Chain hotels lead the way in sustainability

Chain hotels are doing a better job of going “green” than their independent competitors, according to a new analysis by Washington State University (WSU) researchers in the US

The study, which started as an undergraduate honours thesis by Stefani Svaren, appears in the International Journal of Hospitality Management. It reveals that chain hotels are more likely to use energy-efficient light bulbs; train staff to turn off lights, heaters and air conditioning in unoccupied rooms; buy in bulk to reduce packaging; use safer cleaners and chemicals; and give guests tips on how to save water and energy.

As a result, independent hotels may be losing a competitive advantage in drawing customers, says Dennis Reynolds, Ivar B Haglund Endowed Chair in the WSU School of Hospitality Business Management. ”I don’t know if independents are aware of the importance people place on being green,” says Reynolds. He goes on to suggest that green hotels may have the edge over their non-green competitors—that given the choice between two hotels offering the same room rates, customers will go for the one with better eco-friendly credentials.

”The preliminary research suggests that this is the case,” he says. ”I suspect a lot of independents haven’t yet realised that, in terms of the marketability, being green is an important means of attracting customers.”

Hotels have the largest environmental footprint in the hospitality industry. Not only do they use large amounts of water and cleaning chemicals but they also need to keep lights on throughout the night, unlike restaurants.

The concept of a ”green hotel” really started in the 1990s, and spread through the industry, encouraging practices that saved energy and water, managed waste and educated guests about ways to help the environment.

”It’s a smart practice for hotels,” says Reynolds. ”When it started, no one acknowledged that. They said, ‘This is a green practice. We’re doing it for the environment.’ That caught on very quickly because, yes, it’s good for the environment but it’s also good for the bottom line.”

Some hotels found greener building designs alone could cut their energy costs by between 30% and 50%, a saving that, for a full-service hotel, could equate to as much as $6.75 on the daily room rate. Similarly, a hotel can save on water and the energy to heat it by encouraging guests to re-use towels and sheets. And of course such practices also save on housekeeping.

Chain hotels are doing a better job of implementing green practices—particularly so when the measures are inexpensive to introduce, but Reynolds points out that this is partly down to economies of scale. Even if similar steps can save a single, independent hotel as much in percentage terms, the independents may shrug off what appear to be comparatively small savings. An independent hotel owner, for example, might look at a $20 saving from energy-efficient bulbs and say, “$20, I don’t know,” says Reynolds. “But if you’re overseeing 1,000 hotels, then a saving of $20 per hotel becomes more critical.”

Reynolds expanded on Svaren’s thesis with the help of Imran Rahman, a doctoral student in business administration with a concentration in hospitality business management. In follow-up studies, Reynolds has looked at the more industrious environmental practices of hotels abroad. "We’re finding examples in Asia where they’re looking at energy management from hot water heaters to air-conditioning units,” he says. “They buy the more efficient unit up front.”

As Reynolds puts it: ”We’ve done the low-hanging fruit. Now we have to ask what other practices hotels could/should adopt that require an upfront investment but will give a return both financially and in terms of protecting the environment.”

Meanwhile, consumers can do their part by looking for greener hotels when they make reservations. “That then supports the hotel’s practices to be green and that spreads and becomes isomorphic—everything becomes the same,” Reynolds says. ”We’re seeing that in the chain restaurants and chain hotels.”

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