Talking Point: Can hotels really help to reduce water scarcity?


What can hotels do to prevent water risk?

What can hotels do to prevent water risk?

Urban water security is increasingly salient for communities around the world as climate change continues to exacerbate many water-related challenges. Hotelier Grant Behnke shares his thoughts on how hotels can play a role in overcoming them.

Hotel industry engagement can be an important piece of the solution, and by doing their part, hoteliers can reap key benefits:

  • Reduce utility and maintenance costs
  • Improve guest engagement in sustainability
  • Mitigate operating and ownership risk stemming from potential water shortages, malfunctioning property water systems, or city-wide water supply vulnerability

What Hotels Are Doing

Today, water efficiency solutions like the ubiquitous linen reuse programs and low-flow fixtures, although helpful, are no longer the zenith of innovation they once were.  Eco-certified appliances improve passive water efficiency but remain uncommon in hotels.  Major hotel brands promote far-reaching water efficiency goals but face formidable barriers in aligning with the motivations of owners, operators, and developers.  Other innovations like rainwater collection remain overlooked by all but the few most forward-thinking properties despite their potential scalability.  To best prepare for the challenges ahead in urban water security, the hotel industry must reinvigorate sustainability from its legacy status as an afterthought to be an exciting and critically important frontier.[1]

How Hotels Can Do More

For operators, staff education is crucial to hitting water efficiency targets.  Watch for these easily-changed on-property behaviours:

  • room attendants leaving water running when cleaning
  • banquet servers wasting water and towels when filling glasses, wiping counters, and cleaning or polishing dishes
  • engineers leaving leaky appliances go for months without proper repair

Raising staff consciousness that water efficiency is a priority helps them adapt and incorporate changes in their day-to-day work.  This can be supplemented with signage, training, and solicitation of feedback on existing policies or new ideas.

Hotel guests are another key area for sustainability engagement despite perceived tradeoffs between guest satisfaction and operational sustainability.  Recent research shows that hotel goers are interested in more sustainable hotel experiences but aren’t sure of how to achieve them.[2]  To engage guests, a little common sense, creativity, and education can go a long way.

For banquet and conference attendees or event planners, linenless tables eliminate the need for laundering extra linen, a financially and ecologically costly process, and offer numerous benefits like spill-proof tops that make better writing surfaces.  Promoting them aligns guests’ needs with hotel water efficiency initiatives and improves guest satisfaction.  In guest rooms, a small sign asking guests to close the blinds when leaving their room for the day can help reduce passive heat gain, and given water and energy’s inherent relationship in that nearly every step of the energy production process uses water, this still boosts urban water security without inconveniencing the guest.[3]  Hotel guests should be viewed as teammates, not enemies, of water efficiency.

Owners and developers have the equally vital role of providing operators with assets well-suited to supporting water efficiency.  Efficient appliances, updated HVAC, or even permeable pavement to reduce runoff are ways to capture water efficiency innovations at the ownership level and generate return-on-investment opportunities.

Solutions tailored to specific regional climates should accompany those that fold naturally into any urban setting, especially for hotels in warmer climates or regions where water security issues are most conspicuous.  Consider the following ideas:

  • Xeriscaping: this landscaping strategy reduces irrigation needs by incorporating a region’s native vegetation, especially drought-resistant plants, or replacing vegetation with stones, mulch, or other alternatives.
  • Timed water features: fountains, pools, ponds, and other features, although typically closed systems, still experience water evaporation and leaks.  Shutting them off or covering them, especially overnight or other off-peak times, can mitigate those water losses.
  • Local, in-season F&B offerings: prioritizing local, in-season food is an urban water security best practice for everyone, including hotels, to reduce water required during farming, transportation, and food preparation.

Why It Matters

The world recently passed an important milestone:  for the first time in history, more than 50% of the population lives in urban areas.  However, city water distribution and sanitation systems are struggling to keep pace with growing urban populations. [4]  By simply implementing existing best practices, hotels can contribute significantly to urban water security, efficient resource consumption, and resilience during droughts and extreme weather.

Take a moment to reflect on what your hotel is doing today, and what more it can do tomorrow to bolster your community’s water security.

Remember the International Tourism Partnership has released a report detailing six steps hoteliers can take to embed water stewardship, and earlier this year delivered the Destination Water Risk Index highlighting the destinations most affected by water scarcity to help those in tourism factor this into their development plans.

[1] Behnke, G. M., “Looking Beyond LEED: How the UN Sustainable Development Goals Can Provide an Alternative Framework for Sustainability in Hotels,” 2018

[2] Baker, M. A., Davis, E. A., and Weaver, P. A., “Eco-Friendly Attitudes, Barriers to Participation, and Differences in Behavior at Green Hotels,” 2013

[3] The World Bank, "Thirsty Energy: Securing Energy in a Water-Constrained World," 2016.

[4] United Nations, “World’s Population Increasingly Urban with more than Half Living in Urban Areas,” 2014

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