Environmental Evangelism

I spent three environmentally responsible nights in the Red Hot Chili Peppers suite at the Hotel Triton in San Francisco in mid-February. I used a recycling basket to separate paper from trash, I slept between sheets of organic cotton, and I low-flow showered. The experience felt good, was good for me — and, Kimpton executives might say, for the rest of the world.

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants isn't the only chain to think ecologically, or “eco.” Another one with a rigorous and high profile eco program is Toronto-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, and the Green Hotel Association in Houston claims 250 member hotels and several thousand customers. In addition, individual properties, like the La Cabana All Suite Beach Resort on the Caribbean island of Aruba, stress environmental sensitivity.

The Triton is the template for Kimpton's reputation as an environmentally sensitive chain. Kimpton aims to be known for energy-saving retrofits, recycling, a sensible approach to consumption, and style. Recognition came last fall from California's Green Lodging Program. “We chose the Triton to launch the program,” says Roni Java, public information officer for the program sponsor, the state's Integrated Waste Management Board. “The Triton is an exemplary green hotel on so many different fronts. If there's a way to save energy or protect the environment, they're doing it.”

The Green Lodging Program began as a way to encourage employees who travel on state business to patronize hotels with environmental protection policies in place. Rate used to be the sole criterion. “What we wanted to do was take that existing program and add a new dimension to it,” Java says.

Now that Kimpton has paved the way, the state is looking for other hotel involvement. A major chain “looks like it's coming on board with us and trying to bring its San Diego properties into the program,” Java says. “They're working with us right now to get certified.” The state is reaching out to large chains like Choice, Hilton and Marriott, she says. “What we want to do is make everybody aware of the program so they come to us,” she says. The program's home page, www.ciwmb.ca.gov/EPP/greenlodging, features green resources for travelers, green resources for hotels, applications and forms for the program and other resources.

“All the recycling in the world will not do an ounce of good if we do not individually and collectively purchase products made from recycled-content materials,” Java says. “It's all about reducing our impact on the environment.”

The low-impact Peppers lair, aka the Red Hot Love Nest, is one of several celebrity Eco-suites in the Triton. It is Peppered with photos of this seminal '90s punk-funk band, the headboard of the comfortable king bed boasts Man Ray's flying lips, and the walls of the well-appointed bathroom are a marvel of decoupage honoring the Dada movement of the early 20th century. Despite its kinetic quality, the suite, also featuring a big (but not flat-screen) TV and free Wi-Fi, is peaceful. It's a good place to work and relax.

The Love Nest also features energy-saving fluorescent lighting, low-flow showerheads and toilets, recycling baskets to separate trash from paper, and non-chemical cleaning materials for housekeeping. The linens and towels are organic cotton and tent cards tell guests they can opt out of changing them daily. They're taking that route more and more often, the Kimpton brain trust tells me.

The trust is Tom LaTour, chairman and CEO of the San Francisco-based company Bill Kimpton founded in 1981; Niki Leondakis, COO; and Steve Pinetti, senior vice president of sales and marketing. They spend an hour with me in the Creative Zone, a meeting room on the second floor of the 140-unit hotel. The Zone's walls showcase a wraparound mural featuring largely briny motifs (Hotel Indigo has its nautilus; the Triton has King Neptune). It's a blue room so vivid it's peaceful.

By the time you read this, Kimpton will have rolled out the first of three phases of a plan to make all of its 38 properties eco-hotels. Not only is the plan socially responsible, it's good business, the Kimpton executives say. And it resonates with both vendors and guests.

Since last fall, when Kimpton accelerated its marketing, Pinetti and other staffers have been developing environmental standards for the brand. Items under consideration include everything from the complimentary organic coffee available in the lobbies to room deodorizers, says Pinetti. Phase I also mandates company-wide printing using recycled paper and soy-based ink.

Staff and employees are testing these products in various hotels, attempting to measure their environmental sensitivity and, in housekeeping, the cleaning power of non-chemical products. Cost is a factor but not an issue, Pinetti suggests. “There are an inordinate number of vendors looking for the opportunity to provide green products and partner with companies like us.”

