Authentic tourism: being consistent, conforming, connecting and exploring

Daniel Arenas

The quest for authenticity in entrepreneurship has become a major focus for organizations and scholars alike. Identifying and living according to authentic values plays an increasingly prominent role in business and enterprises, with leaders aligning strategic goals to values and using them to guide daily actions.

For social enterprises, authenticity is essential in obtaining and retaining legitimacy. Organizations for whom positive social impact is the main goal must ensure that the actions inherent in their operations consistently support their aims and objectives. Conforming to accepted norms within their social context is also an essential aspect of connecting with the people or places the organization is committed to supporting.

The tourism industry faces a particularly complex situation. One the one hand, tourists are after authentic experiences. Yet, by its very nature, successful tourism, when it scales up, lends itself to inauthentic experiences and damaging impacts on host communities. Tourism social enterprises seek to redress the balance by empowering local communities and supporting sustainable development while maintaining an authentic experience and the profits they need to operate.

The lock and drift conundrum

Attempting to align financial and social goals within a social enterprise presents a common conundrum. Rigidly enforcing a social purpose – mission lock-in - can lead to a lack of financial resources and an inability to perform that purpose. Abandoning the social mission in favor of financial stability – mission drift - results in a loss of authenticity and a lack of long-term credibility and sustainability.

International tourism social enterprise Authenticitys offers travel experiences that claim to leave a positive impact in its host cities. The organization, based in Barcelona, provides a revelatory case study to address the issue of mission lock-in versus mission drift in tourism.

Authenticitys was studied by Prof. Daniel Arenas, member of Esade’s Institute for Social Innovation, and Chiara De Bernardi from the Pavia School of Advanced Studies, as part of a wider analysis of authenticity in social enterprises. By examining the working practices of a successful tourism social enterprise, the authors were able to identify essential elements of authentic tourism.

Four aspects of the authentic approach

Authenticitys curates and co-designs social impact experiences for people to travel, share and learn together in global cities. Co-founder Elena Rodríguez Blanco and her team use the phrase “be authentic” as their benchmark for making decisions and developing new experiences.

This approach – which Arenas and De Bernardi analyzed using seven years of data from the organization – includes four key aspects: consistency, conformity, connection, and exploration.

The first aspect is manifested in the idea that “someone is authentic when their actions are in alignment with what they promise.” As Authenticitys claims in its publicity material: “We call a brand or a person authentic when they’re consistent, when they act the same way whether or not someone is looking.”

At the same time, as a social enterprise, Authenticitys places a great deal of importance on conforming to, and being recognized for, its social performance. Achieving the B Certification (a private certification of the social and environmental performance of for-profit companies) was an important aspect of strengthening its social credentials.

The third aspect, which emphasizes connection, is manifested when Elena explains that “another thing you have to learn to maintain your authenticity is to sort of find this ecosystem. It’s just like communities and families that are kind of thinking aligned with who you are, because you are disrupting in a new place.”

Similarly, for tourists seeking an authentic experience, connecting with local culture is a common goal. By promoting this connection, sustainable tourism enterprises can help to preserve traditions and lifestyles rather than drowning communities in mass tourism.

Finally, in pursuit of their goals, Elena and Authenticitys made constant efforts to explore new ways of thinking and behaving as individuals and an organization. “It’s the idea that you don’t bring out the product and that’s it, it’s done,” explains Elena. “It’s more the concept that you always try to see how you are evolving, and how you best can evolve with your clients and their needs.”

Exploring and evolving for Authenticitys meant not losing sight of its social mission in pursuit of profits. Slow growth was seen as the price to pay to maintain consistency, conformity and connection, with Elena and the team preferring to explore the option of partners and investors who were more in line with their mission.

Profit and purpose

While retaining sight of the mission was essential for Authenticitys, it wasn’t pursued at all costs. As finance and strategy director Manolo explained: “Authenticitys gives as much money as possible to the indigenous community. But it cannot get more money from one experience. It has to scale it up and sell thousands of experiences.”

Pursuing consistency, conformity and connection helped the organization to avoid drifting away from its mission, while its desire to explore new and different possibilities that allowed for growth meant Authenticitys was able to evolve and avoid mission lock´-in.

Authenticitys is just one example of successful sustainable tourism, but its business model is an illustration of how social enterprises can balance authenticity aims with strategic goals and financial independence.

Or, as Authenticitys' sales and client manager Cristina put it, "It's being a non-profit, but for profit and for purpose."

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