How green will a hotel go to get your business?

How about installing $175,000 in solar panels? When Marge Anderson, associate director of the Energy Center of Wisconsin, Madison, heard that Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells was considering a solar-powered water-heating system, she offered to ink a three-year deal for her Better Buildings, Better Business Conference, which attracts 800 to 1,000 attendees each year, in exchange for a promise of those solar panels.

The 740-room hotel agreed.

The solar installation is the biggest step in a partnership the Energy Center has been nurturing with Kalahari, which guzzles power as the home of a record-size indoor/outdoor waterpark in addition to 100,000 square feet of meeting space. Anderson, whose organization seeks solutions to energy challenges, started suggesting changes at the resort back in 2005. Three years later, the property estimates it saves about $400,000 a year in energy costs because of a wide variety of green initiatives egged on by Anderson, who includes green standards in her RFPs and BEOs and is planning to start including them in contracts. In return, Anderson guaranteed Kalahari her $150,000 a year meeting for the next three years.

Just Ask

Anderson, a well-known green meetings advocate, is not the only one including green practices in RFPs and even writing them into contracts. In fact, the general consensus of planners who attended the Greening the Hospitality Industry Conference in Vancouver this past February was, “‘Let's start asking for these things in the contract,’” says Victoria J. Stephens, CMP, founder and principal at Green Convene Strategies, a Denver-based meeting-management company that helps companies to incorporate green practices. “That way, two things can happen: We can hold the venue's feet to the fire, and the more we keep asking, the more change we are going to drive.”

Stephens found out the hard way that some hotels might need the pressure of a contract before taking green requests seriously. A year ago, a property had agreed verbally to provide a number of services for an event she was planning. But just two weeks out, they informed her that they would not provide recycling at the event, which was billed as being green, and left her scrambling to find the dollars and a vendor to do it. Since then, she includes minimum green practices in her contracts, with recycling, a linen reuse program, and measurement of results at the top of her list.

Even these basics can be difficult to include in a contract if the hotel doesn't already have the programs in place. “I don't think a planner is going to be able to request a fundamental change in the way that a property does business in a contract,” says James Goldberg, Corporate Meetings & Incentives' legal columnist, author of The Meeting Planner's Legal Handbook, and a principal at Washington, D.C., law firm of Goldberg & Associates PLLC. He suggests determining what environmental initiatives are important to your group, including those items in your RFP, and choosing a property based on the responses.

Julie Lindsey, director, corporate events at Gap Inc., San Francisco, uses an extensive checklist (see box, next page) in her hotel RFPs that includes everything from guest room infrastructure, such as water conservation and programmable thermostats, to service standards for banquets and treatment of food. “It covers pretty much every aspect of the hotel's operation and what their environmental standards are,” Lindsey says. “If the hotel agrees to it, it goes in the contract. It's the only way to make sure that everyone in the hotel knows what was agreed upon.”

Shannon McCorison, manager, global events at ProLogis, a Denver-based industrial real estate owner/developer, has found that hotels only start investigating how they will meet green requests when it is time to actually do it — and by then it may be too late. “Until you put it into a contract, it's really easy for a vendor to back out at the last minute.”

Gabrielle Davis, catering and convention services manager at the Westin Bayshore, Vancouver, recently signed her first contract that includes green services. Agreeing to sustainable practices is no problem for her, though — her property is well ahead of the curve, having launched a guest room recycling program in 1993. Now, if a meeting planner shows interest in sustainability, she offers a whole green section for the contract, including items such as paperless check-in and check-out and bulk condiment service. “We're thrilled that planners are starting to request these items,” she says.

How Far Is Too Far?

Because contracts imply penalties, some hotels might not be willing to go as far as these planners insist, says Goldberg. “If you try to put in some remedy, hotels will reject those kinds of things.”

Jenny Baird, senior sales manager, green meetings specialist at the Doubletree Hotel & Executive Meeting Center Portland-Lloyd Center, agrees that financial penalties tied to green services might be difficult to write into a contract, although she is confident enough in her property's green credentials that she would consider including them. (No planner has requested them yet.)

However, at least one planner has had success with penalties. Nancy Wilson, CMP, principal at Meeting Strategies Worldwide, Portland, Ore., another well-known green meetings advocate, holds back the last 10 percent of the payment until the property has complied with everything she wanted at her event, including the green standards. And she will walk away from a property that will not include that penalty in the contract.

“For some clients, this is incredibly important to them,” notes Wilson, who has had to exercise that penalty when a property did not deliver.

Checks and Balances

Once the RFP has been agreed upon and the contract signed, how do you make sure that the hotel follows through with what it promised? One strategy that McCorison has come up with is to ask housekeeping to keep a checklist of which rooms requested linen re-use. This serves a double purpose: She is able to see how much water and energy her group saved while ensuring that housekeeping staff pays attention to guests' requests. She also asks that the hotel's operations department get involved right from the start. “Catering and sales don't know how to measure,” she says. “Operations needs to measure everything. It's hard to know what they know until you're sitting in a room with them.”

Doubletree's Baird agrees that getting operations involved is a good step toward uncovering what green practices the hotel has in place. “Usually, the sales team is among the last to know about green initiatives,” she says. At her property, extensive composting and recycling programs generally go on behind the scenes — unless a planner wants it to be more visible. “Then we move the recycling and composting bins right into the meeting room,” she says, adding that her chef has been known to carefully measure what food goes out into the dining room and what comes back in, in order to report exactly how much waste was composted.

