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How Hotels Are Going Green for Guests

More and more hotels are going to great lengths to green up their acts.

Within a minute of exiting Boston’s high-tech corridor, Route 128, I find the latest hotel that’s been unveiled in the suburb of Lexington: Element. I drive past the hybrids parked in the most convenient spots in the lot, find a place and make my way through the sliding front doors into the lobby of a gray, four-story building. Fusion jazz plays as sunshine bathes the lounge in light through the large windows. I make a quick stop for goodies and feel like I’ve entered a miniature Whole Foods: bulk nuts, dried fruit, even local chocolate and salsa from (according to the salesperson) the Lexington farmers’ market.

Upstairs, my one-bedroom suite has a kitchen full of Energy Star appliances. Filtered water pours into the sink, under which I find two bins for recyclables. The toilets are dual-flush, the showers are low-flow, the shampoo and conditioner are in bulk dispensers, and the bellhop tells me that the art on my walls, depicting a leaf motif, was crafted from recycled aluminum and car tires. If I feel like being active, I can grab one of the gratis bikes downstairs and go for a spin on the nearby bike trail into town, or take a dip in the pool that’s cleaned with saline salt solution instead of eye-burning chlorine.

Just down the road from Minute Man National Historic Park, where the Revolutionary War originated, there’s another revolution under way—but this one is colored green. Owned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Element is the first chain to receive an LEED-certified gold rating, the second-highest standard bestowed on a building by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).

It seems apropos that Element would open its prototype in the Boston area, not far from downtown’s Lenox Hotel. In 1989, co-owner Tedd Saunders made a number of changes to his 212-room property, including saving water and electricity, recycling paper and implementing the towel and linen reuse program now common in most hotels across the country. Saunders has won a Presidential Gold Medal for Environmental Excellence, given to him by George H.W. Bush while the president was in office.

Brian McGuinness, a vice president at Starwood, notes that the additional cost of going green may deter some hotels. “It’s a 2 to 3 percent premium above the total cost of the building to go the LEED-certified route,” he says, adding that he hopes to offset that cost from the operational side in the next three to four years.

Energy savings include keeping electricity down to a minimum through natural lights and the use of CFL bulbs, low-flow showers and dual-flush toilets that save approximately 942,000 gallons of water annually at Element Lexington, and a roofing material that reflects heat from the sun, so the hotel won’t tax its air-conditioning system in the summer. Keeping with LEED standards, Element also purchases energy that comes from a green source: the wind.

It’s not easy being green

Still, while there’s much to like about Element’s eco-friendly design, you can’t help wondering why the American hotel industry took so long to jump on the environmental bandwagon. For business travelers, everything seems to be on the up-and-up with Starwood’s new brand, but it’s hard not to be skeptical of any hotel’s environmental practices in an industry where greenwashing runs rampant. Put a compost bin in the back of that megaresort in Cancun, and suddenly you have an “eco-lodge.”

Even leading architects in the green building movement, such as Meredith Elbaum, of Sasaki Associates, who helped earn LEED certification for her firm’s building in Watertown, Mass., says it’s hard to find a resort that actually practices what it preaches. “Seeing if they have LEED is one criterion, but you still have to do your research.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the LEED platform was specifically designed for commercial and institutional projects, such as office buildings, residential high-rises and government facilities—not hotels. Then in stepped Green Seal, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that tries to promote a healthier environment. The organization created an in-depth program for hotels in 1999 and wrote a manual, Greening Your Property, that’s still published by the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Green Seal has also been vocal in its assessment that a typical average-size lodging uses more resources in a week than 100 families use in a year.

“While they’re not a major polluter, hotels do consume a significant amount of resources,” says the nonprofit’s president, Arthur Weissman. Green Seal works with many municipalities, like Chicago and L.A., whose mayors are determined to make their cities the greenest in the country. States including California and Florida have also started Green Lodging Programs, which require state employees to stay at green hotels during business trips. Indeed, government incentives and big business could very well be behind this latest surge in new hotel design.

“We heard from our global accounts, players like Microsoft, AT&T and Hewlett-Packard, that their goal was to find a hotel company that had some sort of green program in place,” says Brian McGuinness, “and we realized we need to do this.”

According to Arthur Weissman, this new initiative has led to an increase in revenue for hotels that join the movement. “The Doubletree in Portland, Oregon, told us they received more than $3 million in business due to their green certification,” notes Weissman.

We care—to a point

But what about the typical traveler who simply wants a decent shower, a comfortable bed and perhaps a workout before turning in for the night? Workers who have no corporate mandate to go green are known to be extravagant when away from home, indulging in energy-chugging hot tubs and (dare I say it?) forgetting to turn off the lights and the A/C when they leave their rooms.

“Our research indicates that guests do care, but you can’t compromise on their experience,” says McGuinness. “We’ll recycle, but we don’t expect guests to take their green bin downstairs. They want to save water, but they don’t want that showerhead from high-school gym with a weak spray. We need to find a balance.”

Element plans to open 30 more properties by the end of 2009, including a 423-room high-rise hotel next summer in New York’s Times Square. Other big hotel chains will surely follow suit. Former head of Starwood (and now the chain’s competitor) Barry Sternlich plans to open his upscale 1 Hotels in Seattle and New York in the coming year, with 1 percent of the profit reportedly going to environmental groups.

There’s certainly room for more growth in Element’s green design, such as the use of solar panels to heat the pool and the incorporation of a master switch, which many hotels in Europe already have. The latter works by simply inserting your room key into a switch inside the room that turns on the electricity, heat and water. When you leave the room, you have to take that room key with you, thus turning off all the appliances.

“We’re just trying to do the right thing,” says McGuinness. “At the very least, we’re at the entry level: eco-friendly and not increasing the carbon footprint.” It may not be a green revolution quite yet, but it seems like a darn good starting point.

STEVE JERMANOK is a freelance writer who covers sustainability issues.

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