Behind The Green

With Julie Cheetham | Weeva | South Africa

Behind The Green

With Julie Cheetham | Weeva | South Africa

With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, Behind The Green takes it back to BASICS. Back to storytelling and human connection. Hear from the visionaries and teams behind the world’s leading sustainable stays. As well as inspiring experts that help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT tourism.

Interview by Rebecca Woolford

Sustainability is a journey that is never finished.

Despite the fact that this could be a rather demotivating prospect – a journey that never ends – it’s one of the key reasons I love what I do. Perhaps it’s the adventurer in me.

A never-ending journey sounds adventurous and riddled with endless possibilities.

One thing is for sure, I’m not alone in this thinking…

Julie Cheetham is an experienced and highly respected sustainability expert with over two decades of experience. Previously part of the National Geographic Unique Lodges Council, and managing director of Grootbos Foundation in South Africa, Julie is a real mover and shaker in her field.

A proven problem solver, Julie’s latest venture, a SaaS platform called Weeva, is set to transform the travel industry. A 360-degree interconnected system that tracks net environmental and social impact – negative and positive – in real time.

So, naturally, I just had to find a way to get Julie onto the show, to share her story in Behind the Green. Enjoy the interview!

Julie Cheetham, Founding Member and MD of Weeva

It’s so good to have you here, thank you Julie. I’ve personally been inspired by your work and impact over the years. So, let’s jump straight in. Sustainability is a term so often heard these days. And that’s a positive thing in itself because we are moving to be more conscious of the impact human activities have. I’m not sure about you Julie but I find that most people are still pretty unsure and lack clarity on what it all means.

I’ve heard you say before that sustainability feels a bit like an alphabet soup. Can you tell us more?

“Rebecca, so lovely to be with you today. So, yes, sustainability can feel like alphabet soup when you’re getting acronyms thrown at you like SDGs and GHGs and ESG and you’re not even sure what anyone’s talking about.

At the heart, sustainability means to endure: the ability to continue, to go on, and to endure. And we have a world of finite resources. So, it really means running our businesses in a way that enables us to continue that infinitely.

From a sustainable tourism perspective, it is not being extractive or exploitative and making sure that we’re managing our businesses in a balanced manner.

Sustainability is also complex and it’s also complicated and it’s intimidating. So we see a big intention and action gap and that comes from really just not knowing where to start or what to do next.

I think particularly in the travel sector, we’re largely hospitality people. We’re not necessarily scientists and it can be really intimidating to try to figure out how to be more sustainable. The other thing is that you don’t want to get it wrong either because of fear of greenwashing.

So, the best way forward is the approach of breaking it down into its most simple elements. Like we do at Weeva. One step at a time. Don’t try and think you have to be perfect, but let’s just start somewhere, and let’s keep making improvements.”

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An inside look at the digital tool Weeva

You’re absolutely right. People often don’t want to take the first step because they’re scared, even paralysed by the fear of doing it wrong. So, they end up taking no action at all.

Firstly, Julie, let me just say a massive congratulations on the launch of your digital platform Weeva. With many years of experience in the sustainability space, I imagine you’ve been exposed to all sorts of challenges, across hospitality teams from all over the world.

How did those experiences shape the creation of your incredibly exciting digital tool Weeva?

“Working for the last 10 years as an independent sustainability practitioner, my road to sustainability was a little bit circuitous. I actually started off in banking and financial services for the first 14-15 years, but my true passion was human rights and gender equality.

And that passion took me out of banking and into independent consulting.

I quickly realised that to run a balanced business with better supply chains, the environmental factors were really important. I started to learn about biodiversity and environmental sustainability. And having a holistic balanced approach – where you’re not only looking at your commercials but the conservation and socio-cultural aspects.

One of my consulting clients was a beautiful reserve in the Northern Cape of South Africa, Tswalu Kalahari. When I was independent, I could maybe work with 10 clients per year maximum. Creating bespoke sustainability journeys, training on-site, etc. I would build a little monitoring tool in Excel for them and we would have a real one-on-one relationship.

When COVID happened, the owners of Tswalu Kalahari, our chairman, called me and asked me to be part of a think tank because we can’t just help one property at a time anymore. The whole world needs to be more resilient now.

This travel sector that we know and love needs to recover from COVID, but we also need to face right into the climate crisis, greenwashing, and lack of inclusivity and diversity in our sector. The decolonisation of our sector is going to be so important.

