For the second year in a row, Travel Agent hosted a Green Roundtable in which representatives of leading hotels and travel agents shared their thoughts on all things green. This year’s participants were Sarah Dayboll, manager, environmental affairs, Fairmont Raffles Hotels International; Brian McGuinness, senior vice president, Starwood/Element Hotels; Brigitta Witt, vice president of environmental affairs, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts; Faith Taylor, corporate vice president, sustainability & innovation, Wyndham Worldwide; Liz Wessel, owner/founder, Green Concierge Travel LLC; and Stephanie Lee, agent at Travel Quest and a member of Travel Agent’s 30Under30.
In addition to providing some some excerpts from that meeting below, click play in our podcast to here the roundtable in its entirety.
Travel Agent: Has “green” become more prevalent in the past year or so, or has it just stayed the same in the eyes of travelers? Do you feel it’s still gaining momentum?
Stephanie Lee, Travel Quest: I don’t really feel that it’s gained momentum. It had a lot of momentum in the past few years and then when the economic crisis hit, I thought it slowed and it hasn’t moved at the same pace ever since.
Brigitta Witt, Hyatt: I think to some extent the leisure traveler’s awareness probably continues to increase. I think what we are seeing is that it doesn’t drive a preference necessarily. That said, the focus on our large national accounts continues to be fairly strong, so I would say that a very large percentage of our customers continues to ask us about our environmental programs and policies. In fact, I have seen some of the questions become more detailed. I don’t know if it’s necessarily influencing purchasing decisions, but it is certainly helping to form opinions that our customers have of us as a company. By having or not having a policy in place, I don’t know whether we sway customers’ decisions, but by not actually doing something you lose out on the game.
Liz Wessel, Green Concierge: I would agree that the awareness continues to spread. What I am seeing is there is a correlation between awareness of energy issues and travel because there is so much going on in communities and cities around energy; this has more people asking about energy issues related to travel as well. But I don’t think it’s increased, because I agree the economy has caused demand to level off.
Travel Agent: Have you implemented any new initiatives in the past year?
Sarah Dayboll, Fairmont: We are focusing internally in pushing for a climate-change platform and really trying to reach our production goals. The supplier declaration for purchasing and attuning our design and construction policies to LEED standards will be our focus this year as we aim for the 30-percent reduction target that we set with WWF Climate Savers Program. At our properties, we have green teams and different initiatives focusing on energy, water and waste. We are looking at innovative approaches used in each destination, like composting, that will increase both waste management and also gas engagement in terms of our reselling packages. We continue again this year with our green sales—promotions at each property of authentic local products—which use community donations and local manpower.
Brigitta Witt, Hyatt: Last year, we focused on two main areas. One, we launched a global environmental training program, which puts our employees through about six hours of training that focuses on what the issues related to the environment are, why it is important and why we should care. And then there are workshops on reducing energy and water consumption, and also waste. We have had 12,000 employees go through the training.
We also set goals in the beginning of this year to reduce our energy and water consumption and carbon emissions by 15 percent and our waste by 25 percent by 2015. We will implement a number of initiatives to help our hotels meet those goals, and we think we can with the practices we have in place, and the focus on our employees and sustainable construction. In addition, last year, to support our sustainable development goals, we launched two new LEED-certified hotels, the Olive 8 in Seattle, which has a Silver rating, and the Hyatt Place in Michigan.
Faith Taylor, Wyndham: We were named among the 100 greenest companies in America, courtesy of the global rollout of our program. This year we finally received LEED Silver Certification for our corporate headquarters, so we are able to demonstrate to all of our hotel owners that by walking the talk one can have an energy-efficient building and also improve employee productivity.
We have been training and educating our associates and rolling out a 30-minute module that we developed around sustainability that’s going very well, besides tracking and measuring our carbon footprints worldwide. We continue to roll out programs. I think the biggest challenge is the different legislations all over the world, whether it is the recent CRC program in the UK or Energy Star used on buildings in the U.S. But then I think this is a great opportunity for us to take a leadership role and work with everyone in terms of setting the guidelines for the industry.
Brian McGuinness, Starwood/Element: We are taking small steps and looking at Element in Lexington as our eco-lab. We put in an energy management system there that had an initial ROI of 2.9 years. We are down to 2.1 years. It’s saving an equivalent of 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of gasoline every month.
We have seven Element Hotels open now and they are certainly resonating with the customer, particularly the 25- to 34-year-olds. In fact, 73 percent of those travelers we surveyed indicate that LEED certification is critical to them, so it is part of their decision-making. And 45 to 55 percent of those travelers have either stayed in a LEED-certified hotel or considered that in their decision-making. Beyond that, it is about installing energy management systems and the basics—recycling at the hotel, etc.—for us to get to the next-generation traveler and become the next-generation hotel.
Travel Agent: Have the hotels managed to get the word out on their initiatives to agents and consumers?
Stephanie Lee, Travel Quest: I definitely think that there is a little disconnect with the information getting out to travel agents. However, I also find that clients looking for green travel have often done a lot of research on their own and they are aware of eco-friendly resorts and hotel chains and the areas in which they are most sustainable.
Liz Wessel, Green Concierge: I feel I am part of that communication process. I monitor [the web] daily and find at least one related article on what’s going on in the industry on environment, what’s on offer, some new products, major steps someone has taken or who has received certification.
