Four Degrees of Separation: Green Becomes Mission Critical for Hotels

By Abigail A. Lorden, Editor-in-Chief | April 08, 2013




If you had to be in a car crash, would you rather be moving at 20 mph or 50 mph? Now replace if with when and you’ve about summed up the options left for dealing with climate change. Typically conservative organizations — The World Bank and PWC among them — have acknowledged that global temperatures are rising beyond natural patterns, that we’re on the verge of missing the two-degrees-Celsius mark, and that we’re headed to a four-degree increase in global temperatures.

“What’s alarming is that no one has really ever talked about four degrees,” says Auden Schendler, VP of sustainability for Colorado-based Aspen Skiing Company (www.aspensnowmass.com). “It will create all sorts of problems with drought and food supply. There’s a dire need to take action, and it can’t just be micro-scale businesses reducing energy use.”

Throughout his lifetime, Schendler has worked on multiple fronts as a climate crusader, from corporate (at Aspen Skiing Company), to non-profit (at Rocky Mountain Institute), to the front lines (insulating trailers and building goose nests). He’s been named a “global warming innovator” by Time magazine and a “climate saver” by the EPA. His work at Aspen Skiing Company has aided the organization’s goal to reduce its carbon emissions across a portfolio that includes ski resorts, hotels and restaurants. His experiences and a variety of lessons learned are documented in his book, Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

“Hotels have a bigger role as an industry in saying, ‘we care about climate,’” asserts Schendler. Despite the seemingly obvious answer — that an industry dependent on beach resorts, mountain retreats, and tourism in general should care about the environment — there are more quantifiable reasons. “What we do is take care of people, and it’s very difficult to take care of people in a world that has warmed by four degrees Celsius,” says Schendler. “It’s under-recognized and under-reported how much the hospitality industry will be impacted by climate change. “Oh, and by the way, all your guests want it.”

Schendler sees the lodging industry as uniquely positioned to drive positive change through political advocacy, public awareness, and through green buildings. Technology, in particular, has advanced to a degree that IT executives can have a significant impact on the carbon footprint of the hotels they work for, if technology and engineering teams integrate and come together on possible solutions.

Sync up technology and building management
“We’re at a sea change in the way we think about and manage buildings, and it should be a priority because it’s about saving money and serving your guests better,” says Schendler. In short, it’s just good business.

The old model for good service was to throw energy at the guest in terms of heating and lighting. The new model for good service — and one that’s exponentially less expensive for the hotel — is to reduce the energy guests need to use. Engineering and technology both need to be a part of the solution, but in most hotels IT and building management aren’t integrated.

“In many businesses there’s a gap,” says Schendler. “IT has software, and the building guys fix toilets and windows. Now building operators have a massive amount of technology at their disposal and they may not have experience dealing with that. You can have HVAC systems that are very elaborate, so why wouldn’t your hotel IT include your building automation system? That integration is key.”

Consider a scenario where engineering is a client of IT, just like operations or marketing. Or better yet, imagine building operations reporting to the CIO. “We’re trying to integrate these teams; imagine your building department now having an IT division,” Schendler explains.  

Change out the light bulbs
Making the switch from incandescent bulbs to CFL or LED may seem like a simple change, but its impact is big. CFLs use 75% less energy than incandescent, and LEDs use 90% less energy. The quality of light has caught up, too, which is important in the image-conscious lodging industry. “Right now there are so many kinds and the light quality is so good, I would declare we have arrived on efficient lighting,” says Schendler. Savings come not only in energy reduction; the bulbs last forever and there’s a labor reduction when engineers don’t have to spend time replacing them.

Consider also the systems nature to energy efficiency: in a hot climate, if a hotel retrofits its incandescent bulbs, the A/C bill will go down (because incandescent bulbs throw heat) and in fact the hotel may be able to use a smaller and less expensive A/C unit. “Our CFO has said, ‘Why do we have any incandescent bulbs in the company when we can get a 30-percent-better investment? We are a bad business if we don’t change these bulbs out.’”

Still, many hotels haven't made the switch, which represents a significant opportunity.

Build awareness and get creative with funding
Despite rock-solid figures that show cost savings, sustainability champions will approach finance gatekeepers and be told “no.” It’s not because people don’t care, it’s because they have responsibilities beyond the future of the planet (balancing finance sheets and keeping the company in business, for example).

Sometimes, being told no means you need to be willing to admit defeat, educate, and try again. Let’s say you talk about a technology-integrated building system that will save 30 percent and no one believes it will save energy, or you’re asking for lighting retrofits and they don’t have the money. “Why should you expect them to know about energy efficiency? Educate them,” says Schendler, and be resolved that it may take a few years. Ask to bring in a speaker, or share a short article on hotel efficiency.

In his book, Schendler talks about his quest for $20,000 in capital funding to replace more than one hundred 175-watt lights in Aspen’s The Little Nell hotel’s parking garage (www.thelittlenell.com). Despite math that showed a retrofit would save $10,000 annually, plus the fact that the new bulbs would last twice as long and cost one-tenth the price to replace, Schendler was told no. Senior management didn’t believe that replacing the lights would save money, and furthermore if the hotel had $20,000 to spend, it would invest in things that had clear ROI. To demonstrate the energy difference required to power four incandescent bulbs versus four CFLs, Schendler actually brought in a bicycle and a watt meter and asked the COO to get on the bike and pedal. And still, he was told no. (Schendler eventually got the support he needed to replace the bulbs.)

The trump card in seeking capital may be to secure independent financing. This is where mid-level management can get crafty, Schendler explains. If you can invest $20k and make $50k in savings, but the company won’t invest in it, find another backer to finance it independently. Many organizations that work in hotels are called Energy Service Companies. They will come in, do an audit, retrofit the building — covering all the capital costs — and then will pay themselves from a cut of the savings. This approach also lets hotel IT execs try a project on a small scale and come armed with results. “What I’ve argued is that enlightened IT people need to do something on a small scale — even in stealth mode — and then show management,” Schendler explains.

Hotels as leaders for change
Reducing energy use saves money, which is just good business. But there’s an opportunity for hotels to take a leadership role with climate change. While the lodging industry isn’t as powerful as, say, the fossil fuel industry, being at the ground floor of the movement can go a long way and very few industry trade groups have mobilized on addressing climate.

“Hotels have an opportunity which appears to be reducing your own energy use. But the actual opportunity is being a business leader and working to solve climate change through policy. The unique aspect of hotels is that you have influential guests, by definition. This is a way to do what your guests want but also create a movement in the industry.”

Researchers at Yale University (http://environment.yale.edu/climate) have been tracking public opinion on climate change since 2007. Findings from their most recent study (September 2012) show that 70% of all Americans say the U.S. should reduce its greenhouse emissions.

For hotels, Schendler believes that collective action would not only be good for the planet and business, but for earning consumer loyalty. “It’s a major branding opportunity to say, ‘We’re taking care of our guests, and we’re becoming a material part of solving a threat to our future existence.’”


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