For leftover food that has not been served, planners find it surprisingly difficult to contract directly with hotels for a food donation program. “Negotiating food donation programs has been challenging,” Gap's Lindsey says. “When I ask, quite often I get the answer, ‘We can't do that, due to liability.’” Even though the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act was passed by Congress more than a decade ago to protect food donors, she says, knowledge of that law is still rare among hoteliers.

Contracting for food donation is the rare instance where doing the right thing could cost a few dollars more, Lindsey adds. “Some things may cost more but other things will cost less.

But in the end, when it comes to going green, it can't just be about the money, says Lindsey. “We're talking about behavior changes that will benefit everyone.”

Do Green & Luxury Mix?

Many luxury hotels have yet to strike a balance between greening their operations and providing top-notch service and amenities, as George Gay has discovered. Gay, CEO of the Affirmative Financial Network, Colorado Springs, Colo., a network of financial advisers who practice socially responsible investing, and organizer of the annual SRI in the Rockies Conference, has found the hotel rating system to be “a big issue. In order to remain a five-star resort, they are going to wash your sheets every day and deliver newspapers to your room. So until rating standards incorporate green practices, some hotels will say, ‘We can't.’”

Michael Ciapciak, senior manager, ratings and inspections at Mobil Travel Guide Inc., says the guide “is developing Green Standards that give credit to those properties that are taking a proactive stance with these issues. We have seen the challenges hotels face with trying to become ‘green’ while maintaining a sense of luxury.”

However, some high-end hotels are way ahead of the curve: The Fairmont Whistler, for example, the site of November's SRI in the Rockies, has recycling bins in all guest rooms. “In Canada, you ask about recycling at a luxury property and they say, ‘Of course,’” says Gay. “In the U.S., you get excuses.”

What to Ask for in Your RFP

Julie Lindsey, director, corporate events at Gap Inc., San Francisco, put together this checklist to send out with her RFPs. Every item from this list that the hotel agrees to is put into her contract.

Hotel Operations

  • Provide guests with paperless check-in and check-out.

  • Use cleaning products in guest rooms and public facilities that do not introduce toxins into the water and air.

  • Use energy-efficient lighting throughout the property.

  • Provide documentation of environmental initiatives that have been undertaken or a green meetings program that is already in place.

Guest Rooms / Housekeeping

  • Hotel has a property-wide linen and towel re-use program. Explain: How is this communicated to the staff? How is it communicated to guests?

  • Hotel will donate unused portions of shampoo/conditioner/shower gel/lotion to a local charity.

  • Hotel will provide recycling in all guest rooms.

  • Hotel has water conservation fixtures in hotel guest rooms.

  • Hotel has programmable thermostats with motion detectors used to control heating and air conditioning in guest rooms.

Function Space

  • Hotel will provide clearly marked recycling containers in meeting room areas.

  • Hotel will provide a recycling program to include paper, plastic, glass, aluminum cans, and cardboard at no cost to the group.

Food & Beverage

  • Hotel will provide condiments in serving containers and not individual packets for all food functions, including sweeteners for coffee stations.

  • Hotel will not use disposable cups, plates, etc., unless specifically requested by the group.

  • Any disposable cups, plates, etc. that are used will be recyclable or compostable and will be disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.

  • Hotel will use cloth napkins and silverware in lieu of paper and plastic for all food functions.

  • Hotel has a program in place to donate food to local shelters and/or food banks. Please describe. If the facility does NOT have a food donation program, hotel will agree to work with the group to provide food donations, at no cost to the group.

  • For food waste that is not able to be donated, hotel will compost.

SRI in the Rockies: Green Investors Want Green Meetings

When it comes to green meetings, George Gay wrote the book — or at least the RFP. As CEO of First Affirmative Financial Network, Colorado Springs, Colo., a network of financial advisers who practice socially responsible investing, Gay plans the annual SRI in the Rockies Conference, a model of social responsibility (not only with regard to the environment). The first conference, in 1990, was “45 people at a Colorado dude ranch,” he remembers. By 2007, attendance hit 663, selling out the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.

Gay's request for proposal includes extensive questions regarding a hotel's sustainability efforts, such as whether the property has evaluated its carbon footprint, is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified, uses locally grown and/or organic food, and donates unused food. Further, Gay requires hotels to complete the Best Practices Survey developed by Ceres, a public interest group made up of investors and environmental organizations, as part of its Green Hotel Initiative. Hotels that fail to address the RFP's sustainability questions or to complete the survey are out of the running for the six-day conference. When you're on-site, Gay says, consider a saying he learned in the Army: “People do best what the boss checks.' Well, hotels do best what the conference planner checks. Get on it at the beginning.” Don't wait to see if the recycling bins will appear, if housekeeping will leave your towel alone the next day, or if the banquet staff will remember not to pre-pour iced tea the next time. Chase them all down immediately.

Consider Gay's way of paying for some of the green efforts: sponsorships. The conference's recycling sponsor and its carbon-offsets sponsor are in the high-level category, with benefits including four minutes during a meal function to address the conference, one free registration, a display ad at the conference Web site, and signage (such as on recycling bins) at the event.