Saving Green

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Hotels Enact Eco-Friendly Policies,Conserving Environment and Money

Two hundred eighteen gallons—no, it’s not how much gas a Hummer burns in Beltway traffic. According to one estimate, that’s the amount of water used per day by the average hotel room.

Multiply that by hundreds of rooms at the typical Washington hotel, and you’re talking serious environmental impact. So it’s no wonder that with such facts staring them in the face and the global warming drums beating louder, area hotels are taking a hard look at how they can reduce their green “footprint.”

For many properties, this includes a few now-common changes such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and low-flow water fixtures. But others are taking more aggressive and innovative approaches to corner the growing market of customers seeking earth-friendly hospitality.

Tree-Hugging Luxury One hotel seeking to mesh the seemingly incompatible goals of providing luxury and pleasing “tree-huggers” is the Willard Inter-Continental Washington. Spearheaded by General Manager Hervé Houdré, the Willard’s green push began in 2005, but its genesis took place much earlier, across the Atlantic.

“I was born in a hotel on the Loire River, in a village between the water and woods,” Houdré reminisced. The garrulous Frenchman described preserving the possibility of such a pastoral upbringing for his children as motivation for pushing environmental improvements.

“I’m not a ‘green’ person,” Houdré admitted. Indeed, upon taking the Willard’s reins in 2004, Houdré resisted the now-common concept of linen conservation. “I was worried about the hypocrisy of charging customers 0 for a hotel room while telling them to save their towels,” he explained.

But instead of merely rejecting the idea, Houdré expanded and reframed it under a more comprehensive “sustainable development” structure, working with a London consulting firm and hotel employees to form a workable plan—not surprising for a man whose desk sign simply reads, “Always Better.”

One goal: stopping waste at the source. Suppliers were encouraged to ship products with less packaging and to use biodegradable materials. “We create a lot of waste and we use a lot of energy,” Houdré lamented, while proudly pointing to a 200 percent increase in recycling since 2005 and a 27 percent drop in waste from last year

One concern of Houdré’s was how to gracefully make needed changes such as the switch to CFLs. “I was worried that it would make us look like a 3-star hotel,” he said. But once he found CFLs that gave off the same rich glow as the previous light bulbs, the Willard realized a 13 percent drop in energy use, saving more than 0,000.

Another initiative was a move in October to 100 percent wind-generated power. Although it costs more than conventionally supplied electricity, Houdré said the Willard’s overall decrease in energy offsets that expense.

But Houdré insisted that his moves aren’t motivated by the bottom line. Savings from any eco-oriented changes are reinvested into other initiatives. Money saved through the Willard’s water conservation, for instance, is spent on a program to clean up the Anacostia River.

Guests will also be relieved to hear that the Willard’s greening won’t make its already pricey rooms any steeper. Indeed, Houdré called the Willard’s program “a unique selling point” as guests look to do the politically correct thing.

And a lot of those guests carry quite a bit of political weight. The Willard’s high-profile location near the White House lets Houdré spread the message to such prominent hotel occupants as French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “I do a lot of talking in elevators,” Houdré chuckled, remembering a similar conversation with former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

To help him control energy and water use in the Willard’s 332 rooms, Houdré is preparing a guest education campaign via pamphlets and in-house TV. The Willard will also spend 0,000 next year to install motion detectors that sense when guests have left their rooms and then regulate the heating or cooling.

Additionally, when Willard executives fly for business, they calculate how much it would cost to offset the trip’s “carbon footprint” and then donate that money to the National Park Foundation for planting cherry trees along the Tidal Basin.

In fact, Houdré’s program was such a success that it has been adopted by the Willard’s corporate parent, InterContinental Hotels in America. Houdré hopes that the message will reach guests at the chain’s 3,700 hotels around the world. “For me, it’s all about nature,” he said.

Sustainability from the Start Although the Willard’s program is impressive, it was another hotel brand that claims to have started hospitality environmentalism. Canadian-based Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, which runs the Fairmont Washington, D.C., started its “Green Partnership” initiative in 1990 when sustainable development was still a relatively obscure concept.

