Much has been written about aviation’s environmental impact, but how are hotels addressing sustainability?
Companies are becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprints and the impact their travel plans have on the environment. Cutting down on air travel is one route to improvement on this score (PwC, notably, has reduced its non client-facing flights by nearly 90 per cent since 2007). Using alternative forms of transport or encouraging lift-sharing is another. But what happens when you get to your destination? How much attention are companies paying to the “green” credentials of their accommodation providers – and what are hotels doing to be more environmentally and socially aware?
It’s clear from the travel buyers and experts we spoke to that the environment is still not top of the list when it comes to organising corporate travel. Jo-Anne Lloyd, partner at consultancy Nina & Pinta, notes: “Based on what I see both with our customers and in the market… sustainability is not yet a driving factor in any decision-making around a travel programme. Key criteria are about reducing spend by using more video-conferencing, improving traveller experiences by picking partners with better product – with the tagline of ‘and it’s better for the environment, too’ as those decisions will involve less travel or will typically be newer aircraft. But it doesn’t lead with that. The cost or traveller experience will be the focus.”
Travel buyers agree. “The priorities in the business world tend to be more about comfort and service levels, from check- in to landing,” as one puts it. “While we maintain high levels of ecologically sound behaviour in offices, it is not a priority when travelling or staying in a hotel.” Yet behind the initial scepticism, companies are increasingly aware of the issue. “This consideration is growing given climate change significance,” says another buyer.
Arguably this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Given the growing prominence of “ESG” (environmental, social and governance) investment, companies are under increasing pressure to demonstrate to investors their businesses are sustainable (or attempting to be) on a range of measures. As another buyer points out: “I am not looking at eco-friendly hotels at all, yet we provide reporting to our ESG team on miles flown.”
While it might not be a priority, it is moving up the agenda – so considering or implementing sensible eco-friendly policies on things such as accommodation can’t hurt. So what are hotels doing to be more ecologically friendly? What should you be looking for?
The good news is that hotels in general are more aware of the importance of “sustainability”. Given that the travel industry is at the sharp end of conspicuous consumption and related concerns about the climate, that makes sense.
According to Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’ second Luxury Insights Report: Gateway to Home - Hotels as the Heart of their Communities, (developed from the Fairmont 2018 Global Luxury Travel Insights Study, which surveyed 2,725 travellers), 80 per cent of these travellers agree it is important “that the hotel provides recommendations of experiences that are not detrimental to the local community”. A similar proportion says it matters to them that a hotel has “environmentally sustainable practices”.
New face of sustainability
Hotels have been urging us to re-use our towels for decades, but we’re moving beyond that. For example, the Fairmont St Andrews Bay hotel swapped disposable plastic water bottles for “specially-designed refillable water bottles”, preventing 55,000 bottles from being disposed of each year.
Melia, meanwhile, made its debut as the third most sustainable hotel company (behind InterContinental and Hilton) in the world last year, according to sustainable investment agency RobecoSAM. Its research takes a wide-ranging view of sustainability – covering everything from corporate governance to environmental management. Notably, Melia came first in the environmental section. Why? The group works with independent, third-party specialists in sustainable tourism to manage and assess its programmes to mitigate the environmental impact of its hotels.
There’s a similar message from Bankside Hotel, an independent property in the heart of London and a member of the Marriott Autograph collection. Douglas McHugh, general manager, says it employed Bouteco, a sustainability consultancy, to work on its policy and “to help us make a positive change to our communities and the wider world”. The hotel now has solar panels on the roof, plus water-refilling stations throughout the hotel’s public areas “to avoid single-use plastic”. The hotel also plans to add beehives for honey production.
Crucially, the drive for a sustainable corporate culture goes beyond the hotel itself, and also goes beyond the basics of simply “be more green”. Bankside tries to work with “suppliers and organisations that help us to demonstrate a kinder, more sustainable approach to hospitality”. For example, Bankside’s coffee supplier gives 15 per cent of its revenue to homeless charity Crisis. The hotel also tries to recruit locally and uses employment agencies and charities that aim to support women returning to the workforce (Women Returners), and prisoners currently in training for hospitality qualifications (The Clink).
