One of the best-kept secrets in the Wild West is that Sin City is really Green City. Thanks to the committed efforts of three of the city's largest casino-resort operators, the Las Vegas Strip, that legendary bastion of glitz and neon, is actually a model community when it comes to sustainable environmental practices.
While much of the motivation derives from concerns about corporate social responsibility, the growth of sustainable practices is also driven by business concerns.
Gone are the days when travel plans meant booking a flight and reserving a hotel room based on price alone. According to the U.S. Travel Association, 79% of adults in the U.S. consider themselves environmentally conscious and aware of such issues as carbon footprints and global warming. Among these consumers, environmental issues are playing a growing role in travel decisions.
What's more, they mean business.
There was a time not long ago when hospitality companies could address environmental apprehensions by setting out a recycling bin or asking guests to reuse their towels. But a growing awareness and an increased focus on eco-related issues have many travelers expecting more from suppliers than just a nod to the environment.
Nor is the challenge coming just from concerned customers. Feedback from employees and pressure from investors have also pushed most travel and tourism businesses to adopt companywide environmental policies that address not only immediate issues but long-term sustainability, as well.
In Las Vegas, a city driven by travel and tourism, environmental issues are monumental due to myriad factors: the sheer size of the industry (150,161 hotel rooms); the number of visitors each year (38.9 million in 2011); and the city's delicate desert environment (less than four inches of precipitation per year on average).
Though the vast majority of Las Vegas businesses have eco-related policies in place, three of the largest -- MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment and Las Vegas Sands Corp. -- have emerged as international models of how companies can effectively address environmental issues with comprehensive plans that evolve from overall business strategies.
MGM Resorts International
"Our primary objective in sustainability is to integrate sustainable practices throughout all of our operations," said Cindy Ortega, MGM Resorts International's chief sustainability officer. The company's environmental program, MGM Resorts International Green Advantage, focuses on five environmental areas: energy and water conservation; green building; recycling and waste management; a green supply chain; and outreach and education.
MGM's eco efforts are probably most evident in the massive CityCenter project, which incorporated sustainability into every aspect of the development process, from design and construction to operations and amenities. It received six Gold certifications under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) initiative, making it the largest environmentally sustainable new development in the world.
The company has also addressed building initiatives as older properties have undergone renovations by focusing on water and energy improvements such as replacing showerheads and toilets and placing solar shades in guestrooms.
Addressing the large-scale environmental picture requires focusing on the details, and MGM has done just that across its many properties in Las Vegas and elsewhere.
At the Monte Carlo, for example, pool heating was updated by replacing boilers with plate-and-frame heat-exchange units, which are more energy-efficient. At the same time, lighting enhancements throughout the Bellagio's 2,568 rooms have reduced annual power consumption by as much as the electricity used by 500 average U.S. homes, according to MGM's Annual Corporate Social Responsibility Report for 2011.
Waste management is an ongoing concern for MGM and other Las Vegas properties, in part because it's often one of the most visible aspects of an environmental management program.
"Customers are increasingly aware of the sustainable attributes of hospitality venues," Ortega said. "We find that many people want to extend the things they do at home, such as recycling, when they travel."
In addition to standard recycling practices, MGM composts food and plant waste, donates unused meeting materials to local schools and hosts electronic-waste collection days for employees.
When addressing sustainability within a company of MGM's scale, simple efforts such as changing light bulbs in guestrooms and recycling beer bottles from lobby bars can add up to greatly reduced waste and energy consumption.
Even so, no company exists in a vacuum, which is why MGM, which procures more than $1 billion worth of goods and services annually through its supply chain, carefully scrutinizes the vendors with which it conducts its business and the products they sell.
"We know that we can significantly reduce impacts on the environment if we choose environmentally sensitive products," Ortega said. "When large corporations such as MGM Resorts choose sustainable options, it can help stimulate markets and have an exponentially greater impact."
To that end, restaurants located within CityCenter, Mandalay Bay and the MGM Grand purchase shrimp from a local and sustainable farm, while the Bellagio grows herbs in its rooftop garden.
The Mirage and Bellagio have also purchased limousines fueled by compressed natural gas, resulting in a 40% decrease in fuel costs compared with gasoline-powered vehicles.
The company's environmental efforts are designed and implemented by the Corporate Sustainability Division. To continue to address eco-related issues, a sustainability standard has been set for each of MGM's 16 resorts, and senior management is actively engaged in ensuring that standards are met at every level of the company.
"We have the size and scale to make a difference when we incorporate sustainable practices throughout our operations," Ortega said. "Embracing sustainable practices has the power to make a difference in the lives of our guests and employees, in our communities and for our planet."
Caesars Entertainment describes itself as a people-focused business, and the environmental policies, incentive programs and workplace atmosphere that have shaped the company's eco-related efforts in many ways reflect employees' concerns, ideas and interests.
The company has grown substantially in the last 10 years, and environment-focused programs that existed at the property level prior to that time, such as recycling, were pushed up to the corporate level in order to address sustainability and environmental responsibility across the company. Five years ago, feedback from general managers revealed a great amount of interest on the part of employees to actively measure and improve upon the environmental impact of Caesars' operations.
As a result of this internal feedback, Caesars established a number of baseline benchmarks in 2007 that it has consistently reviewed in subsequent years.
"In 2007, we made the commitment to be at least one of the leaders in the broader hospitality industry," said Gwen Migita, vice president of sustainability and community affairs for Caesars Entertainment.
That same year, the company formalized its environmental strategy, dubbed CodeGreen. It was -- and continues to be -- very much driven by the energy and passion of the company's 70,000 employees at its 52 resorts around the world.
