Growing our green leaders

Under pressure to cut costs amid the downturn while trying to meet the demands of guests and governments increasingly focused on sustainability poses a difficult balancing act for hospitality industry leaders, who still need to be able to offer a high-quality and personalised experience while meeting their environmental and social responsibilities

In addition, rising energy and commodity prices, combined with a raft of new green legislation, add an entire new layer of complexity to the lot of the hotel manager or CEO.

Given that these pressures are unlikely to ease any time soon, and that business success is increasingly going to require the hotel industry to operate responsibly, experts agree that the hospitality leaders of tomorrow will need a different skill-set to their predecessors.

Environmental know-how may need to be as deeply entrenched in the mentality of senior executives as good financial instincts — indeed many believe the two are now inextricably linked.

One organisation that has acknowledged the importance of sustainability to the next generation of hotel industry leaders is Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) in Switzerland. One of the oldest and most established hotel schools in the world, it is integrating environmental and social stewardship into its degree-level training programmes.

Following the lead of other institutions, such as the IMD Business School in Lausanne, EHL is incorporating sustainability into a new modular approach in September. Corporate, social and environmental responsibility will no longer be taught as standalone subjects but mainstreamed in all core management teaching.

Robert Trocmé, director of development at the school, believes its approach is a reaction to fundamental changes in society and business. "It highlights that corporate social and environmental responsibility [CSER] is not a mere trend, nor an expression of managerial opportunism," he says. "It makes up a new business paradigm that not only aims to integrate larger environmental and social concerns into corporate strategy but actually makes business sense."

One of the key messages the school is trying to communicate is that, although being green can often mean more upfront costs, there are usually longer-term gains, not just environmentally but also from a financial perspective. "Students must learn the practical aspects of ecological choices," Trocmé says. "They must discover that, while environmentally sound policies can be expensive at the outset, they can result in savings in many areas, such as energy conservation or the treatment of waste streams and help build a sustainable business advantage."

Although EHL is keen to instill a deep appreciation of environmental issues into its students, as with any business school this has to be tempered with a pragmatic understanding of the real-life challenges that hotel leaders face day-to-day. "The integrated approach to CSER will enable students to identify and reflect on various levels of resistance to the application of sustainability strategies within the different business functions of hospitality companies," Trocmé says. "Staff from the finance sector fear that sustainability will incur costs. Marketing people resist as they do not know how to integrate sustainability into their strategy. And yet all these functions play an important role in driving sustainability through the organisation.”

Fundamentally, Trocmé believes that the fragmented and distributed structure of many hotel groups means that introducing potentially disruptive concepts of sustainability can only be achieved by instilling the ideas in senior managers of the future at an early stage in their careers.

EHL has a special responsibility to anticipate industry needs and provide future managers with the tools they need to develop innovative solutions and drive change

Another educational institution that has integrated sustainability into its business degree courses is MODUL University in Vienna. Opened in 2007, the establishment offers a variety of bachelor and masters qualifications, including tourism and hospitality management, that focus on sustainability and environmental stewardship. "MODUL University Vienna has developed tourism and hospitality programmes with a strong focus on sustainability, technology and innovation and bases its curricula on five core values: stewardship, knowledge, progress and innovation, ethics and mutual respect," explains Dr Dagmar Lund-Durlacher, head of the tourism and hospitality management department.

MODUL University's courses are an attempt to meet the need for environmentally aware managers, particularly among small- and medium-sized hospitality businesses. "There are a growing number of hospitality businesses that implement corporate social responsibility in their company’s mission statement and there are several good best practices, but the majority of businesses still lack the knowledge. Industry leaders have recognised the need for well-educated, responsible leaders and the need to support educational initiatives addressing social responsibility," he says. "However, this is not yet a topic for the majority of small- and medium-sized — mainly family operated — businesses, which are often not open to new concepts and ideas."

Outside Europe, the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research in the US, held a roundtable meeting on the subject earlier this year, which covered topics such as emerging regulations and laws, engaging guests, and the importance of education. One of the speakers at the roundtable, Mari Snyder, vice-president of social responsibility and community engagement for Marriott International, stated that education is key to successful implementation of sustainability initiatives. "Hotel firms’ sustainability programmes will become more effective as employees and guests both become more educated regarding the initiatives," she said. "With education will come faster return on the expense of green policies."

But while institutions such as MODUL University, EHL and Cornell appear optimistic about the potential of education to reshape attitudes to sustainability, other academics are more cautious and point to the slow progress of the industry to date to act on reducing its impact on the environment.

"Eighteen years on from the Rio Conference on Environment and Development we have not made sufficient progress in mainstreaming sustainability," says Harold Goodwin, professor of responsible tourism management and director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Although hospitality businesses have made progress in moving beyond the early corporate social responsibility practice of charitable-giving there is still a long way to go in developing sustainable business strategies.

