There's no doubt the environment has become a hot issue in recent months. Rocketing water and energy bills - up 40% in the past two years, according to figures - drought orders in parts of the UK, and stark warnings from environmental groups about the havoc being wreaked on the planet, have all helped to push the "green" agenda into the headlines.
In the hospitality industry, it's clear that operators are starting to respond. According to Caterer‘s recent energy survey, three-quarters (74%) are very concerned about rising energy costs and 82% of businesses questioned have already taken steps to reduce their energy consumption.
But aside from cost savings, are there any other benefits for those who cut energy consumption? How easy or practical is it for businesses, big or small, to be more environmentally friendly? What are the barriers to being more efficient? Are there simple steps that operators can take, and do they know where to find examples of best practice?
With these issues in mind, a group of independent hoteliers and representatives from leading hotel groups met earlier this month for a round-table debate organised by Caterer in association with the Carbon Trust.
Customer demand One immediate message to emerge was that although rising prices have been largely responsible so far for highlighting the benefits of eco-efficiency, growing customer demand for greener businesses is starting to make an impact on how the industry thinks.
"As a large group, cost is obviously a key factor for us, but to be seen as environmentally responsible is critical too nowadays," said Angela Tomlinson, chairwoman of Starwood Hotels' energy symposium. "Our priorities are looking at how we manage our energy, trying to find better ways of doing things and creating awareness among our staff and associates."
Others took a similar view. "Research shows that customers would prefer to stay in a hotel that is environmentally aware, and of course we want to be customer-led," said Ian Pennel, operations director at Travelodge. "There's a bigger question of how to achieve that in a low-cost way, but if we can do that, being energy-efficient makes absolute sense."
Some felt that consumers were still uncertain about what being green means for hotel and tourism businesses. Another concern was just how far to involve customers in energy-saving measures. "Sometimes you have to weigh up the environmental cost with the business cost," said Tomlinson. "If guests are paying a lot of money for their room, they don't necessarily want to be reminded to turn the lights out or not to use too much water."
Getting the balance right is important, agreed Vanessa Scott, owner of Strattons hotel in Swaffham, Norfolk. "It's not about forcing messages down people's throats. Yes, there's the element of turning off taps and lights, but we also stress to our guests that it's about quality, for example, using local produce that hasn't had to travel thousands of miles to get here."
With such huge variation in the industry, how businesses should best approach energy-saving generated some debate. "The drivers vary massively," said Dr Gary Felgate, director of delivery and external relations at the Carbon Trust. "If you're a small business, your number one concern will probably be cash-flow, while issues like corporate social responsibility and consumer pressure will be key for larger companies."
But it was agreed there were a number of simple measures that most could put into place immediately, from low-energy light bulbs to putting water-saving hippos (available from water companies) in toilets.
Greener travel Christina Simons, owner of the Cottage hotel in Brockenhurst, Hampshire, pointed towards encouraging greener travel for guests. "We're near a railway station and 50% of our guests arrive by train. Our website lists public transport options and all the things you can do locally without your car," she said.
Adopting specific technology was also mentioned. "Building management systems that automatically manage temperature, for instance, and technology that varies the speed of kitchen extract controls according to demand are also a big win for us," said Andrew Staley, property manager UK & Ireland at Hilton.
But the costs involved in renewing or installing new equipment and technology was seen as an obstacle by some. "Our main challenge is that we own a very old building with poor insulation," said Simons. "We've looked at putting a wind turbine on the roof but that's expensive and it takes so long to recoup costs." Felgate suggested a low-cost option like improving insulation should be a priority. "On average, this pays for itself within nine months," he pointed out. "But with solar panels, for example, you're looking at a payback period of up to 20 years."
One main theme was how to get staff on board. "It's about winning hearts and minds. You have to involve staff and raise their awareness, otherwise things like turning tvs and lights off won't happen," said Linda Martin, programmes director at HCIMA. Training and making energy awareness part of staff inductions was one way forward, but Gerry Keigher, regional director of engineering, South-east and England at Marriott, said sustaining staff motivation could be a problem.
"At Starwood we've appointed energy champions in each of our hotels, who help monitor monthly energy use by looking at what's good, bad or easy to implement," responded Tomlinson. "It helps to keep costs down but it also makes the idea of being greener accessible to everyone, from the top down."
Winning support from staff was also seen as crucial in reassessing areas like laundry, where huge energy savings can be made. At Travelodge, laundering costs have been reduced by 25% just by making rooms up to specification. "Putting out just the number of towels or pillows actually needed by the guest is an incredibly easy way to minimise waste," explained Pennel.
Energy-efficient Scott agreed, saying that a similar system at Strattons had saved the hotel more than £1,000, or a tenth of its total laundry bill, in one year alone. Zip and link beds also worked well. "We use them because they're so adaptable. If it's single occupancy, you only need a single duvet," said Tomlinson.
Colin Spark, environmental manager at the International Business Leaders Forum, suggested reducing use of tumble dryers wherever possible to significantly lower energy bills. At the very least, Felgate added, buying energy-efficient equipment like dryers and washing machines would make a difference. "It's also a good idea to learn how to read meters to monitor usage," Felgate continued. "Knowing what energy you currently use is the first step to reducing it." Martin echoed this view. "Try not to accept estimated bills," she said. "The law only requires one reading every two years, so if you're cutting down, the bill won't necessarily show that."
Working more effectively with suppliers was put forward too. "You can reduce your company carbon footprint by just cutting down on deliveries," said Tomlinson. "If your suppliers deliver twice a day, can that be reduced to one?"
Looking ahead, despite some feeling that Britain still lags behind other parts of Europe on the issue, everyone agreed that consumer awareness would only increase.
"People are becoming more discerning," said Martin. "Education in schools is developing and we need to be aware that future generations will be much more au fait with environmental issues than their parents are now."
What is the Carbon Trust?
Set up in 2001, the Government-funded Carbon Trust supports UK businesses and public-sector organisations to help them cut carbon emissions and accelerate the move towards a low-carbon economy in the UK.
The Carbon Trust offers information, financial help and practical support to SMEs, including interest-free loans and energy-saving surveys. It also promotes the Enhanced Capital Allowance (ECA) scheme for energy-saving investments. This is a tax relief that enables businesses to claim 100% first-year capital allowances on investments in energy-saving equipment listed on the approved Energy Technology List.
For further information, visit www.thecarbontrust.co.uk
Round the table
Caterer editor Mark Lewis; Ian Pennel, operations director, Travelodge; Linda Martin, programmes director, HCIMA; Vanessa Scott, owner, Strattons hotel, Swaffham, Norfolk; Andrew Staley, property manager, UK and Ireland, Hilton Hotels; Angela Tomlinson, chairwoman of energy symposium, Starwood Hotels; Dr Gary Felgate, director of delivery and external relations, the Carbon Trust; Christina Simons, owner, the Cottage hotel, Brockenhurst, Hampshire; Colin Spark, environmental manager, IBLF; Gerry Keigher, regional director of engineering, South-east and England, Marriott Hotels.
How to save energy and cut costs
- Find out how much you're spending on energy. This gives you a base figure to monitor the success of energy-saving measures. Keep track of bills and watch as you introduce changes.
- Check heating and cooling controls to ensure they're set at appropriate temperatures.
- Prepare a list of good housekeeping measures, including simple actions like turning lights and equipment off whenever possible. Put these up around the workplace to motivate staff.
- Compile an energy check list to identify where long-term savings can be made.
Involve key members of staff - maintenance, kitchen and room service staff are all energy users and are best placed to cut waste.
Source: the Carbon Trust