So this pause brought this amazing opportunity to be part of a ‘think tank‘ that looked at all of the issues that the travel sector was facing. And Weeva was the solution that we started to build out of that.

Weeva has the best sustainability experts from around the world creating content and tools for thousands and thousands of hotels, resorts, and lodges because we need to move the tourism sector at scale to be more sustainable and more resilient. Rather than one hotel at a time.”

Weeva in Action with Prince Ngomane, Sustainability Officer at Tswalu Kalahari Reserve

What a great example of how something painful and difficult becomes a catalyst for saying “let’s relook at this,” prompting you to ask better questions and rewriting the rule book. I love that!

What I find fascinating about Weeva is how versatile it is, supporting teams regardless of where they find themselves today in all senses of the term. I know one of the world’s leading sustainable hotels, Grootbos in South Africa is utilising your tool. But on the other end of the scale, it can also help aspiring hotels that are yet to begin their sustainability journey.

Could you share with me how Weeva can help city hotels starting from zero and, at the other end of the scale, a jungle lodge that’s a leader in sustainable travel?

“Absolutely. So, we have some real sustainability champions already using Weeva, like the Cayuga Collection in Costa Rica and Tiger Mountain Lodge in Nepal.

And when you’re more mature like these properties, it’s easy to use our system because you’re already used to unpicking different parts of your business and examining data to try to do better.

Weeva brings all of the hotel’s or lodge’s data into one place, with access to useful educational resources and features for their teams to create easy reports.

When we have businesses that are just starting out, whether it be a smaller B&B or a larger boutique hotel, they will select one or two elements and start there. Such as beginning with their energy or water consumption. Our team then walks them through how to use the system to understand what the performance is currently and how they can set targets to improve.

Weeva is like having a sustainability officer in your pocket. So, if you’re an HR officer at a hotel and you’d really like to work on your team’s health, safety, and well-being but you’re not sure how, the tool will show you where to begin.

And you know Rebecca, some hotels can afford a sustainability consultant or a full-time practitioner, but the majority of hotels and lodges around the world are not able to stretch their resources that far. And so that’s where this digital tool comes in, making it affordable and accessible to all.”

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Weeva was built for tourism from the inside out.

Absolutely, accessibility is key. As you say, not every business can hire a sustainability officer but with one in your pocket then the possibility for change is within reach. Now I know what an ambassador you are for data Julie…

You once said that “data can be used to break through all the distractions and promote positive change.” Can you share an example that highlights this power?

“I think there are probably two things to mention here. The first one is that there are a lot of distractions in the form of information that is just overwhelming.

Hotels or travel agents signing up to the Glasgow Declaration or the declaration of a climate emergency. Or pursuing a green certification or eco-award. There’s so much information that comes with sustainability that it distracts one, right?

So, it’s better to just boil it down to the data and the facts.

Focusing on one or two things at a time is best. Let’s just measure our energy consumption, for example. Let’s take a look at our supply chain and look at the top five areas of spend. And let’s get that data and analyse it to see where we can do better.

You mentioned Grootbos Private Nature Reserve earlier. Two wonderful examples that spring to mind over the years. One is that we’ve been measuring water data on the property for more than a decade. And at one of the lodges, there was a massive water leak. And until we put a water meter and looked at the data we were not aware of that massive water leak.

Tens of thousands of liters of water have been saved by managing to identify that leak. And South Africa is a water-scarce area, so that was massive.

Another example from the same lodge is that they have a series of social programs that have been in place for more than 15 years. I think they’re coming up to their 20-year anniversary, actually. Every year they survey their local community. They visit at least 100 households door-to-door with translators in the local community language and they ask a whole host of questions about the state of the household, what’s important to people, and what they most need.

And based on those survey outcomes, they change their programming over the years. And so some things like daily feeding schemes have been phased out in that area and replaced with entrepreneurship support programs for new business development. Those changes to their initiatives come down purely to the data, responding to what the market is telling you. And in that case, the market is, your community, direct neighbors, and stakeholders.

On the whole, tourism as a sector is really bad at using data to inform our decision-making.

And it’s even things that you’ve invested in to make better use of your investments. I’ve worked with clients whose solar fields are not working at optimal capacity. And unless you’re tracking the data and understanding the output that those solar fields are supposed to generate versus what they’re actually generating, that’s wasted money that you’ve spent on infrastructure that’s not working.

