Energy & environment Tourism & hospitality

Customer demand driving sustainability

Most global travellers think sustainability is vital for travel, making it an essential component of hotels’ strategies if they want to attract the eco-friendly traveller. Abi Millar speaks to Kevin Brooke, general manager at Heckfield Place, and Brune Poirson, chief sustainability officer at Accor, about what their hotels are doing to meet environmental demands.

It wasn’t too long ago that hotel sustainability was treated as a niche concern. For sure, hotel groups paid lip service to the idea – but their sustainability efforts were generally relegated to the back pages of the annual report, and often amounted to little more than a recycling scheme. Few guests made their booking decisions based on a hotel’s green credentials.

To say the situation has changed would be an understatement. Over the past few years, but especially since the start of the pandemic, the average hotel guest has become considerably more eco-conscious.’s 2021 Sustainable Travel Report, which surveyed 29,000 travellers from 30 countries, found that 83% of respondents think sustainable travel is vital, while 61% say the pandemic has made them want to travel more sustainably in future. Over half (53%) admit they get annoyed if a hotel stops them from being sustainable, e.g. by failing to provide recycling facilities.

Guest demand, then, is driving the need for change – and so too is a general push towards accountability. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, tourism contributes about 8-11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and hotels themselves are responsible for 1%.

With emissions continuing to increase, organisations like the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance have quantified what needs to change. Specifically, the industry needs to slash its carbon emissions by two thirds per room by 2030, and 90% per room by 2050, in order to ensure that industry growth doesn’t come at the detriment of the environment. The upshot is clear: greenwashing isn’t going to cut it anymore.

“Embracing sustainability and putting it at the core of our business model is the only way forward for our industry,” says Brune Poirson, chief sustainability officer at Accor. “First, because few businesses depend on nature as much a travel and tourism companies do. And second, because this is what investors, regulators, guests and owners are expecting from us. However, this is a major challenge as it requires rethinking the way we measure performance, transforming the way we operate our hotels and revamping the way we train people.”

Caring about the environment isn’t new for Accor, which established its Environment Department as early as 1994. In 2006, the French hotel group launched Earth Guest, its first dedicated sustainability programme. This was followed in 2012 by its Planet 21 programme, which involved an action plan to promote sustainable development.

“Accor has already achieved many goals – we have more than 1220 urban gardens in our hotels, we have successfully reduced our water and energy consumption by more than 2%, and we have planted more than 7 million trees through our agroforestry programs,” says Poirson. “To limit food waste, we developed in Europe a partnership with Too Good to Go, which sells unsold food products that would have otherwise ended up in the bin, at a lower price.”

More recently, the group has implemented a carbon strategy in line with the Paris Agreement – it aims to reach net zero by 2050, and slash emissions by 46% by 2030, compared to 2019 levels. It has also created a new three-pillar framework: Stay (reducing the use of natural resources), Eat (better controlling the cycle of food), and Explore (promoting responsible travel that supports local communities and biodiversity).

“Planet 21 was great, but is now time to take our sustainability ambition to the next level – our sustainability journey is about transforming the whole company,” says Poirson. “Our goal is to carry out a deep transformation of our business model and ways of working, as we want to move to a model where we give back more than we take.”

Although Accor’s ethos applies group-wide, some of its brands have made eco-consciousness a particular selling point. Greet, for instance, is based on the circular economy and second-life products, while the luxury brand Fairmont has a dedicated programme around protecting honeybees. In other words, sustainability discussions need to happen both at the boardroom level, and on the level of the individual hotel.

“For hotel leaders, this is an opportunity,” says Poirson. “Their hotel will attract more guests, long-term investors and talented employees. We are working hard to provide them with the solutions and tools they need to turn sustainability into an opportunity. The first step is to raise awareness and train employees to carry a sustainability mindset in everything they do.”

Of course, hotels that aren’t part of a chain may face a different set of challenges and opportunities. On one hand, they lack the benefits of an overarching corporate strategy. On the other hand, they have the freedom to get creative, and make the most of the unique circumstances they find on site.

“I think each property can do its bit to make a change, and just be more conscious of its day-to-day carbon footprint,” says Kevin Brooke, general manager of Heckfield Place. “At Heckfield Place, we want to demonstrate how we can implement a more sustainable model into our operations. And maybe we can start to become a little bit of a beacon within the hospitality industry as to how things can be done.”

A Georgian manor house in the Hampshire countryside, Heckfield Place is often cited as one of the UK’s most eco-friendly hotels. While the building itself certainly punches above its weight in sustainability terms – it features plastic-free rooms, locally-sourced materials and biomass boilers to heat the water – it’s really the surrounding ecosystem that has cemented its reputation.

The house is set in 438 acres of land, including an on-site market garden and an organic farm. The garden is biodynamic, meaning the fruit and veg are grown according to the rhythms of nature, including the cycles of the moon. This results in healthier, tastier food with better yields, and soil that regenerates itself over time.

“When our current owner, Dr Gerald Chan, purchased the property, he felt a deep responsibility to nurture it and bring it back to life,” says Brooke. “It’s not just a here and now project – it’s something that will continue over the next 100 years – and with that in mind there needed to be a sustainable business model in place. That includes stewardship of the land, and honoring our responsibility to look after it in the right way.”

Most of the produce served in the restaurant has its provenance in the garden or the farm. In other words, guests can be assured it has been sourced responsibly and that food miles have been minimised. They can avoid the sense, so prevalent in today’s world, that what we consume is disconnected from where it came from.

“A lot of guests will come to us because they have a genuine appreciation of nature,” says Brooke. “They see the way we are nurturing the natural world around us, and harnessing its energy in order to produce our own food. That becomes, not a selling point, but a significant feature of the experience.” 

He adds that guest engagement can happen across multiple touchpoints. They might end up speaking to the market farmer about the principles of biodynamic farming, or watch the florist arrange flowers she picked from the grounds. Or they might spot locally sourced ingredients used in the spa products or the bar.

“The bar team will go foraging in the woods, and they will collect all kinds of ingredients that they use to make homemade cordials and gins,” says Brooke. “These beverages are sold with a real story behind them.”

Clearly, not every hotel will have the luxury of having its own farm or on-site woodland. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t think carefully about their supply chain, and where their products actually come from. A sense of connectedness to nature can be a huge draw for guests.

Likewise with their day-to-day operations. While cutting emissions and reducing waste may not be the most glamorous of a hotel’s activities, they are critical aspects of responsible tourism. They are also firmly on guests’ radar, perhaps more so than any of the flashier features that might be used to capture their attention.

“Sustainability is the new digital. Either we embrace it and become more competitive, or we don’t and fall behind. There is no in-between,” says Poirson.

Brooke adds that while the term sustainability is widely used these days, it needs to be backed up with concrete action.

“The key for us in doing things rather than just talking about it,” he says. “Sustainability actually involves a very intense and thorough process, and while lot of people are talking about it, not many people are actually doing something about it.”  

This article appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Hotel Management International

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