Foward-looking hotels join the blooming environmental movement

As an industry selling luxury, convenience and escape, often via large properties that have traditionally had a significant environmental footprint, hotels face many challenges when going green. On the bright side, both organizations and individual hoteliers are experimenting with environmentally sound practices — from in-room blue boxes to kilometres of under-room piping.

When the Confederation Place Hotel in Kingston, Ont., was approached out of the blue by a solar power company several years ago, Bill Allinson, managing director of the 100-room full-service hotel and conference centre, wasn’t terribly impressed. Allinson, whose family has owned the property since 1978, says, “We told them, ‘We have pillows and mattresses to buy, we can’t think about saving money over a 10-year period.’ But later we started talking about it, and as we saw the benefits over time, it worked and worked on us.”

For a capital cost of $52,000, about $14,000 of which was covered by a federal grant (a program discontinued last autumn by the Conservative government) Confederation Place installed a rooftop system by London, Ont.’s Enerworks Inc. with 20 solar panels heating food-grade glycol. The glycol then travels through a heat exchanger in a maintenance room, pre-heating water by 25 to 30 degrees before it enters the existing gas-powered heaters, and reducing the load on them by 70 per cent.

“Gas savings for the first 12 months were $10,240, and that’s with two price increases by the local PUC,” says Allinson. Originally, we thought it would pay for itself in seven years — that’s down to three-and-a-third.”  When the system went online in November 2005, Enerworks predicted it would keep 20 tons of carbon emissions out of the atmosphere each year, but that was way off — in a good way — it’s actually saving 36 tons.

A few years ago, Allinson and family would never have seen themselves as eco-warriors, but he’s now looking into a thermal wall to preheat air before it enters the HVAC systems, their restaurant has converted to biodegradable corn-silk coffee cups for take-out, a Kingston landscaper collects used kitchen grease to make bio-diesel, and a local pig farmer is trucking away wet kitchen waste for free. Now this environmental convert says, “If we were building a new facility, it would take serious consideration not to incorporate green energy.”

One company not scrambling to go green is Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which has run programs for years, says Michelle White, director, Environmental Affairs. Reporting to a vice-president, White coordinates green teams at every property looking for operational efficiencies, and acts as an environmental resource for other departments.

“The position really helps to foster high-profile partnerships,” says White, including one with the World Heritage Alliance, an offshoot of the United Nations Foundation promoting conservation and sustainable tourism. In fact, Fairmont operates several properties in or adjacent to UNESCO World Heritage sites — including Chateau Lake Louise and the Fairmont Mayakoba in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, both of which employ on-site environmental or ecology managers. “Before ‘sustainability’ became a buzzword it was streamlined into our operations,” White says. “Everyone knows once you become a Fairmont you will roll out the green partnership program.

“It’s almost like there’s this competition right now as everyone is using their programs as more of a marketing tool,” White adds. But she warns that policies must be solid before you call in the PR team. “The last thing you want to be accused of is ‘green-washing.’”

If there is one aspect of the lodging business that will return even the most starry-eyed environmentalist back to earth with a thump, it’s the flotsam and jetsam of conventions and trade shows. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC), however, has been operating a respectable recycling program in recent years, keeping about 60 per cent of its waste out of landfill. But after meeting with its long-time contactor, Turtle Island Recycling, the organization decided to swing for the fences with a “zero-waste” event.

MTCC tried its first zero-waste event in the spring of 2006 with Construct Canada, a huge three-day trade show for the design, construction and renovation industries. In retrospect, is was a tough place to start, says Vince Quattrociocchi, vice-president of Operations. “The event brings in every known type of material the industry uses: tar, roofing materials, blocks, stone, glass, aluminum. We had to sit down with the client and contractor and find a recycler for everything.”

To make it work, MTCC substituted plastic cups and plates for the non-recyclable Styrofoam, trained staff to get maximum buy-in, carefully supervised the loading dock, and to make a dramatic statement, even temporarily removed the Centre’s seven garbage compactors. Messaging to attendees was also crucial, says Quattrociocchi. “We asked exhibitors to try to take back as much as they could, and put materials in the right containers. We created a logo, put down carpet decals, and had staff in special t-shirts, just to make people aware of what we were trying to achieve.”

And they did it. “We came out of that first event with 94 per cent total waste diversion. We were told by experts in the industry that figure is ‘zero waste’ because about five or six per cent of material in the marketplace still isn’t recyclable,” Quattrociocchi says.

MTCC has now done half a dozen zero-waste events, with several more planned for the summer. The most successful so far — with 98.5 per cent waste diversion — was the 3,000-delegate Professional Convention Management Association’s annual meeting in early 2007. In fact, the PCMA was so impressed it added has recycling requirements to its RFPs for future events. Depending on size, zero-waste events are five to seven per cent more expensive due to special equipment and additional staffing, but Quattrociocchi says no client has even blinked at the extra cost. “They consider it money well spent. It’s about organizations wanting to do the right thing.”

The Pettinger family has owned and operated the Pacific Sands Beach Resort in the environmentally active community of Tofino, B.C., since 1973, so they were well aware of various green movements when, about four yeas ago, they decided to add 22 beachfront villas. With natural gas unavailable, and oil and propane costly and difficult to deliver, director of Operations Dave Pettinger says they were open-minded when their architect suggested an earth-based heat-pump system. “The family was supportive, and the bank agreed it was a good idea, so we took a chance,” he says.

GeoExchange technology exploits energy from the sun that’s naturally stored deep in the ground, where the earth’s temperature remains at about 12°C throughout the year. In the winter, pumps extract heat from 16 122-metre vertical boreholes beneath a parking lot, and transfer it into the buildings via a 3,900-metre piping loop for heating and hot water in all 22 villas. In summer, the heat pumps reverse the process, returning warm air from the buildings to the ground.

Completing the addition increased the resort’s space by 65 per cent to 77 rooms, but electricity consumption only increased by 23 per cent, says Pettinger. “It’s a comfortable heat, too — the floors are slate, so they’re heated all the time. There are no fans blowing, and no noisy air conditioners,” he says. And while the system was 25 to 30 per cent more expensive than traditional heating, the costs should be recouped in five to seven years. In addition to green heating, the new villas were carefully sited, with footings poured delicately to preserve trees, and interiors built from standing dead timber killed by the recent pine beetle infestation in B.C.’s lodgepole forests.

But why stop there? When Tofino suffered a dire water shortage last autumn, Pettinger brought in two 3,500-gallon water tanks to keep operating. “Once the water crisis was over, we were stuck with these tanks and our gardener suggested collecting rainwater,” Pettinger says. Now they store rain (that falls on the roof of the GeoExchange building, naturally) to water the gardens, saving both money and pressure on the creaking municipal water system. “We can go to bed at night and feel good,” he says. “Even though our family owns the property, we see ourselves as caretakers for future generations.”                                     


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