'Green' hotels juggle conservation with customer service

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 10, 2010; F01

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."

But the company has been able to combine conservation with savings, often through its supply chain. It got Standard Textile to produce towels for its North American hotels that don't need to be pre-washed, saving six million gallons of water. The 47 million Bic pens it buys for guest and meeting rooms in the same hotels are made of 75 percent recycled material. And it has developed an energy-efficient blueprint for its Courtyard hotels that any owner can use when constructing a new building.

Justin Ward, Conservation International's vice president for business practices, helped advise Marriott on its green strategy. "The goal all along was to come up with meaningful and strong environmental performance targets that did not provide tradeoffs with what Marriott, or any hotel, for that matter, would provide their customers with in terms of the level of service or value they've come to expect," he said.

Marriott -- which has calculated that the roughly 1,000 hotels it manages on a day-to-day basis, its headquarters and its regional offices emit 3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year -- has also pledged $2 million to protect 1.4 million acres of Brazilian rain forest known as the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, and it offers guests a chance to donate to the cause as well.

Though Marriott has raised $100,000 for rain forest protection through a promotion aimed at meeting planners, Hampton said, the company has not raised a comparable amount from individual customers.

In many cases, hotels that deliver on their green pledges are the ones that have incorporated environmental planning into every aspect of their business strategy.

Seattle's Hotel 1000, for example, has a heating and cooling system that ramps up shortly before a visitor is ready to check in and operates at full force only when guests are in their rooms. Hotel manager Matt Hagerman said having "the green mind-set" is "the least flashy and the most important piece" of incorporating environmental standards into everyday operations.

"When it comes down to the housekeeping meeting, is that part of the conversation or not?" Hagerman asked. "The real heavy lifting is in behavior, what do people really do."

In the District, the Willard InterContinental launched a detailed conservation plan in 2005 that takes the money it saves from less-frequent towel and linen changes and devotes it to financing the cleanup of the Anacostia River, as well as water wells in South Africa and on an American Indian reservation in South Dakota. The management not only installed recycling bins in guest rooms but also provided housekeepers with carts divided into three sections to sort trash; the hotel's recycling rate jumped 82 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Every hotel operator has to gauge what its guests and its workers will accept. Both Hotel 1000 and the Willard compost food, but Hotel 1000 isn't composting room-service fare because that would require its staff to do too much work.

International House in New Orleans goes to the trouble of pouring out unused shampoo, soap and lotion, sorting the bottles and sending everything to the nonprofit Clean the World, which then distributes the recycled cleansers and bottles to shelters in the United States and to children in poor countries overseas. The Pan Pacific Hotel Seattle also donates partially used amenities to a local women's shelter.

The International House's Reimer said that her hotel opted for the more expensive charitable route instead of installing bulk shampoo and soap dispensers of the sort used elsewhere. "In a four-star hotel, it just looks too motel-ish," she said.

On some occasions, what might seem like a green strategy may actually force workers to do more, with only a negligible environmental benefit. Three hundred Starwood hotels in North America, for instance, offer guests rewards points or food and beverage certificates if they forgo maid service during their stay under their "Make a Green Choice" program, but some critics think that simply ends up creating more work for the housekeeping staff.

"Cleaners are cleaning the same amount of rooms, but the rooms are dirtier, so they have to work harder," said Jeff Nelson, research director for Unite Here Local 26 in Boston, which represents roughly 400 housekeepers in the city's Starwood hotels. He also said that Starwood, unlike Marriott and many boutique hotels, has not provided its housekeeping staff with greener cleaning agents, which help protect both the environment and workers' health.

"That's why we have to question whether Starwood is truly committed to the environment or whether they're just looking to reduce their line operating costs," he said.

Starwood spokeswoman Stacy Trevino said that 12 percent of guests, on average, opt to skip housekeeping service, a switch which she said did not cause extra work for Starwood's employees. "It is a simple concept, well received by our hotels and guests," she said, "and we have had very few, if any, reports of noncompliance."

But in some cases, Starwood rewards guests even when it doesn't cut back on room cleaning. During a recent stay at the Westin Charlotte, a guest opted out of maid service but received housekeeping visits anyway, as well as 500 bonus Starwood points.

In the end, what hotels really want is to keep guests coming back, and for many clients, that means indulging in the sort of excesses they would never accept at home. But as Americans begin to feel increasingly guilty about their oversize carbon footprint, the hospitality industry might be able to dial it back a bit. And travelers will realize that the distinction between washing one's hair with luxe shampoo from a tiny plastic bottle and the same product from a bulk dispenser is no difference at all.

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