Think you're doing the environment a favor by booking a corporate retreat in pristine places like tropical Hawaii or the crisp Rocky Mountains instead of frantic Manhattan or smoggy L.A.? Think again.
It turns out that electricity produced in Hawaii or Colorado uses enough fossil fuels to create two to three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as electricity produced in New York or California.
So while each hotel or resort has its own individual emissions characteristic, known as its carbon footprint, that Hawaii beachside resort or Colorado mountain lodge might be the environmental equivalent of a gas guzzler relative to the Prius-like hotels of New York or Los Angeles.
While a relative minority of leisure travelers appear to be keeping track of such issues, corporations that spend millions of dollars a year on lodging are apparently making enough inquiries about hotel emissions to cause the world's largest hoteliers to sit up and take notice.
If travel managers were going to be comparing hotels on carbon footprint, they realized, the hospitality industry was going to need a standard way to measure and report the characteristics that went in to that footprint.
Last month, Marriott International, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) led a group of 23 hotel companies that agreed to support an effort to standardize how to measure a hotel's impact on the environment in the form of greenhouse gas emissions.
The hotels group, which also includes Accor, Hilton Worldwide and Wyndham Worldwide, is working with the International Tourism Partnership (ITP) and the World Travel & Tourism Council to develop standards for calculating a property's carbon footprint and on common metrics for describing and comparing greenhouse gas emission levels among competing hotels.
The effort is largely a response to some of the world's largest corporations and their attempts to both quantify their collective impact on the environment and publicize their efforts to be more environmentally sensitive.
AT&T, Coca-Cola and Bank of America are among members of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), a nonprofit formed in 2000 that is geared toward addressing climate change by both measuring usage of natural resources in the companies' supply chains and finding ways to cut that usage.
Since a great deal of these companies' collective environmental impact stems from corporate travel, many travel managers are now requesting information about hotels' environmental impact prior to deciding where to book their employees' rooms or meetings spaces. Hence the effort to come up with an index that measures and describes a hotel's carbon footprint per available room.
"The main reason [for the effort] was to satisfy requests from corporate customers in the RFP [request for proposal] process," said Fran Hughes, head of programs at the London-based ITP. "Although many hotel groups may have been reporting on carbon footprint, people weren't doing it in a consistent fashion. So we weren't doing anyone any favors."
Nor is the effort to collect carbon-footprint data a simple exercise. In addition to needing to calculate the square footage of both public and private spaces as well as occupancy rates, other factors include whether the hotel outsources its laundry and whether it underwent a renovation during the previous year.
Still, no matter how intensive the effort, critics tend to view the initiative as more of a way for large organizations to dress up their image of environmental sensitivity.
The commonly used term for the practice -- greenwashing -- was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld, who used the term in the 1980s to describe many hotels' practice of giving guests the option of not having their towels laundered. Ostensibly, the practice was an attempt to conserve water, which it did to some extent. But skeptics were quick to point out that, not coincidentally, it saved hotels money.
Other environmentalists countered that there was nothing wrong with businesses embracing green practices for financial incentives.
In a similar vein, there are skeptics who question the motives of both the newly enlightened corporations that are now demanding a green accounting and the hotels that are accommodating them.
For one thing, it remains to be seen when or how these new metrics describing carbon footprint per available room will be released to the public. Hughes said the decision to standardize carbon-footprint measurement was reached just last year, and disclosure, as of now, is strictly voluntary.
As for financial incentives, Zoe Tcholak-Antitch, the CDP's North America director, said that corporations that invest in emissions-reduction programs see positive bottom-line results, with many realizing payback within three years in the form of lower energy expenditures.
Even Wall Street is getting into the green act. Tcholak-Antitch said many investors respond well to companies that institute and publicize their carbon-reduction efforts.
Marriott, the largest publicly traded U.S. hotelier by sales, started requesting energy and water-usage data from its hotel owners late last year. Denise Naguib, corporate senior director of sustainability for Marriott, said the company expects to start releasing some carbon-footprint numbers by the end of this year.
"Some of our more prominent customers have been asking us for this information," Naguib said. She added that technology companies such as Oracle and Intel have been especially proactive in requesting energy-usage information. "We really felt like there was an opportunity to align the methodology."
Indeed, every year, about 3,700 companies worldwide report energy-usage figures to the CDP, which classifies a company's greenhouse gas emissions under three criteria known as scopes: Scope 1 is direct emissions, such as smokestacks; Scope 2 is emissions created by the company's energy providers; and Scope 3 is supply-chain emissions and pretty much everything else that can't be classified under Scope 1 or Scope 2, including travel.
While the CDP says it's too early to detect any specific trends related to travel-induced greenhouse gas emissions, the bigger picture is that by last year, 43% of S&P 500 companies had set emissions-reduction targets. That was up from 34% in 2010, Tcholak-Antitch said.
