My story: Tim Williamson, Responsible Travel
Updated: Jan 8, 2020
Responsible Travel’s Tim Williamson talks about early attitudes to climate change, his journey from corporate life to campaigner and what executives say behind his back.
“At TUI we’d normally have a private jet for the senior entourage and then a private jet following on behind for the lesser entourage. We did the full Caribbean by private jet once, with a few helicopters involved too, just to burn some more carbon.”
Tim Williamson, marketing and content director at Brighton-based Responsible Travel, is discussing corporate life as a director at TUI in the late 2000s, when he spent at least a week every month travelling to all parts of the globe.
It’s a world away from Responsible Travel, which specialises in selling authentic and sustainable holidays, and campaigns for a reduction in flying to help save the planet.
Back then, for most travel companies, sustainability was just about helping local communities and Williamson admits he didn’t really consider the impact of flying.
“Maybe I was naive or ignorant, or discussion of the issue was less prevalent,” he says.
“On the Caribbean trip, money was going to different projects. Whilst in Mexico, I got a car to take me down to a village where we had provided all the equipment for the women to make jam, which was then provided at the local Sensatori resort.
“So you had stuff like that going on, but then you get back on a private jet and go to the next island.”
At the time, Williamson was on the board at ABTA. He also chaired its sustainable tourism committee and TUI’s Travelife Committee.
The role of Jane Ashton
He admits his interest in protecting the planet was gradual, rather than a bolt out of the blue, and not everyone shared his enthusiasm for the subject.
He credits TUI director of sustainability Jane Ashton, who will leave for a similar role at easyJet in February after a career at the operator dating back to the 1990s, for strengthening his own beliefs and changing the attitudes of others. Williamson views her as a brilliant operator and says she was his inspiration.
“On reflection it was probably Jane more than anyone else who is the reason I think the way I do now and am in the job I am in,” he said.
However, not everyone was convinced about the merits of sustainability.
“We had investors telling us we had to be interested. And we had an amazingly intelligent manager running it, which definitely helped.”
Williamson is honest enough to admit that he thoroughly enjoyed his time at TUI and has no regrets.
Some of the board members at TUI, including former UK managing director Dermot Blastland, are among his best friends after forming a unique bond during the merger with First Choice in 2007.
“I speak to Dermot regularly. He affectionately refers to me as that ‘fxxxing champagne soclalist wxxxer…’”
Towards the end of his time at TUI, he spent six months in Beijing as project director for TUI China, creating the business plan for the company’s planned entry into the new outbound market from China.
He left his family behind in the UK, so was travelling back and forth to China on a very regular basis.
“Creating shed loads of CO2. The irony of it all!” he laughs.
Williamson recently turned 50 and feels as though he is now in his spiritual home at Responsible Travel.
But the journey from corporate carbon burner to sustainability campaigner was not straightforward.
After being made redundant from TUI in 2011, and while on gardening leave, he took a sabbatical to Swaziland for four months with his wife Loretta and two boys Matthew and Patrick, aged nine and six respectively at the time.
“Loretta works in publishing and had sold her business. It was the right time for us and I’d grown up in South Africa, so I knew Swaziland. We thought that if we waste this opportunity, we’ll absolutely kick ourselves in years to come.”
It was an eye-opening experience as the country has the world’s highest prevalence of HIV, with around a quarter of the population thought to be infected. Tuberculosis is also endemic throughout Swaziland.
It was, though, hugely rewarding for the family, as they helped set up a swimming school and a youth football league.
“Visiting hospitals in desolute places with very sick kids, and home visits to kids who were starving, was tough. You’d ask where so-and-so was and be told he’d died because he’d had a pot of boiling water spill on him from a makeshift cooker.
“But we built links. We’ve now got a raft of friends and we go back every year or two and support the school.
“We negotiated the time off school for the kids. It was educational, not a trip to Disney, and it was amazing for them. Patrick was introverted before and really came out of himself. Matthew was quite confident anyway but also developed rapidly.”
Williamson then spent a year as chief executive of the Dublin-based escorted tour operator, The Travel Department, but didn’t settle.
Soon after, he jumped back into another big corporate role, as marketing and customer experience director at Monarch Airlines.
It seemed a strange move for someone whose heart was in sustainable tourism.
Brutal Monarch experience
“It was a lack of courage really,” he admits. “It’s the safety net of running back to what you know, you need to provide for your family, so you think you’ve got to go back to what you’ve done before.
“I thought I needed one more corporate role. With the benefit of hindsight, I shouldn’t have done it.”
