Sustainable tourism: the rise of the eco-boutique hotels

Boutique hotels are embracing the zero-carbon trend. But it’s about profit as well as planet, writes Elisabeth Braw

Hotel Landgut Borsig

Hotel Landgut Borsig, 40km from Berlin, is an (almost) carbon zero hotel that produces its own energy Photograph: Christin Glaser

At the four-star Hotel Landgut Borsig in Nauen, some 40km from Berlin, guests sleep on luxury mattresses, eat gourmet meals sourced from local ingredients and can opt to relax in the sauna or attend bread-making classes. But their rooms lack mini-bars.

That’s because Landgut Borsig is (almost) a zero-carbon hotel. «We produce our energy ourselves,» owner and manager Michael Stober explains. «We actually produce more energy than we need. We’ve bought the forest surrounding the hotel as well, and it absorbs nearly all our emissions. We’re adding more trees now to make us completely CO2-neutral.»

Sound more flower power than business? Think again. «Zero-carbon hotels have become a big trend in the past 10 years,» reports Willy Legrand, who teaches hotel management at the International University of Applied Sciences, Bad Honnef-Bonn. «Now there are even plus-carbon hotels, which sell their surplus to others.» According to Legrand, co-author of Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry, the main reason is skyrocketing energy costs: in many countries, energy is now hotels’ largest expense, second only to staff. In a survey conducted by Legrand, 74% of hotels reported investing in energy savings to reduce costs.

«When I started, I had no idea whether this would take off», admits Michaela Reitterer, owner and manager of Vienna’s Hotel Stadthalle, the world’s first CO2-neutral city hotel when it opened in 2008. «But I’m convinced CO2 neutrality is good business. This is a way of differentiating yourself, and it’s good PR. If I just ran an ordinary three-star hotel, you’d never have called me.»

Hotel chains discovered sustainability as a selling point long ago. Many display signs in their bathrooms inviting guests to help preserve the environment by keeping their towels for more than one day. «But the big chains are not serious about sustainability», claims Frank Naumann, whose company, Dibella, supplies hotels with organic bed linen and towels, made from organic cotton and manufactured by adult workers who are paid proper wages. «Keeping your towels a day longer is not going to make a big difference, but the big chains are not willing to pay more for organic textiles.»

Instead it’s boutique hotels like the Stadthalle that are driving the new zero-carbon, super-sustainability trend. Among the standard offerings: organic bedsheets and towels, toilets that only use rain water, and food items with labels that trace ingredients back to a specific field. Some, like Landgut Borsig, even feature mattresses made from natural ingredients such as cocoa fibre, natural rubber and horsehair. «We supply and purify our own water, we use solar panels, solar cells and thermal heat, and serve smaller portions so as to reduce food waste», reports Anders Törnroth, sales director at Sweden’s zero-carbon Sånga-Säby hotel and conference centre. «And we offset our guests’ and employees’ CO2 emissions getting here.»

«There’s no doubt that current best practices are in small hotels,» explains Legrand, who also teaches at universities in Singapore and the Middle East. «That’s because boutique hotels are often operated by their owners and reflect their owners’ personality. Of course, they don’t have the global impact that similar practices in large chains would have.» Though they don’t go as far as zero carbon, several chains, including InterContinental, Ritz-Carlton and Hyatt, do have serious sustainability programs.

«My wife and I run the hotel because it’s our passion and yes, it’s more expensive,» explains Stober, who opened his hotel last year. «But we get guests who are willing to pay more, and are on track to becoming profitable by next year. Just the other day, the largest companies on the German stock exchange hosted a sustainability conference here.» Sånga-Säby, says Törnroth, breaks even thanks to corporate guests «who choose us to ease their environmental conscience».

At the 80-room Hotel Stadthalle, Michaela Reitterer reports an average occupancy rate of 83%. «It’s not just about being CO2-neutral,» she explains. «It’s about the whole concept, and as owner you have to be willing to pay a bit more for some things. And the guests appreciate that. Sure, there are some people who don’t come back because we don’t have minibars or air conditioning, but most people are fine with that.» Besides, Reitterer points out, the EU’s 20-20-20 binding climate change policy leaves EU businesses no choice but to cut carbon emissions.

Because traditional banks are often reluctant to give loans to businesses seen as more granola than profit machines, «sustainability banks» have entered the market. Netherlands-based Triodos Bank is now a leader in lending to super-sustainable hotels. The zero-carbon Hotel Saunders Group on the US east coast, for its part, reports saving millions on energy and other initiatives such as waterless urinals.

Last year Sånga-Säby saw a 1.6% revenue increase; during the same time, the Swedish hotel industry shrank. «There’s so much environmental consciousness nowadays,» notes Törnroth. «We even get international guests who come here specifically because of our profile. Everything is pointing in the direction of serious sustainability.»

Still, Legrand points out, there’s no such thing as a 100% sustainable hotel. «But judging from my students, this trend will keep taking off,» he predicts. «They take sustainability for granted. You don’t even have to explain to them how a photovoltaic panel works.»

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Date / Fecha: 24/08/13

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