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Responsible business and sustainability in the tourism industry: discussion with Robyn Nixon

Palladium's Business Partnership Platform is DFAT's flagship Shared Value project. Devex discusses with Robyn Nixon of Intrepid Group, a partner organisation.

Robyn Nixon, manager of sustainability at the Intrepid Group and board member at The Intrepid Foundation. Photo credit: Robyn Nixon

During 17 years at the Intrepid Group, Robyn Nixon has taken on a variety of roles and challenges as part of an organisation whose travel brands carry more than 250,000 passengers a year across the globe — including to developing countries, where the group focuses on responsible tourism.

Now, as the manager of sustainability and a board member for The Intrepid Foundation — the not-for-profit arm of the group — Nixon is working on integrating new and innovative approaches for the business that support sustainable development, including wider and more diverse partnering for greater impact.

In the past year, The Intrepid Foundation has received funding for two projects through the Business Partnerships Platform — an Australian government initiative supported by Palladium and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The program matches private sector funding for projects that are both commercially viable and socially impactful, to promote greater private sector engagement in development.

Devex spoke with Nixon about her plans for both the Intrepid Group and The Intrepid Foundation to become global leaders in sustainable business practices and in selecting partnerships for impactful collaborations. Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What are the new approaches you have brought to the foundation?
As a responsible business, we believe it is more important than ever that good businesses show leadership and commitment to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We have been a carbon-neutral business since 2010, we’ve led the industry on animal welfare, as the first travel company to end elephant rides and driving advocacy on the issues of walking with lions.
Last year, we took a leadership position on child protection when we removed orphanages visits from our itineraries.

The Intrepid Group has set two key goals in the 2020 business plan – growth of sustainable, experience-rich travel, and a purpose beyond profit. As part of this new business strategy, we’ve committed to disbursing 3 million Australian ($2.2 million) by 2020 through The Intrepid Foundation.

Another new approach the foundation has taken to ensure we invest funds responsibly, and to achieve the best outcomes, has been to increase our focus on measuring impact. In particular, we’re looking at how we can create a simple way for the small, and often under-resourced NGOs we support, to be able to report back to us on the impact our donations are making.

My role as sustainability manager and board member of The Intrepid Foundation means that I am responsible for integrating the work of the non-profit arm of our business with our responsible business department. It’s important that the NGOs we support through the foundation align with our responsible business policies and practices.

What is your process of engaging with partners, including NGOs, research, government, and private sector?
We have a selection process in place to ensure any potential partner organisation meets our selection criteria and aligns with our responsible travel policies. We also want to ensure they have good governance, and impact-reporting procedures in place themselves. Our head office has had long-standing relationships with large Australian-based NGOs such as Australian Volunteers International, Plan International, WWF, World Animal Protection and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Over the years, we have collaborated with different universities on key pieces of research around the impact of community based tourism. Local interaction is a key part of our travel style, so we are very cognizant of our need to ensure our impact is positive, and to put systems in place to protect and respect local culture.

We also provided funding for World Animal Protection to review wildlife used for entertainment in Southeast Asia. As a result of this research, Intrepid made the decision to remove elephant rides from all our trips. This was a tough commercial decision at the time, as elephant rides was a must-do in Southeast Asia and the region made up 40 percent of our global business. Since then, Intrepid has worked with World Animal Protection to advocate strongly against it. This has resulted in 158 travel companies worldwide now removing elephant riding from their programs.

And this past year has offered us our first opportunity to work with government via the Business Partnerships Platform. We have two BPP projects in place, a tourism business hub in Myanmar and a community-based ecotourism project in Nepal.

For these BPP projects, what has been the experience in working with DFAT on these projects? What additional capability, insight or support have they been able to bring to these projects?
DFAT have been incredibly supportive. Shared value projects are a new approach for DFAT, so they have made it very clear they are keen to offer support when we need it without “getting the road” of the partners getting on with the project.

We have benefited greatly from the workshops they put in place in the initial stages of the project, such as monitoring and evaluation workshop and a partnership brokering workshop.

What are the biggest challenges both you and The Intrepid Foundation have faced in getting to where are you in supporting sustainable development?
In the past, one of the biggest challenges for the foundation has been resourcing. While we have had a board, we haven’t had any full time employees dedicated to working on our not-for-profit. We’re a multi-brand global business, and the foundation has often had to compete with other business priorities.

However, this is changing.

The Intrepid Group’s new chief executive officer, James Thornton, has recently taken over as chair of The Intrepid Foundation to ensure the business and the foundation are working in tandem to meet our business goals of growth and purpose. This is especially important for development outcomes in relation to shared value projects.

Under this new direction, what are the milestones and achievements the Intrepid Group and The Intrepid Foundation are aiming for?
The Intrepid Group has made a commitment to purpose beyond profit, and as such we intend to introduce the following commitment by 2020. We have established three strategic goals for the foundation, with targets to be reached by 2020:

1. With impact, we want 1,000 communities better off.
2. With reach, we want 200,000 people touched by the foundation.
3. And with funding, 3 million Australian dollars ($2.2 million) will have been disbursed to fund amazing ideas to address global and local sustainability.

This post, originally authored by Lisa Cornish on 31st May 2017, is republished with permission from Devex.