You could be forgiven for thinking that the tourism industry had done pretty badly over the past few years, what with the financial crisis and soaring fuel costs, businesses cutting back on travel and more and more of us opting to take our holidays closer to home. But surprisingly, according to the UN-run World Tourism Organisation, a record number of travellers - some 940 million people - went abroad in 2010, up from 881 million the year before and eclipsing the previous record of 916 million set in 2008. Numbers were up by five per cent in the first six months of 2011 and, Eurozone crisis or no, are likely to have shown significant growth for the year overall.
Among the biggest winners from this increase in travel numbers has been the big ten hotel groups: HG, better known as the owner of the Holiday Inn chain, the Wyndam Hotel Group, Marriot, Hilton, Accor Group, Choice Hotels, Best Western, Starwood, Carlson and Hyatt, which generated $1.3bn in revenues in the first nine months of 2011 - roughly the same as the same period a year earlier. More money for the big hotels also equals more carbon emissions created by travellers. The US’ Environmental Protection Agency estimates that night at an average two or three star hotel generates approximately 29.53kg of carbon. The same stay at an upscale hotel – four to five stars - has an even bigger impact on the environment, accounting for 33.38kg of carbon during an average stay. To put that into context, a return London to Paris trip on the Eurostar is less environmentally damaging than a night in a luxury hotel, generating carbon emissions of only 22kg.
Although awareness of the environmental issues related to travel are becoming better understood by the general public, most of the attention has been focused on the carbon footprint of the actual act of travel, yet as these figures show staying at hotels - high-end ones in particular - can be just as ecologically costly as a train or flight. The number of ways in which hotels encourage consumption and waste is huge, from the big buffet breakfasts they serve to the plastic-wrapped, single-use toiletries in the bathroom by way of constant climate control and daily laundry services. Lately though, there have been some signs that the big hotel chains are cleaning up their act, particularly the ubiquitous bathroom signs encouraging you to re-use your towels but just what are the biggest chains doing to go green while maintaining the all-important occupancy rates and revenues per available room (RevPar), terms which litter their quarterly and annual results?
In 2007, Hyatt Hotels created a brand new executive post, vice president for environmental affairs, appointing Brigitta Witt, formerly business development director at green anti-junk mail firm GreenDimes (before that, she was in charge of installing WIFI in the fast food chain McDonald’s 8,000 US restaurants). Witt was installed at Hyatt to some fanfare, but then largely disappeared from the public eye. But in October, she sat down to talk to the Ecologist to explain why she hadn’t been promoting the green side of the chain’s business and what exactly she had been doing for the past three years. Her answer? She went off the radar, and focused on building a company culture of environmental awareness before tackling the really big issues.
‘At a lot of companies you see green strategy being implemented from the top down,’ she says. ‘We are both bottom-up and top-down. We haven’t communicated on it because that was never the purpose of the exercise. Hyatt is a very private company, and my mandate was that you are not going to talk about what we do; you aren’t going to be doing any PR. So for three years, I was able to do this programme under the radar.’ Witt describes her background as being in ‘change management’ - her biggest challenge before Hyatt being part of the team that started Green Dimes; a company, which, for a fee, will cut down on the amount of junk mail householders, receive. When she started at the chain, she said, she thought she would have problems getting Hyatt workers to adapt to a new, green-focused culture.
‘Getting people to adopt new strategies is always the hardest part of my job,’ she says. ‘But the day I started, I realised that it wasn’t going to be a problem - it wasn’t going to be getting people to act, but channelling all the energy at a localised level. We started having meetings and leveraging that passion.’ Setting up the infrastructure to get employees at every hotel engaged in the process was no mean feat, Witt adds. As of September of this year, Hyatt has 478 hotels in 45 countries, and employs tens of thousands of people. A major part of overcoming this hurdle was to ask each hotel to set up its own “green team” of staff members who were keen to do more to help the environment and to get them in touch with one another - not just the company’s upper tiers of management - using an internal communications system which Witt calls ‘a kind of Facebook for the green teams.’ These groups have helped suggest a number of initiatives, centred on energy and water consumption and waste. ‘It’s humbling to see what a really passionate group of people can do,’ she says. Since 2009, Hyatt employees have also undergone around six hours’ training and have been invited to attend workshops on environmental issues, while sustainability has become part of the basic induction programme for new staff.
Hyatt’s efforts to go green are not limited to employee input though; the company’s has also been moving towards “greening” its existing hotels and raising the bar for new properties. It has been monitoring its carbon emissions since 2006, and is part of a group of hotel chains that are pushing for an industry standard for carbon foot printing. In 2009, it opened its first hotels built to the US’ LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards in Seattle and Wyoming, and has been working on its own proprietary construction standards. ‘As a company, we have our own internal sustainable design guidelines,’ Witt explains. ‘We looked at everything that was out there, and came up with out own criteria. LEED was designed for offices; hotels are unique compared to pretty much any other structure out there. LEED awards points for certain things, like bicycle racks. When we created our standards and guidelines for example, for example, we realised that our loading docks weren’t big enough to handle recycling trucks, so that has been incorporated into the guidelines.’
Measures taken to date on older buildings include reinsulating, modernising air conditioning systems, and installing energy efficient lighting, along with a push towards recycling as much waste as is possible. Smaller, but no less important, are moves to reduce water waste by installing more efficient shower systems which use less water without a noticeable loss of water pressure. ‘Where we have the opportunity to reinsulate we do, but we obviously can’t do that all at once,’ Witt says. ‘We have a lot of energy efficient lighting as well. But one of the challenges is with older buildings; the older it is, the harder it is to modernise.’ Another challenge is making the changes without affecting the luxury feel of the company’s hotels. ‘In my opinion, if I am doing my job well it is invisible to the guest; your shower won’t slow to a trickle. We also give out guests options to do things if they want to,’ she says, referring to the ubiquitous towel option.
Given the number of hotels that Hyatt owns and leases, and the relative autonomy with which each unit operates, it isn’t surprising that the degree to which sustainability is a priority varies from hotel to hotel. However, Witt argues, the location of each hotel will also affect how well eco-friendly measures can be implemented. ‘We have to understand that a lot of our chains have to deal with local infrastructure,’ she says. ‘In the US, there are a lot of places where we can’t recycle because the infrastructure isn’t there.’ The bottom line, then, is that for the foreseeable future you will have to check the green credentials of each Hyatt hotel for yourself if you fancy a stay with the chain. Their environmental programme is admirable, but it is also slow burning. ‘The first two to three years have been about launching this; cultivating the environmental consciousness if the company,’ Witt says. ‘Next is integrating sustainability into everything we do.’
Further, do make sure that you don’t just see your carbon footprint in terms of air miles and then go for the cheapest hotel with the highest star rating. This is a false economy, and belies the attitudes of most commercial and tourist travellers. In 2010, a survey conducted by the travel agency Kuoni and Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, both of Switzerland, ranked sustainability seventh in tourists’ concerns when booking a holiday. Climate, price, and the accessibility of destination topped the list. These priorities probably need to change.
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