The company also has hired Danny Seo as its “eco-stylist” to create “green” proprietary materials for Kimpton and guide the brand on sustainability issues.

Now that the products are nearly nailed down, Pinetti and other executives have to spread the word to the 5,500 Kimpton employees. A similar process will apply in Phase II, which targets bedding, use of organic foods in Kimpton restaurants and alliances with environmentally forward food operations like Paul Newman's. Phase II will bring the restaurants into the recycling program, expand the retrofit of faucets and toilets for water conservation, mandate remanufactured toner cartridges for printers, develop Green and Eco award programs, and create a Kimpton Nationwide Eco Team.

Phase III will be launched by Sept. 1 and focus on eco design and development, including furnishings and hotel infrastructure. Kimpton wants to use recycled wood in its flooring and will pay attention to how and where it's harvested. This last phase will involve construction, sourcing vendors who use items such as “rescued” wood and avoid using timber from the rain forest, Pinetti says. The fundamental notion is balance, a watchword of Bill Kimpton's from the start.

The social responsibility at the heart of environmental sensitivity was part of “Bill's nature,” LaTour says. “What he brought to the enterprise was, fundamentally, balance. What you take out you should put back; that was the nature of how our behavior evolved, from Bill's natural being. Stay in balance all the time.”

“There's a business case for doing this kind of thing,” Leondakis says. “As this rolls out across the company, it'll move to the forefront,” Pinetti adds.

“It's good business. It's good for business,” says LaTour. “It's not just because we're altruistic and we feel good, it's good for business. Otherwise, the investors would say, what are you guys doing? A lot of people think it's going to cost more. It's actually more advantageous to be eco-friendly than not.”

There also are payoffs in marketing and employee retention. “Many consumers are paying attention to the products they buy and the choices they make and vendor and supplier treatment of the community and environment,” Leondakis says. “Many people say we're heading toward a tipping point: If you're not environmentally conscious, your company will be blackballed from people's choices.”

In addition, today's workforce wants to operate in a socially responsible environment, she suggests.” Employees today want to come to work every day not just for the paycheck but to feel good about what they're doing…It's very important to them to be aligned with the values of the people they work for, so from an employee retention standpoint, this helps us retain and attract them so we can select from the best and the brightest.”

Environmental sensitivity also aims to reduce stress. “A sense of survival seems to hit folks at an earlier age,” Pinetti says. “The information flow is causing people to move more quickly, and that need for speed is causing anxiety. In school, there are many more classes about the environment, about survival of the world. Terrorism is the threat of the day, but the more global threat is to the environment.”

Heather Thompson, a hospitality student at the University of San Francisco who was sitting in on the session with her mentor, Leondakis, elaborates. Her classes often touch on the fragility of the world, communicating a sense that precious environments “will be gone” soon, she says.

Joining an environmentally sensitive company generates “pride in where you work,” says Thompson, who works part-time in a Kimpton restaurant. “You know they're proud of doing something that's helping the world. That's an awesome thing to know about who you're working for.”

RUNNING ON GREEN POWER

Various other companies are exploring alternative energy sources and signing contracts to save on power and cost. At Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, the Toronto-based luxury flag, environmental sensitivity has long been imbedded in the culture.

Since 1990, Fairmont's 25,000 employees have been involved in a Green Partnership Program of environmental stewardship. In November, Michelle White became environmental affairs manager, charged with setting the tone and executing plans spanning forestry management, reef reclamation, deployment of naturally derived fertilizers, and species protection.

Since the fall, White has attempted to weld numbers to Fairmont's efforts. “It's not enough for us as a company to qualitatively say we recycle,” she says. “We want to say, this is what we recycle, this is how much we recycle. We want to have numbers to support our studies. We want to be very consistent across the board.” The in-house database EnergyTrac monitors the brand's consumption of energy and water and “any special initiatives like large-scale engineering and retrofitting.”

Among Fairmont initiatives: protecting endangered species, like the sea turtle at the Fairmont Princess and Fairmont Pierre Marques in Acapulco; using naturally derived fertilizers in irrigating the Fairmont Orchid on the Big Island of Hawaii to nurture plant life at that resort; fostering a partnership between the Fairmont Washington, DC and Washington Gas Energy Services to buy power from the West Virginia Mountaineer Wind Energy Center; and replanting the Fairmont Mayakoba in Mexico to mitigate erosion.

