“When we talk about sustainability, we’re talking about being in business forever.”
– Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company
There’s a lot of talk about stewardship issues in travel, but who can back it up with actions and results? Our team at Destination Think went to Aspen, Colorado to find out. In interviews published on the Travel Beyond podcast (more about the show later), we spoke with Aspen’s travel and destination leaders who are having a meaningful impact toward a regenerative future of travel. We uncovered surprising stories that hold many lessons for DMOs and changemakers.
In this episode, we spoke with Auden Schendler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company. As a 25-year veteran in his role, Auden has led some audacious initiatives: funding a climate movement led by the outdoor industry, enacting a postcard campaign to lobby a senator for environmental legislation, and creating renewable energy projects to power the ski resort – including a methane-capture power plant.
Few travel organizations can demonstrate so many clearly beneficial and creative examples of leading systemic change to address the climate crisis and destination stewardship. Auden discusses the company’s journey toward adopting sustainable value and business practices, and he offers salient advice for destinations.
Aspen Skiing Company’s advice for destination managers
1. Communicate a vision and values that prioritize stewardship – and then follow through.
Positive change begins with positive values. Aspen Skiing Company has a vision to be “an agent of positive change in the world,” says Auden, and this permeates every area of the business, from campaigns to visitor experiences to staff retention. But it wasn’t always this way. It took time for the company to grow into its current values of stewardship and higher purpose. Establishing a sustainability leadership role on the team is one way they have encouraged values and norms to shift. Auden recognizes that those lofty ambitions to change the world have set the bar high, but the resulting actions have been worth it.
2. Build upon the stewardship foundations others have already set.
Taking on sustainability work can feel overwhelming, but there’s good news: You don’t need to be a climate expert, and many like-minded people and organizations in travel have already prepared the way.
Be careful not to get stuck on unnecessary obstacles. Auden says, “One thing that irritated me for years was you’d go to sustainability conferences and people would say, what is it? We have to define it. No, it’s very straightforward. It means we want to be in business forever, whatever that business is. If you’re a parent, how do you be a parent forever? If you’re a school teacher, same question. If you’re a ski resort, same question… If you want to be in business forever… yes, climate change is really important.”
3. Be brutally honest about what matters and what doesn’t.
In sustainability circles, there’s a frequent debate: Is individual or systemic action more important in addressing the climate crisis? In practice, the tendency is to focus on what individuals can do, because those actions feel more achievable. But in your DMO, this is often a trap.
Auden shares an example. He says carbon footprinting “has served as a massive distraction from the real work” and is exactly what benefits the fossil fuel industry’s status quo. He encourages us to redefine individual action as “being a citizen.” Write your senator, join your town council, and work at the problem from your position of influence representing your destination.
Turning the lights off and the heat down can add up to fewer carbon emissions (a good idea regardless), but the real power – and the opportunity for DMOs – is in influencing systems change. Find ways to work in coalition, influence public policy, and change travel industry norms.
4. Be a mole, make a difference.
Feeling frustrated within your organization? Maybe you feel your influence is limited. Maybe your colleagues don’t yet see the urgency like you do. But if you’re passionate about stewardship, stay the course and stay alert for opportunities.
Auden has been in a sustainability role for more than two decades, and it hasn’t all been rosy. His advice is that “...you do the work you’re being asked to do, but you keep pushing and prodding, and looking for leverage, and talking to your boss and saying, ‘Hey, is this all we want to do? Don’t we want to do more and drive that change?’… The beauty of a corporate sustainability staffer is that they’re already within the corporation. So they’re a mole, you know, and they have some level of power… At some point, they might have to leave the company, but they might also change the company.”
Hear Auden’s interview on the Travel Beyond podcast
You can hear more of Auden’s story in this episode of the Travel Beyond podcast alongside many other potent interviews. Our show brings together inspiring destination and travel leaders to discuss the travel industry’s future. We partner with leading destinations to speak with the changemakers working toward an industry that respects the needs of residents, visitors, and the environment – a regenerative future where all people can flourish. You’ll learn how other places are dealing with climate risks and environmental preservation by hearing from like-minded thinkers who have been moving toward regenerative travel for their whole careers.
Our past guests include:
- Cathy Ritter, formerly the CEO of the Colorado Tourism Office.
- Marsha Walden, Destination Canada’s CEO
- Mat Woods and Tim Barke, CEOs of the Aoeteroa New Zealand destination management organizations behind Carbon Zero by 2030.
- Hedwig Sietsma, Director of Climate Policy at KLM
- Damcho Rinzin from the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
- Strategists and tourism leaders from the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions and from Amsterdam & Partners.
If you’re new to Travel Beyond, this episode with Auden Schendler, Senior VP of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, is a fantastic place to start. Listen and subscribe to the podcast here, or through your favorite podcast player.