Dreaming Green

greenHoteliers across the country are making bold moves in the enviro-friendly scene.

Canada’s West Coast is home to — and a popular destination for — many eco-minded travellers. At the Parkside Victoria Resort and Spa, in scenic Victoria B.C., which opened in October 2009, the decision to go green started from the ground up. “We built to LEED Platinum standards, so there were many things to consider right from the beginning,” says Jim Pearson, Parkside’s director.

About 40 feet of solid rock excavated during construction was processed as roadbed material rather than landfill fodder, and all sub-contractors and trades on the job had to comply with the highest environmental standards. In fact, more than 92 per cent of all waste materials resulting from construction were diverted from landfills.

Parkside is a green goldmine. The hotel collects rainwater in a 68,500-gallon tank, which it uses to maintain its rooftop garden that is comprised of native and drought-tolerant plants. An HVAC system operates in commercial spaces alone and engineers have diligently calculated natural airflow, the angle of the sun and negative pressure in corridors to ensure a comfortable indoor temperature throughout the rest of the hotel. Natural, long-lasting materials, such as sustainable limestone and maple, cover the floors and all of Parkside’s suites feature luxury furnishings, fabric and decor made from low-emitting, non-toxic and recycled materials. A minimum of 15 per cent of Parkside’s materials contain recycled content and at least 20 per cent of all materials have been extracted and manufactured regionally.

“Our green committee is always coming up with new ideas to help make Parkside greener and to encourage guests and staff to get involved,” Pearson says. Recently the hotel introduced a program where staff is rewarded for taking public transit, walking or biking to work. Plenty of bicycle racks as well as change rooms have been provided for Parkside staff and guests who prefer to pedal. There’s also an electric car-share program in the works, and a number of parking spaces are equipped with electric charging stations for alternative fuel vehicles. The hotel’s food and beverage managers reflect green thinking, too, serving organic local produce whenever possible.

Most importantly though, the shift in public consciousness means these initiatives translate into bookings. “We have people who seek us out,” Pearson says. “Many government organizations and some private companies have mandates to be socially responsible. That’s been a positive factor for us.”

Pearson explains that while there’s a cost to being ultra eco-aware (Parkside is a $60-million development), the investment will balance out in the long run. The hotel, which recently won the HAC Hall of Fame award for energy and environment, has a management team that encourages everyone, from housekeeping to the front desk, to participate in Parkside’s green initiatives. “There’s a huge opportunity for hotels to help prevent environmental degradation and plenty of changes that can be made that aren’t cost prohibitive. Often it’s just a matter of caring,” Pearson adds.

David Zaltzman is also seeking to balance environmental gain with cost containment, as he stares out the windows of the Minto Suite Hotel. On this day, it’s a calm Ottawa morning and Zaltzman channels his inner Zen master as he steps his right foot forward in slow motion while his hands float outward at shoulder height. It’s staff tai chi day and every good general manager leads by example.

Tai chi isn’t Minto’s only get-fit program. A daily stretching session and bi-weekly five-kilometre run along the Rideau Canal also keep Mintonians in mint condition. Staff lead the scenic jogs, encouraging guests to slap on some sneakers and take part. “It’s important to understand Minto’s green initiatives are cultural. We’re not just changing light bulbs and adjusting our catering practices. We want to engage our employees and guests. We need to understand what is required of us to protect the Earth,” says Zaltzman, general manager of Ottawa- based Minto Hospitality Group, which has a total of eight properties in the nation’s capital and in Toronto.

Minto’s environmental messages are clear. For guests: “I stay green.” For staff: “I work green.” Using Earth-friendly suppliers, low-flow showers and toilets and personal care products in bulk dispensers for guests are just a few practical ways Minto’s green theme is kept in check. The hotel also provides guests with free bicycles, has a salt-water and a two-storey living wall installation — where plants appear to grow out of the building itself — brightens (and oxygenates) the lobby.

Shiny Granny Smith apples — Minto’s enviro-conscious icon — add yet more greenery to the hotel interior. Fresh fruit in the lobby and guestrooms is for eating, but apple stickers throughout the suites draw guests’ attention to energy-saving devices, such as the thermostat.

The stickers also denote opportunities to pitch in with cards encouraging guests to keep towels and sheets for a few days, for example. Staff involvement is key to Minto’s success, too. Its green committees meet quarterly to track the progress of programs already in place and to brainstorm new ideas (The employee with the best new initiative is rewarded $150.). At a recent meeting, Zaltzman told the story of a California hotelier who won an award for drastically reducing his hotel’s water consumption. When asked how he did it, the answer was simple: he told the kitchen staff to stop using running water to defrost food. Sometimes a smallchange can make a big difference.