He had the difficult task of helping the sale of a majority stake in the airline to Greybull Capital in 2014. (A fresh injection of £165m came from Greybull in 2016, before the airline’s collapse the following year, by which time Williamson was long gone.)
“In my time it was brutal, absolutely brutal. Greybull would only take Monarch on the understanding it was restructured. We were having three board meetings a day.
“There was a dicey period where we were really running on empty in terms of cash, so you had lawyers reminding you what wrongful trading was at every single board meeting.
“Each board member got assigned a task and mine was ground crew and cabin crew. I was locked in a room with [trade union] Unite and they were brilliant, but it was obviously difficult to manage. We left the room with crew having taken a 40% cut in their packages and a third being made redundant.
“I remember walking over from the Monarch building to the hangar, where the meetings were taking place, and I’d just been told my job was at risk, so I knew I was going to be out, and I was walking in the pouring rain from one building to another and this bus went past and completely soaked me.
“I just thought, days don’t get much worse than this.”
While at Monarch, he took an unpaid non-executive role at Responsible Travel for one day a month before joining full time in December 2014.
“Taking the non-executive role was my sanity, my sense check from the complete and utter nightmare that was going on at Monarch.”
Now, instead of long commutes, he can walk to the office from his home. Suits and brogues have been traded in for jeans and t-shirt in the relaxed atmosphere of the Responsible Travel office.
But his commitment to his work has never been stronger.
Williamson believes we all have a responsibility to reduce our flying, for example cutting out unnecessary trips, especially those to Europe, and making sure a trip abroad has the ‘win/win’ factor of being enjoyable and giving something back to the community.
He cites the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which states that to limit average global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, we need to reduce emissions to 55% of 2017 levels by 2030.
He regularly refers to “having 10 years left to save the planet” but agrees that it is a tall order.
But he also points out that if aviation was a country, it would be the 7th largest emitter of CO2 in the world, just behind Germany, and is adamant that we must change.
Responsible Travel advocates a Green Flying Duty, raising fares by 10% to achieve a 9 – 11% reduction in demand.
He accepts it’s not perfect, but believes it’s the best available option.
“If there was a scheme that could be implemented quickly, where you could identify a frequent flyer – for example one person on a booking of four – that would be great, but it’s complex.
“I’ve worked for an airline and I know they can drag their feet. They’ll moan and huff and puff about it and before you know where you are, we’ll be half-way towards 2030 and nothing will have been done.
“That’s why we went down the route of a tax like Air Passenger Duty (APD). I’m aware it’s a blunt tool, but it’s effective and we want that money ring-fenced to be spent on developing sustainable aviation faster.”
APD has been widely hated by the industry since its introduction in 1994, but Williamson views ABTA’s continued attack on the tax and urgent calls for more airport expansion as ‘bonkers’.
“We are ABTA members and I think ABTA is great. The re-assurance they give to customers is amazing.
“But both of those views [on APD and airport expansion] are bonkers. It’s like you’ve been away for a few years and then come back without realising the change in public opinion.
“Some members say reducing APD would boost the UK, but this is such nonsense. Whoever heard of a business deal not getting done, or a factory not getting opened, because the flight was so expensive?”
ABTA, though, rigorously defends its stance.
“APD is a regressive tax that inhibits UK competitiveness and penalises those least able to afford it, including the young and families,” says an ABTA spokesperson.
“ABTA is at the forefront of debates around the need for additional airport capacity in the South East. Existing airports are predicated to reach capacity by 2025.”
Eyebrows were raised when Williamson accepted an offer from ABTA to fly out to Japan to speak about cutting back on flights at its Convention in October last year. He felt the positives outweighed the negatives.
“We discussed it here, with all the staff. We thought if we can start the debate and get a few people in the industry changing, then it’s worth it,” he said.
“Going to Japan meant over 3 tonnes of CO2 would be burned getting me to and from the Convention in economy. The irony is not lost on us, that you’re flying someone half-way round the world to tell people to fly less.
“It is odd. The whole ABTA Convention thing is odd – 400–500 people from the UK fly half-way around the world to talk about the UK travel industry, but I understand it. There’s no sponsorship in the UK.”
Williamson gets a lot of offers to speak and says he attends one corporate event a year that involves flying, to spread the Responsible Travel message.
Elephant in the room
Williamson is pushing against an open door with his customers.
According to research from accountants Deloitte, last year saw a 6% rise in concern about the environmental impact of flying from the general public. Among 16-34 year olds, that figure rose to 13%.
