Sustainable Hospitality – Checking In

It seems that almost every major hotel brand has rolled out a green hospitality program over the past few years, and for good reason. With round-the-clock operations, utilities are a huge portion of overall operating expenses. Rarely do you flick on the room light anymore and find an incandescent bulb. That phase-out started in guest rooms years ago. From Kimpton Hotels where every property is GreenSeal certified to Element (Starwood’s new 100 percent LEED-certified brand) to IHG’s Green Engage program, the bulk of the national brands are pushing green initiatives. Study after study shows that people would rather stay at a green property, and these properties can command higher room rates. The federal government and more and more businesses are requiring employees to stay at green hotels, if available, and the conference industry is rapidly making sustainable venues and accommodations deciding criteria regarding where events will be located.

None of this should be surprising — hotels are following the same greening trend you see across all types of real estate. Hotel properties, though, present a very interesting challenge once the process of designing and constructing the building  is completed. Unlike most every other type of real estate development outside of residential buildings or houses, hotels turn a vast amount of control over to the occupant. And, unlike in their own homes, these occupants have no financial stake in taking short showers or not turning out the lights when they leave the room. Compared to an office building where the facilities people set a temperature and control the lights, each hotel has potentially hundreds of different facilities people in each 400-square-foot room — and without any means to manage the utility consumption.

How we overcome the human factor in hotel properties will be the defining aspect of successful green hospitality programs. The task of accounting for building components like lighting levels, an efficient boiler and high-performing glass is pretty straightforward. It’s once that first guest checks in where efficiencies can start to diminish.

One option is to take control out of the occupants’ hands. For lighting, this can be as simple as a master switch for lights and outlets that is only turned on when a keycard is inserted. HVAC controls that allow the temperature to be set from the front desk, or be tied to occupancy sensors, can be installed. Low-flow showerheads and toilets regulate the flow for you. It also takes training the hotel staff to manage these systems properly, from resetting the room temperatures to making sure the recycling is put in the proper bin to not leaving every light on in the room at turndown service. I can’t count how many times I’ve hung my towel up for reuse just to have the housekeeping crews take it anyway.

But how do these automations affect guest satisfaction? Some of these options are new and different to guests — and thus inherently are problematic. I’ve heard a number of folks complain about keycard light switches, going so far as to leave a keycard in at all times so the lights never shut off. The keycard light switch seems pretty easy to me, but the reality was that a lot of guests had trouble with it. HVAC controls are great, but if the front desk staff isn’t adjusting the temperature based on occupancy status they are pretty much useless. Along that same line, guests can excessively fiddle with the controls because they can’t figure out the thermostat, thereby leaving it running on high for hours on end.

A second option is constant guest education, and I’m not talking about a little card on the bed that says please reuse your towels. Successfully educating guests starts as soon as they check in, if not as soon as they set foot through the door. With new guests arriving and departing every day, this education process must be consistent, ongoing and driven into the minds of every hotel employee from the general manager to the housekeeping crews.

Informing guests of how to properly operate lighting controls, HVAC settings, where recycling bins are located or how dual-flush toilets work is essential to reaping the fruits of a sustainable hospitality program. Building the green hotel is the easy part. Now we need to focus on maintaining the sustainability of them by ensuring participation from both the guests and the staff.