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Going Green To Be Seen

Going green is all the rage these days. It’s a benchmark we use to categorize modern, chic hotels and brands we want to identify with. And for good reason: upgrading your property to meet the ever-widening list of energy efficiency and resource conscious standards is a very noble pursuit – one that hopefully will be in vogue to perpetuity. These enhancements can take nearly any form, from simple or small to creative or omnipresent, and I commend you for improving your hotel(s) to help curb the rising energy demands and save our delicate ecosystems.

But let’s take a step back and analyze why we are engaging in these pursuits and allocating precious dollars to this ‘responsible tourism’ movement. Whatever actions you take, the motivations fall into three broad categories:

  1. Adopting eco-friendly practices saves big on operational costs in the long run.
  2. Marketing a brand as eco-friendly generates greater customer appeal and empathy.
  3. You are a naturally altruistic manager or owner.

Even though I choose to believe that the third case pertains to almost every hotelier active today – and most people on the planet for that matter – the fact remains that money pervades all decisions. This naturally leaves us with the first two choices as the underlying stimuli for green enhancements to your property.

Rest assured, if upgrading to more efficient processes didn’t yielding generous savings, there would be little to none of the widespread adoption like we are experiencing today – no recycling programs, no low wattage light bulbs, no adherence to LEED. As sad as this reality is, someone somewhere has to justify dollars spent on these green refurbishments when the same money could be reallocated towards other worthwhile expenditures.

Luckily this is not the case. Investing in energy efficiency or sustainable development is beneficial for both the property’s fiscal state and the community at large. If you are still skeptical, contact your local (or global) environmental consultant. You’ll be astounded by the long-term savings from going green.

Consider the Marketing Side

What I want to discuss is not some inculcating checklist for why eco-friendliness is the way of the future, but rather, the psychological principles at work when guests are introduced to your hotel’s narrative of social responsibility. Yes, it’s the second option from above that interests me most – how you can best lever your latest round of eco-investments to gain the most traction amongst consumers and, if you haven’t yet thrown a fistful of dollars at the efficiency gurus, what upgrades will elicit the best results.

I want to analyze the benefits of going green from the consumer’s perspective and not from a back-of-house cost savings point of view. To this end, you must engage in sustainability efforts that your guests can see with their own eyes, not ones that are hidden away and only palpable via reading a blurb of text on your website or in-room pamphlet. Why you ask? Because taking an active role in this area is an excellent way to further develop positive relationships with your guests and to market your brand.

To start off, know what decade it is. This is not the 1980s or 1990s where going green was still in its infancy. These days, everyone is doing it and most consumers expect hotels – as veritable community leaders – to have plans in this regard already in place, underway or rapidly forthcoming. Ergo, simply announcing a minor efficiency upgrade for a property will only get you a maximum of fifteen minutes of fame (fifteen seconds in Twitter time). Your options are to either carry out something very profound (which in all likelihood means ‘very expensive’) or to choose eco-friendly expenditures that consumers will have no choice but to notice.

Hence, the title of this article. To reiterate, it’s not just about going green; it’s about implementing changes that your guests will see loud and clear while on property.

Show Don’t Tell

This classic adage used mainly for the world of fiction writing also translates swimmingly for this discussion. The two others that apply are ‘seeing is believing’ and ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. And there’s a highly scientific reason behind all three phrases.

Our brains are wired to interpret images and objects in a near instantaneous manner. Evolutionarily speaking, this innate ability is millions of years in the making because in order to survive in the wild, Homo sapiens had to interpret and react in a flash to imminent threats. The logical centers of our modern cortexes can dissect images and make us conscious of their meanings, but images also bite down to the deeper, faster-acting, emotional centers of the brain, working to modify behavior, mood or what is remembered most.

Where this comes into play is in comparing how the mind reads letters, numbers and strings of the words on a printed page or a computer screen. Text is not interpreted the same way as pictures. The brain can unswervingly interpret images, but because letters represent other entities or ideas, they must first be filtered through the cognitive centers of the cortex. It’s this two-step process which delays our response to words – if only for an imperceptible millisecond – preventing them from evoking gut-level reactions like that from colored pictures or object in real time and space.

Knowing this, which do you think would elicit a stronger reaction from a guest: an in-room pamphlet detailing a property’s massive plumbing recycling installation or the photovoltaic solar panels lining the roof of the front entranceway?

To put this in perspective, the former may in fact be the real winner, saving the example property hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars on the utility bill each year. On the other hand, solar capture technology is not quite ready to be labeled as a bona fide energy panacea. Nevertheless, the latter upgrade is a striking visual façade that all guests will see with their own eyes and therefore it will bring out a greater visceral response.

Moreover, in this day and age, your guests are likely bombarded with textual information coming at them from their phones, the television, newspapers, tablets, magazines, books or office documents. The last thing they’ll want to do when they arrive in their rooms is start sifting through tent cards and memos. Yes, your guests want to help fix world-altering problems like fossil fuel consumption or rampant methane production from cows, but they are harried and don’t have time to read all that crosses their paths. Sadly, your in-room pamphlet outlining your environmental efforts is likely to go unread or have a minimal impact.

