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More Hotels See Value of Investing in the Environment;
A Host of Green Strategies May Also Win Market Share
By Kyle Stock, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 1, 2007 - Hotel guests don't like the dark.

In an unfamiliar room, in an unfamiliar place, the vast majority will flick on the bathroom light and crack the door open before going to sleep. This odd but common idiosyncrasy is a huge cost for hoteliers and, less directly, the environment.

A simple motion sensor and a tiny blue night light fix the problem, saving a huge -- but untold -- amount of money and energy.

As the cost of electricity surges nationwide and guests increasingly demand environmental sensitivity, hoteliers are painting their properties a shade of green, ushering in a host of changes like little bathroom night lights that help both the environment and their bottom line.

Hotels have long been energy hogs. Unlike office and retail buildings, they are open 24-7 and suck up a lot of electricity and water to clean rooms, wash laundry and run kitchens. And guests, knowing they won't get a bill at the end of the month, are generally not as conservative as they are at home.

But while hoteliers have long looked for ways to tick up rates and fees, most only recently began attempts to lower utility bills -- generally the second-largest cost on a lodging's budget.

"When people in the industry used to hear the word 'green,' they thought you were talking about money," said Duane Parrish, president and chief executive of Charleston-based Premier Hospitality Group. "Now, the whole industry is heading down that green road."

Properties across the country are paying big bucks to audit their energy use thoroughly, and the self-scrutiny generally pays off. Trimming electricity use by 10 percent at a full-service hotel is the equivalent of boosting occupancy by 4.3 percent or raising rates by $1.35 a night, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

Barry Abramson, senior vice president at Servidyne Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm, said most lodgings can lower their power bills by close to 20 percent with relatively simple changes that pay for themselves in three to five years.

"The opportunities are definitely out there," he said.

For example, if given the option, most guests will elect not to have their sheets and towels changed daily. And guests will be more likely to turn lights off if they're given a single switch near the front door that controls every bulb in the room.

Servidyne recently finished a six-week audit of Charleston Place, a report that spurred a host of new suggestions and strategies. For example, the opulent downtown lodging installed a $250,000 energy-efficient lighting system in its main ballroom. It also switched almost entirely to reusable linens, dishes and cutlery, and it stopped pouring chemicals into its pool. The property now uses a salt solution to keep the pool clean.

Hoteliers all over the Lowcountry are taking similar steps. Most are harvesting low-hanging fruit: switching out traditional light bulbs with more efficient compact-fluorescent versions and installing water-saving toilets, faucets and showerheads.

Some hotels, however, are pushing the green envelope further. The Renaissance Charleston, for instance, now has motion-activated lights in all of its vending areas, according to Bryan Thompson, the hotel's director of sales. With these and other changes, the property has cut its power consumption by 6 percent in the past year and its hot-water usage by 10 percent.

Kiawah Island Golf Resort surrounded its palatial Sanctuary hotel with indigenous, drought-resistant plants. It also asks its guests to donate $2 per night to the Kiawah Conservancy, a local land trust.

Of course, it is easier being green when one starts from scratch. Some 34 U.S. hotels have been certified by the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a widely accepted benchmark commonly known as the LEED designation.

And some of the country's more ambitious green lodgings are popping up in the Southeast. Callaway Gardens Resort in Pine Mountain, Ga., was one of the first properties on the LEED list.

Developers are hoping to finish the world's second "gold"-certified LEED lodging in Greensboro, N.C. The roof of the property -- dubbed the Proximity Hotel -- will be stacked with 100 solar panels and a vegetable garden to supply a steady stream of produce to its kitchens without trucks or trains. The hotel also will recycle 75 percent of its construction waste and funnel rainwater to irrigate its landscaping.

Closer to home, a hotel owner that Premier Hospitality works for will build a deep shade of green into a new Hilton Garden Inn it plans to develop next to its Hampton Inn on Daniel Island. DI Partners expects to spend an extra $600,000 to $1 million on a host of elements that will help the property win a "silver" LEED rating.

When they break ground in March, work crews will drill 200 geothermal wells that will cool water en route to the air-conditioning system. Once it has been routed through the hotel, the resulting warmer water will be used to heat the pool.

The property also will have solar-powered water heaters. Rainwater from the roof will collect in cisterns and be routed to irrigate the landscaping and flush toilets.

Despite plans for a number of power outlets where guests can charge up electric cars, the company expects its utility bills to be one-third lower than they would have been otherwise.

"It was driven from a right-thing-to-do angle, but if you're in it for the long term, it becomes a good financial decision," Parrish said.

The hotel's staff also will sort the waste from every guest room, separating out everything that can be recycled. And an educational walking path will highlight the building's environmentally sensitive attributes.

Premier Hospitality said the green strategy will likely win market share, especially from nonprofits or business groups with an environmental bent.

"A lot of meeting planners are looking for that now," Parrish said. "I can see South Carolina Electric & Gas having a meeting here, for example."

For all their recent initiatives, hoteliers have been slow to go green. Servidyne has been auditing energy use for 25 years, but the lodging side of its business heated up only recently. And until guests choose hotels based on their environmental impact, hoteliers will balk at the big upfront capital costs of "occupancy-sensitive" thermostats and super-efficient laundry machines.

"Most companies will only do what's both environmentally and economically beneficial," Abramson said.

Even recycling at Charleston hotels was rare until recently. And according to LEED standards, most of the country's greenest hotels are in New York and California. The most ambitious of those properties are way ahead of the curve, generating their own power with on-site fuel cells and treating "gray" water so it can be used in multiple laundry cycles.

It might be a while, however, before South Carolina hoteliers spring for "some of the more exotic things," according to Abramson.

"In some of these places, they're probably paying five times for electricity what you're paying in South Carolina," he said.


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Copyright (c) 2007, The Post and Courier, Charleston, S.C.

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