Lodging Industry Stays Green

The hotel industry continues to embrace green technology and building practices By: Janeen Christoff
// © 2010 Ugurhan Betin
// © 2010 Ugurhan Betin

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Being green” and “eco chic” are hotel industry buzz words these days, but phrases such as “economic downturn” and “The Great Recession” are on the minds of almost every consumer. In a world where value reigns supreme but going green is a la mode, how is the lodging industry reconciling both sides? It used to be okay for a hotel to simply ask guests to reuse their towels but, now, a recent boom in the building of and interest in green properties is raising the bar on environmentally friendly accommodations. While cost-saving energy measures are a boon to large developments such as Las Vegas’ new mega-resort, CityCenter, a steady stream of interest from consumers, especially in the group travel market, is perpetuating the industry’s green fervor.

Back in 2007, there were just two hotels in the U.S. that were certified by the United States Green Building Council (USBGC) with its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which is a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings. Now, there are aournd 50 LEED-certified properties in the country.

Green Seal is another way that hotels can distinguish themselves as environmentally responsible. Green Seal is also a third-party validation of environmentally responsible operational practices. The Green Seal Environmental Standard for Lodging Properties, known as the GS-33, was first published in 1999 and focuses on waste minimization, energy conservation, fresh water resources and waste water management, pollution prevention and organizational commitment, such as environmentally sensitive purchasing.

Since certification of green practices is voluntary, hotels don’t need these measures to put out the message to consumers that they are green, but savvy customers are beginning to know the difference.

“It’s a way for an organization to put their money where their mouth is and prove that they are environmental,” said Christine Chase, an environmental scientist with Green Seal. “We are a volunteer standard, but a lot of the interest in Green Seal has to do with the designation and its distinction. I think the momentum of green building is driven by consumers and users. These days, people are more aware on the consumer side.”

Being Green
Giving a boost to the importance for third-party validation of environmental friendliness, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants announced early in 2010 that it would pursue Green Seal certification at the Silver level for all of its 50 properties, building off of its successful EarthCare program, launched in 2005.

“Kimpton’s environmental program started in 1984 with our founder, Bill Kimpton, who believed that it was our responsibility as business leaders to be mindful of our environmental impact,” said Niki Leondakis, chief operating officer at Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.

Back then, one of the first projects that Kimpton pursued was the creation of a green roof at The Triton Hotel in San Francisco. Kimpton’s properties were also one of the first to make in-room recycling bins available to guests back in the ’80s.

While all of Kimpton’s properties were mindful of their environmental footprint, in 2004, Kimpton standardized its operating practices across the brand.

“Before 2004, our hotels weren’t really standardized. Each hotel did what they thought they could to minimize its environmental impact,” said Leondakis. “When we were working on the Kimpton brand in 2004, we decided to be more than just a collection of independent hotels and added the promise of environmental sustainability.”

Kimpton based its environmental policy on The Triton.

“We made those the minimum operating standards and, then, we developed a four-phase plan to take our eco efforts to another level,” said Leondakis. “In 2008, we completed our four-phase plan and then developed a longer-term plan.”

Kimpton’s longer-term plan included new building and design materials, and the company researched improved ways to recycle, including ways to clarify recyclable materials to its guests.

“These days, there is so much more in the way of environmentally friendly products and programs available in the market,” said Leondakis.

Kimpton recently opened its first LEED-certified property, the Hotel Palomar Philadelphia, which earned certification at the Gold level. In order to achieve this status, the building’s design and operations were measured in multiple categories, including energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts. More than 40 of its 51 properties have received Green Seal certification.

CityCenter, a sprawling mega-resort in Las Vegas, is another showcase for green practices. The complex has the first natural-gas, co-generation plant providing efficient, on-site electricity and reducing emissions using “waste heat” to provide domestic hot water; water conservation that provides between 32-39 percent savings within the buildings and 60 percent for outdoor landscaping; a fleet of natural gas-powered stretch limos; the creation of a large-scale recycling operation that enabled the recycling or reuse of more than 260,000 tons of construction waste, including 97 percent of the imploded Boardwalk Hotel; and more.

“CityCenter captures the energy and diversity of Las Vegas in one of the world’s largest green developments,” Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International said in a statement. “Designing CityCenter with sustainable elements and practices reinforces its permanence and creates a healthier environment for our guests and residents, as well as for the 12,000 people who work at CityCenter.”

CityCenter recently received another accolade — Green Key recognition for Aria and Vdara, another environmental ranking system that is recognized by AAA, Expedia and Travelocity.

With easier access to environmentally friendly products, whole cities are becoming more eco-friendly, and the city of Los Angeles aims to be a green lodging leader. As part of Mayor Villaraigosa’s Green L.A. initiative, L.A. Inc., the convention and visitors bureau for the City of Los Angeles, is working with Green Seal on the L.A. Green Lodging Program, using the nonprofit organization’s GS-33 standard as guidance.

The Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites was the first Los Angeles property to complete certification. Five other Los Angeles properties, including the Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City, have received certification and 10 more hotels are on their way.

Hotels at the LAX airport have struck up their own initiative, aiming to have 60 percent of airport-area hotels Green Seal-certified by the end of the year. The initiative also includes the replacement of hotel transfer vans with a green shuttle system and an electric trolley that provides a sightseeing tour to area beaches and shopping.

