Ritz-Carlton muralLAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. -- During Ritz-Carlton's recent luxury summit here, instead of engaging in an afternoon panel discussion, the participants gathered in a meetings room to paint.

On tables around the room lay sections of what amounted to a colorful, paint-by-number mural. So the group split into teams, grabbed a little wine and set about trying to do its best to stay within the lines.

Although the event was a nice break, it wasn't all about fun or team building. The mural, after being touched up by volunteers, is set to grace the walls of a local clinic that provides free health care and dental care to the needy.

The project is just one of a number of programs (and arguably the least strenuous or time-consuming) that the luxury hotelier has offered as part of its Community Footprints initiative. Among other things, these programs, which range from building homes and feeding the homeless to rebuilding sand dunes for sea turtles, enable guests to do volunteer work while they are on vacation or attending meetings.

Such programs are an outgrowth of a growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility. And while some hotel companies, like Ritz-Carlton, have long emphasized CSR throughout their corporations, the movement is spreading.

"What we are seeing is a real explosion of this whole concept throughout the industry," said Martha Honey, editor of the just-released Travelers' Philanthropy Handbook for the Center for Responsible Travel. She said the concept is being energized by "a recognition that tourism is based on the value of that destination, so tourism has created programs to give back to those destinations."

The give-back concept, she said, started with the smaller boutique companies, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Today, she said, "many, many chains are now involved. I think we are seeing this increasingly in the big players: Fairmont, Marriott. I would say almost every big hotel chain today has some sort of CSR. In many cases they have their own office and staff."

The meetings market
Ritz-Carlton voluntourism participantsRegardless of their motives, hoteliers across the board are finding that community outreach, environmental initiatives and corporate social responsibility in general are areas where they must increasingly play to be competitive.

"In our company, it is a very, very important part of our program," said Esther Podany, vice president of meetings and events for Pearson Higher Education publishing. "When I am looking at hotels, as I am negotiating contracts, I'm paying attention to what are they doing: What kind of green initiatives do they have? What kind of programs do they offer to the community that they serve?"

From picking hotels to buying paper, Podany said, "Our company has taken a very big step; we have invested a lot of money to make sure we are doing business with companies that are paying attention to the environment, to giving back to the communities they serve."

Carol Bullock, vice president of global sales for Dolce Hotels and Resorts' North American properties, said CSR, particularly a company's green initiatives, can be a major edge in winning a contract.

"Deciding factors in today's world are boiling down to these socially responsible tenets," she said. "It's boiling down to that level that is helping meeting planners choose."

Dolce, for example, has a 35-point sustainability program that includes comprehensive, on-property recycling; the purchase of recyclable and recycled materials; local and sustainable food purchases; and green meetings practices.

And it's an emphasis that Bullock said she believes will continue to grow.

"I think it's sustainable," she said. "About five years ago we had the whole carbon offset thing. But [hotels] were still serving bottled water. No one understood what it meant. People were asking in the [request for proposal] process what [hotels] were doing with carbon offset, but they really didn't know why they were asking that."

Today, she said, green initiatives and other CSR programs are much like workforce diversification was 15 to 20 years ago.

"It started with the large Fortune 100 companies, big organizations recognizing this next level of what is important in business," Bullock said. "Now they are attaching a value to community outreach, attaching a value to sustainable and healthy meetings."

Ritz-Carlton voluntourism groupIndeed, green meetings have pretty much become the norm. Gone are the days of bottled water. Many meetings now set out recycling bins alongside trash cans.

Even the food choices are increasingly centering on healthy, sustainable choices. At the recent Ritz-Carlton luxury meetings forum, Executive Chef Andrew Jimenez talked about how he has partnered with a nearby farm to try to keep the menu as local as possible.

And during a break, the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel introduced the 20/20/20 break, offering 20 snack items at 20 calories each designed to be served during 20-minute breaks.

While greener, healthier meetings are, at varying levels, pretty much standard across the industry, there is also growing interest in incorporating voluntourism projects into meetings.

Podany said that in addition to doing something good, such projects "can go a long way toward dispelling" negative notions about luxury meetings. And they can give meetings planners "very concrete reasons" to back their choice of a luxury hotel like the Ritz-Carlton.

Sue Stephenson, who developed Ritz-Carlton's Community Footprints in 2006, said that probably the most popular program for meetings planners is partnerships with Habitat for Humanity to help build houses.

"But the program depends on the location," she said. "We can help groups create a program that really meets their needs. ... It can be working at a food bank, working on a Habitat project, helping build sand dunes to protect endangered sea turtles or helping plant a community garden. There are so many varieties. Then, of course, for those with just a few hours it can be painting murals or building bikes for children."

