Hotel operators step up their green initiatives

By Danny King
CityCenterIf you're a tree-hugging traveler looking for accommodations run by hoteliers who share your attitudes toward environmental responsibility and energy conservation, green meccas such as San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore., all have a number of hotels that fit the bill.

Paradoxically, though, environmentally sensitive travelers looking for the epicenter of green hotel building need look no further than Sin City itself.

"We don't actually view it as an irony," said Clark Dumont, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International, which runs three of the largest hotels on the U.S. Green Building Council's list of most environmentally sustainable hotels, all in Las Vegas.

"Our desert surroundings require that we be strong stewards of natural resources, especially water," Dumont said.

MGM Resorts is among an expanding number of hotel operators looking to capitalize on growing environmental awareness among travelers by getting their hotel owner-developers to invest in systems that cut energy usage, save water and reduce waste.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts, for example, has gone as far as launching an entire sub-brand, Element, with environmental sustainability as one of its hallmarks, while Marriott International has worked with developers of about a half-dozen of its hotels at getting those properties on the Green Building Council's list of LEED-certified buildings.

LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, the council's rating system for measuring the effectiveness of environmentally efficient buildings.

LEED ranks buildings on a 100-point scale measuring energy and atmosphere, the sustainability of a site, efficient use of water and the use of environmentally responsible materials and resources in the building's construction and maintenance. It also awards six points for innovative design and four points for embracing regional priorities in products and services. The resulting levels are Certified (40 to 49 points), Silver (50 to 59 points), Gold (60 to 79 points) and the greenest category, Platinum (80 points or more).

The trend in consumer green consciousness has grown important enough among travelers that Sabre Holdings, one of the world's largest GDS operators, has taken notice. Last month, Sabre launched its Eco-Certified Hotel Program, making it what the company claimed was the first GDS to break out a list of "environmentally responsible accommodations."

The list, which was culled from the Green Hotel Directory created by Travelocity in 2009, totals more than 4,700 hotels worldwide.

"We have had the Travelocity Green Hotel program since 2008 and noticed increasing demand and supply of green hotels," said Leilani Latimer, director of sustainability initiatives at Sabre. "Additionally, there is increasing interest on the corporate side as more and more businesses are integrating their overarching sustainability programs into their managed travel programs and looking for significant ways to promote sustainable procurement practices."

Such efforts make an environmental impact because in the context of building types, hotels are relative gas-guzzlers thanks to intense consumption by guests and their need to keep their large swaths of public space clean and, by temperature standards, comfortable.

The approximately 5 million hotel rooms in the U.S. rack up almost $4 billion in energy bills a year, or about $800 per room annually, according to Ashley Katz, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Green Building Council.

A big environmental challenge

"It's very difficult for hotels to be truly green by their nature," said Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean of New York University's school of tourism and hospitality management. "Daily cleaning consumes chemicals and energy, and public spaces are 30% to as much as 70% of the square footage of a hotel and must be lighted, cooled and heated."

W HollywoodThat also means that building environmentally efficient hotels can have a substantial impact on overall energy usage within a community. Since starting its environmental sustainability efforts a few years ago, Dumont said, MGM Resorts has cut its electricity usage by an amount that could power more than 12,000 homes.

As an example of environmental excellence, Katz cited Greensboro, N.C.'s 147-room Proximity Hotel, which boasts a LEED Platinum certification. The Proximity cut its water use by a third by deploying especially efficient showerheads, toilets and other plumbing fixtures. As a result of the reduced water bills, Katz said, the hotel earned back its extra investment in the fixtures in six months.

He also cited the Las Vegas Sands, which, through the Venetian and the Sands Expo and Convention Center, composts about three-quarters of the properties' food waste, or about 10 tons a day.

What is less clear is whether such efforts at the greening of hotels are a way to address consumer demand for such products or merely amount to a marketing ploy. About two-thirds of customers polled by Travelocity said a hotel's green rating would matter enough to tilt a reservation away from a similarly priced, "nongreen" hotel, and 11% said they'd pay more for a hotel with a high green rating, according to Sabre's Latimer.

Hotels listed on Travelocity's Green Hotel Directory draw a 94% customer-satisfaction rating, compared with 83% for other hotels.

Still, it's probably too early to tell how much a hotel's green rating translates to real dollars. Hanson estimated that only about 5% of travelers are likely to factor sustainability into their choice of hotels. But even that, he said, is probably "enough of a potential market shift to be important."

Meanwhile, in survey results published in January, Expedia reported that more than three-quarters of the 5,000 people it polled were familiar with efforts by the hotel industry to reduce its environmental impact through conservation policies.

Still, Expedia reported, while hotels promoted initiatives such as reducing energy and water usage as well as recycling trash and composting food waste, guests were more interested in how the hotels had improved more personal environmental factors such as indoor air quality.

