Innovative options mean ecology and economy aren’t mutually exclusive

When Hotelier put together last year’s edition of the green report, coffers were flush with green (backs), and the public consciousness was shifting from opulence at any environ-mental cost, to something more eco-friendly. There was a great deal of investment made into new green technologies, and the industry was in the midst of a massive building boom. Fast-forward to present day and the landscape has changed. Instead of surging green investment, people look a little green anytime finances come up in conversation.

While you might expect the financial events of the past few months to have taken the breeze out of the green-movement’s wind-turbine-powered sails, many Canadian hoteliers who were committed to the idea of running an environmentally sustainable property in the past, have remained stubbornly on that path and those who dedicated themselves to the goal of building a certified green property, regardless of the added cost, are now seeing those doors open to warm receptions. Kermit warned us it wouldn’t be easy, but given the opportunities available today, going green — whether by building it or being it — is looking less the fad and more the new normal.

Building Green • Of course, the best way to guarantee your über-green bona-fides is to build a brand-new ultra-eco-conscious property. But, given today’s capital climate, that’s easier said than done.

Regardless of liquidity fears, IHG regional vice-president Gopal Rao says his company — which recently began construction on Quebec’s first hotel built to LEED standards — remains committed to green building practices. “We do not see any momentum reduction on greening buildings. Given the current economic climate, there may be a reduction in building generally, but this does not translate into a reduction in the interest in greening what we do build,” he says. In fact, Rao notes the very nature of a green building should make it an attractive option, because of the challenging economic times and not in spite of them. “We have to remember that greening a building is highly correlated with making it more efficient in terms of energy, waste, water and materials consumption. In this economic environment, anything which can reduce cost is fast-tracked,” he says. “If we save 15 per cent of the energy expense of an average hotel, it translates to approximately $750,000 in savings per annum.”

The new Shangri-La Hotel, Vancouver was designed and built to the LEED (Silver) standard. Claiming to be the world’s first hotel to heat and cool using a geo-thermal system in tandem with backup steam and electricity systems, the building is also designed to optimize energy performance, has green rooftops and walls and even employs a fleet of chauffeured hybrid cars.

Guido Kerpel, regional vice-president, Canadian Region, New Castle Hotels and Resorts, says there’s reason for economic optimism, so hoteliers shouldn’t discount greening based on the state of the economy. “The attitude of the global finance industry may have changed after the meltdown from short-term profits to good financial fundamentals,” he says. “We may see a larger appetite of lenders to provide debt in developments with lower initial ROIs but greater long-term economic sustainability.”

Maggie Martins, director, Sales and Marketing, Hilton Garden Inn, Toronto Airport — Canada’s first newly constructed LEED-standard property — agrees, and says the impetus to build green remains strong, despite higher initial costs, which she says are about eight per cent higher than conventional buildings. Environmental efficiencies mean economic savings, and Martins says this hotel is built to save from the ground up.

Opened this past April, the 224-room hotel is a drastic departure from the Garden Inn mould, as is immediately evident by its shape. At 15-storeys high, the taller design boasts a much smaller footprint than the usually wider two- and three-storey low-rise properties. However, Martins says the building’s shape is just the beginning of the efficiencies, as the LEED-certification process touches on just about everything from building materials (requiring the use of local and sustainable sources wherever possible) to operations (in that HVAC programs should be ‘smart’ systems that detect guest presence in rooms and meeting areas) to landscaping and even marketing.

“From the sales and marketing perspective, we have to ensure that the paper we use is made up of 30-per-cent-or-higher recycled material, and we also stock the offices with biodegradable pens and pencils,” she says. In terms of landscaping, the focus remains on saving both ecologically and fiscally. “The footprint, in terms of landscaping, is minimal,” says Martins. “All the plants are low maintenance, and they can survive on the natural environment. Usually when you’re building a hotel, you naturally want to beautify it. We’ve done that with plant life that can exist with little or no watering in this environment, so we save a lot on labour and water.”

In the end Martins says building a green property is a differentiator that, due to the rigors of the certification process, other competitors simply cannot claim. “What separates us is overall sustainability. We weren’t retrofitted to be greener, we were built green. It’s a much bigger project than adding a blue-bin,” she says.

