On a cold February evening in 1977, President Jimmy Carter appeared on American television sets sat next to a roaring fire, a beige sweater draped uneasily over his blue shirt and tie. “We must face the fact that the energy shortage is permanent,” he said to the camera. “There is no way that we can solve it quickly, but if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices – if we learn to live thriftily, and remember the importance of helping our neighbours – then we can find ways to adjust.”

Carter only served one term. The effectiveness of his efforts to warn the American public – amid rising inflation and an Arab oil embargo – that the days of unlimited energy were over died away with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. There was at least one company at the time, however, that shared his vision for a more prudent approach to energy consumption.

“We launched [our] first energy conservation campaign in the early 1970s,” says Max Verstraete, Hilton’s vice-president for corporate responsibility. Long before global warming hit the public consciousness, the company’s efforts focused on creating energy management manuals for on-site engineers.

“It was then that hotel operators “started to focus on reducing the wastage of energy and introducing standards for efficiency, and starting to figure out ways to measure energy use”.

Verstraete has spent much of his career coordinating the implementation of LightStay, Hilton’s flagship energy-saving initiative. A software platform situated on the firm’s intranet, LightStay enables its users to view metrics on an individual property’s consumption of water and energy, and its generation of carbon emissions and waste.

“The beauty of it is that it’s a proprietary system,” he says, one that Hilton is constantly working to improve. “I’m lucky in my position that we understand, as a company, that sustainability is a business imperative, and my superiors allow me to invest in this tool and we continue to invest in it.”

Switching off

The hospitality industry is no stranger to the benefits of energy management systems (EMS). By installing the Verdant EMS in select properties, hotel management company Baywood has helped to reduce run times for heating, ventilation and air conditioning by a third. At the Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead, the upgrade of an older EMS allowed management to discover a misalignment of the thermostat system. By lowering the average temperature across the hotel, they saved over $60,000 a year.

Yet few EMS initiatives are as extensive, or retain such a long pedigree, as LightStay. Building on the standards of energy conservation set by the operator’s in-house engineers back in the 1970s, the direct antecedent of LightStay was born out of the merger of Hilton and Conrad Hilton International in 2007.

“It was called the Hilton Environmental Analysis Tracking Tool, or HEATT,” says Verstraete, who at the time was working at the corporate offices of one of Hilton’s subsidiary brands, DoubleTree. While owing a great debt to the sustainability initiatives pioneered by another Hilton brand, Scandig, in the previous decade, the young executive saw a chance to spread the savings accrued by HEATT across the operator’s entire portfolio.

“In 2007, Hilton realised that, as a leading global company, it had to better integrate sustainability into its business practice,” explains Verstraete. “Experts in that area to helped us determine our goals. In 2008, we launched our [plan], which entailed a 20% reduction in energy, a 20% reduction in carbon, a 20% reduction in waste and a 10% reduction in water over the course of five years.”

Such a campaign required a software platform that enabled hotel managers to chart where waste was being generated and how closely they were abiding by the company-wide energy goals. To that end, HEATT was overhauled from top to bottom and renamed LightStay. By 2010, the system had become a “brand standard across Hilton’s portfolio”, explains Verstraete.

The latest version of the system, LightStay 4.0, adds energy modelling alerts and forecasting tools that not only allow managers to observe when their property is straying far from agreed sustainability targets, but also allows the system to quality for ISO 50001 certification.

“Every single team member can access it through the intranet,” explains Verstraete. “We’ve really tried to make this as simple as possible, so that we can get as much interaction as possible from every team member.”

The dashboard presents the user with energy, water and waste ‘scores,’ as well as two more based around best practices. “We looked at all the different certifications out there,” says Verstraete. “And took what we felt worked best for a global hospitality company and divided it into two surveys that every hotel needs to complete.”

One survey deals with capital items – or what Hilton’s vice-president for corporate responsibility likes to call the ‘bones’ of the property – while the other covers operating procedures. “Hotel scores are based on what they’re doing, and they have to update this information every year,” Verstraete says.

Each of the five ratings is viewed on a different colour-coded tile, with a score out of 100. “Green is good; it means you’re above the brand average and trending up,” explains Verstraete. “Red is bad, meaning you’re below the brand average and trending down. Yellow means that you are in some sort of a transition phase: you could be either above the brand average and trending down – in which case the system will warn you that you’re trending down – or you could be below the brand average and trending up, in which case the system will encourage you to keep going.”

Click on a tile, and another dashboard specific to that metric will appear. Each one has a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) to let the user drill down into the nuts and bolts of energy consumption at the property. For hotel managers, it’s an ideal tool to let them know whether their property is abiding by that year’s energy reduction goal; which teams are contributing more than others; and the status of individual sustainability projects.

Some clients will care more than others, whether that means removing plastic bottles from meetings, or moving meetings to rooms with natural daylight.

“All [Hilton] hotels need to have energy, water and waste efficiency projects in place at all times,” says Verstraete. “These could be things like changing corridor lighting to efficient LEDs.” A trained engineer will then log onto LightStay, enter the project section of the platform and click ‘New Project.’ Once it’s up and running, the details of the new initiative are shared with other hotels across the network that are interested in pursuing similar goals. “It’s a great tool to share best practices,” notes Verstraete.

Bright future

The energy savings achieved with LightStay have been considerable. Since 2009, waste generation has fallen by 29%, with water and energy also declining by 17% each.

Despite this, engagement with paying guests about the platform has remained limited to the meetings and event space. Within this slice of Hilton’s customer base, however, the ability of the platform to evaluate the carbon costs of conferences – known as the ‘Meet with Purpose’ programme – has proved popular with executives. “It’s our solution to help integrate sustainability, mindfulness and well-being into meetings,” explains Verstraete. “Some clients will care more than others, whether that means removing plastic bottles from meetings, or moving meetings to rooms with natural daylight.”

Hilton has already taken a step toward publicising its sustainability efforts among guests, advertising the energy savings achieved by an individual property on its Wi-Fi connection page. Scrolling down will reveal that “this hotel has taken X [number of] cars off the road or this hotel has reduced waste by this much,” says Verstraete. Real-time information is sourced directly from LightStay. “Hilton launched that [feature] last year and we’re seeing how that’s [being] received, but we know that that’s an opportunity to share all of this great data with our guests,” he says.

All Hilton hotels need to have energy, water and waste efficiency projects in place at all times.

In the meantime, Verstraete and his colleagues at Hilton are privately satisfied with LightStay as a beacon of their corporate responsibility agenda. “We have a great energy story as a company,” he says. “We’re very proud of it [and] we put our money where our mouth is. The company has continuously invested in the system and understands the importance of it.

“In the end, LightStay is as important as having the right mattress in every guest room.”