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Hospitality experts ponder profit and sustainability

The hospitality industry has ramped up its sustainability programs, but the issues at hand are rapidly expanding, said hospitality experts Nov. 16 at a Sustainability Rountable in New York City. One important way to improve industry sustainability is for companies to share best practices in general terms.

"Most companies are willing to share 'general content' about sustainability," said Alex Susskind, associate professor at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, who chaired the session held at Proskauer in New York City by the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research. "But the small, specific tactics and processes are kept secretive, which is what makes a hotel brand special."

The Sustainability Roundtable brought together corporate management, owners, operators and suppliers to discuss those issues and myriad other aspects of sustainability. 
Attendees included representatives from Marriott International, Wyndham Worldwide, Hyatt Hotels Corp., InterContinental Hotels Group, MGM Resorts International and Darden Restaurants.

What sets apart the sustainable hospitality movement, said Faith Taylor, vice president of sustainability and innovation for Wyndham Worldwide, is that hoteliers communicate not only with departments in their own companies but also external stakeholders.
Roundtable participants agreed that hotels and restaurants have made substantial strides toward improving their operational sustainability. However, much of the "low hanging fruit" has been harvested (such as installing fluorescent lamps and low-flow showerheads). To go beyond that, the industry needs research into the best "green" practices, particularly those that contribute to the bottom line.

As important as sustainability might be, businesses still must pay attention to profitability, said Dennis Quaintance, of Quaintance-Weaver.

"It's not sustainable to go broke," he said. He pointed out that sustainability elements added roughly 10 percent of cost in the design and construction phase of their LEED Platinum hotel and restaurant, but they were able to subtract about 7 percent from design and construction costs because their integrated design process also produced construction cost savings, plus they save around 40 percent in utility costs from an operational perspective.

"Sustainable programs must be a balance of idealism and pragmatism," Quaintance concluded.

For restaurants, two of the big challenges are reducing water use and increasing recycling of waste streams, said the participants. Barry Moullet of Darden Restaurants pointed out that small changes to practices at the unit level can bring big savings of resources and expenditures and a reduction in the company's carbon footprint. One challenge for recycling is the variation in regulations and programs. Some locations have sophisticated recycling regulations, but others have nothing at all.
Hotels are engaged in the challenge of retrofitting buildings, an effort that includes determining what standards to achieve. Corporate executives would prefer to work toward certification, but that is an uncertain target since so many certifications exist.

Perhaps the most comprehensive area is sustainability reporting. Eric Ricaurte, principal of Greenview, outlined the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the world's "most widely used sustainability reporting framework." GRI is accepted because it is not specific to a particular industry or issue, and its framework is providing the base for investment decisions related to corporate sustainability. He added: "It represents the intersection between investment and sustainability that we need."

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Joe Schwartz