Responsible hospitality – get your sustainability strategy right

27 July 2012
Responsible hospitality – get your sustainability strategy right

Do you have a robust sustainability strategy that will help repeat corporate custom, save costs and build staff loyalty and enthusiasm? Consultant Frances Wells explains the win-win-win that smart hoteliers are currently chasing

The bigger and "better" the corporate customer you seek, the more likely they are to ask for your sustainability credentials before they buy. As well as seeking checks that you are meeting legislative requirements in essential areas such as health and safety, employment rights and environmental management, they will almost always ask for an environmental policy and frequently a purchasing policy and evidence of investment in local community matters.

There has been a tendency to simply tick boxes to date (eg, by downloading a sample environmental policy off the web) but be warned that the bar may begin to rise.

First, the initial major wave of corporate sustainability, where big business focused on its own direct impacts has matured. Now they are looking upstream to build sustainable supply chains - which could be you.

The second reason, which is no doubt a response to the first, is that major players in the hotel sector are sharpening up their sustainability act and unveiling ambitious strategy commitments.

It is likely such commitments will become part of a norm that big corporate customers expect from all suppliers - a trend we've seen happen in many other business sectors. Mega-group Hilton Worldwide has already taken a lead, now being well into a five-year, high-profile sustainability strategy that has effectively become part of its corporate identity.

While you may not have the resources to live up to the ambitions of major hotel groups, there is nothing to stop your thinking, goal setting and management being just as smart and focused for the size and type of business you are. That way the return on investment will be better and the business more resilient to pressures such as energy price hikes, supply issues and corporate client demands.

How to get into shape

The main thing to remember is to invest in the right focus and effort by taking a strategic view from day one. Get everyone from top to bottom on board, keep the communications and feedback flowing.

At the beginning you need to scope out where costs, risks, and opportunities lie within your business in relation to the three elements of business sustainability, which can be put simply as looking after people, planet and profit - also known as the triple bottom line. Don't forget the people-related aspects (customers, staff, supply workers, neighbours and community) in your rush to address the more obvious environmental matters - a common mistake. You will also need to think beyond the immediate in terms of profit payback, though quick wins are always possible.

Doing this exercise with a team of your staff will get them inspired and involved from the start. Having decided "what matters" you need to look at options for managing the good things upwards and the negative footprints downwards. Monitoring and measuring underpin this. Establishing benchmark figures and analysing patterns (daily, seasonally, etc) allow you to identify where interventions will be most beneficial, and to report on progress.

What matters in sustainability in the hotel trade

Health and safety
This applies to staff and guests (and includes food safety). Staff well-being and occupational health are rising up the agenda, too.

The big ticket items are in-house energy use, waste to landfill (eg, from delivery packaging), an increasing focus on water use and supply delivery mileage, and, coming up the agenda, hazardous chemicals use and disposal - eg, from cleaning materials.

Staff quality and retention
Reduced staff turnover, higher loyalty and retention of skills within the business are the goals of the better chains. They equate to cost savings and better customer experience.

Local action
Putting something back into the community. This can be through community partnerships, but consider work experience for students, training, inclusive recruitment and supporting local businesses through a purchasing policy.

What type of business is yours when it comes to sustainability?

We use a 5-type model to compare attitude and behaviour characteristics, since we find it is the company outlook that tends to determine success or stagnation.

Most companies are type 2 and 3 when we first meet them - they are very respectable, but failing to fully grasp the sustainable business advantage because they don't have a coherent, focused approach and typically need to improve commitment, communications and engagement.

Type 4 is the winning place to aim for, where inspiration, buy-in and return on investment are greatest. It may take time to get there but the intention to be that type of company is what really counts.

1The Outlaws
No obligations beyond profits, cuts corners, tries not to get caught - an accident waiting to happen!

2The Steady Compliers
Decent but in a reactive way, pays lip service to sustainability trends, but always on the back foot, counting the costs, not building long-term value.