“We realized early on the importance of maintaining destination health,” said Michelle White, Fairmont’s director of environmental affairs, from her Toronto office. “Our executives had the foresight to see this coming,” she added, noting that demand for more environmentally friendly offerings has increased from some key corporate clients, especially in the last two years.

White characterized the Fairmont’s green program as mostly “back of the house.” However, there are visible indications of the program throughout the property, such as free parking for guests with hybrid cars, in-room recycling bins and Fairmont’s “Eco-Meet” program, which reduces waste from meetings and conferences. Eco-Meet has replaced paper flip charts with white boards, swapped disposable water bottles for water jugs, and redirected leftover meeting supplies from the dump to local schools.

And with each overnight guest generating an average of two pounds of waste per day, the company reviews supplies for over-packaging and inclusion of recycled content. To fight waste from its 415 rooms, the Fairmont Washington increased recycling by 27,000 pounds from 2006 to 2007 and saved 425,000 gallons of water during the same period—a 31 percent drop.

On the power conservation front though, the Fairmont’s gains have been modest so far: a drop of about 3.2 percent from 2006 to 2007. However, its investment of 0,000 in new variable frequency drives for all air-handling units and fans is projected to radically decrease power use. The hotel predicts this will reduce 1 million less kilowatt-hours of power from 2007 to 2008—a savings of 3,070 annually.

The Fairmont also employs such “sustainable” concepts as using locally grown organic food and herbs from an in-house garden in the hotel restaurant and eliminating toxic agents from in-house dry cleaning. Like Houdré, White pointed out that there is no impact on room prices from the Fairmont’s green program, and she said savings from conservation are plowed into other green investments such as recycling.

Chain of Changes Although Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International has recently gotten more attention for its owners’ ties to presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the chain is campaigning hard to be recognized as the area’s green hotel leader.

Indeed, Marriott claims that its hotel and conference center at the University of Maryland University College in College Park, Md., became the nation’s first “LEED”-certified hotel in October. (LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a rating system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to denote adherence to environmentally sustainable construction.) Five similar hotels are planned in the next five years, according to company spokeswoman Dasha Ross.

“More and more we are asked about our position on social responsibility prior to bookings of large conferences and meetings,” Ross said. In response, the nonprofit Conservation International has been engaged to help create guidelines for Marriott on everything from green meetings to energy conservation.

Marriott began its environmental program in 1994 and is starting to see some notable results, particularly in reducing energy consumption. Last year, the chain’s installation of 450,000 CFLs dropped indoor lighting costs by 65 percent. Marriott also claims an industry-leading 200 hotels with an “Energy Star” certification, a designation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signifying that a building uses 35 percent less energy than the average. Ten such Energy Star-designated Marriott properties in Northern Virginia were announced in September.

Hotel leaders say that such changes will help Marriott reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 20 percent—1 million tons—between 2000 and 2010. This would roughly equate to removing 140,000 cars off the roads, a concept that local drivers would certainly applaud.

The company is also gung-ho about recycling, noting that last year its corporate headquarters recycled more than half of its solid waste. In November, the Bethesda offices also switched from Styrofoam and plastic utensils to “SpudWare,” biodegradable utensils made partially from potatoes.

In fact, Marriott seems intent on involving all of its employees in its environmental initiatives. Its “Green Fair” at its headquarters in April had vendors such as Whole Foods and Ecolab feature their eco-friendly offerings to show employees how to protect the environment at home, in the office, and while traveling. Even those who drive hybrid cars to work at Marriott headquarters have 30 specially designated parking spaces saved for them.

“We realize that education is the key to leading a green lifestyle,” said former ABC News 7 anchor Kathleen Matthews, who serves as co-chair of Marriott’s newly created Green Council. “We are offering our employees and associates environmentally friendly alternatives that can be applied in their everyday lives.”

The chain is also getting customers in on the act, running a contest earlier this year for guests to submit a video detailing their part in saving the environment for a chance to win an “eco-cation” in Costa Rica. Call it Marriott’s version of “GreenTube.”

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999