Sustainability Takes Center Stage at Future of Travel Mobility Event

Industry leaders discussed how current and future modes of transportation must become more environmentally friendly in order to meet traveler demands.

The U.S. Travel Association's first-ever Future of Travel Mobility event was held as a hybrid affair. From left to right: Todd Davidson, CEO of Travel Oregon; Denise Naguib, vice president of sustainability and supplier diversity at Marriott International; Anne Smart, vice president of public policy at ChargePoint; Austin Brown, senior director of transportation emissions for the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy; and Julia Cosgrove, vice president and editor in chief, Afar Media.

Tackling Event Sustainability
Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events, is on a U.N.-supported mission to transform the global events sector to address climate change, as detailed in Northstar’s recent Eventful podcast.

Travel industry leaders and government officials gathered in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26 for the U.S. Travel Association's first-ever Future of Travel Mobility event. The day-long affair, which was also available via livestream, featured keynote sessions and panel discussions on the top issues and technological advances that will shape the travel in the years ahead.

An underlying theme of the event was the importance of sustainability. Conversations covered topics such as how to reduce airline emissions, how to expand access to electric-car chargers across the nation, and how to create new modes of transportation that are designed with sustainability in mind. Session after session, the speakers stressed that addressing climate change has become a business imperative.

"If we don't have a sustainable business model, then we don't have a sustainable future," said Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian. "We're not going to be given the right to continue to grow if we're seen as leaving a negative impact."

He noted that the travel industry must focus on reducing its carbon footprint and finding new sources of sustainable energy, so that people don't have to "choose between seeing the world and saving the world." Both are possible, he said, but it will require significant changes within the industry to get there.

The Business Case for Climate Action

Sustainability is more than just good for the environment, it's also good for business. A new study, conducted by the market research firm Ipsos and released by U.S. Travel during the event, showed 40 percent of business travelers plan to head out on the road less often than they did prior to the pandemic. The good news is 23 percent of business travelers said they would take more trips by car if it produced fewer emissions than it does today. In addition, 18 percent said they would take more trips by air if planes used more sustainable aviation fuels or technology that reduced carbon emissions.

Denise Naguib, vice president of sustainability and supplier diversity, Marriott International

The pressure on the travel industry to become more environmentally friendly is only expected to grow in the coming months and years, according to Denise Naguib, vice president of sustainability and supplier diversity for Marriott International. Naguib noted during a panel session that calls for sustainability had started bubbling up before the pandemic, but have since skyrocketed.

"Over the past 18 months, we have seen an incredible demand shift in our corporate customers, associations and individual travelers understanding their role in driving sustainability in their travel experiences," said Naguib. "We've also seen a really big change in our own associate base. There are a lot more people wanting to be part of the industry who are asking questions about how they can help drive sustainability through the business." 

Marriott's current environmental goals include cutting its carbon waste by 30 percent, achieving a minimum of 30 percent renewable energy use, and reducing food waste by 50 percent — all by 2025. According to Naguib, the hotelier will soon allow travelers to see their carbon footprint of staying at each property.

In another session, Lauren Riley, managing director of global environmental affairs and sustainability at United Airlines, discussed the carrier's plan to reduce carbon emissions 100 percent by 2050. In an effort to reach this goal, United launched an Eco-Skies Alliance program in April, which invites its corporate customers to be part of the climate-crisis solution and help contribute toward the cost for sustainable aviation fuel. According to Riley, the airline has already purchased 3.5 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel as a result of the partnership — its biggest purchase to date.

"It's an 'all things on the table' solution right now," said Riley. "Even though aviation only accounts for perhaps 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions today, as other industries decarbonize, our contribution is going to increase. So, the scrutiny that we're feeling right now is nothing compared to what's coming. Knowing that you've got a roadmap and are educating your customers about that is paramount."

Connecting the World Without Harming the Planet

Transportation entrepreneurs shared details about current projects in the works that promise to make travel more sustainable and efficient, without harming visitors' pocketbooks.

Among them is Virgin Hyperloop, a high-speed, electric transportation system that will travel at 670 mph — approximately 10 times faster than traditional railway systems. Also in the works are electric ridesharing aircrafts from Joby Aviation, and supersonic airliners from Boom, which will run on 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel and promise to cut air travel times in half (think flying from Tokyo to Seattle in four and a half hours, rather than eight and a half).

Roger Dow, president and CEO, U.S. Travel Association

According to Roger Dow, president and CEO of U.S. Travel, "New, innovative transportation solutions are more than a customer preference — they are a necessity as we look ahead to the future of our industry." 

These new modes of transportation would not only make travel faster, but also could help entice business travelers to ditch the Zoom meetings and meet face-to-face. In fact, the survey findings from Ipsos showed that 28 percent of business travelers would take more trips if Virgin Hyperloop were already available, and 16 percent said they would take more frequent business trips to far-distant destinations if they had access to Boom's supersonic aircraft.

Unfortunately, these technologies are still a few years away. Joby plans to start building their commercial aircrafts in 2024. Meanwhile, Virgin Hyperloop expects to be fully operational in the late 2020s, possibly in the U.S. Midwest first, and Boom anticipates carrying its first passengers in 2029. 

Calls for sustainable travel options will only grow louder until then. The speakers noted that the industry cannot simply sit back and wait for change, but should rethink operations now with an eye towards environmentally friendly practices. 

"The pandemic, as tragic as it has been, has afforded the travel and tourism industry an incredible opportunity to completely reboot, reset and reimagine itself," said Austin Brown, senior director of transportation emissions for the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy. "It's our opportunity to seize or squander it. Shame on us if we squander it."