During the economic downturn, she said, groups were shortening their stays, so there was a corresponding decrease in such programs as part of group meetings.

"But I think that as things are turning, we are seeing an increased focus" on give-backs, she said. "I don't think this is a trend. I do think it's an evolution. We are going to see this integrated more and more into our business."

Likewise, Dolce's Bullock said she is seeing more companies asking to "connect them with a large nonprofit such as Habitat for Humanity, companies wanting to carve out a piece of their meeting for that."

A need for planning
Leisure travelers are also increasingly looking for such experiences, according to the Center for Responsible Travel handbook, which notes that "well-established travelers' philanthropy programs report that fully half of their guests participate, and those with sophisticated donor communications programs note steady and dramatic increases in guest donations."

But the center's Honey warned that such programs must be well thought out, which is why the center wrote the handbook to help companies and travelers figure out the best way to pick such programs.

"Many of these give-back initiatives are frequently ad hoc, uncoordinated and unmeasured," Honey wrote in a recent report.

What groups really need most is cash, she said.

"So there is a bit of disconnect," she said, citing the case of one group in Africa that had Americans coming to paint walls as part of a voluntourism effort. But the group's director said they had to repaint the walls afterward "because Americans can't paint."

Ritz-Carlton Sue StephensonHoney said, "It really raises the question about how useful this volunteer work is, particularly if it is done short-term by unskilled people. Would it be better to give money to hire local people to do that work? I understand the education, the life-changing benefits that these [projects] can bring to people that do good. ... But I think we have to be much more discerning in the kind of volunteer projects we are promoting."

If a company wants to get involved in such projects, she said, "you have to have full-time people devoted to it. ... They have to have the pulse of the community and take their cues from them. It should not be decided by the traveler. You really need to have the community deciding what the priorities are."

At Ritz-Carlton, for example, Stephenson is a vice president devoted specifically to the company's CSR effort, a role she has been in since 2006. She reports directly to President Herve Humler.

The programs all fall under the categories of hunger and poverty, children and the environment. Each property partners with a community organization to develop programs under which they can offer voluntourism projects that are needed by and benefit their specific destinations.

Stephenson emphasized that the program is far from an afterthought for the property. Each hotel does an annual plan on its Community Footprints efforts, which are rated as part of the property's overall business performance metrics.

"So that really positions it as an important part of the business as opposed to a supplemental, nice thing to do," she said.

David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org, called the Ritz-Carlton's give-backs voluntourism programs, launched in 2008, a contender for a theoretical "Voluntourism Event of Decade 1.0" award.

"Representing a continuing evolution of the long-standing socially responsible engagement of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co., this voluntourism program has certainly created ripple effects throughout the luxury tier," he wrote in a newsletter noting important events in voluntourism from 2000 to 2010.

"However, the most significant contribution the program has made, in my opinion, is as a global example for accommodations of all shapes, sizes and amenity levels to consider implementing. Unanticipated though it was (please remember, this was pre-economic meltdown), we can be appreciative of the fact that a brand known for its service excellence has ventured into the realm of assisting travelers in delivering excellent service to destinations around the world."

A tradition of caring
While efforts that involve guests in charitable works are relatively new, most hospitality companies, like many corporations across all industry sectors, have long been involved in partnering and donating to environmental and social causes. (Also see related story at bottom of page.) For example:

• At Carlson, Chairwoman and former CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson established foundations to promote solutions to international women's and children's issues. Carlson was also the only U.S.-based company to sign a code promoted by the group known as End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes. The code urges companies to train employees to understand signs of possible child trafficking. More than 947 companies in 37 countries have signed the code.

• Vail Resorts, known for its environmental stewardship, has developed a guest giving program that raises money for the National Forest Foundation. To date, it has raised more than $1.6 million to support a range of local conservation projects by asking for $1 contributions on season ski passes, lift tickets and room nights at its hotels. The company also has a give-back voluntourism program similar to Ritz-Carlton at its RockResorts destinations.

• Marriott International has long been a leader in promoting diversity within its corporation and at its hotels. It also has a long list of nonprofit partners, from its work with the Audubon Society to make its golf courses sustainable to raising money for the Children's Miracle Network. Under one of its newer initiatives, Marriott has committed $2 million to help the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation protect the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, which encompasses 1.4 million acres of pristine rain forest in Brazil.

• Fairmont Hotels was green long before most thought of green as anything but a color. In 1990 its Canadian hotels developed the Green Partnership program, which included one of the first comprehensive guidebooks on sustainable best practices in the lodging industry. Honey said the industry is in the "heyday" of combining social responsibility with travel. But, she quickly noted, this is "a very early period" of that heyday. "We are beginning to see what are the do's and don'ts of traveler giving," she said. "So it will become more professional, more profound, more thoughtful as time goes on."

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