Hospitality goes green

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While the term “eco-tourism” may conjure pictures of canoeing the Amazon or back-packing across Tibet, the popularity of green travel is no longer limited to exotic locales.  From suburban Dulles to the steep streets of Floyd, Virginia’s hotels, motels and B&Bs are courting an ecologically minded crowd. 

Some say it’s about time. 

In 1993 the Houston-based “Green” Hotels Association targeted one of the industry’s most wasteful and expensive practices.  By suggesting that guests reuse towels, the association explained, facilities stood to save water, energy and a purported 50-cents-per-day per-room on laundry costs.  The trend caught on and spread to include bed linen.  Yet for the next decade, while green options went mainstream in other industries, broader improvements in lodging lagged.  Until now.

A hotel is unique, notes Rachel Bullene, environmental specialist with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  “It’s not a factory or visible polluter.  But [hotels] make a major impact.”
Lodging services consume significant resources and can generate massive waste.  Given the scope of the industry — more than 30 million room nights were sold last year, according to the Virginia Department of Tourism — it’s an ideal target for eco-reform. 

“A lot of forces are driving this change,” says Stephanie Hampton, senior director of communications for Maryland-based Marriott International Inc., an international hotel chain.  “Guests are showing more and more interest.  In this economy they may not want to pay more, but if all things are equal, they will choose green.” 

So hotels are showcasing that added value, without passing on a green premium, through a range of steps toward sustainability. At one extreme is ground-up green construction.  Marriott has pledged to have 30 new buildings meet the efficiency standards of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.  Arlington’s new Residence Inn recently met this goal.
On the low-tech side of the spectrum, the tips for greening hotels echo those for households.  Eco Green Hotel, a Web site dedicated to “supporting hospitality sustainability,” urges establishments to clean rooms with environmentally friendly cleaning products, purchase reusable cups, mugs, dishes and silverware, and switch to energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs.

Even minor improvements add up when multiplied by each room. Hotels capable of shouldering the initial investment will reap rewards, says Bullene. “Long term they’ll see major savings.”  A compact fluorescent bulb, for example, uses one-fourth the energy, lasts 10 times longer and saves $30 during its lifetime compared with a traditional incandescent, according to the federal Energy Star program. That’s $30 for each bulb, in each lamp, in each room.

Yet the utility savings are seen as a secondary motivation. “Consumers are getting more aware of the environment,” says David Neudeck, director of electronic marketing for the Virginia Tourism Corp. “If they see a ‘green’ option available, they’re going to gravitate toward that.” 

To encourage and promote the commonwealth’s eco-options, the VTC and DEQ partnered to create and maintain Virginia’s Green Lodging program.  The statewide certification system helps eco-minded travelers support hotels striving for increased efficiency. 

During the past 12 months visitors have conducted more than 22,000 searches of the Green Lodging list, says Neudeck; a 108 percent increase over the same period a year ago. 

The idea isn’t new.  The “Green” Hotels Association offers such a list, as does the international directory  But the state’s program exceeds both in sheer numbers and standards.

DEQ’s Web site lists more 340 facilities as meeting Virginia green lodging standards. Inclusion requires a six-page application demonstrating success in categories that include recycling, water conservation, energy efficiency and, yes, optional linen service.  When the application process goes on-line later this year, Neubeck expects a major jump in the number of participants.

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