When Vermont-based Brighter Planet released its May 2012 report on hotels’ energy and carbon efficiency, it looked like meeting planners might be able to reduce their meetings’ environmental impact without cutting travel, just by making smart hotel choices.

Like most things that sound too good to be true, that conclusion is probably overblown. Nevertheless, the report points to some important opportunities for more eco-efficient facility operations that planners need to consider.

As I wrote last month, Brighter Planet used a computer model to calculate the energy use and carbon emissions of more than 46,000 U.S. hotels in 75 chains. Counterintuitively for many meeting and event professionals, the bottom of the list reads like a who’s who of the meeting and convention hotels scene: Holiday Inn Select, Hilton, Sheraton, Hyatt, InterContinental, JW Marriott and Marriott International, Omni, Ritz-Carlton, Westin, Embassy Suites, and Renaissance all fell into the lowest quintile. By contrast, 10 of the 15 most efficient operators were budget hotels like Vagabond and Red Lion, Travelodge, Howard Johnson, and the ever-popular Econolodge and Motel 6.

One of the reasons meeting properties placed so poorly was that the energy needed for amenities is factored into Brighter Planet’s model. If a property has a restaurant, for example—a feature essential to many meetings—its sustainability numbers are likely to be worse than those of a bare-bones brand. So while Brighter Planet’s methodology shines a light on the wide variation in hotel carbon footprints, it’s less than ideal for meeting planners for whom the energy to operate a commercial kitchen is a necessity, not a luxury.

There may be times when a planner can choose a no-frills hotel—but not often. Nevertheless, Brighter Planet’s research still identifies fertile ground for energy savings that aren’t typically considered in a green meeting plan.

  • Guest-room size emerges as a major factor driving energy use, and guest rooms are getting bigger. This is an area where luxury chains can cut operating costs without sacrificing service quality, but they’ll only change their building-design templates if they know planners will accept smaller spaces.
  • Brighter Planet documents major differences in municipalities’ energy and carbon performance. While communities’ sustainability characteristics are beyond our industry’s control, planners can factor the Brighter Planet data into their site selection decisions. Over time, CVBs and local hotel associations might become more prominent advocates for sustainable practices that will help them attract more meetings. Energy use in facilities is just one part of this picture: Light-rail systems in cities like Vancouver, B.C., San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., are a greener alternative than taxis and diesel buses.
  • The Brighter Planet model looks at electricity sources and local weather conditions to calculate a facility’s energy use and carbon emissions. The industry is gradually learning to track environmental impact within facilities, but rarely looks upstream, to the carbon footprint of the electricity those facilities consume. To get a complete picture of our carbon emissions, we have to consider both.

Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.