Last week, I attended a conference focusing on "Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry" and was impressed with the panelists assembled for the discussion. They ranged from the VPs of sustainability for major international hotel chains to the co-founder of the Lapa Rios Ecolodge, a 16-bungalow property that uses the methane created by pig waste to power their kitchen stoves. So it was obvious that they were going to have a variety of opinions on how best to direct the industry as it goes green. And while many of the hotels talked up their green initiatives, (from creating online models of "innovation hotels," to removing table linens from function rooms and measuring and cutting back their energy and water use) they admitted that these efforts were the "low-hanging fruit" for the industry and that much wider changes need to be made in order to really make a difference. (To that point: One panelist noted that there are more than 4.7 million hotel rooms in the country, and each of those rooms has its rugs torn up and replaced every seven years or so. That's a lot of landfills covered in carpet.)
But where they diverged was on how best to do it. The idea of creating federally regulated hotel sustainability certifications, or standards, was dismissed by some panelists as "regressing everyone to the mean." How can you have competitive distinction, they wondered, if you even the playing field and make everyone adopt the same sustainable practices? And more importantly to their bottom lines, why should they do it if it's not always what the customer wants? One panelist noted that while Whole Foods has a reputation as a sustainable company, very few people know (or care) whether their supermarket buildings are LEED certified (most aren't). And except for some rare examples, most hotel chains use their marketing budgets to highlight the comfort, amenities, and convenience of their properties, not whether they're overtly "green." Ultimately, they said, the customer is concerned with whether the reservation is late or the room is dirty and until we customers actively seek out sustainable standards, the costs and benefits don't add up.
I was a bit miffed by overtly corporate subtext to the sustainable conversation (mind you, not all of the panelists held this perspective, and several were quick to respond in support of certifications and standards) but the idea I left with was, well, do people really want their hotels to be green? If you knew that a certification existed, would you seek out hotel chains that adopted earth-friendly practices? I'm interested in hearing your opinions, please share them in the comments below.
Image: The Innovation Hotel website from the InterContinental Hotels Group.