For most people, sustainability in the hotel industry translates into a card on the bed spelling out the frequency of sheet changes and a swing tag in the bathroom asking you to recycle your towels.
Increasingly, though, leading hoteliers are beginning to recognise that cutting through the greenwash and aiming for truly sustainable practices can payr dividends – from reduced operating costs and higher profit margins to improved staff productivity, better guest experiences and better brand equity.
The Scandic Marski hotel in Helsinki, where I stayed in mid-April, is just one of a number of hotels introducing multiple sustainability and recycling initiatives. Every room has bins for four different waste streams: bottles, plastics, glass and cans in one, paper and cardboard in another, compostable material and food waste in a third, and a fourth for waste to landfill. Even the room keys are made of 80 per cent local, Nordic wood, with just a thin veneer to help them last.
The usual notices about towels and sheets hang in the bathroom and beside the bed, but the showers and taps are fitted with flow-reducers that still provide a good experience without wasting valuable resources. Toiletries are locally made, in biodegradable containers, and filled with organic products.
At One Aldwych in London, creating a hotel out of a heritage-listed bank building was the perfect opportunity for a guest experience that is both luxurious and sustainable. The hotel has embraced sustainable tourism while continuing to provide the high level of service expected in one of the world’s best five star hotels.
Environmental initiatives include a comprehensive recycling scheme that even recycles cooking oil, eco-friendly bathroom amenities with biodegradable packaging, and a ‘no bleach’ policy which prevents harsh chemicals from being released into the water system and protects employees’ hands.
Food waste is taken away to a biogas generator that, in turn, helps produce low-emissions energy. A highly efficient EVAC vacuum drainage system, the same as that used in Grocon’s Pixel building in Melbourne, uses 80 per cent less water than conventional flushing systems, with toilets using just one litre of water per flush. Other ‘smarts’ in the building include an excellent Building Management System (BMS) and heat reclaim coils in the basement.
The subterranean pool area with its relaxing colours, ambiance, temperature control, chlorine-free water and underwater music once cost £7,000 a year to light. Today, it costs the hotel around £700 a year while also enhancing the guest experience. A feature wall at one end of the pool with a beautifully-lit (but energy- and water-intensive) waterfall has been replaced with a simple surface, lit by a discrete LED projector which can screen any number of images and moving pictures.
While I was staying there, ‘Blue Planet’-type footage was screening, from whales and dugongs to turtles, including (rather alarmingly as I surfaced doing breaststroke) a shark feeding-frenzy. This not only enhances the guest experience but reinforces the environmental message – that there is a good reason for conserving resources, not wasting or polluting water, and the reason is right in front of guests.
Hotel Union Square, owned and operated by Personality Hotels, offers the authentic San Francisco experience – a highly individual hotel and the chance to wake up to the sound of ringing cable car bells. Yvonne Lembi-Detert, President and CEO Personality Hotels, says sustainable thinking begins when she takes over an old property.
“Recycling an old building is just the start,” she said. “We don’t knock down the building, we try to reuse it and save – and savour – as much as we can, and support local craftsmen and designers.”
The hotel is filled with reused and recycled elements of San Francisco’s past – and the hotel’s heritage. Lembi-Detert’s favourite thing about the hotel is the striking wooden mermaid suspended from the ceiling at the top of the central staircase.
“The mermaid came from the façade of Bernstein’s Fish Grotto, which used to be on the other side of the road,” she noted. “When the Grotto was torn down we rescued the mermaid, sailed across the street with her, and she now has a new life adding to the character of the hotel.”
Other elements of heritage and reuse include the artwork brought from other buildings around the city, the original red tiles of the lobby still visible beside the concierge desk, and the original structural brick walls of the interior that add warmth and character.
At Hotel Union Square, towels and linen can be washed less often, and recycling bins with different streams are found in each room. LED lighting is being introduced throughout the hotel to make for a better, more energy-efficient guest experience. Showers have low-flow devices, and despite it being an old building, water-efficient toilets have been installed in some rooms, although the plumbing doesn’t always ‘jive’ with the new fixtures. Lights and air-conditioning units are on sensors, reducing waste where possible.
Sustainability is not just something for the luxury end of the market. Some new international hotel designs consider not just budget rooms, but budget sizes, budget construction, and use of existing and pre-fabricated materials, such as the shipping container design pioneered by Hong Kong-based OVA Studio.
New York Pod Hotels offer clever, compact rooms with “everything you need and nothing you don’t.” These rooms are both environmentally sustainable (using less space, fewer materials and less energy to operate) but also financially sustainable. For the slightly braver, the Tokyo Capsule Hotel provides sleeping capsules that are super cheap, but include access to bathhouses, 24-hour restaurants, massages and WiFi.
The bottom line is simple: smart hoteliers understand that sustainability is simply good business, and that luxury need not be sacrificed for more sustainable outcomes.