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Green M&M’s & Hotel Sustainability


The legendary rock band, Van Halen, famously refused to perform if the bowl of M&M’s in their dressing room had not had the brown M&M’s hand-picked out of the bowl. What many don’t know is that this wasn’t the pinnacle of selfishness by star performers, but instead a clever way to make use of a small indicator as a reflection of a much larger and more significant goal.

The band’s manager was responsible for hundreds of specifications and technical aspects for each intricate performance—from the weight capacity of the loading dock to the tuning of the instruments and proper setup of the microphones. Quite frankly, checking everything was too much for one person to attend to before every show. As a result, the manager wisely devised the brown M&M’s as a test. He could walk into the dressing room, check the bowl of M&M’s and know instantly the level of care and attention this particular venue paid to the extensive set of instructions that were delivered in advance of the band. If the venue’s team attended to this seemingly insignificant detail, then they most certainly paid attention to the more critical technical details.

What do Van Halen’s brown M&M’s have to do with sustainability in hotels? Guests travel for numerous reasons with jam-packed itineraries or sometimes with zero plans other than just to relax. Therefore they rarely have the time or the interest to inspect the sustainability of their hotel’s day to day operations. Furthermore, there are many important aspects that a guest would never see, such as the hotel’s mechanical room, the sequencing of the domestic hot water boilers, the recycled content of the carpet they are standing on, or the long term actions of the hotel employees with regards to the community. They are in the hotel and the guestroom for a few days at most—and observe a snapshot in time of the operation. So how can they deduce if the hotel’s values are aligned with their own values? How can they tell if the hotel is truly sustainable?

Green M&M’s

The reality is that most guests leverage small, seemingly insignificant aspects of the hotel operation and use them as a proxy for the absence or presence of greater sustainability efforts. What I like to call Green M&M’s.

As the ‘Director of Green’ for The Lenox Hotel, I read through all of the feedback that comes in from guest surveys with special attention to answers provided about how guests felt about our environmental program. More than anything, they mention the attractive and creative ‘Waste-Not-Basket’—an attractive variation on the standard blue recycling bin. The basket is made of wicker and separately divided for trash, plastic, paper, and glass. A guest glances at this one item in the corner of the luxurious guestroom and, more often than not, extrapolates to all of the other sustainable efforts that we must be making.

What I have observed is that guests are often immune to our explicit efforts to inform and engage them on the hotel’s robust efforts, but they will key into other aspects, often ones we didn’t deliberately plan, to gauge whether or not the hotel is green. As a result, the question we must ask ourselves is, how do we, as hoteliers, help provide these Green M&M’s for guests? How do we give them a glimpse into the broad and far-reaching efforts, but do so at-a-glance in order to appeal to the majority of guests who pass through our lobby? If guests are taking cues from areas we didn’t necessarily plan, then how do we fine-tune or adjust our message or mode of communication?

(A quick aside—because in some ways this screams of greenwashing. The brown M&M’s only worked because the tour manager would also spot check other aspects of the setup. His level of attention was calibrated based on the brown M&M’s, but they were not his only indicator. In my parallel, there needs to be a third party verification of the sustainable efforts in effect. For guests, the best opportunity that has emerged in the last few years is Trip Advisor’s GreenLeaders program, a very customer-facing booking and feedback site that now ranks hotels on their environmental efforts. Audits are completed daily through real-time, online feedback from other guests about what the hotel is actually doing—not just what they are claiming.)

Identifying the Green M&M’s

At The Lenox Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay, out of 95 plus eco initiatives, what act as our Green M&M’s? Recently, our management team was challenged to think about what guests will identify as Green M&M’s when staying with us. And building on that, how can we provide more Green M&M’s—both internally to our team (don’t think that your employees aren’t very keen to what is lip service and what is genuine!) and externally to our guests? Will a guest turn over a note pad to see if it is made from post-consumer recycled content? Will they ask a front desk agent if the lobby coffee is Fair Trade Certified? Are they going to take the time to ask the concierge for local or sustainable-focused restaurants in the area?

Green M&M’s provide an opportunity to create a guest for life. Not only do we want to provide a great experience, we hope to enable our guests to feel good about their decision to stay with us by offering a window into the bigger picture of who we are and what we do. To do so, our efforts must be genuine and woven into the fabric of our business.

While I encourage our management team to think ahead about areas and items that guests will use as Green M&M’s, the reality is the most impactful indicators will more likely come from things we did not intend at all, but instead emerge as a byproduct of our consistent, sustainable ethos. What we do, who we buy from, and how we conduct ourselves when we think no one is looking at the seemingly small, insignificant details actually becomes the strongest message that can be sent.

Be Careful Who You Partner With

My advice internally and through this article is not far from what parents have told their children for generations—you’re only as good as the company you keep. In business, we need to investigate who we partner with, who we support with our purchases, and what the products we present to our guests say about ourselves. Sustainability isn’t a part-time effort addressed after every other decision has been made. It is and has always been a way of conducting business; and our team members and our guests will judge our commitment accordingly.

Scot Hopps is the Director of Sustainability for Saunders Hotel Group, which owns and operates four distinctive properties, including The Lenox Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay. The Waste-Not-Basket mentioned in the article is a product of JRS Amenities, LTD.