As a result, said Susan Tanzman, owner of Los Angeles-based Martin's Travel and Tours, while hotel guests like the idea of having the option to forgo turndown service or getting their towels laundered on a particular day, they're not necessarily going to choose a hotel or pay a higher rate for those options.

The guest experience

Eric Ardolino, president of Wallingford, Conn.-based A&S Travel Center, emphasized the importance of how ecofriendly elements related specifically to the guest experience, as opposed to just the environment. For example, he said, with some hotels cutting their carbon footprint by sourcing their food products from local growers and vendors, Mexico's Karisma Hotels & Resorts properties grow some of their vegetables on site in indoor gardens. That process, he said, could allay the fears some American travelers have about water in Mexico and, by extension, about vegetables that might make them sick.

Aria lobbyBoth Ardolino and Tanzman said environmental sustainability was a clever way for hotels to differentiate themselves. But that said, Tanzman said she was "surprised" that Sabre had gone so far as to break out a separate list for ecofriendly hotels, because in her experience, customer demand has been fairly muted.

"It's a plus in the decision-making process," Tanzman said, adding that her West Coast clients seemed more apt to at least factor a hotel's ecofriendly policies into their travel decision than clients from other parts of the country.

"But I don't think I've ever had a client saying, 'I want to stay in an ecofriendly place,'" she said.

Regardless, hoteliers in Las Vegas, the country's largest hotel market, are taking a leading role in this area. Las Vegas Sands' Venetian and Palazzo are the world's two largest LEED-certified hotels, with the 4,000-room Venetian earning a LEED Gold certification in early 2010.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas' massive CityCenter project, which was opened by MGM Resorts and Dubai World in 2009, has three hotels -- the Aria Hotel Tower, Mandarin Oriental and Vdara -- on the Green Building Council's list of the world's largest LEED-certified hotels. MGM Resorts has boosted its recycling rate to about 40% last year, from 9% in 2007, and CityCenter recycles about 50% of its waste, Dumont said.

Caesars Entertainment (formerly Harrah's Entertainment) set a goal of cutting its carbon emissions by 10% between 2007 and 2013. So far, the Las Vegas-based company has replaced 65,000 halogen light bulbs with LED bulbs, which use about 90% less electricity, and has recycled more than 60,000 pounds of soap for Clean the World, a nonprofit that sanitizes the soap and sends it to low-income areas of the U.S.

All of which might be an additional way for the Las Vegas hotel industry to reinvent itself as it recovers from the most recent economic downturn while cutting energy costs and even getting tax breaks from the state.

"Anything that's cutting-edge, [Las Vegas hotels] are going to want to be a part of," Ardolino said.

Moreover, the Green Building Council's Katz noted: "The hospitality industry very much looks to Las Vegas for inspiration. Nevada also has some aggressive legislation providing tax incentives for pursuing LEED certification."

W Hollywood Hollywood TerraceAmong other hotel operators, Starwood appears to be making a concerted effort to work with its owner-developers to make its hotels greener. Among the world's largest LEED-certified hotels are Starwood's W-branded properties in San Francisco, Los Angeles (Hollywood) and Austin, Texas, as well as the Nines Hotel in Portland, Ore., and the Sheraton Incheon in South Korea.

Additionally, Starwood, which by sales is the second-largest publicly traded U.S. hotelier after Marriott, launched its Element Hotels sub-brand under its Westin upper-upscale badge in 2008. Comprising smaller, newly built hotels with an average size of about 150 rooms with a cleaner, more modern design, Element was the first major brand to mandate that all of its hotel owners pursue LEED certification. The brand targets longer-stay travelers. Of the 10 Elements opened so far, six are LEED-certified, the largest being the 132-room Element Omaha Midtown Crossing Hotel in Nebraska.

How much traction Starwood is getting with the brand is unknown, as the company doesn't break out revenue comparisons for its sub-brands.

However, Starwood spokeswoman Stacy Trevino did say, "We don't think guests are choosing for green, but once they learn they are in a green hotel, they love it, and our Element guests are coming back time and again."

Other hotels are going so far as having their green efforts hit the road, literally. Dumont said that MGM Resorts likely has the world's largest fleet of limousines powered by compressed natural gas. And Hyatt said last month that its new Hyatt Place Raleigh West/RBC Center in North Carolina, which is LEED-certified, includes charging stations for electric vehicles.

All of which makes initiatives like a special listing for ecofriendly hotels a work in progress as hoteliers find more ways to both conserve energy and pitch those efforts.

"It's more of a selling tool for us, knowing which properties have those features, and I can use that as a sales pitch," Ardolino said.

That said, however, savvy travelers may be able to differentiate which hotels are looking to save the Earth and which are merely looking to save cash.

"Telling the guest to hang their towels on a rack if they don't want them washed? That could be just a cheesy way to get out of doing laundry," Ardolino said.

For hotel and hospitality news, follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.  
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