3Beyond Compliance
Doing more, but is still a trend follower; not integrated into wider business strategy, buy-in strong in some areas, weak in others - often cuts back in a crisis

4Integrated Innovators
Sustainability drives innovation throughout the business as part of the company DNA; clear focus on building lasting value and future-proofing.

5Trail Blazers
The special few who take risks to break entirely new ground, shape the market and raise the bar for everyone else.

The operator experience

Apex hotels believes that its robust environmental policy has helped win business over competitors. CSR director Jo Harbisher says that being able to direct clients to the company website works as a comprehensive demonstration of its commitment and credentials.

Scott Harper, brand director at Malmaison Hotels, says that for forward-thinking companies to get corporate advantage from the sustainability agenda, they need to keep the momentum going as a long-term objective.

For Malmaison, in addition to environmental and highly focused community and charity projects, its commitment includes an emphasis on maintaining a strong people culture. Like Apex Hotels, this includes supporting a Green Team of enthusiastic in-house volunteers.

Some do's and don'ts

We've seen ways that some operators fail to take full strategic advantage of the sustainability agenda, and compared that with the way we like to help businesses develop a winning approach - see the two sides of our quick guide.

Where operators can go wrong
1 A narrow or scattergun approach that doesn't focus on the main impact areas.

2 Having vague or imprecise objectives, such as "we intend" or "we seek to… wherever possible". Anyone can put these messages out - not impressive!

3 Few or patchy milestone targets, not time-bounded.

4 Not establishing meaningful indicators of progress in chosen areas of focus.

5 No baseline performance assessment against which to make decisions and monitor progress.

6 Off the shelf environment and other policies that don't clearly demonstrate that you have thought about your specific impacts and responsibilities.

7 Top-down approach only, with little investment in staff awareness and training, and letting them take the lead.

8 Limiting possibilities because of incorrect assumptions - eg, eco-fittings and products will be too costly or provide inferior quality. Not establishing accurate pay-back times.

9 Poor communication of intent, method and progress. Remember too much detail in relatively trivial areas is as bad as too little in the important areas.

10 Ad hoc community charity projects where few in the company come to understand what is at stake, and results are relatively minor.

11 Never getting beyond a superficial approach that doesn't access the tangible benefits to be had through sustainable business.

Good practice to adopt
1 Identify those things that really matter and set about how to address them.

2 Show clear drive and determination - such as working towards being "an employer of choice", "having near-zero waste to landfill", "significantly reducing our carbon intensity".

3 For each objective, establish a credible trajectory from your starting point - eg, a specified percentage reduction over three to five years.

4 Choose indictors that provide useful management data, such as percentage customer delight rates, percentage staff very/satisfied in their job, and go for proportional indicators for factors such as carbon - you don't want to fail your target simply because you acquired three more hotels.

5 Establishing baseline figures, and patterns, such as energy use, enables you to focus on your big wins, set targets and monitor progress.

6 Having analysed your impact areas, you are in a good position to bespoke truly meaningful policies - though by all means use best-practice templates to structure them.

7 Commitment from the top is vital, but programme design and delivery should involve staff at all levels - they are the ones who will make it happen for you.

8 Do good homework to build a cost-benefit business case and supply base, establish pay-back periods and the right time to make the investment. Involve the staff in helping with research.

9 Make your communications mirror your strategy: focus on what matters, say what you aim to achieve and how; wherever possible, feed back your progress and results. Thank the staff!

10 Get to know community partners and involve as many staff as possible in being inventive in designing a response to their needs. Play to your core strengths.

11 Make sustainability integral to delivering your wider business strategy as a driver for innovation, robustness and all-round good market positioning. See the 5-type sustainable business model.

about the author

Frances Wells is an experienced sustainability practitioner having worked in the field for nearly 20 years, with special expertise in leisure, property and investment.

She founded FWA in 2000, which supports companies to find business advantage through the sustainability agenda, including policies, strategies, compliance, staff engagement, partnerships and communications.

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