Hemma Varma, Marriott International


Green Hotelier interviews Hemma Varma, Senior Manager of Social Responsibility Europe for Marriott International.

Hemma has been part of Marriott’s global corporate social responsibility team since 2005. She began her 19-year career with Marriott at the Vienna Marriott Hotel, London Marriott Hotel Grosvenor Square and the Worldwide Reservation Centre London in operations, reservations and training positions. Hemma has been leading Marriott’s CSR efforts in Europe since 2012 with a focus on driving employee engagement through Marriott’s continent-wide community engagement initiative World of Opportunity Europe. She manages the region’s CSR news platform for internal and external audiences through an advisory council of cross-functional teams and consults with the sales organisation to align CSR goals and strategy with corporate customer requirements.

What trends and changes in sustainability have you noticed since you first began working in the field?
In the hotel industry generally, I have noticed that our approach to sustainability is becoming more strategic; we’re focusing on fewer programmes with more impactful results. There’s also more room for collaboration. For example, certain industry issues are moving up on the agenda, such as addressing water scarcity, cotton farming or human rights within our supply chains. These are issues that will benefit from a collective effort within the industry (see International Tourism Partnership).

Since joining the social responsibility department at Marriott, our approach has developed strategically and innovatively, with an emphasis on piloting new technology. When I was first appointed at the Marriott Vienna nearly 20 years ago, I recall the Engineering Team’s creativity when it came to adapting the carts for housekeeping, allowing them to recycle waste from guest bedrooms more efficiently. Now, we are channelling new energy management systems with Siemens and Kiwi Power in certain properties, with the aim to roll them out to decrease our energy consumption. Marriott hotels have thorough energy management plans in place, setting targets to reduce water, waste and energy consumption on property.

At Marriott, we believe it’s important to give back to the communities in which we live and work. This has been long been a part of our company culture, ever since Marriott was founded nearly 90 years ago. Our support extends to a number of local and national charities, but we are now additionally focusing on doing our part to help address critical social problems globally, such as the youth unemployment crisis. We recently publicised our 2020 World of Opportunity Europe Vision, in which we state that until 2020, Marriott is committed to offering 20,000 career and development opportunities across our European hotels to youth aged between 16-25, which includes an emphasis on disadvantaged youth. Through our charitable partnerships with The Prince’s Trust (UK hotels), SOS Children’s Villages (continental Europe) and The Youth Career Initiative (Hungary, Poland and Romania), many disadvantaged young people have already successfully attended training and development courses on property, resulting in job offers at Marriott hotels. I am extremely proud of the impact our hotels are having, and the lives that we have helped change.

How successful has the hospitality sector been in raising the profile of sustainability over the years – both within the industry and with customers?
As an industry, we have successfully managed to put sustainability high on the agenda for stakeholders including guests, customers, owners, franchisees and also our own associates. However, we need to remember that this is a journey, with each unique destination requiring a sensitively tailored approach.

As an industry, it is imperative that we work with expansive industry bodies, for instance the International Tourism Partnership, to tackle the critical issues that affect us all.

What are the biggest sustainability challenges facing the sector at the moment?
In my view, the biggest challenge for all hotel companies lies within the supply chain. If you consider all the materials and products needed to build, furnish and operate a hotel - there are thousands of suppliers associated, and we need to work closely with each and every one. We must ensure our partners share similar business practices and a strong sustainability ethos, so that we can make a significant impact to the economic, social and environmental issues that face the industry today.

Which initiatives will you be looking to implement at Marriott going forward?
With the launch of our 2020 World of Opportunity Europe vision, we have increased our focus on combatting youth unemployment. I foresee similar efforts evolving in other regions where Marriott has a presence in order to increase our impact on the issue on a global scale. We are already involved with a number of charitable partners around the globe, for example our active Youth Career Initiative programmes in South America, the Middle East, and India, while in China, our partnership with the Yao Ming Foundation supports educational programmes for children based in rural areas. In Europe, we have been involved with The Prince’s Trust and SOS Children’s Villages since 2012, and in the process raised over €1 million cash and in-kind donations through fundraising events such as last year’s ‘You Eat, We Give’ restaurant promotion. This has been a great celebratory milestone for our European hotels, with funds raised enabling our charitable partners to provide training and development opportunities to nearly 550 disadvantaged youths, of which 60 saw positive career outcomes. Out of these 60, Marriott employed 34, and we are continuing to increase the number of opportunities we can offer on property.

Which initiatives do you think have had the biggest sustainability impact at Marriott?
We have various new tools and resources in place to support hotel sustainability objectives for energy and water consumption. By partnering with Siemens, Marriott is implementing an energy optimisation programme in Europe. During the first phase of the project, which will include 20 hotels, Marriott and Siemens will audit energy usage and optimise management systems to monitor consumption.