Either way, hoteliers are paying greater heed to corporate clients' requests as the economy rebounds and businesses ramp up travel spending. U.S. business spending on domestic and outbound international travel totaled $251 billion last year, up 7.3% from 2010, and will increase another 4.6% in 2012, the Global Business Travel Association predicted in January.
As for hotels' aggregate energy usage, the numbers are staggering. In the U.S. alone, hotels totaling some 5 million guestrooms spend almost $4 billion a year on energy, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.
The Department of Energy estimates that a typical household spends about $1,900 a year on utility bills, meaning that all U.S. hotels combined consume energy equal to about 2.1 million U.S. households. A 10% reduction in their energy usage would be equivalent to eliminating the annual energy consumption of every household in a city the size of Nashville.
Granted, the concept of comparing hotels' carbon footprints to one another is a relatively new one that's been confined primarily to corporate boardrooms and is hardly familiar to the typical traveler. In fact, ASTA declined to comment on the carbon-footprint measurement effort for this article, saying that it wasn't familiar with the initiative.
Still, some of the world's largest hoteliers are taking substantial steps to reduce their energy appetites.
Hilton hotels that have earned Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the U.S. Green Building Council include Embassy Suites hotels in Denver and Houston. Hilton started its LightStay energy-reduction program in 2009 and recently reported that in the first year, the project helped cut energy use by 5% and waste production by 10%. In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rated Hilton as the 10th largest U.S. purchaser of renewable energy. It was the only hotel company to crack the top 50.
Meanwhile, three years ago, Starwood, the No. 2 publicly traded U.S. hotelier by sales, announced a goal of cutting its hotels' use of energy by 30% and their use of water and by 20% from 2008 levels by 2020. Among the company's larger LEED-certified hotels are the W Hotels in Hollywood, San Francisco and Austin, Texas.
For Starwood, joining the carbon-footprint benchmarking effort "was an opportunity to help develop a simplified tool that our customers have been asking for to measure their carbon impact, specifically when it comes to meetings," said Andrea Pinabell, the company's director of environmental sustainability. She added that Starwood in 2008 began requiring all its hotels to track and report data on their energy and water use and waste production.
U.K.-based IHG, the world's largest hotelier by room count, started its own internal effort to measure greenhouse-gas emissions and enact energy, waste and water-saving programs about three years ago. For the company's 600 managed hotels, IHG will reach its goal of cutting their average energy use by between 6% and 10% by the end of the year, while about a third of IHG's 4,000 franchised properties have joined IHG's
energy-saving program. As part of the initiative, the company provides its hotel owners a list of about 150 things they can do to cut energy and water use and waste, though Paul Snyder, IHG's vice president of corporate responsibility for the Americas, declined to list them, citing competitive concerns.
"Large, medium and sometimes small corporate clients have asked us for this data," said Snyder, adding that some hotels that have implemented IHG's energy-saving programs have cut energy use by as much as 25%. "They want the data in the same format across their hotel spend so that they can sync it up."
Still, as much as design, operating procedures and purchasing practices can impact a hotel's carbon footprint, Marriott's Naguib said that typically the biggest factor in determining a hotel's carbon footprint is its location, which dictates which utilities supply a given hotel's energy and thus the level of fossil fuel used to produce electrical power. That's why, according to an analysis of EPA data by Vermont-based sustainability technology company Brighter Planet, a hotel in San Francisco or New York is likely to have a far lower carbon footprint than a similar hotel in Chicago or Denver. (Click on the image, left, for a larger view of select states' electricity emissions.)
"California is blessed by regulations that mandate a mix of fossil and alternative fuels," Naguib said.
Yet, oddly enough, the U.S. city that should most appeal to a tree-hugging corporate travel manager is none other than that epitome of indulgence and excess, Las Vegas. While Nevada is in the middle of the pack when it comes to statewide electricity emissions, Sin City is home to the country's four largest hotels that are LEED-certified for environmentally friendly design. Leading the way are the Las Vegas Sands' Venetian and Palazzo.
As for chain-by-chain comparisons, Brighter Planet has already tried to differentiate brands by environmental friendliness. Naturally, in ranking chains by the best energy and carbon efficiency per room, the brands that come out on top are the less service-intensive, budget and midrange brands with a heavy West Coast presence, such as Vagabond Inns and Red Lion Hotels.
Upscale brands were led by select-service chains such as Courtyard by Marriott and Homewood Suites by Hilton.
Among full-service upscale chains, the list was bookended by Starwood's Four Points by Sheraton as the most efficient and JW Marriott as the least efficient.
Additionally, Brighter Planet estimated that bringing all hotels into the energy-efficiency level of the current top 25% would reduce the industry's carbon footprint by 72% and cut energy costs well into the billions of dollars a year.
All of which points to the financial incentives driving carbon-footprint benchmarking by the hotel industry, whether or not it is also good public relations.
"Not addressing this now means playing catch-up later," Tcholak-Antitch said. "And that could be really expensive."
For hotel and hospitality news, follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly.