Overcoming the Challenges of a Green Hotel

By Matt Baker

You keycard into your room, turn on the lights and toss your luggage into the closet. Hey, there’s a mini fridge! Everything is marked up way too high so you don’t really need it, but it’s nice to know it’s there. After flipping on the television, you lean over the gigantic a/c unit in front of the window to open the blinds and check out the view.

It’s getting late, but you deserve a shower. You let the water run a bit to get hot and check out the allotment of tiny toiletries provided by the hotel. There’s one and a half servings of shampoo in the little bottle, so you just discard what’s left when you’re done. After you dry off, you toss the towel on the floor; the housekeeper will get it.

Finally you hop into bed. They always tuck the sheets in too tight, but by the morning you will have kicked them into a ball on the floor. No worries—the house staff will bring in fresh sheets too. You are in a strange bed in a strange city, but you can peacefully nod off because while you’re here, you’re going to relax and pamper yourself.

You are on vacation, and you are a terrible person.

Read_SC15Q4The issue of sustainability in the hospitality industry is more important than ever as Chicago is in the midst of its largest hotel boom in years. By the end of 2015, there are projected to be over 42,000 hotel rooms just in the downtown area alone, with more than 2,000 of those having come online this year.

And while there are large, notable projects like the 1,200-room Marriott Marquis under construction near McCormick Place, most of the new space has been in boutiques like the Virgin Hotel and Chicago Athletic Hotel. “The hospitality segment has changed a lot, particularly in the last 15 years,” said Daniel Welborn, a Principal with the Gettys Group. A Chicago-based interior design, branding, procurement and consulting firm for the hospitality industry, Gettys has helped usher in some of the city’s boutique hotels such as the Hotel Felix and the recently completed Chicago Motor Club Hotel for Hampton Inn.

Larger hotel chains such as Hyatt and Starwood have always maintained four or five different brands under their umbrellas (Hampton Inn, for example, is a longtime Hilton property). In recent years they’ve expanded, with most major chains controlling dozens of hotel identities.

Felix1“What that means is you’re seeing a need for differentiation between brands. You’re seeing them try to target certain groups,” Welborn said. The question then is, with this focus on creating a unique guest experience and catering to specific clientèle, is the attention to sustainability wavering, when it is needed most?

Even if a hotel builds sustainability into their operations, it can be difficult to balance that with the habits of the guests. “Hotels in general are really on board with you saving them as much water and energy as possible, and have been for a long time,” Welborn said. “They live and die on operational margins.”

While the hotel industry has been at the forefront of energy conservation efforts—whether to achieve reduced costs or to portray their brand as carbon sensitive— numerous studies have shown an apparent disconnect between consumer attitudes and their behavior. Thus there have been a number of attempts to urge hotel guests to act more sustainably.

Many hotels now incentivize their guests to forego housekeeping or reuse linens in exchange for rewards points. According to Marriott, one initiative like this has led to an average of 11% to 17% on water and sewer costs involved in laundering operations at each hotel.

It can be a delicate balancing act, however. “Whether that’s genuine or not, most guests feel that the hotel is just trying to save some bucks and not wash my towels,” said Welborn. “The hotel’s heart is in the right place with that messaging, I think guests just read it in a different way.”

Studies have shown an unfortunate disconnect between an individual’s stated desire for sustainable operations at a hotel, and their behavior while staying in one. Whether a guest is visiting for leisure or business, they still expect a hotel to provide a high level of comfort.

Felix2But tourists and lone traveling salesmen aren’t the only guests that hotels cater to. The primary drivers in a lot of hotels are meeting spaces. As corporations have become more image-conscious regarding their ecological impact, many have included sustainability criteria into their search for a conference or meeting venue. “That RFP process over the last ten years has really created the policy that the hotels now use around green meetings, and it also extends into the other parts of the hotel,” said Welborn. “Not only are they happy to not pay more money for operations, but they’ve had to change it on the other side because of clients being more sustainable and pushing it on them.”

One Gettys project is the Hotel Felix in River North. A chic and modern boutique installed in a renovated 1926 beaux-arts building, The Felix had the misfortune of opening in early 2009, on the tail of the recession. One thing it had going for it, however, is that the Felix was LEED Silver. Many organizations such as Microsoft and Google have policies that if they can book accommodation in a LEED-certified hotel for the same price as another hotel, then they choose the LEED-certified hotel first. “Felix kind of sat in that nice sweet spot where we were getting those contracts because we were LEED,” Welborn said. “It helped us through a tough time.”

Hotels attempt to feel as residential as possible, but are held to the same code standards as any commercial building. “Marrying those two things and then also making it sustainable, that was the real challenge for the vendor community ten years ago,” said Welborn. “Generally a home or residential use feels cozy because you don’t have a lot of these restrictions, so you can use different materials. But technology has come a long way to change that so that in the hospitality industry, we are able to select from a wide range of beautiful fabrics and great wood that also meets the commercial standards.”

When working with a client, Gettys pushes sustainability, aiming for LEED accreditation whenever possible. The stigma of cost associated with going green persists, however, and some hotels are reticent to buy in. “When that’s the case, we go into sneaky sustainability mode,” said Welborn. “Without increasing costs, we’ll go for materials and products that are sustainable and just put them into the specifications.” That’s become a lot easier as most suppliers are more green-conscious and offer FSC-certified wood, Cradle to Cradle furnishings, recycled carpet and more. LED lighting technology and costs have both advanced enough that it’s easy to achieve a desired lighting mood sustainably and cheaply.

A general assumption has been that the more opulent a hotel, the less important sustainability becomes. Luxury, after all, is Italian marble, exotic Amazonian hardwoods and gilded fixtures. If this assumption ever was true, it isn’t any longer, even beyond high-end brands that tout sustainability because they are trying to attract a certain type of clientèle.

“Consumers and guests in that category aren’t looking for that anymore anyway. It’s really around comfort, detailing and service level. So they’re not incompatible ideas,” Welborn said. “I think a high level of sustainability, and that being part of your story, can enhance your luxury proposition.”

Photos courtesy the Hotel Felix

Tags: , ,

See All Tags

Suggest an article

Send us your articles! Please email any articles or topics that you think we should feature to Editor@Sustainable-Chicago.com.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!