowing, fishing and all those things that make parents afraid. At least modern parents.
Some years later, while I was studying I started reading books about philosophy. This is very common in the rock climbing community. Particularly I was interested in the Norwegian climber and philosopher Arne Næss Sr. His philosophy of “deep ecology”, or ecosophy, made a huge impression, so did Spinoza, Nietzsche and other great thinkers.
And, I should also mention explorers that I adored from childhood. Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques Costeau, Jane Goddall, Ernest Shackleton among others. Their achievements were inspiring, and their efforts to protect our planet deeply moved me. People usually want to protect what you love, and being outdoors made me love nature.
While I was having fun running my small business I started working with other companies and also with international tour operators. This gave insight into the industry. My education is mainly within communication and entrepreneurship and I also did different jobs for the local and regional DMO’s. Building platforms, getting to know all the small businesses in the area.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that many things were wrong in this industry. Among other things, I became aware of the economic leakages from the destinations. It is just incredible how little of the money tourists spend that actually stays in the destination they visit. This was an eye opening experience, and an important lesson for me personally.
We wanted to do something about it. How could we skip the middle-men? Soon we started a platform for companies like us. Our ambitions weren’t bigger than our area in Norway, but after a short while we had 16000 trips from 3000 companies in 110 countries on the platform. The requirements to join were local ownership and a clear sustainability strategy. Via our platform at least 95% of the money would go directly to the locals. In fact, travelers would pay directly to the locals. They would transfer a small fee to us after the trip was done.
While we were operating the platform, more and more people started reaching out to us asking for help. “How do I start a travel business?” or “How can I become more sustainable in my operations?” We did not offer such services, but at the same time we helped our partners with these kinds of issues every day.
So we decided to start a new business to educate and help small operators. After all, it was still about moving money and power from big international companies to small, local and responsible companies. It was still aligned with our mission.
Before starting to educate and help people I was concerned about what value I could add to other companies. But I soon realized that I’ve been walking in the shoes that they were about to put on, and also I’ve been studying, reading and trying things on my own businesses, and since we started Travelopment, also on thousands of others. People could probably learn from our mistakes and the things that have worked. There were so many obstacles on the way, but with time we learned what could work, and a lot of things that didn’t.
Around this time I decided to step up my training. At least 50% of my time I try to learn new things. I learn from practical experience and by talking to people, but I can not point out how important taking courses like the GSTC training, SDG Academy, UQ and others have been for developing a deeper knowledge of sustainability. I see training as a way to develop a better framework for my/our efforts.
People see sustainability differently, and it has different meanings in different countries. Sustainability isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. Going in the right direction is more important than doing things perfectly. The new generation of travelers are demanding. I believe the future winners are the ones that dare to push the limits and be more radical in the sustainability journey than others.
Here are three important lessons from my journey.Keep it simple. My educational background was communication. Film, movies, theater, journalism. The world is noisy, a clear and easy message has a chance. If something is easy to understand, it is also easier for your clients to spread the message.
Transparency is the most important. Nobody is perfect, but companies that are open and honest are also much more trustworthy. The industry is full of secrets, false claims and greenwashing. Be a guiding star, after all it is not where you are, but where you’re going that matters.
Look outside the travel industry. The inspiration often comes from other areas and industries. See what works in one industry and think about how you could implement it. How could this help you customers, how could this make my business better for the planet.
Keep up the good work,
Håvard Utheim is an entrepreneur in travel and technology. He grew up on a small island in the middle of nature in Norway and his professional life has been about protecting the nature he loves. Håvard is has through his businesses helped thousands of entrepreneurs and small local businesses from more than 180 countries. He really believes that many small responsible companies can change tourism, and the world :)