Quebec City’s Hôtel du Vieux-Québec (HVQ) has undergone myriad changes in the years since the 18th-century structure was originally built — from housing Augustine nuns in the 1700s, to becoming the St. George Hotel in the 1850s, to being partially destroyed in a fire. But since the Keating family took possession of the property in 1992, the 51-room building has found greener pastures.
In 2008, GM Justin Keating began a rigorous environmental responsibility program, introducing various eco-friendly initiatives at the historic building, such as creating an urban garden and bee sanctuary on the roof, introducing solar panels and wastewater heat recuperation and equipping guests with glass bottles to prevent plastic waste. As the winner of Hotelier magazine’s 2013 Green Leadership Award, Keating shares his success story and plans for the future.
Hotelier: How would you describe your greening philosophy?
Justin Keating: Our inspiration to go as “green” as possible comes from a personal motivation. I support green technologies and green approaches to business, because I see the urgency of the environmental issues we face today and would like to do my part to contribute to a more sustainable way of doing business. I would also like to demonstrate that it’s profitable, financially and otherwise, to be environmentally responsible.
Hotelier: What prompted you to launch your environmental policy in 2008?
JK: My family moved to Quebec City from Toronto in 2008, and I [began] running the hotel full-time. I wanted to direct it with a progressive vision of sustainability and sought out projects to implement that goal.
Hotelier: What did it take to earn five green keys in the Hotel Association of Canada’s (HAC) Green Initiative program?
JK: After we had implemented several of our projects, we applied to [HAC’s] green-key program for ranking. Their personnel came to the hotel and investigated our environmental initiatives to date. At that point, we had installed water-saving devices in our bathrooms, switched to recycled paper products in the bath and office, transitioned to energy-efficient bulbs and environmentally safe cleaning products and had installed our organic roof garden. As well, we made the decision to be a carbon-neutral operation.
Hotelier: How is your rooftop urban garden and Miel Urban (or Urban Honey) beekeeping project contributing to your eco-friendly plan?
JK: Our rooftop gardens grow an assortment of organic vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs and other plants. The garden keeps the hotel rooftop cooler, thus reducing our air-conditioning costs in the summer. Of course, the plants also provide a ‘carbon sink’ by breathing in greenhouse gasses and breathing out oxygen. Urban beekeeping projects are important given the alarming decline in bee populations worldwide. With less pesticide use in the city, and none in our garden, bees are provided with a safer habitat. There are several objectives to this project: the promotion of beehives in areas that are free of insecticides; public education on the importance of bees and the urgent need to protect them, since bees pollinate 70 per cent of the food we consume; increased pollination of urban gardens, since there is a 25- to 30-per-cent increase in fruit-and-vegetable production when a beehive is present; and the production of local honey. Working with the bees and gardening also has a great effect on morale at the hotel. Staff love getting the produce and honey.
Hotelier: What was the most important environmental initiative you implemented in 2012, and what type of results did it produce?
JK: With increased public awareness that the rate of bottled water consumption isn’t sustainable, and after observing the waste of large quantities of used plastic water bottles left in our rooms, HVQ embarked upon a reusable filtered water-bottle project to educate guests and reduce their consumption of plastic bottled water. Each of our guestrooms are now supplied with two sterilized decorative glass water bottles that have been filled with filtered tap water and sealed. [We also offer guests] information about the problems involved with commoditizing water and the plastic water-bottle industry. A filtered water dispenser for re-filling the bottles is available in the lounge, and HVQ portable metal water bottles are available for lend or sale should guests wish to take water with them as they explore the city. The glass water bottles are printed with the hotel logo, graphic imagery and some history of the St. Lawrence River. They have proved to be very popular with guests. The project is a great success; guests appreciate having quality filtered water available to them during their stay, and our environmental team is thrilled to note a marked depreciation, by 70 per cent, of guest bottled-water use.
Hotelier: How much have you invested in greening projects?
JK: We have invested over $2 million since we started greening our operations in 2008, and about $200,000 of that has been for pure green projects such as changing lighting to LED, adding solar panels, upgrading heating systems, purchasing carbon credits and adding gardens.
Hotelier: Can you discuss the economic impact and cost savings associated with your greening initiatives? What are the positive impacts on the environment?
JK: Our positive impact comes from our rooftop gardens, which act as heat and carbon sinks. Since the installation of our rooftop gardens, we have measured an average reduction of 12°C in the ceiling space of our top floors during summer months, so this has lowered our cooling bills. We are also a carbon-neutral operation. We reduced our carbon footprint by purchasing Gold Standard carbon offset credits for 47.3 tons of equivalent carbon dioxide [CO2e] in 2012. This represents the CO2e produced through our consumption of electricity and natural gas for 2012. We reduced an average of 70,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year by using solar power and using 75-per-cent eco-friendly lighting such as LEDs and compact fluorescents. In 2012, by using soap dispensers, we diverted 1,539.8 pounds of unused soap and beauty products from going to waste. We have also reduced water consumption by 40 per cent by installing low-flush toilets and low-flow shower taps in bathrooms. I would hope our green initiatives make our guests more aware of environmental issues and that it inspires them to action.
Hotelier: What is the hardest part about maintaining an environmentally friendly property?
JK: The hardest part is dealing with all the ‘green-washing’ when sourcing products. You need to do a lot of independent research to know the right questions to ask. For example, some companies create their own green certification so they can put a logo on their product. The usual excuse is that they do not want to have to increase their prices by using an independent certification such as EcoLogo. However, this usually means the product is not very green.
Hotelier: How do you measure and track your success?
JK: We hire energy-conservation experts to audit the hotel yearly such as [Quebec-based] Ecosynergie. We keep track of hotel waste streams. Also, we survey our guests to [gauge] their reaction to our efforts.
Hotelier: How do you build a company culture of eco-responsibility?
JK: HVQ holds monthly staff meetings to discuss the hotel’s environmental program’s performance — such as its energy audits performed by professional third parties — and how the hotel may further improve. Hotel staff is kept informed of how their conservation efforts are cutting expenses and increasing profits. The hotel gives 20 per cent of its profits to staff as a bonus once a year, so there’s a strong motivation for [them] to be involved in reducing waste.
Hotelier: How do you involve your guests in your environmental programs, and what has been the result?
JK: We offer them samples of the produce from our gardens and jars of honey from our beehives. We have a couple of tent cards in the rooms explaining our efforts, but this is a dangerous road [because] it would be easy to have a tent card on every surface. Of course, our website, hvq.com, has our information. We have seen a strong increase in consumer interest in protecting the environment when they travel, and we’ve seen a 14-per-cent increase over the last three years of travellers who respond to our surveys, saying our environmental efforts were key to their decision to stay at Hôtel du Vieux-Québec.
Hotelier: What are your sustainability targets for the future?
JK: I am waiting for approval from the city so that we may move ahead with our biggest plans yet. I am planning on installing a grey-water recycling system, which will use filtered rainwater that has drained from the gardens to flush toilets; we are researching a solar hot-water system for in-floor room heating; and I have drawings to turn our interior courtyard into a greenhouse that will filter and humidify air. I also plan to implement vacuum-tube solar hot-water panels to offset our grid energy consumption; a key card-control system in every room to control heating, lighting and air-conditioning; a building management system that will control temperature throughout the building; and I plan to apply for LEED certification.
Hotelier: What’s your overall greening goal?
JK: To be as environmentally friendly as possible, while still offering our guests a luxurious stay.