Staying Sustainable: Hotels and the environment

Compared to other sectors, hotel operators seem to come under little scrutiny from a sustainability perspective. Indeed, one might be forgiven for thinking that their part to play in building a sustainable future is marginal when you look at the carbon footprint and social impact of big industry such as Agriculture, Construction, Transport, etc.

However, as the trend for travellers to seek more niche experiences, often in some of the world’s most untouched and bio-diverse environments continues, the role of hoteliers as the gatekeepers of these spaces is becoming increasingly important.

Moreover, to reach these sought-after pockets of paradise, we collectively fly billions of miles per year. When you also consider the logistics required to bring goods and services to these properties, the footprint quickly starts to add up – and this is without factoring in food waste, energy and construction. Four Seasons Hotels, for example, has recently acquired a new 48-seat Airbus to offer its guests luxury bespoke tours around the world.

Four Seasons’ private Airbus. Photo credit: Four Seasons

Clearly, the logistical footprint of guests is something which hoteliers (for the most part) can’t control but this poses an important question: are hotel operators doing enough to protect the environments they operate in and to balance their wider impact?

Earlier this year at the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Global Summit, Keith Barr, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, told delegates “I really believe that [consumers] are looking at us as operators or as destinations and asking, ‘how are you delivering this to make sure you’re more and more sustainable?’”

There are several areas where operators can make these improvements. Simply offering laundry services on request, rather than every day, reduces environmental impact and keeps costs down. And what of packaging? We’ve seen other sectors scale back on single-use plastics, perhaps it’s time to move away from individually wrapped soaps and those tiny shampoo bottles.

Food must also be considered. As the appetite for farm-to-table dining continues to grow, more hotels will start using their own gardens and local farms to source herbs and vegetables. Thanks to improvements in technology, some hotels have started tracking the resources they use with great accuracy. Many are striving to save energy with more efficient chillers, boilers and lighting – a trend that will accelerate.

SixSenses’ Krabey Island resort. Photo credit: SixSenses

SixSenses was one of the earliest adopters of sustainable practices. When building its properties, the company utilises architectural strategies that incorporate local culture into the design process. Building materials include certified wood, recycled and rapidly renewable materials. Its resorts in Southeast Asia are in places of pristine beauty, close to nature and wildlife and therefore, often must consider how their activity could degrade the surrounding biodiversity. Since the company’s inception, they’ve understood that their business is dependent on preserving the environments, cultures and communities in which they operate.

One brand that previously catered to a niche market has now found itself at the forefront of this growing trend. The 1 Hotels brand is one of the industry’s pioneers of sustainable hospitality, with a range of green innovations across its urban-located properties. The company incorporates nature into every aspect of a guest’s stay. The hotels are thoughtfully designed with reclaimed wood, natural light and hemp mattresses.

The 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge is the third for the environmentally conscious brand, brainchild of Starwood founder Barry Sternlicht. The hotel has a rainwater tank underneath the hotel that irrigates Brooklyn Bridge Park. Interiors were designed using local materials such as walnut from Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The restaurant offers farm-to-table foods from nearby purveyors and the opportunity to dine al fresco in the park. Three more properties are in the works in China, Cabo, and Sunnyvale, California.

Despite the success of 1 Hotel, there is still limited choice when it comes to environment-first hotel chains and the sector as a whole seems to be only at the start of the journey to sustainability. And, as travellers become more environmentally conscious, there will be a clear commercial advantage to delivering a more sustainable product.

1 Hotels Brooklyn Bridge. Photo credit: 1 Hotels

From an external perspective, governments around the world have introduced a variety of economic incentives to encourage the development of environmental retrofits and the construction of “green” buildings, including tax write-offs, financial grants, insurance premium discounts and expedited regulatory permitting.

Getting it right, though, is not without its challenges. The sector is highly fragmented. Creating a movement to address issues is perhaps harder than in other industries, where you can start to build momentum through a few key players. Also, the franchised nature of many companies in the space means that plans need to be aligned across the brand owner and the asset owner – often with different objectives and different investment horizons. However, there are some measures the industry might take to help it move in the right direction.

Larger scale operators should have more senior management roles with a specific sustainability focus. We’ve found that many have combined sustainability with functions such as Human Resources, Engineering and Supply Chain. Given the sheer complexity and scale of the challenge, it might be wiser to create standalone positions where companies can give it the focus required to make an impact.

It also seems surprising that sustainability still isn’t incorporated into the industry’s ratings criteria. In the past, five stars promised 24-hour room service, a swimming pool and a premium price to match. Perhaps these days, responsible waste management and protecting biodiversity should be closer to the top of the list. Online Travel Agencies, who now drive many of the booking decisions, also clearly have a role to play in this.

Like in many industries, the road to embedding more sustainable practices in hotels feels like a long one. The importance in doing so – both from a social and commercial perspective – is abundantly clear but also as they feed, water and sleep us 24 hours a day, hotels are true “lifestyle” businesses and therefore can play a key role in teaching their guests the values of sustainable living. | @TheMBSGroup | The MBS Group