With each passing year sustainability continues to gain momentum in hospitality and adequately addressing it at the property level, for the most part, is no longer seen as option for hotel owners, but rather an essential component of doing business.
Rick Werber, SVP, engineering and sustainability, design and construction department, Host Hotels & Resorts—which represents one of the largest Hotel REITs with some 115 upper-upscale and luxury hotels encompassing nearly 60,000 rooms—recently talked about some of the key issues.
Werber—who got his sustainability start in the lodging industry as part of an energy conservation committee some 33 years ago—outlined the importance of dedicated personnel. “There’s a whole new avenue of sustainability attributes that we weren’t focused on. What I can tell you is that it’s really important to gain acceptance if you happen to work in a hotel that is owned or asset managed by others. You need to really focus on those value enhancement propositions; those projects that are going to reduce your carbon footprint and that are going to reduce the energy bill. That will create credibility within the eyes of leadership and ownership,” he said, adding, “it’s also really important to have a general manager who is focused, dedicated and committed to reducing the footprint of the hotel.”
Meanwhile, Werber noted that the implementation of renewable energy systems continue to be a work in progress for hospitality, particularly with regards to solar power. “It’s not as common as I’d like it to be. Seven years ago when I came to Host I said by hook or by crook I’m going to be installing renewable power sources within our hotels, but it’s easy to talk and very difficult to execute.
“Renewable systems are still very expensive. They work in certain environments, typically in high energy cost markets. They tend to work where there are good rebates and incentives. However, it’s kind of challenging for REITs to actually leverage various forms of tax incentives,” he said.
Nevertheless, Werber noted the company has successfully completed three large solar projects which generate roughly 1.7 megawatts of clean renewable power from the sun. He added that development costs can be prohibitive and the company has cut down those expenditures considerably by designing its own systems and taking them directly to solar engineers. He estimated development costs have been pared as much as 25% to 30% on solar projects.
A recent Green Lodging Survey also indicated that some 40% to 50% of respondents conduct waste and/or energy audits at their properties on a consistent basis. Werber elaborated on those efforts. “It’s really important to put another set of eyes on a building, because it might tell you things in terms of the way you’re operating or not operating the building,” he said.
Werber, however, did add a word of caution. “Many buildings have already had energy audits. Generally the byproduct is a list of energy conversation measures or energy efficiency measures. So one of the first questions we ask is ‘what have you done with your last findings? Have you implemented them?’ Understanding that companies are generally paid to do audits and often the investment to accomplish those savings is overstated, and the savings themselves can be understated. So we want to be careful, you’ve got to partner with a good mechanical engineer most of the time and be critical of those results. But it’s starting to become an issue of compliance as well as where you’ve got 20 states, cities and other municipalities that have some form of benchmarking requirement,” he said, specifically citing New York and San Francisco as examples.
Indoor air quality is another frequent topic of conversation when it comes to sustainability, particularly with the emergence of allergy-friendly rooms. According to an AH&LA survey, however, the number of owners offering such rooms went down to 30% this year from some 45% two years ago when the last study was conducted.
Werber acknowledged there is plenty of industry confusion surrounding such rooms. “We focus on indoor air quality; it’s a focus of many sustainability disclosures that we respond to. We know it’s important to guests. With respect to allergy-free rooms, I’ve reached out to some of my sustainability peers at some of the major brands and the first response was telling, which was ‘let me check what we’re doing and get back to you.’ None of them knew how they define an allergy free room,” he said.
Werber did add that to his knowledge there are approximately 2,500 comprehensive allergy free rooms currently in the U.S. “It involves everything from a thorough cleaning and disinfecting to the air handling equipment to all surfaces, as well as putting mattresses and pillows in hypoallergenic cases,” he said.
Werber acknowledged some of the challenges around the different types of certification available and added because of the age of the company’s portfolio it’s difficult to get many of its properties LEED certified with the exception of those undergoing significant renovations. “We will look at opportunities for properties to go through the LEED certification, but certainly encourage Trip Advisors, Green Leaders and what other certifications that properties can get under their belt,” he said.