Lodging Green + Sustainability Conference Recap

Successful green programs are business-case driven and gain employee buy-in and engagement at every level, according to sustainability leaders at the second Lodging Green + Sustainability Conference, held last week at the LEED Gold-certified Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. Thought leaders and sustainability experts shared insights on the ROI of sustainable properties, advancements in green design, energy and water efficiency best practices, responsible sourcing, attaining green certification, and more at the three-day event, which drew nearly 230 attendees.

Documentary filmmaker and environmentalist Chris Paine, best known for his films Who Killed the Electric Car? and Revenge of the Electric Car, delivered the keynote address. “There are so many connections between the automobile industry, lodging, and trying to win the hearts and minds of consumers and customers and recreate the world in a value-driven paradigm,” Paine said. “We’re all storytellers in talking about sustainability and bringing an enhancement to the brands we’re moving.”

Lodging also held an awards dinner to recognize green leaders in the hotel industry. The winners were Dan Ruben, executive director of Boston Green Tourism, Person of the Year; Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Special Entity of the Year; Pineapple Hospitality, Supplier of the Year; Wyndham Vacation Ownership, Brand of the Year; and Peppermill Resort Spa Casino, Property of the Year.

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During the opening general session, Cindy Ortega, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer of MGM Resorts International, stressed the importance of designing business-case oriented sustainability programs that are simple to execute. To ensure resources aren’t deployed elsewhere, green initiatives must deliver top-line and bottom-line results, she explained. “If your program can’t deliver on that every year and continue, other programs in your company, especially at large companies, will beat you out for resources.”

To make a strong impact, green programs must have CEO buy-in, added Randy Gaines, vice president of engineering, housekeeping, laundry operations Americas at Hilton Worldwide. “We’ve incorporated our sustainability platform into our mission, vision, and values. It’s the core foundation that makes us who we are.”

While top-level support is imperative, so is getting hotel associates on board. Sam Buckingham, vice president of resort renovation and design for Wyndham Vacation Ownership, said it’s important to train staff for energy awareness (e.g., switching off lights and air conditioners) and promote environmental responsibility. “We had to do training making sure they were all buying into the whole conservation efforts and find different ways to be able to engage them in the process,” Buckingham said during a breakout session. “Once our associates were on board, it made a huge difference.”

When hotels implement sustainable practices that guests can connect with, it can drive more business, said Henry Shields, director of finance, corporate sustainability division at MGM Resorts. “Guests on an increasing basis do at least consider the environmental attributes of where they’re staying, even if it’s casual or vacation travel, although clearly the meeting planning and convention segment is the most sophisticated in that regard.”

Buckingham agreed there is a value to marketing green hotel initiatives. “Travelers are more savvy, they do more online research, and they try to find out the sustainability practices of the brand or ownerships.”

And it’s not only millennials who are interested in green and sustainability options, explained Jenny Rushmore, director of marketing at TripAdvisor, in a marketing panel discussion. “We see a lot of older groups making sustainable choices. While millennials’ attitudes toward sustainability are very high, they don’t have much money. Guests who are 55-plus, for instance, have a lot of discretionary spending and believe in making a statement with their purchases.”

Sustainable design not only makes good business sense, it closely aligns with guest expectations, Shields added. When MGM Resorts embarks on new construction projects, such as its National Harbor gaming resort outside of Washington, D.C., that’s underway, sustainability is the starting point of the discussion. “Building in a responsible, environmentally conscious manner now is a core component, it’s not an add-on,” he said. “It’s really part of our character now in how we develop everything.”

According to panelist Kirk Teske, COO and chief sustainability officer at HKS Architects, hotels still have room for improvement when it comes to sustainable design. He cited data from the Engineering News Record’s Top 100 Green Design Firms, which generated $4.73 billion in green design revenue in 2013. The survey showed that hotels only accounted for 3.1 percent of the revenue, outranked by such sectors as retail, sports, and office.

“What I see in the industry is a fantastic effort on green operations, but on the architecture side, by and large, I’m surprised at how hard it is sometimes to convince the folks who are developing hotels to go green,” Teske said.

One company that has made great strides in integrating sustainability into the mission of its overall operations team is Blackstone, whose hospitality footprint includes Hilton, Extended Stay America, La Quinta, and Motel 6. When Blackstone turns around distressed assets, the company starts with the basics, said Jean Hand, the company’s senior adviser of operations and sustainability. “We’re not looking for the highest tech and new measures, we’re looking at fundamentals.”

There are many low-cost/no-cost measures to reduce water and energy usage that can yield 10 to 15 percent savings, Hand explained during the general session. Some of her favorite cost-saving initiatives include improving control of outside air, taking night walks to assess what systems are running but not being used, and installing low-flow showerheads.

When it comes to sourcing products and services, going green shouldn’t have to cost more money, said Faith Taylor, senior vice president of sustainability and innovation and chief sustainability officer at Wyndham Worldwide, during the “Sustainability Success Stories” session. “As we develop the product that goes into our facilities, we should be looking at our goal as cost neutral or lower, then you will actually start to see the market transform.”

In the end, successful green programs rely on the right tools, Taylor said. “To me, in order to do sustainability, you have to innovate. You cannot do what you did in the past; you have to do more with less resources. The whole premise of sustainability is to decrease energy, water, and waste, and to do that in an innovative way, we need new processes and new services and products. I’m a firm believer that technology is the great enabler.”

Hotel companies must form partnerships and share best practices to develop the right solutions, Taylor added. “We only have one planet—there’s no planet B. We have to work together to solve this.”