Caesars focuses its environmental efforts in three primary areas: investing in practices that increase energy efficiency and water conservation; reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and promoting recycling and waste reduction.
In doing so, Migita said, the company has always asked employees on the frontline how management can make Caesars a better place environmentally while still addressing the issue at an individual level.
The result has been myriad ideas that the company has over the years massaged into its CodeGreen strategy. Notably, Caesars has won a number of awards for its environmental achievements, including, an Organizational Excellence Award from the U.S. Green Building Council Nevada and a Climate Leaders Goal Setter Award from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The company also initiated the industry's first Green Meetings & Events certification program in 2010, with the goal of working with clients and vendors to increase sustainability in its meetings business.
Caesars says it is on track to achieve the five-year environmental goals it set in 2007.
Exact data will be released later this year, but the general outline is impressive: Six lighting upgrades led to the reduction of an estimated 5,177 metric tons of greenhouse gases, and, despite a net growth in total resort space in 2010, the company achieved an overall net decrease in carbon emissions of approximately 11,500 metric tons, according to the Caesars Entertainment Sustainability Report for 2010-2011.
In addition to generating metrics that measure how its properties are faring environmentally, Migita said Caesars aggressively looks at how it addresses the social side of its business.
"We look at employee engagement scores and guest metrics, as well," she said. "We want our guests to learn more about what we're doing behind the scenes, and we know that's an opportunity within our company."
Migita said it was important not only to make guests aware of what the company is doing but to engage them in the environmental initiatives, whether in their rooms, on the casino floor or out in the community.
Caesars ties guest engagement into its goals, in part, by encouraging employee volunteer work and service within local communities. It also continues to operate assertively from within to harness employee creativity in addressing sustainability issues.
In 2010, the company launched a small grant program to encourage employee-led initiatives in the workplace, and a CodeGreen at Home grant program has awarded employees credits for making environmental upgrades in and around their homes, thus emphasizing the fact that these issues affect not only the company's business strategy but the communities within which it operates. The credits can be exchanged for a variety of gifts and incentives.
Las Vegas Sands Corp.
Known first for the Venetian resort, this Fortune 500 company seriously began examining its eco-footprint during the early stages of building its second Las Vegas property, the Palazzo, primarily because the contractor on the project was LEED-certified.
According to Katarina Tesarova, executive director of sustainability for Las Vegas Sands Corp., once the Palazzo was completed, "naturally, we extended it to the existing operations because we had this beautiful new green building and we wanted to make sure that the rest of our operations were up to the same standard."
Much of the company's environmental strategy was organic.
"In the early stages of our environmental initiatives, things just basically evolved," Tesarova said.
Realizing that a more strategic approach was needed, Sands Corp. looked to the LEED green building certification initiative for guidance on sustainable design, construction and operation of its business.
In 2010, the company launched its formal environmental strategy, Sands Eco 360° Global Sustainability, which became the year that many of its measurement baselines were set. The three key components to the strategy are implementing environmentally responsible operations; developing and renovating buildings with the environment in mind; and utilizing a holistic approach to meeting and conventions.
As was emphasized by all of the Las Vegas companies that are striving for a more sustainable future, "going green" is not just a surface-level process for Sands.
The company's inaugural environmental report, released in July and covering 2011, was the first environmental study in the gaming industry to be formally verified by the Global Reporting Initiative.
According to the report, in constructing the Palazzo, the property that kick-started Sands Corp.'s eco-related initiatives, every effort was made to procure materials from within a 500-mile radius, and 70% of the construction waste was recycled, resulting in a minimal environmental impact on the community.
In Las Vegas, a desert oasis in which water conservation is of particular concern, natural grass was replaced with turf, and areas with plants and trees have been outfitted with a subsurface drip system that minimizes evaporation. Sands estimates that the effort has saved 86 million gallons of water per year.
Moreover, Sands Corp. now scrutinizes every detail of the business that has the potential to affect the environment, down to ensuring that the plush flooring used in new and renovated projects meets the criteria established by the Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label Plus program.
Though environmental tools are built into the building's design, employees and guests also play a pivotal role in meeting operational goals that reflect Sands Eco 360°'s strategy.
Keycard docking stations and energy-efficient lighting that can be managed with a master switch are integrated into a resort stay. In cleaning guestrooms, used soap and bottled amenities at the Venetian and the Palazzo are collected, and, in 2011, 25,000 pounds of product were repurposed through Clean the World to support sanitation programs around the globe.
"So many people are interested in sustainability," Tesarova said. "Within our company, we have lots of people who are involved in our environmental initiatives, from executives to line-level employees. Many of the leaders in our company have sustainability as part of their goals."
The Venetian and the Palazzo, which are known for their dining experiences, offer three ecofriendly restaurants, which have been certified by the Green Restaurant Association based on several criteria, including measurement of sustainable resource use, waste and pollution.
Menus across the properties offer organic and local food, sustainable seafood and fair trade coffee. Disposable cutlery and service ware are not provided for meetings and conventions, nor are pens and notepads. Instead, quality china and glassware are reused, and if requested, stationery made from recycled paper can be made available for guests.
Tesarova said the operational structure of Sands Eco 360° is built on a system of goals and strategies measured qualitatively and quantitatively in both the short and long term.
But environmental management continually changes and shifts, she said, and the company is willing to be flexible in shaping its future as it relates to sustainability.
Ultimately, she said, her goal is to weave sustainability into all aspects of Sands Corp.'s corporate culture so that anybody making any kind of business decision is thinking about sustainability.
"This is a journey, and everything evolves," Tesarova said. "Our focus is in making sure we stay ahead of it and that we improve our programs continuously."