Being Green • While those fortunate enough to have built themselves an eco-oasis have a point of differentiation, it does not mean that older properties are completely shut out of the eco-travel sweepstakes. And, insiders say being able to show something green is going to be critical, particularly for business travellers. “Most companies are focused on their travel budgets and are constantly reviewing travel expenses,” says Kerpel. “We are seeing some companies that are mandating travel to LEED hotels or hotels with a well-developed green or sustainability program.”

IHG’s Rao agrees, and says consumers are already choosing to pay more for greener products of all shapes and sizes. “It’s instructive to look at other sectors where clearly consumers are willing to vote with their wallets for greener services and products,” he says. “People think green is important and will spend accordingly where there’s a relevant product or service.”

One property leading the green charge on the East Coast is Digby Pines Golf Resort and Spa in Digby, N.S. (owned by aforementioned New Castle Hotels and Resorts). Annah Boucher, operations manager at the resort, says her property’s green shift is largely attributable to an enthusiastic staff. “We’ve been fortunate to have a dedicated and creative group of individuals who have been the driving force behind many of our green initiatives,” she says of a long list of projects including the spreading of pine needles on walking trails to control weeds, the creation of a paperless registration system and a ‘living roof’ on the building that houses the spa. “Our guests have shown interest in these programs and most feedback has been in response to the more creative aspects,” she says.

Getting creative is something that David Ogilvie, former general manager of Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle, notes as being particularly important when it comes to greening an older building. “New programs like LEED certifications aren’t yet an option for our property, just because of its size and age,” he says. However, that hasn’t stopped his team from looking at ways to put their greenest foot forward. “We’ve established a green committee made-up of people from every department that are passionate about the issue. They meet at least once a month, and talk about ways to green our operation.”

Results so far, include the publishing of a green handbook — accessed preferably online as opposed to on paper — which outlines dozens of eco-initiatives, as well as the switch to green electricity for the property’s lobby and bar area. “We chose to power our lobby and bar area using Bullfrogpower,” he says. “They calculate how much energy is used by those areas, and then inject that amount of clean renewable electricity back onto the grid.” Ogilvie says conference clients can elect to have their functions powered the same way. “I don’t think we’re at the point yet where green initiatives are the absolute deciding factor in a company’s accommodation decision, but if costs are comparable between us and another venue, this could be the differentiator.”

Jon Zwickel, executive vice-president of Bellstar Hotels and Resorts in Calgary, also believes his company’s decision to focus on environmental impact has been good for the Earth and the bottom line. While still a relatively young company, Bellstar has focused on effective and creative environmental stewardship for the last several years. “We believe, anecdotally anyway, that because we are leaders in environmentally sustainable tourism, it helps our occupancy,” he says. “Our commitment was crystallized about two years ago.We just felt it was the right thing to do, and if you believe you’re doing the right thing, revenues will follow.”

Given that Bellstar operates in some of Canada’s most unique micro-climates like Osoyoos, B.C., and Canmore Alta., Zwickel says sustainable hostelry was a given, but it came with surprises and challenges along the way. “Some of our properties are located in a fragile, desert eco-system, so when we were building we had to look up and down.” ‘Looking down’ meant the protection of indigenous plants and animals, even to the point of guarding the region’s less-popular residents. “You know, rattlesnakes get a bad rap. I’m told they are pretty neat,” he jokes.

However, Zwickel says looking up and protecting the night sky was also challenge for both designers and regulators. “There are a number of observatories in that part of the Okanagan Valley, so our lighting in places like the parking lot and pool deck had to be downward directional. There were times when it was a balancing act, like the pool where regulators wanted the lighting on the deck to be as bright as daylight, and obviously the observatories wanted it completely dark.” In the end Zwickel says it was simply a matter of finding a way. “Our motives are pretty simple. What’s important to us is that we’re minimizing our footprint, and as long as we’re accomplishing that, we’re content.”

Given the growing number of ways to green your operations today, it’s clear that the global economic slowdown has not pushed the issue out of the mainstream. In fact, with musings and mutterings of a Q4 rebound, the old adage of waste-not want-not will likely hold true, both economically and environmentally. It’s no longer a question of choosing whether or not to go green, it’s a question of choosing your shade.

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