Overall, Minto Group — which won Hotelier’s Green Leadership award in 2010 — has invested more than $17 million in environmentally friendly innovations. Ottawa’s Minto Suite Hotel has seen annual energy savings of 28 per cent and a 38 per cent decrease in water consumption, accounting for more than $500,000 in savings each year. “We look at our green position from two perspectives,” Zaltzman says. “First, being green goes directly to the bottom line, but it also goes to the higher level, long-term value of the property. If we can be green and also generate better financial results, it’s a win-win. We’re moving in the right direction.”

Many Canadian hotels are moving in the same direction, with 1,328 properties across the country (70 per cent of the market, in terms of rooms) participating in the Hotel Association of Canada’s Green Key Eco-Rating program. Green Key has seen such great success since launching 15 years ago that it’s now in effect at close to 2,000 hotels globally. The program, which costs $350 annually, guides hoteliers through a process of identifying and implementing green initiatives. Upon completion, each property receives a rating, between one and five keys, which can be used to market the hotel as environmentally friendly. “Green Key allows a hotel to demonstrate good corporate citizenship and also brings financial benefits, such as reduced operating costs,” says Tony Pollard, Hotel Association of Canada president.

“Marketing is another Green Key bonus. Many government groups and the Canadian Automobile Association recognize the Green Key rating, so by virtue of participating, hotels can market to these organizations,” Pollard says. HAC research shows the environment is still top-of-mind for consumers, despite other concerns, such as the recovering economy. Jennifer Bauchner, North American director of Rooms Operations and Sustainability for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, concurs. “The average business traveller might not be seeking an environmentally friendly hotel just yet, but it is important
to many of our guests. We see it especially with our Element brand where we have guests who are dedicated to the environment and continue to rebook with us,” Bauchner says.

White Plains, N.Y.-based Starwood launched its eco-conscious Element Hotels two years ago. All Element properties are committed to pursuing the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification — the mark of high-performance green buildings. “Element is our green innovation lab,” Bauchner says. “We run all of our pilot initiatives there and it allows us to see what customers like and what we might transfer to our other brands.” Art on the walls, for example, is mounted on a base made from recycled tires, and floors feature carpets with up to 100-per-cent recycled content. The most recent Element Hotel opened in New York City’s Times Square, bringing the total to nine, with another set to launch this summer in Miami. North of the border, development plans are in the works, and in fact, just days before press time, Starwood announced the Element brand would make its Canadian debut in Vancouver with a 169-room property in 2014. “We like to say Element’s inspiring designs flow from nature, so Vancouver’s spectacular natural beauty makes a perfect setting for our first Element property in Canada,” said Brian McGuiness, senior vice-president, Specialty Select Brands, Starwood in a release. “And, since Vancouver launched an initiative to become the world’s agreenest city by 2020, we’re excited for Element Vancouver Metrotown to become a part of that movement.”

Outside of the extra green Element brand, Starwood’s online sustainability resource centre ensures its operators have easy access to environmental policies and allows staff to track progress and create reports. Each hotel has its own dedicated green champion — a position that can fall to anyone within the hotel staff who’s passionate about the environment—who fosters awareness and helps drive change. Every hotel can customize meetings for guests to make them as green as possible, with options such as electronic pre-meeting “paperwork” and opting for china rather than disposable plates.

Hotel operators also engage guests with events such as Earth Hour, which was recently marked with a voluntary electricity shutdown March 26 at 8:30 p.m. “We had a candlelight check-in, and our restaurants served organic fresh foods. We encouraged guests to turn off their lights and come down to the lobby where we had activities and acoustic entertainment. We want to let people know this can be fun,” Bauchner says.

Being eco-conscious can be fun, but not all folks are environmentalists, and Bauchner notes that while enviro-initiatives are important, enriching the guest experience is a Starwood priority. The company works hard to keep sustainability and economic feasibility in check. In June 2010, it was announced Starwood would commit to a 30-per-cent reduction in energy use and a 20-per-cent decrease in water consumption by 2020. “Soon, being green won’t be an extra, and we’re going to be ready for when it’s a must-have,” says Bauchner “More and more people are expressing concern for the environment and looking for a purpose in every brand they purchase. We want our brand to be meaningful.”

Certainly, some hoteliers are leery of the costs associated with raising the green quotient, but as long as raw energy costs continue to increase, striving to conserve will only benefit the bottom line. But, if you’re having a tough time sorting through the clutter of environmental options, try a little mind-clearing tai chi.

 

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