The Hotel Issue

'Green' hotels juggle conservation with customer service

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010

Benjamin Hale, an environmental studies and philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was attending the December climate talks in Copenhagen when he noticed something odd about his three-star hotel: It kept giving him fresh towels, even though he was hanging up the ones he'd used in accordance with the hotel's advertised policy of allowing guests to reuse towels as a conservation measure.

"I kept wondering, why are these towels getting washed? Because I'm trying, I'm making an effort" to reuse them, recalled Hale, who stayed at the Copenhagen Strand Hotel when delegates from 193 nations gathered in the Danish capital to debate how best to save the planet. "It's become this unfulfilled promissory note."

It's a conundrum that many travelers face nowadays: They arrive in a hotel that boasts about its environmental credentials, only to see little evidence of them during their stay. When torn between offering conservation benefits and what they consider good service, hotels usually jettison conservation.

Examples abound. The Westin Dallas Fort Worth has a double shower head in its bathrooms, along with a note stating that the secondary one is set on "off" to save water. But both shower heads immediately went full blast when one Washington-based traveler tried them out last month. The International House in New Orleans has the same towel reuse policy as the Copenhagen Strand and many other establishments, but its housekeeping staff changed a guest's towels and linens daily during a recent visit.

"Honestly, sometimes it just comes down to a training issue, which can be frustrating," said Amy Reimer, the International House's general manager. "If a room attendant sees a dirty towel, they're going to take that towel, even if the guest leaves it there. At the end of the day we strive more for service and fulfilling the service level."

For the Arp-Hansen Hotel Group, which owns the Copenhagen Strand and has met Denmark's Green Key certification for environmental practices, enforcing this policy across 10 hotels with 2,253 rooms poses a challenge. "We are trying our best to stick to these rules," said Malene Friis, the group's chief operating officer, who added that the company hires outside cleaning contractors during crunch times, such as last month, when the demand for guest rooms was unusually high.

The fact that hotel managers are even worrying about such questions as when to wash towels or whether to place recycling bins in guests' rooms shows how environmentalism has begun to penetrate the hospitality industry. But the hiccups along the road show that green aspirations sometimes clash with popular conceptions of a high-class getaway, and that the same guests who want to patronize environmentally friendly establishments are often unwilling to pay extra for the greenness.

According to a quarterly consumer survey released in August by the U.S. Travel Association and Ypartnership, a travel marketing outfit, travelers have become much more familiar with sustainability lingo over the past couple of years. Just 12 percent knew the term "carbon footprint" in July 2007, while 54 percent recognized it two years later. During the same period, the percentage of travelers aware of the phrase "green travel" more than tripled.

Despite that, however, just 9 percent of the consumers polled said that they would pay more to use travel service suppliers who offer eco-friendly options for travelers, and 3 percent had paid to offset the carbon emissions they generated by traveling when booking trips. As Roger Dow, the U.S. Travel Association's president and chief executive, put it, "Consumers are looking for green travel choices at the right price."

And as the manager of one boutique hotel who asked not to be identified said of green policies, "It's peer pressure, and we have to do it."

As a result, hotels often adopt approaches that cut costs or are relatively unobtrusive. Among the big hotel chains, Marriott International has adopted one of the most comprehensive green policies, which it developed in consultation with the environmental group Conservation International. Its strategy includes reducing waste, cutting water and energy consumption, buying more-sustainable supplies, urging workers and guests to engage in conservation and promoting construction of greener hotels.

Marriott spokeswoman Stephanie Hampton noted that because the company does not own its hotel buildings, it's important that the people who do own the physical properties "see value in everything. They're not going to want to do anything that's going to cost more."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company