3 Genius Hacks To Make Hotel Guests Embrace Sustainability On Holiday – Forbes

Holidays mean a ‘license to sin’—sustainability becomes less of a priority.
We’ve all seen the cards placed in hotel rooms: ‘Please consider reusing your towel to help us save the environment.’
”These signs simply don’t work,” says Professor Sara Dolnicar, a social scientist from the University of Queensland. She has tested different methods to entice tourists into more sustainable behavior for the past decade.
”Guests give themselves a ‘license to sin’ on vacation: They’ve worked hard all year, separated their trash into different bins every day and remembered to turn off the lights each time they left the house,” she says. On holiday, they feel like they deserve a little break.
For a short period of time they prioritize their own comfort and indulgence over sustainability.
Making people save energy at home is relatively straightforward—thanks to the direct impact on their energy bills—doing so in a hotel environment, where guests have no financial incentive, presents an entirely different challenge.
“If I can crack tourism, I can crack anything,” Dolnicar says. ”Especially luxury tourism, given the high expectations and attitudes of this market segment.”
One proven approach to make guests act more sustainably is by leveraging social norms.
Studies show that peer pressure is particularly powerful and pervasive when it comes to eating: Our food intake is different when we are with others compared to when we eat alone.
“It’s why people tend to overfill their plates at a buffet. They think others are watching and judge them if they go back for more food multiple times,“ says Dolnicar.
Researchers shifted this notion in an experiment when they placed small signs on restaurant tables. They stated that returning to the buffet for seconds or thirds was very much appreciated—much more than piling food high.
This technique altered what was previously perceived to be embarrassing. Less excessively loaded plates led to less leftovers and a 21% reduction in food waste. Without preaching about the environment or food waste—just a straightforward correction of social norms.
Another highly effective strategy to affect the way we behave is nudging, a concept popularized by behavioral economists and now embraced by governments worldwide.
Nudging involves subtle changes in how choices are presented, such as making sustainable options the default choice.
In one study, the simple act of reducing the size of plates at a buffet by three centimeters (slightly more than an inch) resulted in a 20% reduction in food waste. “It’s an infrastructure change. You don’t even need to communicate anything to the guests,” says Dolnicar.
Nudging can also significantly reduce room cleaning frequency. In a city-center hotel primarily serving business travelers, Dolnicar’s team changed the default from daily cleaning to no cleaning unless requested.
This change resulted in a remarkable 63% reduction in room cleaning, benefiting both the environment and the hotel’s operational costs. Since this service constitutes a significant portion of a hotel’s expenses, the reduction translates into substantial financial savings.
However, Dolnicar’s favorite approach—and the one she says holds the most promise—is linking sustainable behaviors to enjoyment: “Tourism is all about pleasure, so why not integrate fun eco-friendly actions into the vacation experience?“
Her team introduced a simple stamp collection game in a European family hotel. Families received a stamp for each meal where they finished all their food, with a prize awarded at checkout.
The result was a 38% reduction in food waste. “Kids went crazy for it,” she says, emphasizing that the focus was on enhancing enjoyment rather than addressing the benefits for the environment.
Dolnicar also has ideas how the enjoyment method can be applied to luxury hotel buffets. “An easy option would be small markers pointing out the healthiest food options.” Guidance, she says, makes consumers less likely to overfill plates.
Housekeeping is another area where the enjoyment method can save money and increase eco-friendly behavior, especially in luxury hotels. Since wealthy guests now place not just privacy but “ultra-privacy“ at the top of their priority lists, as Internova Travel Group has found, they are very receptive to initiatives like a default change in room cleaning.
In a field experiment Dolnicar and her team placed signs in hotel rooms, stating: “We value and respect your privacy, so we will not clean your room daily, but will happily do so upon your request.“ It’s a subtle communication of hedonic benefits: guests get freedom of choice, flexibility and well-deserved privacy.
Despite the clear benefits, Dolnicar says many hotels struggle to implement these strategies effectively. “Hotels often have very silly ideas,” she says, “I’ve seen hotels put table signs in 10-point font and half an essay written on them. Nobody is going to read that.“
Without a background in behavioral science, she says they might miss crucial details or introduce elements that backfire. This is why she emphasizes the importance of following proven solutions or consulting with experts.
“There are so many good solutions that have already been tested,” she says. The key is to understand the guests’ mindset and find interventions that align with their values and desires.
Whether hotels decide to use peer pressure, nudging, or enhancing pleasure, the path to eco-friendly tourism is to make it easy, make it enjoyable, and most importantly, make it feel natural.

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