Part of my job, as I see it, is educating consumers. For example, last night I was giving a talk to a group of people on what green travel is, and I usually break it up into transportation, hospitality, accommodation and activities at a destination. I think people are still on the learning curve, they don’t have the whole perspective yet. What we talked about is how you can find a trip that meets your budget and still make some choices that will help you be green. A lot of people don’t know about some of these bigger hotels, what they are doing except for the fact that they see the signs in their rooms. But some of the hotels are doing amazing things.
Travel Agent: How do hotels market the idea without looking a little self-serving? You are doing it for all the right reasons, but there is also a marketing side to it.
Brigitta Witt, Hyatt: When we started off seriously down this path a few years ago, we made the decision internally that our environmental initiatives were there for the right reasons, and that marketing and PR was not going to be driving our efforts. That was a very strong commitment that we set out with and we, for the most part, stayed true to the commitment. What we have begun to do is to actually provide a little more information on our website and at the hotel level, because what we have found is that customers really do care and they don’t see it as self-serving when a company talks about something that is real.
Sarah Dayboll, Fairmont: We also made the decision to take a step back in our marketing efforts. We do have information on our website, but we choose it carefully because there is a lot of “green-washing” out there. Information on green hotels is also popping up in other outlets that we may not directly be linked to. For example, we have entered a partnership with the Hotel Association of Canada, which has now become the Green Key Eco-Rating for North America, and all of our properties in North America are certified. Through this partnership Green Key has also partnered with Expedia, which has now created a new green hotels site where properties in North America are being promoted. We don’t directly fit into this, but indirectly we get promotion and provide more green information to Expedia customers.
Liz Wessel, Green Concierge: That is a great tool, Expedia and Green Key, especially for a travel agent. Because it’s a third-party certification, you don’t have to go through the legwork yourself to make sure that everything is validated.
Faith Taylor, Wyndham: There is a lot going on online today in terms of using the web and social media to communicate our initiatives. The other key area is through conferences such as travel and eco-innovation summits. There is a variety of ways to communicate and it’s an ongoing process both internally and externally, and it could mean partnering with other organizations to do that.
Travel Agent: You mentioned social media and I would think that’s a perfect marriage. The demographic of people who are on Facebook and Twitter probably aligns well with that of the socially conscious and environmentally aware.
Stephanie Lee, Travel Quest: We have been using Facebook and Twitter quite successfully for our agency, not so much on a “green platform,” but to talk with agents and getting information out to them. It’s been successful.
Brigitta Witt, Hyatt: We have turned the social media inward and about a year-and-half ago, we created a kind of internal Facebook for our employees. This allows all our green teams and employees from around the world to share initiatives that they are undertaking and to share best practices. That’s where we focus because we think our employees are the sources of some of our best ideas. On any given day, you can look at the tool and see a hotel in Cairo in a conversation with a hotel in Shanghai. It’s been a tremendous way for us to communicate our efforts.
Liz Wessel, Green Concierge: It is definitely part of my marketing plan to integrate Facebook with my website and the other things that I am doing. I feed things through there and also direct people from Facebook back to my website whenever I post an update or have an itinerary. I am definitely using it as a medium to establish myself as a credible source of green travel information. That would be my goal—to be a good source of green travel information on the social media pages.
Travel Agent: When a client comes in, do you try to sell them on green?
Stephanie Lee: No, it’s a hard thing to do because a lot of people don’t want certain things thrust on them and that’s not what they are asking for. It’s a fine line, in our office and with our outside agents as well; we’re not specifically green. I studied environmental education in college, so it’s something close to my heart. So we implemented it in our office. However, when a client who’s not particularly interested in being green comes in, I do let them know about the green option if they are, for instance, choosing between different cruise liners and destinations. I tell them the advantages of one over the other.
Travel Agent: The hotels represented here have strong reputations as hospitality providers. I don’t think people would worry that they are going to be sacrificing any amenities for that kind of environmental responsibility. Does that come up at all? Do you have to address the issue?
Brigitta Witt, Hyatt: We really don’t. Our amenity bottles are made out of 100 percent recycled plastic or where we can, we donate leftover amenities to local shelters, for example. Those are things that the consumer can see. But I think the hardest-hitting initiatives that we take—which are steps to reduce our energy and water consumption, and waste—are largely and hopefully invisible to the customer. So we don’t really get feedback. In fact, sometimes our customers tell us we are not doing enough because they don’t see it.
Travel Agent: If somebody is thinking luxury, are they thinking green?
Sarah Dayboll, Fairmont: For us, green is almost seen now as a given. Our customers are going to expect it. We have done several guest surveys, asking them if they felt their stay or service was ever compromised by the eco-friendly operations or products. And the feedback has always been very positive—they were delighted, they loved it. We have only received negative feedback where they wanted to see more. If we only offer three different types of sustainable seafood, they want to see a whole menu of it. So, they are constantly pushing us to evolve the program. And we have never, ever had a guest complaining that their service was compromised.
Liz Wessel, Green Concierge: The industry is doing a good job in the sense that when I have a client who is looking for anything from a fairly inexpensive trip to a luxury trip, I am able to find a product that will meet their needs and has green components they can choose from. You can’t push people, but you can show them something that meets our needs and their price. It is all out there on the continuum from luxury down to the less expensive.