Think Visually

I proudly drive a Lexus hybrid SUV (or rather, my wife does). Lexus and its parent company Toyota have done an excellent job of staying ahead of the curve for automotive hybrid engine technology. It’s this along with solid marketing that has transformed the conglomerate into a market leader for energy efficient vehicles. However, let’s not forget that each Lexus hybrid is stamped on the back with a symbolic, chrome ‘H’ because the car classification. It’s a wholly observable marker, albeit small, that tells you everything you need to know about the engine’s internal processes without showing you anything else.

What this demonstrates for hotels is that a visual cue can have powerful connotations, regardless of what’s actually under the hood. Going green to be seen doesn’t only pertain to expensive solar panel installations, green rooftops, rain water catchments or the superimposition of a wind farm on top of the parking lot. It can take many subtler forms, but the inescapable maxim in this regard is that all initiatives must be straightforwardly discernible to onsite guests.

This is not to say that you should neglect your back-of-house upgrades. In fact, your water conservation, waste management and energy efficiency programs as well as other boosters like improved housekeeping protocols and regular performance audits have vast potential for cost savings – in many cases more than any of the sexy, visible upgrades you decide to actualize. But such ‘conservative’ measures only have limited applications from a marketing perspective because they are out of sight. Compelling past guests to laud your property to friends and family is a difficult task, so give them something positive that they can easily share because the image is stuck in their minds.

Examples

Take smart thermostats for instance. Specifically, heating and cooling unused guestrooms is a major draw on the monthly electricity bill that these devices can help you alleviate. But if such a thermostat has that routine beige, boxy design that all the non-smart control systems have, then it just won’t convey ‘smart’ to consumers.

To get an idea of where my head is at, take a look at the design on the Nest digital thermostat. Not only does it have a slew of intriguing energy-saving features, but it looks the part as well. To serve this same objective of efficient temperature control with a perceptible flare, you might also want to consider tinted windows or curtains that automatically close when the guest(s) leaves.

Next, let’s move onto the washroom. How do you think your guests will react to you furnishing these rooms with low flush composting toilet systems? Or, given how commonplace low water toilets are these days, what will your guests think when you don’t have these lavatory enhancements?

Furthermore, how are you educating your guests on such other programs like linen and towel recycling? Do you have clearly labeled baskets to vividly express these initiatives? Lastly, the single waste bin is the mainstay for tiled bathroom floors. Why not convert to a two bin or three bin system (one for only paper, one for plastics and one regular garbage disposal)? True, guests might be a tad irked at having to separate their trash, but the message gets across nonetheless: your property is serious about recycling, no words needed.

Onto the restaurant and more opportunities present themselves, especially in the locally sourcing trend. By adopting eco-purchasing policies for F&B, you’ll not only be helping the community but also organic, sustainable farming practices. Guests love it when hotels show off their regional pride, but informing them about your local fare should go beyond an elaborate text blurb on the menu. At the very least, put one or two glossy photographs in there, showcasing your suppliers, their farms and their story.

Or, consider having your servers explain your ‘farm to table’ philosophy to guests. This helps put a face – and in turn emotion – behind your message. Better yet, why not have designated waiters push carts from table to table, exhibiting all the fresh ingredients your chefs will be using in their culinary creations? Although quite elaborate, it would be entertaining and highly visual. If not a roving trolley, then why not place a farmer’s stand near the restaurant entrance to serve the same purpose? As guests pass, they have the option of stopping for a few minutes to interact and learn about your commit to local foods.

In an ideal world though, you would be sourcing most of your raw ingredients from an organic garden on property. For these instances – which many resorts are already capitalized on – you don’t want the garden to be tucked away in some forgotten recess on the far side of a grassy knoll. It must be ‘tour-able’; that is, it should be next to a relatively popular footpath so guests can rubberneck. Also be sure to apply permaculture techniques wherever possible to reduce costs and maximize yield. And seeing as how nearly half of a hotel’s solid waste can be food waste, why not complete the sustainability picture by building adjacent composts?

The point here is that there are dozens of opportunities to excel in nearly every corner of your property. Even though building a wind farm over your parking lot may be a bit farfetched, installing charging stations for electric cars is not. Sure, the Tesla Model S isn’t the most popular kid on the street, but one day it – or another similar iteration – will be. Best get with the program now while electric car charging stations are still somewhat of a novelty.

Knowing that going green saves in the long run does not speak to the seemingly hefty upfront costs required to execute such upgrades. You must consider everything through the lens of targeted renovations – devoting your resources only to those that will deliver the greatest value to your organization and the consumer.

Focusing on the marketable green initiatives instead of viewing these environmental efforts through a strict numerical comparison of total savings per project may seem a tad cruel. But the fact remains: when a guest first arrives in his or her room, I doubt that reading a tent card about the latest back-end conservation upgrades tops the list of things to do.

In today’s mile-a-minute world, you have less than a second to prove what your property stands for. This can only be accomplished with strong visual displays. Get creative in your approach and look to hospitality leaders to see what you can glean (off the top of my head, I suggest you investigate Hilton and Fairmont in this regard).

At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to responsible tourism. We all have a duty to recycle, reduce and reuse. As we head into 2014, every hotelier should be taking steps to become more efficient with their waste and energy usage. Aim to be a community leader in this regard, and then the ‘going green to be seen’ aspects will act as the icing on the cake.

(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotels Executive September 23, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyGoing Green To Be Seen