A harder-nosed reader might ask: what’s the commercial benefit in all this? McHugh points out that “corporate travellers and leisure guests alike are increasingly conscious” of these issues – many will certainly take into consideration a hotel’s sustainability initiatives when deciding where to stay.”
It can be easy to associate “eco” credentials with the luxury end of the market, where “retreat” chic often plays a big part in branding. But more mainstream chains are focused on sustainability, too.
Take Premier Inn – one of its Edinburgh properties has teamed up with energy supplier Eon to become the first in the UK to generate its electricity from battery storage. The Gyle Premier Inn installed a five-tonne battery that charges up during off-peak hours. It is expected to be able to power the hotel for three hours per two-hour charge. It’s also estimated to save the hotel £20,000 a year in energy costs – so there is a clear commercial incentive to make this technology work.
The longer-term significance here, in terms of sustainability, is that increasing use of battery storage is critical to making renewable energy a viable replacement source of energy generation. Premier Inn already sources its energy from renewables, but, as for the country as a whole, the problem with renewables (apart from nuclear power, which has other issues) is that they are intermittent. The sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. You still need fossil fuel as a back-up, even if, in theory, a country has sufficient solar panels and wind farms to generate all of its energy. But if this energy can be stored efficiently in batteries when it is generated, then released when it is required (often interacting with a “smart grid”, which enables individual users on the grid to both take and give back energy as required), that goes a long way to solving the problem.
The move is a trial by Premier Inn parent Whitbread, which is aiming to cut its carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2025. As Eon accounts director Richard Oakley puts it: “By adding the flexibility of battery storage we can also help Whitbread to upgrade to the full-board option of drawing electricity from the grid when prices are low, storing that energy for use at peak times and having the ability to sell it back to the grid to help balance supply and demand on the network.”
On a wider basis, the company has a sustainability programme entitled “Force for Good”. Under the programme, all waste from Premier Inn is “diverted from landfill”, including beds, pillows, duvets, which are 100 per cent recycled, cooking oil and other food waste. It was the first hotel and restaurant chain in the UK to “sustainably source all wild-caught fish”, and more than 100 of its sites have solar panels.
Hilton, meanwhile, is one year into its plan to cut its environmental footprint in half and double its social impact investment by 2030. It is aiming to double the amount it spends with local and minority-owned suppliers, and doubling its investment in programmes to help women and youth around the world, as part of its Travel with Purpose corporate responsibility strategy.
Given the growing importance and visibility of sustainability issues, is there anything that a travel buyer can do to raise the profile within their organisation? A lot of it – unsurprisingly – comes down to money, says David Mollov of hotel specialists TripBAM. “As what gets measured is what gets done, the best way to think about sustainability as a travel buyer is to think about what is quantifiable and pursue projects that will demonstrate quantifiably the benefit for their company. Larger managed programmes can have quite an impact by influencing travellers to make specific sustainable choices through education and channelling decisions.”
Going beyond “greenwash”
“In reaction to the concern for climate change and the questions being posed by buyers, hotel companies have made green initiatives part of their branding strategy,” notes David Mollov of hotel specialists TripBAM. “Many properties offer electric car charger stations, or preferred parking to electric vehicles.” Yet if corporate customers want to see a wider-ranging commitment to these issues – one that goes beyond the power of branding and changing the odd car parking space (“greenwash”, as it’s sometimes called) – then there needs to be an acceptance by customers that longer-term sustainability requires investment.
“If travel buyers are serious about prioritising green initiatives, they must be willing to pay a premium in the short term to demonstrate to the hotel community that this is important… originally when high-speed wifi was new, travellers paid for it and hoteliers installed the systems because to not have good wifi was to lose the traveller. Now that it is more ubiquitous and the systems are in place, it’s available for free.
However, the initiatives were driven by the traveller and travel buyer who were either willing to pay more to have wifi or not choose a hotel that didn’t have wifi. The same can be said for sustainability initiatives.”
What to look for in a sustainable hotel
It’s not always easy to find good-quality information on sustainability, or to compare properties on this basis. One option is to look for hotels that have certifications from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) – Melia is among the members. Certifications include the Biosphere certificate, which requires that a hotel strives to meet certain standards, such as maximising recycling, and putting in place requirements related to its supply chain (using local suppliers and fair trade products).