Each hotel has a “green team” of eight to ten employees who identify issues that must be addressed. Properties compete for Environmental Hotel of the Year. “Most of the initiatives are very property-driven and we're very proud of them,” White says. Vendors cooperate, too: The Fairmont Royal York in Toronto has persuaded a packaging vendor to trim excess, she says, and in 2003, the Fairmont Newfoundland introduced an antistatic block to its dryers. Equivalent to about 750 sheets of a product like Bounce, the block greatly reduces packaging and saves the company from having to buy about 23,000 sheets of fabric softener per year, White says.

Many environmental efforts are invisible to the guest, White notes, like composting and recycling of amenities to local charities. There's in-room recycling, too. “This program is not expensive,” she says. “The green teams participate on a voluntary basis and run their programs exceptionally efficiently.

“We want to make sure to protect all the resources on which our industry is based,” she says. “Nobody wants an ocean resort where the coral reef is damaged or dying.”

In addition, the program creates jobs. There's an environmental systems manager at the Fairmont Lake Louise, and various hotels employ stewards to process the recycling, which involves sorting, storage and cardboard crushing.

Geared toward developing a “more sustainable framework,” the Fairmont program is “an outgoing project with constantly moving targets,” White says. Fairmont has even codified it in “The Green Partnership Guide: A Practical Guide to Greening Your Hotel.” Published in 1990 and updated in 2001, it contains tips for hoteliers and references to companies involved in all things green.

In the Caribbean, where so much is imported, environmental sensitivity is beginning to take root, too. Among its pioneers: the La Cabana All Suite Beach Resort, at 811 units the largest resort in Aruba.

Once a month, employees form a team to pick up garbage on the premises and on the public beaches, says Lou Rolofsen, general manager. In addition, a program separating bottles and cans recycled more than 90,000 kilograms of material in 2004, says Frank Sabajo, environmental and safety manager. “It doesn't go to the landfill anymore,” he says. “It's priceless, what we're doing.”

Because there is only one utility on the island and it's government-owned, La Cabana can't negotiate rates. But it can reduce usage, says Sabajo; cutting consumption has since 1999 saved La Cabana more than $585,000 in electricity costs. Buying energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs and installing capacitor banks on chillers also has saved money, he says.

Consistency is still elusive in a mixed-use development of condo, timeshare and hotel units: Hotel linens are changed daily, timeshare linens twice a week. “We can educate owners that cutting down on laundry expenses is to their benefit on maintenance fees,” says Leslie Brea, quality assurance manager. “It's difficult to understand for regular hotel guests who pay a nightly rate that they don't get fresh linen every day. I hope it will change so regular hotels participate more in these types of programs.”

Even though Kimpton hasn't joined it — sales and marketing chief Steve Pinetti says it won't link up with such an organization until its own programs are in place — there also is a Green Hotel Association. Based in Houston, the GHA is both a mail order business for items spanning aerators and recycling baskets as well as a trade association, says Patty Griffin, founder and president. Dues are $1 per guestroom per year, with a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $750. “If hotels use our ideas, they'll save more money than that,” she says.

The core of the GHA is empowerment, Griffin suggests. “The idea is that the hotelier would form a green team with one person from each department. They would check off what they're already doing and make a plan for the following year,” Griffin says.

Such plans “really charge up the employees,” she says. “Housekeepers know what's being missed and what they need to do more of. These are the ones who can get this program going. Everything that has anything to do with the environment comes down to our health.

“Once owners and managers understand it's health we're really talking about when we talk about the environment, it's a bigger deal, with huge money savings to be had.”

THE BIG IDEAS

  • Empower your employees

    Management must set the environmental tone and enlist employees in spreading environmental ideas and practices.

  • Work with vendors

    Kimpton says negotiating in volume for green products can make them “competitive-priced” with their non-green counterparts.

  • Tie it all together

    Once hoteliers recognize that the environment is what determines health, making environmental sensitivity part of the culture of an individual property or flag becomes a no-brainer.

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