However, climate change remains the elephant in the room for travel companies.
Many have spent every waking moment encouraging people to fly more often and giving them never-ending inducements, in the form of discounts, to do so. Their very prosperity can depend upon us flying more.
Prominent New Year advertisements encourage people to take advantage of “ridiculous” holidays, including flights, for just £299.
And now companies are being told we must fly less.
Fellow executives greet Williamson warmly but speak differently behind his back.
“People seem interested. But then what they say is ‘yeah, but it’s more complicated than that, Tim’s oversimplifying it, he doesn’t really understand’.
“Believe me, I understand. I’ve been in all those revenue management roles and I’ve been in a volume game [when at Monarch Airlines] and I’ve managed pricing for TUI. As I see it, it’s very simple to cut back on flying. The clever companies develop a better model.
“But people have short term targets to hit, they’ve got mortgages to pay and they can’t be bothered with what’s going to happen to the planet in 10 years’ time.”
Last year, there was a slowdown in mergers and acquisitions in the travel industry, but it’s widely predicted that more private equity cash will flow into the market this year, which Williamson sees as a further challenge in the fight against climate change.
“The prevalence of private equity in travel drives short term interest. If you’re thinking about your exit in three years’ time, which is a pretty normal timeframe, then obviously you don’t give a toss about the longer term and you’ll be looking to do whatever you can to maximise profit.”
The folly of offsetting
For Williamson, many companies in the industry are keen to be seen to be doing the right thing without, in his opinion, actually doing the right thing.
“There’s an awful lot of greenwashing going on. Carbon offsetting is greenwashing,” he says.
“Your kids will look at this situation in 10 years’ time and say what the f did you do? And you’re going to say, ‘well I advocated a bit of offsetting’. They’re going to be furious with you.
“Offsetting has a place, but it has to follow carbon reduction. On its own it allows you to mitigate guilt, plant some trees and carry on. It’s the same model as the reformation church. I can keep sinning, but it’s OK if I pay this money, I’ll still get to heaven.
“For an airline to run an offset scheme and then incentivise people to fly more through loyalty programmes is completely hypocritical.”
Many staffers at Responsible Travel are supporters of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thurnberg and Extinction Rebellion (ER). Williamson supports the cause but feels the demands are too extreme.
“You need extremists who take an absolute position because it gets attention. What Greta has done is fantastic.
“But I don’t agree with everything she says and I don’t agree with ER targets. They’re not deliverable. You have to take people with you, otherwise there will be a backlash.”
Big ship cruises
For Williamson, it’s not all about flying. He’s extremely critical of the cruise industry. Responsible Travel sell expedition cruises, but on their website pledge never to work with companies operating the big ships.
He is critical of the use of scrubbers, which enable companies to comply with new emissions guidelines by extracting sulphur from exhaust fumes.
“Cruising – where to start?
“Why on earth did companies go down the route of using scrubbers, which means they can still burn the real dirty fuel? Why not burn the cleaner stuff? Cost, I suppose.
“At the moment, kerosene is the only stuff dense enough to get a plane flying but cruise companies have a choice, so I’m disappointed.”
He’s also unhappy that cruise companies burn fuel by keeping their engines running in port and that cruise passengers have a reputation for spending little in resort as they are fed and watered on board.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) strongly refutes the criticism and says the cruise companies take sustainability very seriously.
CLIA director UK and Ireland Andy Harmer says the lines have invested more than US$22 billion in the development of energy-efficient technologies and cleaner fuels, and 44% of ships being built will rely on Liquified Natural Gas (LNG).
“Cruise lines are committed to reducing carbon emissions by 40% by 2030,” he adds. “Meanwhile, each cruise guest spends on average 90 Euros per person in port.”
Hypocrisy in all
Williamson tries to put his money where his mouth is.
He drives a Mitsubishi Outlander – a plug in 4x4 obviously – has put solar panels on his house which, frustratingly, are not functioning properly yet, and has switched to being a vegetarian for four days a week.
“I was brought up as a meat-eating South African, so that’s a big deal,” he says.
But Williamson is the first to admit that he’s not perfect.
“Of course not,” he responds. “I think there’s a bit of hypocrisy in all of us. But you’ve got to try and if you’re not listening, you’re in denial.”
Before I wrap up, I think back to start of our conversation. I wonder, did Tim travel on TUI’s first private jet or the second one?
“The second, obviously!,” he replies, quick as a flash.
Presumably, it was just as nice as the first one?
“I never got to look in the first one. It wasn’t all roses, you know.”