Powerful partnerships: How Expedia’s Katherine Cheng partnered with UNESCO to develop and launch the UNESCO Sustainable Tourism Pledge in Thailand

You have to prioritize the actual impact you want to make. Katherine Cheng
Two years ago, Expedia Head of Global and Community Impact, Katherine Cheng began the search for a partner to help them execute a program that could promote more responsible travel and educate local hotels and tourism businesses to operate more sustainably.

“We wanted to provide information and education to help people make the best, most sustainable decisions for their travel and protect the locations they were traveling to,” said Katherine.

Early on in the planning process, she and her team knew they wanted it to connect to their sustainable travel pillars: sustainability, disaster relief, economic and community development, and responsible tourism.

“We wanted to not only make a positive impact around environmental sustainability, but sustainability in terms of protecting the culture, economy, and community,” she said. “For example, when we look at disaster recovery, helping impacted communities to recover is so critical. If the communities don't recover, then travel and tourism in that community won't come back in the same way.”

With these core pillars, Katherine and her team approached UNESCO, an organization that brought credibility and expertise to the initiative.

We wanted to provide information and education to help people make the best, most sustainable decisions for their travel and protect the locations they were traveling to. Katherine Cheng
“UNESCO is known around the world as the authority for safeguarding culture and protecting heritage through their cultural conventions, the most well-known being the World Heritage Convention” said Katherine.

“Through our four pillar approach, we believe we have an important role to play in responsible tourism and by partnering with an organization like UNESCO, we established an alliance that is based on shared values and commitment to a more sustainable future,” she said.

The shared commitment is being expressed through an exciting new initiative called the UNESCO Sustainable Tourism Pledge.

After forming the partnership with UNESCO, the next thing Katherine and her team had to do was identify a location where they could initiate a pilot.

“We wanted to pick a location where we could launch the partnership that would reflect the pillars where tourism was thriving, but it wasn't too overwhelmed already,” said Katherine. “At first, we thought of places like Venice. But we knew to be successful we needed to make sure we had government support and hotel operators interested in partnering with us and taking the pledge.”

Around the same time, Expedia's government relations team (which Katherine sits under) was approached by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to help them promote a reduction of single-use plastics.

After they signed that agreement, Katherine turned to them and asked if they would be interested in being their pilot for the UNESCO pledge. By late October 2019, Expedia had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with UNESCO and TAT and Katherine and her team got to work developing the pilot — which launched in June 2020.

When thinking about how they were going to execute the pledge with local hotels and travel businesses in Thailand, Katherine said it was important to have the pledge easily accessible to all hotel operators.

If the communities don't recover, then travel and tourism in that community won't come back in the same way. Katherine Cheng
“The UNESCO Sustainable Tourism Pledge demonstrates a real commitment on behalf of the hotel property to do their best to improve their environmental performance and community engagement. It's open to all sizes and types of hotel companies from big operators to independently owned and family run businesses. The Pledge is unique because of its inclusiveness. We wanted people to feel that they can participate easily with the pledge.”

For example, Katherine said businesses could participate in the pledge by moving away from providing individual toiletries in each hotel room, committing to sourcing food more locally, and eliminating single-use plastics.

At one of the local hotels in Thailand that took the pledge, owners built a garden on the rooftop and began sourcing food for their kitchen.

“They're now buying locally sourced foods that they're not able to grow and reducing their water waste,” said Katherine. “They also saved money by making these changes and are teaching others their best practices.”

The UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge website will also provide education, resources, and advice on how to do even more.

By partnering with an organization like UNESCO, we established an alliance that is based on shared values and commitment to a more sustainable future. Katherine Cheng
“This website currently has useful information and resources for hotels, and we're looking to expand that to tour operators and more components of the travel ecosystem in Thailand,” she said. “We'll also add seminars to the website once people are hosting live, in-person events again.”

Right now, the website is tailored to Thailand, but when they start expanding the program beyond the pilot stage, Katherine said they plan to have different pages for all the different participating countries.

They will continue the pilot with Thailand for the next three to six months, assess their results from that, and hopefully expand to more countries.

We wanted people to feel that they can participate easily with the pledge. Katherine Cheng
Already, she said she's hearing interest from countries in and beyond the region.

“My dream is that this spreads to all of APAC, and then to EMA,” said Katherine.

Katherine said she also hopes the pledge will help drive more sustainable decision making on the part of their consumers.

We have to make sure we can actually provide all the information, education, and technology to enable people to make the choices in their searches and travels. Katherine Cheng
“We have to make sure we can actually provide all the information, education, and technology to enable people to make the choices in their searches and travels,” she said. “We're happy with even the slightest behavioral change based on the information we provide them, even if it's just choosing to bring their own reusable water bottle. Those simple things that consumers and the hotels making the pledge can do can result in a big difference.”

For brands looking to form similarly impactful partnerships, Katherine emphasized the importance of developing a relationship with your partner organization based on trust and shared values.

“You need to have a defined end goal that you can measure and that lets you assess how your initiative has gotten people to act,” she said. “Of course, it's important to have what you're doing aligned to your business values and how you want to show up for your consumers, but really looking at how you can really impact something is critical.”

This is something that is good for the whole industry, not just for one or two or three players in it. Katherine Cheng
She said sometimes that means not always choosing the obvious partner or initiative and, instead, stepping back and seeing where you can make an impact above all else.

“You have to prioritize the actual impact you want to make,” said Katherine. “We're not doing this for ourselves, we called it the UNESCO Sustainable Tourism Pledge because we didn't want it to just be about Expedia Group. I'm hoping other travel booking sites would have their listings with hotels that have signed the UNESCO Sustainable Tourism Pledge as well. This is something that is good for the whole industry, not just for one or two or three players in it.”

Katherine Cheng has been a member of the CSR Board since 2020. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.