Hotel sustainability: What is and isn't working

NEW YORK - Hotels are invested in sustainability, both from a monetary and ideological standpoint. But as more money is spent each year on "going green," how can hotels see the return on their investment?

At this year's HX: The Hotel Experience event in New York (previously the International Hotel, Motel & Restaurant Show), a panel addressed the shifting interests of travelers and how sustainability factors into their decision making.

Titled The Numbers Behind the Trends: Gauging Traveler/Hotelier Reaction to the Greening of Lodging, the panel began with Eric Ricaurte, founder and CEO of Greenview, showing that 91 percent of consumers are likely to switch to brands associated with a good cause. Despite this, data gathered from Lindsay Culbreath, senior director of business development and marketing for STR, show that guests are not selecting hotels based on environmental sustainability, and research into whether or not guests are willing to pay more for environmentally-friendly hospitality remains inconclusive. What is clear, according to Ricaurte, is that hotels are getting the messaging of sustainability wrong during delivery to the guest.

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Ricaurte said that showing your hotel is sustainable is just as important as taking part in sustainable practices. If your hotel participates in the Clean the World soap recycling initiative, display that in your bathrooms to inform guests. Also, while he said hotels' hearts are in the right place with regards to linen- and-towel-reuse programs, the rules for reuse are often confusing to guests, and sometimes housekeeping washes the linens regardless of guest actions.

To sharpen communication, Ricaurte said to get creative. He referenced a note seen near a light fixture in a guestroom telling guests "this hotel room is not afraid of the dark," urging guests to be more aware of their energy use.

After Ricaurte, Culbreath displayed data from a report/survey produced for the American Hotel & Lodging Association's information center, collected from roughly 9,600 hotels. From the respondents, 93 percent had a linen and towel reuse program, 29 percent had energy-management sensors in guestrooms, 64 percent had recycling programs, 78 percent use LED lights and 77 percent have water-saving programs. While the upscale and luxury segments tended to be most heavily involved in sustainability practices, economy hotels lagged in nearly every category (for instance, only 31 percent of economy hotel respondents had recycling programs, compared to 90 percent of upper upscale and luxury). These are significant numbers and the economy and midscale segments represent many more rooms than nearly every other segment combined.

As for good news, Rohit Verma, executive director at the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures, found that there are more sustainability programs being offered by hotels today than ever before, and study results show that guests are participating in them, regardless of hotel type and customer segment. Data also found that hotels that offer sustainability programs on average have more satisfied guests. The downside is that guests are still not booking based on sustainability, but hotels are reaping rewards in repeat bookings.

"Sustainability won't sell trade shows, but satisfaction increases by leaps and bounds," Verma said. "If you offer a program and people use it, it makes them feel a little better about themselves."

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