Thinking Differently

Hostels and hotels, and college-age travelers who use them, may be underestimating their role in shifting broader consumer attitudes and shaping a “green” future.

That’s my takeaway from Lisa Gansky’s provocative book, “The Mesh – Why the Future of Business is Sharing”. The book is firstly an exploration of “share platforms” as a promising model for future businesses, which is what prompted my interest in the first place. Yet “green” figures heavily into why the idea is so convincing, and there seems huge potential for the 20-something travelling public to lead the way.

HI-USA hostels have adopted sustainability practices and conservation measures in their operations. Yet, due to a confluence of factors, my read is that we have the potential to do something much more impactful.

It starts with where we are as a consumer society … in a cycle of buying new “stuff” and then throwing it away, with environmental degradation a seemingly inescapable result. Share platforms re-define consumerism. They enable consumers to use an item and return it when finished, then to be used again by others.

The leading example seems to be Zipcar, where cars can be rented for a fraction of the day – for errands, for example – and then returned. For the consumer, it can be convenient and cheaper than a full day rental. For the business, it allows more intensive use (and potentially higher yields) from a single car. And for the environment, fewer cars need to be produced.

Yet the shift to “sharing” is a big leap for most consumers who have been raised with an “ownership” ethic. The change could be a glacial one, unless an influential consumer segment steps comfortably forward to lead the way.

Enter thousands and thousands of backpack travelers. These typically 18-30 year olds are users of multiple share platforms while traveling. It’s largely unintentional; it’s simply part of the experience. Examples abound. Staying in hostels. Sleeping on others’ couches. Making cost-driven (and often shared) transportation choices. Exchanging books and clothing along the way.

These travelling 20-somethings are living the ideal. As a traveler with some miles on a backpack, I can say that until Gansky’s book, I never thought about it quite that way. But this is not about me.

It’s about travelers returning home and being part of an age group who are naturally positioned to adopt share platforms in their daily lives. Moving from college to the workforce results in a burst of consumer needs, often with little money to pay for them. Being open to consciously choosing share platforms offers an opportunity for a good quality of life without breaking the bank. And once adopted, they will be more likely embraced again and again. And that’s the point.

Unintentionally, youth-oriented lodging providers are at the nexus of an influential audience (20-somethings who travel) and a tantalizing ideal (greening consumer attitudes).

How do we act on it? Certainly, we should continue to arrange for compatible services (the HI-Boston hostel was one of Zipcar’s early locations). But the next step is potentially the game-changer: intentionally highlighting to travelers who are using these share platforms, their meaning and relevance.

It’s about thinking differently, as organizations and as individuals.

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