When we think about sustainable travel, we tend to imagine the physical journey or the destination. Travel by train, maybe. Or travel to places that have minimal impact on their environment – or even enhance and build up the local community they are part of, like the Coco-Mat Eco Residences on Serifos, Greece.
But what if travel became sustainable the moment you began typing in your dates and destinations? What if the very act of booking a trip was enough to make a difference in the world?
This is the premise behind Goodwings – a Copenhagen startup poised to dramatically disrupt the travel industry. How does Goodwings do it? By spending the money other search engines spend on marketing on charity instead. We chatted with the company’s CEO and co-founder, Christian Møller-Holst, learning some surprising facts about the current state of the travel industry – and that the power to fix what’s wrong and do some serious good is now in our hands.
Shaking up the travel industry
After a few years in the Danish military, followed by studying business and philosophy at Copenhagen Business School, Christian knew he wanted to dive into business. “But not the traditional way,” he says.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) came to play a key role in his career. He co-founded WELL, a non-profit that integrated CSR into higher education institutions, and then the consultancy Healthy Company, which developed programs to keep employees healthy, providing healthcare devices, lifestyle campaigns, on-site health checks and other services.
A little over two years ago, after selling Healthy Company and, in Christian’s words, “having a second kid, getting married, and just enjoying life,” the entrepreneurial itch returned, and Christian and his business partner began to take a closer look at the travel industry. “My interest was really sparked by the fact that the industry is growing at a very rapid pace – up to 10% a year. Middle classes are growing and small and medium-sized companies are becoming increasingly global, with employees traveling more,” he explains.
“But, the closer we looked, the more we saw that there has been very little change toward a sustainability agenda in the travel industry.”
“I had long dreamt of building a business on a foundation of sustainability and CSR,” Christian says. “I knew that companies are looking for sustainable solutions, or ones that can have a positive impact. The challenge is that CSR often costs money, takes time – and consumers don’t want to pay extra. We wanted to solve this problem.” The answer paired a passion for travel with a passion for making a positive impact on the world, and Goodwings was born.
Investing in charity, not marketing
The world’s major travel booking sites spend a whopping $12 billion on marketing. Expedia alone, with one quarter of the world market, spends $3-4 billion. “And there is no added value for the customer,” Christian adds.
“So, our idea was to disrupt the distribution of travel,” he says. Simple as that. “Instead of marketing with TV ads or Google ads or AdWords, we offer customers the option to fight cancer, eradicate poverty, educate girls and much more – at absolutely no extra expense.”
Getting people and companies to change their habits (not their spending)
Today, over 200 companies are booking their corporate hotel stays exclusively through Goodwings, and that number keeps growing – as does the number of individuals opting for hotel stays that give back.
How has Goodwings gotten to this point without paid advertising? And how does it live up to the promise that its prices are not a penny higher than competitors’?
Counter-intuitive as that may seem, Expedia.com has an affiliate network and allows its partners to use its hotel and pricing data. Goodwings became an Expedia partner, meaning that that at any given moment, Goodwing’s booking costs are exactly the same as Expedia.com’s. The difference is this: where Expedia rolls approximately half of its commissions into marketing, Goodwings rolls that into charitable donations. It sounded impossible to us, too, but an ingenious sustainable model makes it possible for Goodwings to scrap advertising and instead donate 50% of its gross revenue from bookings to charities.
Individual customers like you and I are discovering Goodwings through word of mouth – while companies typically learn about it through the NGOs they already support. “We’ve partnered with NGOs like WWF, CARE and Plastic Change – and the list keeps growing. Our NGO partners connect us to the companies that support them, opening the door for us and encouraging the companies to switch to Goodwings as their booking site. And when they do, the proceeds all go back to that door-opening NGO. The corporation actually gets to choose the specific project they want to support.” A perfect circle, in other words.
On the Goodwings website, heart ratings show you just how great an impact booking a particular hotel will have. This is based on each hotel’s own decision about how much commission to offer to Expedia.com (and, ultimately, to Goodwings – and its NGOs.) So, say you’re headed to London and want to stay near Buckingham Palace. One four-star hotel a few blocks from the royals may offer a commission of, say, 8%, earning two or three hearts – while another hotel just down the street and with the same rating offers 16%, earning all five hearts. Same prime location, same great experience – but with a double the impact.
At checkout, Goodwings tells you the exact amount your booking will contribute to charity. But the company also does more. “For companies, we create free impact reports that say, for instance: ‘Your company has donated $100,000 to WWF, and has planted 412 trees. Now, endangered tigers can hide more easily from poachers.’”
“We also let people know: with your choices, you’ve supported sustainable development goals 1,2, and 14,” says Christian, referring to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals framework. Something that’s very close to our hearts here at YUME as well.
The future of Goodwings: flights – and even greater impact
“While at the moment we are only booking hotels, we plan to launch a flight booking service so we can provide everything the competition does – but better,” says Christian.
We can hardly wait. Another thing we’re excited to check out: Goodwings’ recommendations for a few of its most sustainable hotels. We’ll share those with you here in the coming weeks.
By Anastasya Partan
Anastasya is a Boston-based writer and communications consultant. She writes about design, lifestyle, culture and other topics close to her heart, and helps global brands communicate strategically and creatively to create meaningful connections with their audiences. You can find more of her work on her website, connect with her on LinkedIN, or follow her on Twitter.
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