Other large metropolitan cities, such as Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco are following in the footsteps of Los Angeles. Carol Martinez, vice president, communications at L.A. Inc., sees this as a no-brainer for businesses, considering the cost-savings and business opportunities generated by green ventures these days.

“I think that, with the economy the way it is, companies are reevaluating,” said Martinez. “They have less revenue and resources and, when you are looking at efficiency, the answer is to run everything optimally, so some of these green initiatives go hand and hand.”

Green Economics
Efficiency is one of the key aspects driving the green building boom. Even with a down economy, the motivation to be green has managed to stay afloat.

“Green practices save companies money and distance themselves from the competition,” said Susan Heaton, manager, national accounts at Green Seal. “It’s almost impossible for companies to make a decision not to do it.”

Despite the economic downturn, Kimpton didn’t cease pursuing its environmental mission.

“We didn’t stop doing anything as a result of the recession,” said Leondakis. “We don’t turn our social and environmental responsibilities on and off just because of the economy. A lot of our environmental policies actually save money.”

Many of the results of green building can be seen in a company’s bottom line.

“If companies reduce their landfill costs they save a lot of money,” said Chase. “If they run their machinery more efficiently, they save money, as well. Hotels are huge impact areas with lots of clients and energy use, recycling and waste. There is a lot of chemical use. There is a constant stream of people using a lot of utilities. The cost-savings make it something that, when you look at the numbers, it makes sense”

One of the ways that Kimpton reduces its energy costs is through its partnership with Energy Star.

“Our big focus right now is on energy,” said Leondakis. “We have partnered with Energy Star to reduce energy use across the portfolio. It’s helping us manage our energy, and we are working with them to continue to find new ways to reduce energy usage. We are constantly on the lookout for new ways.”

Kimpton saves about $30,000 on energy and $20,000 on water with its low-flow appliances per hotel, per year.

According to Kristin York, a partner at Sustainametrics, a private company that does environmental audits of properties and outlines sustainability plans, there are definitely cost savings but many companies are skeptical until it starts. However, environmentally concerned cities, such as Los Angeles, make it easier for companies to see immediate results.

“In California, companies can work with water and power companies to see savings right away,” said York.

Hotels such as the Westin Bonaventure saw significant savings in just one year.

“The Westin spent $25,000 to become green, and the hotel saves $250,000 being green,” said Martinez.

La Costa Resort & Spa is also seeing the green — savings that is.

“The engineer trained himself to use the energy management system,” said York. “Now, the hotel has the capability to manage environmental systems, such as air-conditioning, remotely.”

Remote monitoring can capture a 30 percent savings on energy, according to York. And a lot can be subsidized by the power company.

What Green Means to Clients
While savings may seem inevitable, consumer interest is somewhat varied. It may not be surprising to note that 81 percent of travelers in the U.S. consider themselves an environmentally conscious person according to the “Portrait of American Travelers,” a Y Partnership/Harrison Group study. But, only 9 percent made a travel decision in the past year based on environmental considerations. And, in a tough economy, it’s even tougher to get people to pay a premium for environmental sustainability. Only 16 percent of travelers would be willing to pay higher rates or fares to patronize travel service suppliers who demonstrate environmental responsibility.

Still, despite the statistics, demand for eco-friendly lodging is increasing, with much of the interest coming from corporate and group travel.

“Corporations are mandating the use of green properties,” said Heaton. “It is one of the factors driving the increased business.”

From a hotel company’s perspective, Leondakis has seen an increase in interest, as well.

“From our loyalty program, 46,000 members have asked for information on our environmental policies and 6 percent ask for more information,” said Leondakis. “And 18 percent of guests stay at a Kimpton property because of its EarthCare policies.”

This number is growing. In 2007, the number of guests staying at a Kimpton hotel because of its stance on environmentally friendly programs was 16 percent, according to Leondakis.

“Consumers are getting more and more educated, and they will see that there is a better way to go about things in this industry,” said Leondakis.

In Los Angeles, where there is one of the only all solar-powered venues in the country, the Los Angeles Convention Center, a lot of the attraction for group business is driven by its environmental stance.

“All of the conventions are asking about the eco-friendliness at a hotel,” said Martinez. “Having a sign in the room isn’t enough anymore.”

Eco-Friendly Future
More companies continue to follow in the Kimpton’s footsteps, ensuring a greener future for the lodging industry.

“We get a log of companies benchmarking off of us,” said Leondakis. “I think our industry as a whole is starting to make progress. I think we are going to see an increasing shift to most hotels developing an environmental standard. Consumers are going to demand it. When the customers start asking, businesses have to respond. Our industry might be a little slow, but progress is being made. I think it’s the way of the future.”

And, Green Seal continues to see interest in its certification grow.

“We have very significant momentum, and we are seeing a significant increase,” said Heaton. “This is proving to be a really viable option.”

And, as more metropolitan areas adopt green policies, more consumers will be aware and interested in the new eco-chic.

“In 2011, L.A. will make further developments,” said Martinez. “We are going to continue to grow the number of Green Seal hotels in the city, and Mayor Villaraigosa wants to showcase Los Angeles as a green city. Being green makes sense for L.A. It’s a good, smart business decision. It helps companies with their bottom line, helps employees and helps travelers. It’s the right thing to do. We will continue to ride the green wave.” 

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