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What About Those Sustainability & Green Initiatives?

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Shreyas “JR” Patel

The hospitality industry has seen record performance in recent years and with it, a record number of new hotel rooms being built and renovated. Across the real estate industry, hotels are often the most active at evolving their product by refocusing on their target clients’ demands, refreshing design schemes, and, of course, becoming more sustainable.

Everything in a hotel has a fixed life expectancy and is regularly replaced: mattresses after 10 years; carpeting, wall vinyl, light fixtures, and artwork, every seven years. A small portion of that is resold or donated, but the majority gets tossed into a dumpster and hauled away to a landfill.

At Helix Hospitality, renovations and construction are an integral part of our business. After all, if our spaces aren’t fresh and new-feeling, with relevant design, we risk being replaced by competitors who offer those qualities.

What About Sustainability?

I recently had drinks with a friend and explained that Helix is undertaking a huge amount of construction, renovation, and rehabilitation nationwide. “So,” he asked bluntly, “what about those sustainability and green initiatives?”

I admit I was caught off-guard because most people are more interested in our cool new features, like an updated bar menu or how many USB ports a room will have. I quickly rattled off all the green initiatives I could think of—efficient showerheads, faucet aerators, LED lights, motion-sensor lighting, eliminating plastic straws. My friend laughed, pointedly. “So, you mean to tell me that showerheads, LED light bulbs, and banning straws are going to justify tens of thousands of hotel rooms’ worth of goods going into a landfill?”

He was right.

I’ve always had a hard time accepting that tons of furniture, fixtures, and equipment get thrown away every year just because designs and consumer patterns change. But I’ve also been guilty of forgetting about all that as soon as a hotel renovation is complete, and the property shines again as if it were opening day.

As a company, Helix has always done our best to resell old furniture, donate light fixtures and artwork, and responsibly recycle and dispose of electronics and mattresses. I know those efforts are important, but we’re a small company with a relatively small footprint. “What could the industry as a whole do to improve sustainability?” I wondered.

Using that broad lens, I started asking different questions:

Why are design and demand forcing us to create fashionable but cheap, low-quality hotel rooms? Why doesn’t the industry think about the most routine and expected parts of its carbon footprint and tackle the challenges around them as a priority? With younger customers expecting design to constantly evolve and excite, why aren’t we thinking about sustainability from a larger, more systematic perspective? Most of all, why aren’t we innovating? After all, we’re the industry that invented the minibar and, more recently, an entire modular room that can be stacked up to build a hotel.

Result of Brainstorming Session

At the end of my brainstorming session, a few thoughts came to mind. Our industry is already building entire modular hotels, so why aren’t we building modular concepts into the hotel room itself? We’ve started moving toward more streamlined “one-piece” furniture packages. With a little innovation and ingenuity, I’m confident we can also develop:

  • Headboards with replaceable upholstery panels.
  • Nightstands that can be unlocked and replaced. On its own, this concept would save millions of pounds of waste, thousands of trees, and, of course, the fuel used in shipping case goods from overseas to the United States.
  • Artwork where the image insert can be easily replaced (instead of the entire piece), which would save tons of glass and miles of frame.
  • Modular LED lighting that can be easily reconfigured, moved, updated, and replaced.
  • Easy-to-replace appliance panels or coatings that would allow designers to change the look from stainless steel to black, white, and back again for a fraction of the cost of replacing entire appliances.

Design is already leading us down the path of constant updates and change. As an industry, we should follow this cue and move further toward a more sustainable model of replacement.

“Green” design innovations could change how quickly our industry can responsibly adapt to ever-changing consumer demands and would allow property owners to maintain rooms at a much more practical price point. As a result, we would likely see properties across the board become nimbler at upgrading; see an uptick in how well properties are maintained at a lower cost; and, most importantly, see a substantial reduction in waste and an adoption of a more sustainable approach to construction and renovations.

As the hospitality industry continues to evolve and adapt, it’s time to make drastic changes in how we view sustainability. It’s up to both the developers of the future and the operators of today to push the boundaries further to prevent real estate from turning into yet another disposable commodity.

Helix Hospitality is a hotel ownership and management company with a nationwide reach, representing many of the top hotel brands in the country. Under the leadership of President and COO, Shreyas “JR” Patel, Helix Hospitality delivers the best-in-class guest experiences, while focusing on strategic operational efficiencies. Helix Hospitality’s investment portfolio has grown to over $100 million in the last 10 years and continues to grow at a rapid rate. In addition to Patel’s work with Helix, he is committed to helping the next generation of hospitality professionals, serving as a board member of DePaul University’s School of Hospitality Leadership program.

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