By 2020, Starwood plans to slash energy use by 30% and water consumption by 20%; by 2016, Rezidor is targeting an energy consumption reduction of 25% across its properties in Europe, the Middle East and Africa; and, even more ambitiously, Hilton Worldwide hopes to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by 2014.

And these three groups are by no means the only players in the hospitality industry committing to increased sustainability. Last year, 19 of their competitors, including InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Accor and Marriott International, joined them, along with the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) and the International Tourism Partnership (ITP), to launch the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (HCMI), which aims to help hotels reduce, measure and communicate their carbon footprints to consumers.

Guests demand change

‘Consumers’ here is the operative word, as guests, and particularly corporate clients, no longer accept anything less than a quantifiable commitment to going green. Hotel stays and meetings impact on their own carbon footprints and affect their personal or company targets in this area, meaning hotels are increasingly being held to account on their social and environmental performance.

"Today’s hotel guests demand a transparent approach to environmental sustainability," says Andrea Pinabell, director of environmental sustainability and global citizenship at Starwood. "They want to understand how the choices they make impact the environment and be able to make the right decisions when booking hotels. In fact, increasingly more RFPs from corporate clients request information on our green practices and policies as a condition of doing business with us." Hospitality operators, therefore, have had little choice but to put in place concrete strategies to clean up their act – and fast. But with target deadlines now just around the corner, how will they ensure that they meet their ambitious goals and, in the process, keep their increasingly carbon-conscious clientele satisfied?

Collaboration is key

In a word: collaboration. Making any significant changes to companies that operate across huge geographical footprints, with a mixture of owned, managed and franchised properties, is a huge ask, but it has to start with cooperation – at absolutely every level. "Our approach focuses on creating a company culture committed to sustainability," Pinabell confirms. "Through collaboration with our hotel owners, franchisees, suppliers and business partners, we work to continually improve and innovate in our practices."

Of course, this cooperation has to start from within, so, for Pinabell, it’s essential to get absolutely everyone involved in the company’s vision from the get-go.

Transparency and communication are key to achieving this. "Starwood has a comprehensive environmental sustainability policy and our challenge is to make this relevant on a hotel level in the many markets in which we operate," Pinabell says. "To facilitate this day-to-day work, we have developed and launched a proprietary internal communications platform – the Sustainability Resource Center (SRC), which serves as a central source of all Starwood’s sustainability information, reporting and training support documents. We also have sustainability champions and councils in each of our hotels and ownership communication channels."

Get staff on board

For David Jerome, senior vice-president of corporate responsibility at IHG, staff involvement is equally crucial. For example, the company’s online sustainability management system Green Engage, which measures individual hotels’ energy, water and waste consumption and provides action plans on how they can improve their environmental performance, was developed with the help of hotel owners across the business.

" Today’s hotel guests demand a transparent approach to environmental sustainability."

"We work with our owners to keep it fresh and have listened to them extensively on the direction they believe it should take," he says. "We’re now at almost 50% of the estate in terms of penetration, which is very significant."

It’s this idea of ‘glocalisation’ – a global strategy but with a local approach – that Sophie Flak, Accor’s executive vicepresident for sustainable development, believes is essential to success. In fact, it is this principle around which the French hotel group has based its Planet 21 programme, which was launched this year and places sustainable hospitality right at the heart of the company’s strategic vision, setting out 21 sustainability goals to be met by 2015.

"For example, we’ve developed an e-learning system that goes into each room of each hotel and tells each employee – depending on where they are – exactly what they can do: here you can turn off the light; here you can use fewer chemicals; here you can use less paper; and so on," Flak says.

Another way in which an increasing number of hotel groups are ensuring buyin from their staff on the ground is through mandatory measurement of their hotels’ sustainability performance. Accor, for example, uses a management tool called Open 21, through which hotels report each month on their performance in various areas such as energy and water use.

"100% of our owned and managed hotels and 82% of our franchised hotels provide the correct data," says Flak. "Our penetration of the tool is huge, and it’s huge because we have tried to move from reporting to added value. We don’t tell the hotel to do it because it’s nice; we tell them to do it because it’s good for business."

Indeed, it is absolutely essential for hotels to recognise sustainability as integral to success. "We see it as a business opportunity and, as such, have incorporated our responsibility to sustainability into the basis of our business strategy," Pinabell notes. "Many of our foundational initiatives provide both environmental as well as economic benefits such as high-efficiency lighting and low-flow faucet aerators. And other more advanced initiatives, such as energy management systems, which are currently being implemented at our Element-brand hotels, require more significant initial investment but yield greater operational savings over time."

