The First Mile™

Behavior change can power smart progress towards sustainability that is efficient, low-investment and enables the later efforts. Focusing on the first mile of the journey makes operations smarter and more efficient but it also sets solid foundations for the next miles in the future.

by Milena S. Nikolova
Behavioral expert and co-founder of BehaviorSMART

We have less choice and less resources to address growing sustainability demands

I keep hearing colleagues from the travel industry share the impression that in terms of readiness to begin tackling sustainability seriously, in the last two years we have lеaped much further than during the entire decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes sense – behavioral science tells us that when things are doing well and we are fairly happy with the status quo, it is unlikely that we will initiate a huge effort and make a huge investment in a radical change.

The disruptive COVID-19 crisis took us out of that comfort zone and forced us through dramatic changes in the way we live and work. This took our psychological ability to imagine and accept drastic change to completely new levels.

So, today we are quite ready to experiment with and accept dramatic transformations but at the same time we are restricted by limitations in our resources depleted by the exhausting pandemic.


The mismatch between readiness and resources to act on sustainability and net zero

So what is next? Some forward-looking destinations and businesses used the crisis to begin gearing up for the New Sustainable Normal. Many are still unsure how to combine this transformation with the need to recover market positions and economic scale.

When we are faced with complex challenges the outcomes of which are expected in the future, we tend to focus on solutions that are also complex, overwhelming and extended over time. And while the complete transition of the travel sector towards fully sustainable and carbon neutral operations will involve complicated, multilayered and investment-intensive solutions, the steps we take now do not have to be.

It is possible to optimise the footprint of tourism economies without launching daunting undertakings.

Focusing on the first mile

Before we begin with the large and complex transformation, we can achieve a lot by focusing on human behavior alone. The current footprint of the travel economy is a byproduct of how travelers, workers, local residents interact with physical spaces and infrastructure. Therefore, we can cover the first mile(s) of improvements only through adjustments in behavior that make sustainable options the more likely choices.

For example, what if the frontdesk staff of a hotel can make 10% of the guests walk instead of take a taxi to places of interest simply by changing the way they make recommendations?

And what if a restaurant can increase the consumption of vegetarian meals by 15% simply by adjusting the design of their menu?

And what if a tour operator can nudge its guests to go for local food options simply by adjusting its itineraries and pricing tactics?

Sometimes seemingly small changes in communications, experience design or pricing can have a significant effect on the decisions and actions of visitors, workers and business leaders.


Small steps but with powerful activation and cumulative effects

And while some of these tactics sound like small steps forward, they bring three important advantages in the current realities

  1. Starting small is easy so more are likely to really embark on the journey.
    Many companies and organizations are suffering from crisis fatigue so the mindset of addressing sustainability as the even bigger crisis that is replacing the pandemic blocks their desire to act. On the other hand, starting with small, easy-to-execute and low-investment tactics does not feel daunting and can be a powerful motivator to begin.
  2. Low-investment is crucial in the current realities.
    Many businesses and destinations want to make progress but they prioritize recovery due to lack of resources. Starting with steps, which are possible along with recovery and require minimal investment can become the reason to focus on sustainability now.
  3. Stacking and cumulative effects can be significant.
    While some of these behavior changes can produce a few percentages in savings or lowering of undesired impacts here and there, when a company combines several of them, they can start making a significant difference. Similarly, one hotel can lower its environmental footprint by encouraging more guests to give up daily room cleaning but if all hotels within a district do that, the cumulative effect on the environment cannot be underestimated.


The first mile makes the next miles easier and more efficient

Regardless of whether a company or a destination are just starting with their sustainability efforts or they have already advanced with their journey, applying a first mile approach makes significant sense as in many ways it helps make operations smarter and more efficient. The first mile can also make a big difference for future efforts as some of the optimisations produced by the behavior-change tactics can influence future investment needs. For example, imagine that today we use a first mile approach to increase by 10% the share of visitors and residents who walk to places within the city. Then think about tomorrow when we get to the point when we are making investment-intensive transformations such as replacing fuel-based transportation vehicles with electric ones. At the time when we need to make that large investment, we will need to invest in less capacity since 10% of the users are no longer relying on this mobility option.

The big advantage of the first mile is that it makes the operations of a company or destination smarter and thus more efficient. This is a good way to unlock action but also to set solid foundations for the next miles in the future.


Ready to join our First Mile(™) Labs?

We will be scheduling more editions so you can express your interest in being invited to join a future cohort of the First Mile Master Class.