As an industry, hotels have generally lagged behind the curve on sustainability but they are starting to catch up, especially in New York City, one of the world’s most popular destinations. Last November, the Hotel Association of New York City (HANYC) announced the winners of the very first HANYC Sustainability Awards, recognizing three NYC hotels as model examples of green hospitality and responsibility. In the process of reviewing and judging the pool of applicants, we gained a unique first-hand look behind the scenes at what many NYC hotels are doing. So how do NYC hotels fare? Here are ten things we learned:
1. Green Teams
Most hotels we reviewed had a green team in place. This is one of the building blocks of a successful sustainability program. While the frequency of green team meetings varied at the different hotels, they function as a useful pipeline for employees to bring up ideas and questions that might otherwise not get addressed. One hotel told us that their team had associates from all departments, and that it had already pushed through a number of efforts including the elimination of Styrofoam from all food and beverage operations, and the purchasing of greener products like low VOC paints.
2. Green Policies
All had some sort of green/sustainable corporate policy in place with guidelines covering a variety of areas including data tracking and benchmarking, requirements on using corporate-approved green vendors for purchasing decisions, the achievement of corporate energy-saving goals, farm-to-table policies for their food operations, and housekeeping procedures that encourage conservation. For example, many hotels instruct housekeepers to open the curtains instead of switching on the lights when cleaning rooms, and some allow guests to indicate if they want to participate in linen and towel reuse programs or paperless checkouts in exchange for reward points.
Certification was spotty. None of the hotels were LEED certified. But there were a few certified by Green Key Global, some participating with Green Hotels Global, and TripAdvisor GreenLeaders. Some new properties are beginning to look into incorporating LEED into development budgets.
4. Focus on Energy
Because hotels are reportedly the fourth largest consumers of energy, many have started to address this issue. The hotel that took the HANYC Sustainability Awards’ Environmental Protection award—the New York Hilton Midtown—installed a 1,750kW cogeneration plant, which provides clean electricity and 2,700kW heat for building operations, satisfying more than 50 percent of the electricity demand and 35 percent of the steam demand for the hotel’s nearly 2,000 guestrooms.
Many hotels have also started to replace all their bulbs with energy efficient LEDs. One hotel told us how they pushed through a lighting retrofit despite resistance from some colleagues concerned about the light quality by quietly replacing all the bulbs in one of their conference rooms with LED lights. By the end of the meeting, the “surprise” was unveiled, the doubters won over, and the nod to do the LED switch in other areas of the hotel followed soon after. Another hotel started by replacing all 3,300 bulbs that lit up their exterior sign with LEDs—the payback on that was just two months.
5. Soap and Amenities Recycling—The New Norm
Just a few years ago, used soap and amenities (shampoos, lotions, etc.) would regularly end up in the trash. Today, all the hotels indicated that they have programs to recycle the products. Thousands of pounds of soap and amenities have been diverted from the landfill this way. One hotel donates 100 pounds of soap each month, another has donated over 10,000 pounds of amenities over the past two years. Most hotels work with Clean the World or the Global Soap Project—two of the best-known organizations that process used soaps for distribution in poor countries. Others donate the items to local charities like the Bowery Mission. One finalist hotel even had an incentive program to reward housekeepers for every 1,000 pounds of amenities collected for donation. Beyond soap and amenities, the idea of recycling is spreading. One hotel told us they donate gently used sheets to vets, while another said they regularly use old towels as cleaning rags—a small but well-intentioned effort reflecting the new normal of recycling.
6. Headless Pineapples & Other Innovative Ideas
The hotels displayed a range of innovative ideas designed to make their operations less wasteful. The green-conscious chef of the hotel that won the HANYC Sustainability Awards’ Holistic Strategy award—the Waldorf Astoria—replaced his staff’s usual chef’s hats, which are often tossed at the end of the day, to a more durable and compostable version that could be worn for a week. He also began ordering headless pineapples, which reduced packaging and waste (eight headless pineapples could now fit in a box originally meant for six whole pineapples). One hotel replaced all its room key cards with mobile technology. Another plans to go all-digital with no paper collaterals, including offering electronic newspapers instead of print, and redesigning tables to eliminate the use of linens.
7. Water Consciousness
Many of the hotels had installed water-saving features, especially low-flush toilets that use about 1.2 gallons of water instead of the usual 1.6 gallons per flush. Some reuse water for landscaping and other non-potable uses.
While some hotels had more robust metrics than others, they were all aware of the importance of tracking their impact on the environment, especially in terms of water and energy use, and amount of waste diverted. Data is key to setting goals and planning improvements.
9. Strong Community Bonds
Hotels are strongly rooted in their community. Some get up to 70 percent of their business from within a 10-block radius. Many have long-standing partnerships to give back to neighborhood organizations like local food pantries and churches. One hotel provides an estimated 5,200 hot meals a year to a nearby community service center and women’s shelter, another supports cooking and lunch set-ups for over 200 people daily at a local soup kitchen. Some hotels also help in fundraising for their neighborhood partners, for example by hosting Thanksgiving dinners. Others even perform ad hoc repair work and painting, as and when needed. A group from one hotel that volunteered to clean the streets in their Times Square neighborhood was tickled to find themselves sweeping the sidewalk outside a rival hotel!
10. Social Outreach
Hotels are active in community service beyond their local boundaries. Some follow corporate guidelines setting aside a specific month or two devoted to community service. Others maintain a calendar of charity events that employees can sign up for year-round. While some mandate employee participation for a set number of hours a year, others are entirely voluntary. It is not unusual for a hotel’s charitable efforts to be driven mostly by one passionate colleague, who would look for causes and then rally the team. For one hotel, that person worked in the finance department. In another, it was the head chef. A wide variety of charities were supported. We saw quite a few ALS ice bucket challenge videos. Toy, coat and backpack drives were also common, as were charity walks for autism, cancer, and other causes. The hotel that won the HANYC Sustainability Awards’ Social Responsibility award—The Carlton hotel—had programs ranging from support for charities like the Trevor Project (which focuses on suicide prevention among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth) to participation in a New York City Park’s department program that plants and maintains thousands of trees across the city.