You don’t pick up the problems unless you look at your data.”

Tiger Mountain Lodge in Nepal, a Kiwano member, and Weeva user.

Saving thousands of liters in a water-scarce region by looking at the data says it all. If that same lodge had pursued every one of the 300 or so certifications around the world, that pursuit wouldn’t have identified that water leak, right? What a great example, thank you, Julie.

Working alongside the world’s leading sustainable hotels for over 5 years I know well and am a big supporter of The Long Run’s 4 Cs which your tool Weeva is based on. When looking closer, there are actually 18 signals, not 4. How did you come up with these 18 areas?

“Our think tank that I mentioned earlier started during COVID. We looked at many different tools or approaches to resilience. And so we looked at the SDGs, which are fantastic but were developed for countries, essentially, not for businesses. They, therefore, lacked commercial indicators.

Science-based targets are again absolutely fantastic but can be overwhelming for your everyday business owner, especially an independent business owner who has a small team.

We looked at all sorts and ultimately, we kept coming back to good old management consulting. And if you’re a management consultant, like I am, what is your balance scorecard for any business that you’re trying to improve? And if we think about sustainability, we could not, as a team, identify a more appropriate balanced scorecard than The Long Run’s Four Cs, which is balancing commercial outcomes with conservation, community, and cultural outcomes. And that ensures that you have a business in balance. Dr. Delphine King, the chairperson of the Long Run, was part of our think tank.

And while the Long Run has the most incredible methodology, and I’m a huge fan, it’s good for nature-based properties. We wanted Weeva to be universally applicable.

And so our team of subject matter experts really spent a long time looking at other sustainability frameworks, like the Global Sustainable Tourism Council framework and others, to break down the measurable elements within a business where you could make sustainable improvements.

And that formed the 18 parameters that we’ve managed to articulate and put metrics in place for. So everything is measurable, whether it’s quantifiable or qualifiable. So in commerce, you’ll find things like customer satisfaction. How do you analyse what your customers are telling you?

Investment analytics, how are you spending your money, is it balanced? It’s quite fun. It’s like an economic nutrition kind of breakdown.

On the conservation side, we look at your typical energy and carbon footprint, water and waste, and pollution, but we also look at infrastructure.

What about biodiversity? So, if you are a nature-based property, how do we monitor all of your ecosystems and species and protect those over time?

Under community, we look internally at your own employee well-being and engagement. What are you doing in terms of engaging with and co-creating economic growth and social solutions for those communities? And culture, especially in tourism, plays a huge part in that.

Every business has positive and negative impacts on everything that we do. And so it’s about helping to identify those, quantify them, and then move in the right direction. Nobody’s perfect. Nobody’s reached the end goal because that’s not what it’s about.”

I’m so happy that you touched upon biodiversity there Julie. It’s something I am hugely passionate about and is an area we focus on in the Kiwano Masterclass. Something I emphasise is that you don’t need to be in the middle of the jungle to be promoting local biodiversity. You could be a city hotel. Can you just share a bit more about the biodiversity parameter in Weeva?

“Sure, so if you’re a nature-based property, it’s easier to focus on biodiversity.

Weeva helps teams map their ecosystem type and coverage, create a species list, and then there are checklists, other tools, etc. But for city hotels, I think it’s even more fun and important.

The tool prompts you to look at what species are on your doorstep. Let’s look at what birds and insects are in your immediate surroundings. Even if you’re in New York City, what are you using in your gardens? Do you have indigenous plants in your gardens, even if it’s a small verge? Do you have wasted space where you could be creating a small vegetable garden, for example? And then what biodiversity efforts can you and your guests get involved in that you can promote to your guests?

Every city needs greening to help reduce the temperature of urban spaces. We know that bringing wildflowers back to urban spaces helps with insect diversity, which then helps biodiversity in all of those areas around that urban fringe. Getting involved in clearing local waterways that run through cities, but then end up flowing into rivers and oceans. There are so many ways…”

Something I ask every guest at the end of the interview and please interpret it as you like. What’s next for Weeva?

“We have had a huge response from the travel trade, tour operators, and travel agents and they’ve been coming to us saying, ‘Can we have a tool please?’

Right now in the background, we’re squirreling away on an itinerary impact tool. It’s very complex, obviously, because it’s all modes of transport and accommodation and various activities to consider, but we hope to bring that out at some point next year. So that’s what’s next!”

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