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Baltimore, Maryland Hotels Appealing to Eco-Conscious Travelers

By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jul. 23, 2009--Visitors to the new Fairfield Inn & Suites in Baltimore may not realize that many of the design materials are recycled or that the staff is wearing uniforms made from old plastic bottles. But there are some other more obvious elements making the hotel a bona fide green building.

There is the giant rain barrel, once used by the former beer brewery owner to store grain, that collects roof water runoff in the courtyard. There are the mountain bikes available in some rooms and dual-flush toilets. And there is a skylight that pivots to capture the most sun.

The Fairfield is on track to become the city's first LEED green-certified hotel, and officials are banking that travelers will appreciate the designation. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification is something of a gold standard issued by the U.S. Green Building Council, a group that promotes sustainable building practices.

The first hotel certified anywhere was the Inn & Conference Center at the University of Maryland in 2005, and others in the region and around the nation are seeking the status or taking smaller steps to green their rooms.

The green label means travelers won't have to leave their environmental beliefs behind while they are on the road. It also means the hotels will rack up lower utility bills -- the Fairfield expects to use 25 percent less energy and 10 percent less water. The hotels also will be afforded bragging rights that may help sell them during a recession-induced travel slump, provided the trend doesn't touch on so many hotels that it loses it eco-cachet.

"It was a snowball thing," said Patrick R. Leary, the Fairfield's general manager, about how the hotel started going green. "Now, we've totally changed our philosophy. As a general manager, I used to ask suppliers what does that cost. Now I ask if it's a green product, where it came from, what's the company's sustainability policy."

Others lining up for an official green stamp include the Starwood hotel brand Element and hotel giant Marriott. That Bethesda-based company says it will "green" 30 of its hotels, open or planned.

Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton-brand hotel opening its doors this week in downtown Baltimore, also aims for the eco-conscious traveler. The hotel has green features including in-room recycling, eco-certified cleaning supplies, energy-efficient lighting and paperless check-in. But it's biggest claim to greenness is its shell. The hotel's new location reuses a Beaux-arts style building that dates to 1906 and once was the headquarters of the B&O Railroad. The historic building retains many of the original features including marble floors and Tiffany-glass windows.

Mike Damion, the general manager, said Kimpton has always had an environmental ethic but formalized it in 2005 with its EarthCare program. The hotel is working toward Green Seal certification, which, like LEED, is only for products and services.

"We have all eco-friendly products and services," Damion said. "We look for vendors in the local area that are bound by the same beliefs. ...We've done surveys and found 57 percent of our guests had a great concern for the environment, so this is something they sought."

Five hotels have a Green Seal, including the Hotel Monaco in Chicago, and others are working toward the certification. The Green Building Council now counts more than 5,300 buildings among its LEED-certified, including office buildings, retail shops and hotels that earned points for using green materials, designs, water and energy systems.

The Green Hotels Association has about 450 American hotels on its membership list that have taken some steps to make their operations more energy efficient or green in some way. There are no standards for membership in the association, but the group president, Patty Griffin, said greening saves the hotels money so most have taken at least some steps, though few go to the expense of actual LEED certification.

The association started in 1995 with the now ubiquitous cards that asked visitors to forgo daily sheet and towel changes. They then developed 15 pages of other green practices focused on water, energy and solid waste. The book is now 150 pages. Griffin said she noticed the group was getting a lot more interest from hotels beginning in 2007, something she attributes to media attention given to global warming and other environmental topics that made guests more aware of conservation efforts.

"The linen thing was such a no-brainer because none of us use new sheets and towels everyday at home," Griffin said. "These days, marketing yourself as a green hotel is also a no-brainer because guests want to participate. Staff tends to be happier because they're healthier. ... Everyone gets something in the deal. It's a win-win situation."

Arne Sorenson, Marriott's president and chief operating officer, agrees. At the time the chain announced it would green its hotels, he said, "Saving energy and reducing waste saves money and helps the environment -- it's good for business and a key part of our growth strategy."

And Baltimore's tourism officials believe they have something to gain from making the city a green destination. They are trying to create an entire green zone around the city's convention center and new convention hotel -- which has the city's largest green roof.

Thomas J. Noonan, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said travel planners now ask not only about room rates but environmental amenities. This is likely because surveys show travelers in general are willing to pay more to reduce their carbon footprint.

In an April survey in Conde Nast Traveler, 87 percent said it is important that a hotel is environmentally friendly. About 75 percent of those surveyed said they are influenced by a hotel's environmental policies when deciding on a hotel, and visible water and energy conservation programs have the most influence. The readers do tend to be affluent and socially responsible, a spokeswoman said. About 67 percent also said helping to relieve poverty in local communities was important.

Kevin Doyle, news editor of Conde Nast Traveler, said the magazine has been reporting on environmental issues since it was launched more than 20 years ago. "Over that time, we've seen a gradual evolution in the hotel industry from a focus purely on conservation of the natural environment to a more holistic, sustainable focus today, with the goal of ensuring not only that the environment is preserved but also that the local community enjoys the benefits of tourism."

He said that means job creation to include poverty elimination, health care and education.

"Our readers consistently tell us that a hotel's environmental and social policies factor prominently when they're deciding on a hotel," Doyle said. At the Fairfield, the idea of going green came from Baltimore officials, said Gene Singleton, president of Summit Associates LLC, one of the franchise's investors. In exchange for expedited permits and a waiver for its storm water management system, the owners agreed to build a green roof. That meant reinforced ceilings and shrubbery on top of part of the roof. It collects and filters runoff and keeps the building well insulated and energy efficient.

After that, Singleton and Leary said they just kept coming up with other ways to save money and the planet with their hotel on President Street, on the edge of Little Italy. All 154 rooms have some environmental features, such as the dual flush toilets and recycled carpet. But six rooms have extras such as filtered air and water and mountain bikes.

The cost of the eco-suites pushes up the rate from $179 to $229 a night, and managers say if people are willing to pay for them, they'll add more.

In total, Leary said about 2 percent of the $24 million purchase and construction costs of the hotel went toward the green elements. With the improved energy efficiency, he estimates the cost will be made up in about six years.

"We really think people care," Leary said. "We believe it's the right thing to do."

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Copyright (c) 2009, The Baltimore Sun

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