According to Goodwin, sustainability has only been introduced into hospitality training schemes in a piecemeal fashion over the past 20 years. "In the late 1990s, we saw the development of specialist modules that introduced students on undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in tourism and hospitality to the principles of sustainability. The focus was heavily environmental and generally insufficient attention was paid to the economic and social pillars of sustainable development," he explains. "There was some criticism of this approach for making sustainability a dispensable add-on and many of those committed to the principles of sustainability argued for the issues being mainstreamed across the curriculum.”

Goodwin believes this add-on approach doesn't go nearly far enough to tackle the fundamental changes the hotel industry will have to make over the next decade. Although the industry needs managers now who understand the importance of sustainability, many educational institutions are still not providing the required training. "My understanding of the situation is that this means in many courses sustainability has all but disappeared; far from being mainstreamed, sustainability has been further marginalised," he adds. "It is ironic that this has happened just as tourism and hospitality businesses are mainstreaming sustainability, demanding that their managers and staff have a more than passing familiarity with issues and responses and building sustainability targets into Key Performance Indicators for staff across the business."

Despite the curricula changes currently in progress at hospitality training establishments, it will take time for students from these schools to work their way into the leadership positions where they can put their sustainability training into action. Until this tipping point is reached, the hotel industry is essentially filling the gap by integrating green thinking into its in-house courses and training.

Take resort and spa specialist Six Senses, which has introduced an environmental programme that is mandatory at all levels of the organisation and will soon be extended from two to three hours a week to two to three days, explains Arnfinn Oines, the company’s aptly named “social and environmental conscience”. "As our core purpose is to create innovative and enlightening experiences that rejuvenates our guests’ love of 'Slow Life' (Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wholesome Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experience), we see it as essential that our staff not only understand it, but believe in it," he says. "This training is included in the leadership training of our management, but is just as important for all our employees."

Although Mariott International doesn't have specific environmental modules in its leadership training course, it has established a Green Council led by its president and chief operating officer Arne Sorenson to oversee its environmental strategies. "The Council sets goals for the company and implements best practices on all levels of business worldwide. As a part of Marriott's five-point strategy that was announced last year — water, waste and energy management; green buildings; supply chain; protecting the rainforest; and employee and guest engagemen t— we are actively educating all employees on how they can be greener at home and at work," a spokesperson explains.

According to David Jerome, senior vice-president for corporate social responsibility at Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG), the main environmental training programme in place at the company is centered around its Green Engage online sustainability management system introduced last year.

"We run training to support the roll out of Green Engage and so far 800 people have been through the course," he says. "Proper staff training is essential to achieving our sustainability objectives. Many of the sustainability measures we put in are only effective if our employees are educated to use them properly and change the way they work. We encourage our hotels to implement training programmes for their employees on the hotel’s sustainability initiatives and to understand the purpose and goals of ‘green’ hotel management strategies."

And what about customers and guests? Are they recognising the investment that hotels are making in environmental training? "We know from in-depth consumer research that corporate responsibility influences buying decisions," says IHG's David Jerome. "A recent survey of 6,000 of our Priority Club Rewards members highlighted that 38% of our guests choose hotels based on their environmental credentials and guests have told us they would prefer to stay in a green hotel rather than a non-green hotel."

Six Senses' Oines concurs and points out that while not all customers realise the extent of the hotel's efforts towards sustainability, they will often spot any obvious shortcomings. “More and more of our guests want to know about our sustainable practices and comment on them," he says. "Our guests obviously can only see a small section of it during their brief stay, but certainly notice if something is not right."

Although challenges exist from institutional reticence or simple lack of funds for training, the value of good training in the appreciation and importance of sustainability and its effect on all aspects of the hotel business for industry leaders doesn't look set to diminish. The issue, and a potential solution, are neatly summed up by Mike Wolfe, chief executive of UK not-for-profit organisation CREATE, which specialises in energy efficiency training and sustainability education for the public and private sectors.

"Although it is now totally unacceptable for leaders in the hospitality sector to ignore the need to operate hotels sustainably, it’s unreasonable to expect hotel operators to be environmental experts," says Wolfe. "What the industry needs are ethical champions who have an interest and commitment to sustainability. In every area of society, there are people who have a natural and personal interest in environmental issues. The hotel sector is no different and the challenge is to identify such individuals who can be nurtured into taking a leading role in developing the sustainable future of the industry."

While the hotel industry has traditionally attracted individuals skilled in finance, management and service provision to its senior leadership, the next generation of managers will require an extra dimension. Recognising the financial and legal implications of sustainability is crucial, but the new intake of hotel leaders will also have to move beyond seeing green practice as a means to an end. Just as sustainability is no longer viewed as a standalone subject in hospitality training courses, it will cease to exist as a separate concept for future leaders and become part of business as usual.

For more information on the Forum for the Future's Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development, please visit

Further information

Please visit Cornell Center for Hospitality Research at, the CREATE organisation at, Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne at, the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at, and MODUL University, Vienna at


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