"Starwood has a comprehensive environmental sustainability policy."

Yet, while the cost advantages of sustainability may be obvious to the industry’s biggest players, Jerome feels there is still a long way to go before the entire sector buys into this idea. "It’s a process," he says. "For some owners, just understanding that they save money by being green is a big step, while others already see it as an opportunity to engage with their guests and encourage them to return. For me, it’s about the 80-20 rule. I think about 80% understand it and agree it’s a good idea, but there are always 20% trying to figure out if we’re right or not.

They take a little bit longer to bring along." Ensuring that hotels’ staff are involved in a group’s sustainability strategy, however, is really only the beginning; collaboration needs to go much further if operators are to meet the increasingly ambitious sustainability goals they are setting for themselves. Careful use of external consultants is one option.

"Of course, it’s important that the company has a point of view," Jerome says. "But there is clearly a role for consultants too, when it comes to specific details such as water or carbon modelling." Flak agrees. "I believe very much in the development of our people at Accor, but if it’s a one-off thing or we need detailed expertise, then leveraging experts is essential," she says. "When we have water issues, for example, we go to scientists, and when we’re working on nutrition, we need to work with doctors."

Get suppliers on board

Integrating suppliers into a hotel group’s sustainable development strategy is another way to encourage good environmental behaviour across the entire supply chain. But again, with so many hospitality operators working with disparate suppliers around the world, this isn’t an easy task.

"Our industry is extremely fragmented from a geographical standpoint and we have global suppliers like Danone, for example, but also the small bread-maker around the corner," Flak explains.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to create a supply chain-wide sustainability strategy; indeed, simply engaging suppliers in the conversation is a good start. "We’ve created an Accor Planet 21 charter for the supply chain and although many people think creating a charter and asking our suppliers to commit to it is wishful thinking, it allows you to begin the conversation and it also acts as a dealbreaker in case of a problem," Flak says. "Sustainability is not black and white; it’s all about progress and commitment, so for us the most important thing is to engage our suppliers in the conversation."

" We don’t tell the hotel to do it because it’s nice; we tell them to do it because it’s good for business. We see it as an opportunity."

Guests, too, the very people driving hotels’ increased focus on sustainable development, are increasingly being asked by hoteliers to get involved with going green. Initiatives such as Starwood’s Make A Green Choice programme, which gives guests the option to decline housekeeping services each night, and Accor’s Planet 21 strategy, which includes a programme for informing customers and encouraging them to contribute to hotels’ actions and achievements, demonstrate the incredible importance of guest involvement in sustainability strategies.

"With over three million users since its September 2009 roll-out, the Make A Green Choice programme has been a big step towards our goals to reduce energy and water consumption," Pinabell says. "Moreover, this initiative will become a brand standard by the end of 2012 in seven of our nine brands."

"Involving the guest also allows us to go one step further," Flak adds. "Yes, we can install light-saving bulbs, but if the guest turns off the light when they walk out of the room, that’s one step better."

And finally: competitors

Yet, while the strategies outlined above will all be absolutely integral to hotel groups achieving their individual sustainability goals, one more step needs to be taken to ensure the hospitality industry as a whole moves forward sustainably: collaboration among competitors.

Although this may seem to be in opposition to the idea of sustainability as a business opportunity, it’s really the only way to ensure the truly sustainable development of the hotel industry. "Take child sex tourism, for example," says Flak. "If the adult can walk to the nextdoor hotel with the child, what difference did we make? We’d just be walking away from our responsibilities."

Accor, therefore, shares the training programme it has developed to fight sex tourism for free online, along with a host of other training tools, surveys and sustainability information, in an effort to move the industry towards a more sustainable future.

"We have an open-source policy on sustainability because it generates progress in the entire industry."

"We have an open-source policy on sustainability because it generates progress in the entire industry," Flak says.

With sustainability target deadlines just around the corner for many of the most influential operators in the hotel sector, and guests refusing to accept anything less than a concrete commitment to sustainability, collaboration – at every level – is only set to become more commonplace. Whether that will involve encouraging more input from hotel owners and guests, integrating more suppliers into sustainability strategies or sharing knowledge with partners and competitors around the world, working together is the only way groups operating thousands of hotels worldwide stand a chance of meeting their evermore ambitious goals.