In addition, Marriott has invested in two innovative conservation initiatives, one in Brazil and one in China. While neither is directly linked to our hotel operations, we firmly believe that these initiatives help mitigate the direct and indirect environmental impact of our business.

Amazon Rainforest Juma REDD Project:  In 2008, we pledged $2 million to help the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS) protect 1.4 million acres of rainforest in the Juma Sustainable Development Reserve, while also helping to empower and educate the local community that act as guardians of this rainforest. The project helps support over 2,000 people of 38 Juma communities and has increased the number of registered students at Juma’s schools. Enrolment rose by 300 percent, from 60 to 180 students over five years. Local residents continue to pursue sustainable livelihoods through activities such as the Brazil nut cooperative, growing fruit and raising chickens. Juma’s Brazil nuts are featured in several of our Brazilian hotel gift shops and Marriott chefs use them as ingredients in local dishes.

In China, Marriott collaborates with the government of Sichuan Province and Conservation International to conserve fresh water. Nobility of Nature has helped protect fresh water sources for over 2 billion people, while simultaneously supporting sustainable livelihoods through bee farming, with nearly 6,000 Pingwu and Yingjing County (Sichuan Province) villagers participating in the Nobility of Nature project. Such was the impact that sustainable beekeeping has replaced hillside farming and deforestation in these areas. Marriott’s funding has helped provide 750 beehives, equipment to monitor the condition of nearby fresh water sources and wildlife, training in the organic bee-farming business and marketing support. As of year-end 2013, bee-farming revenue for Guanba Village in Pingwu quadrupled and honey sale revenue in Yingjing has nearly tripled since the programme’s inception in 2010, with these project sites now self-sustaining. Nobility of Nature honey is available for breakfast, retail and bulk kitchen use in nearly all The Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott, Renaissance, Marriott Hotels, and Courtyard hotels in China, and most recently in Hong Kong. Since the start of the programme, total honey purchased topped 6,900 kilograms in early 2014.

If you could change anything within the sustainability field / debate, what would it be? What change would make your life easier?

Too many people still doubt that climate change is a major catalyst for the environmental and social problems we are experiencing, which is a significant stumbling block. I really feel that more education, practical examples and factual human interest stories are needed for the debate to evolve from ‘do we really need to do something?’ to ‘let’s work together to find solutions.’

What changes are you most proud of and why?
We live in such a fast-paced world, where keeping up with technology and trends is always a challenge. There are so many new ways to communicate and engage with changing audiences, so it’s imperative that we stay ahead of the curve in order for our message to be heard. We recently launched a corporate social responsibility news platform on Tumblr, Planet Marriott Europe, giving a voice to the field and our Europe leadership team and allowing those on the ground to express their opinions and views on sustainability and corporate responsibility, as well as sharing our achievements. This is a really exciting step for us – we’re engaging in a conversation with the public and inviting them into the Marriott world.

If you could look into the future, what would you most like to see?
The concept of hotels or any big building with lots of roof space becoming power-stations is an idea I’d love to see become a reality. It would necessitate the installation of alternative energy sources (wind turbines, solar panels etc), producing enough energy to not only cover their own energy needs, but to also ‘produce and export’ energy to the grid for local consumption.

Is it ever difficult to convince people of the worth of what you’re doing? What’s the best way to demonstrate the value?
It is widely agreed that embedding sustainability and corporate responsibility into our business is an obligation, not a choice. However, it is not always first priority, as employees focus on their own disciplines and commitments. This is why one of my major goals is to increase communications expressing our achievements both internally and externally through Planet Marriott Europe. Brainstorming new ideas on communication and engagement with our audience is key, as is personalising the impact of an initiative that will resonate with others. If you can include concrete examples from the field about what you are trying to achieve with any given programme, the benefits become real and tangible.

I am very passionate about our achievements and if anyone asks why it is such an important aspect of what we do, I have specific examples ready to share. I feel really lucky that I can talk about all the great things our hotels and associates do. It is one of the areas I enjoy most about my job.

What advice would you give to any hotel starting out on their own sustainability journey?
Involve your employees from the very start and invest time into researching on where to begin. You will often find that your employees have already thought of some great ideas on how to reduce water, waste and energy consumption, and have a keen understanding of the issues that the local community is facing. If you can make any programmes or initiatives relevant to local employees and communities, they will ensure its success.

Marriott International is a longstanding member of the International Tourism Partnership and a key funder and participator in the Youth Career Initiative. Read more articles on Marriott on Green Hotelier here.


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