If you have checked into a premium or luxury hotel in the past year, you would have surely noticed that the good old plastic water bottles in the rooms have been replaced with glass bottles, the toothbrush in the washroom is either wooden or made out of bamboo. Though tent cards asking the guests to conserve water by not putting their towels for washing each time after a shower has been there for a while, one also gets to see messaging on how the hotel has switched to using renewable power. The hotel industry is known to be among the largest generators of carbon emission, leaving little option but to hurriedly adopt sustainable practices. "One hour of TV has about five tonnes of carbon emission which is equivalent to driving a petrol car for 22,000 miles. Therefore, when a guest leaves the TV on in the room, they have to be self-conscious of carbon commission. We are not just embracing sustainable practices ourselves, we are also educating our guests," points out Haitham Mattar, MD (South West Asia, Middle-East and Africa), IHG Hotels and Resorts.

According to a Booking.com survey, 81% of travellers globally are looking for sustainable stays and travel due to climate change, 78% want a positive impact on the local community they are traveling to. As per a Nielsen IQ study in 2019, 73% of people are ready to pay extra for products which are sustainable in nature.

Indian Hotels Company's (IHCL), better known as the Taj Group, earlier this year launched its ESG initiative, Paathya, as part of which it has defined several short and long-term sustainability goals aimed at making the hotel chain 100% sustainable by 2030. According to Gaurav Pokhariyal, executive vice-president (Human Resources), IHCL, the company's sustainability journey would not just include embracing renewable energy or sustainable water management practices, it would also include impacting livelihoods as well as preserving the cultural and historical assets of the country. "One in every five guests are asking what your sustainability initiatives are. Covid has also made them more conscious about sustainability and how we are taking care of our planet."

The company has recently partnered with IFC to create a platform through which it is inviting renewable energy start-ups to come up with energy conservation solutions. "The largest cost (almost 15%-20% of our turnover) of running a hotel in the last decade has been fuel and power. We have been struggling when it comes to fuel and power as the rates are in control of the regulatory authorities in every state," explains Pokhariyal. He says that over 80% of the company's power and fuel costs come from air-conditioning and to reduce that, renewable energy start-ups are conducting pilots in 4-5 of their hotels. "If it is successful, we can take the collaboration with IFC further. These costs are currently being borne by IFC," he further adds.

The Radisson Group has set a target to become zero waste by 2050. The hotel chain, says Federico J. Gonzalez, CEO, Radisson Hotel Group, is trying to put in place some basic principles for the short and medium term. "We have put down 15 concrete things (such as measuring your carbon footprint, what is your electricity consumption, are you tracking if your suppliers follow ethical practices etc) which the hotel industry needs to standardise. Those 15 things will not move towards being carbon zero, but it is the start." Gonzalez says that Radisson has construction guides to minimise footprints in terms of consumption of energy and water. 'From an operational point of view also, we are developing norms to minimise footprint."

IHG, says Mattar, has been partnering with other companies to bring in innovative tools, one of them being a product which takes imaging of the food that its hotels throw away. "For instance, if you have thrown away 100 litres of oats on a single day the imaging technology captures it. The hotel then takes action to reengineer its menu which will help reduce food costs by reducing wastage." Mattar also talks about 'Green Engage', as part of which it has laid down 200 actions for the general managers at its hotels to reduce energy consumption. "This also helps in reducing energy costs as well as our carbon footprints," he further explains.

IHCL has also partnered with UNESCO as part of which it would adopt intangible cultural heritage projects in the geographies it operates in. "We are also partnering with local crafts persons by creating unique experiences for our guests. It could be interacting with blue pottery artists in Rajasthan or pattachitra artists in Odisha. The beneficiaries are directly the communities. We will help them survive and thrive," Pokhariyal explains. He says that the hotel chain has set a target of helping at least 100,000 people build employable skills by 2030.

Similarly, IHG has a programme 'Journey To Tomorrow' as part of which it is focusing on reducing hunger to zero, creating jobs, protecting culture and protecting life under sea. "We also have the IHG skills academy which looks at bringing local communities to work and develop skills for the hospitality industry," Mattar explains.

For legacy hotel chains it is certainly a mindset change that is required to think sustainability. The newcomers, however, have the advantage of building sustainability into their business model right from day one. Former President of Oberoi Group, Kapil Chopra, who launched his own luxury hotel chain, The Postcard Hotel, a few years ago, says that from the beginning he chose to source locally, reduce manufacturing costs and focus on a high lifecycle. "When we started, we had a clean board, so we could question ourselves," Chopra explains. By sourcing locally, Chopra says that he not just saved money, he also saved time. "If you are building a hotel for four years, you can't be sustainable. You are polluting the environment and not regenerating. Similarly, if you import Italian marble, your carbon footprint increases substantially, you can't be sustainable. It makes sense to use local variants. At our hotel in Goa, we have used kadappa stone which costs ₹30 a sq.ft. as opposed to Italian marble which costs ₹450 per sq.ft."

Expensive Proposition

Sustainability comes at a cost, especially for the legacy hotel chains. According to Laura Houldsworth, managing director and vice-president (Asia-Pacific), Booking.com, "The challenge is for older properties to make adjustments as the adjustments have to be made in the structure as opposed to coming ground up."

Pokhariyal agrees that there is indeed a cost involved to embrace sustainability. "We are going to use products that are locally sourced and yet be luxurious and how to marry the two is the challenge. If I have to use food ingredients which are locally sourced, it's not that they are not good, but you will have to hand-hold the small vendors, you have to educate them and make them more aware. Therefore, your responsibility towards the vendor increases," he explains. The Taj property in Andamans is supposed to be the first hotel in Asia which is zero plastic, but completely moving away from plastic is an expensive proposition. "The only alternative for plastic is bamboo which is three times more expensive…. since we made certain targets as part of Paathya, we are aggressively moving ahead."

Chopra of The Postcard Hotel claims sustainability reduces cost at an overall level. "I have zero debt, I am profitable. I am building faster as I use local building materials, my food cost is also lower as I don't buy smoked salmon at ₹5,000 a kg, I source from the region."

Replacing plastic bottles with glass or plastic toothbrushes and combs with wooden ones do take up the cost by 25%-30%, but the rates luxury hotels command, they can easily afford to absorb these costs, says Udit Kumar, co-founder, Brij Hotels. The tariff at their properties in Pali (Rajasthan), Varanasi or Bandhavgarh is anywhere between ₹24,000 to ₹60,000 per night.

"Sometimes there is a trade-off between sustainability and profitability, but we choose the former," adds Anant Kumar, Co-Founder, Brij Hotels. "Our Bandhavgarh property is 15 acres, but since we were in the vicinity of leopard habitat, we have only developed 4 acres. We only have 7 rooms, when we could have done 17 rooms. Anything more than 10 rooms in the habitat of a cat is not sustainable, it will be encroaching on the habitat," he further explains.

Sustainability has become an important differentiator for hospitality brands and all of them are going an extra to ensure that they are perceived as responsible and sustainable.

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