The term 'eco hotel' has become popular as hoteliers try and allay public concerns about the carbon cost of holidays

Green stay: eco hotels

The ‘eco’ tag is becoming the marketing adjective of choice when describing hotels, but are all eco hotels equal? E&T looks behind the marketing hype.

The term ‘eco hotel’ has burgeoned over recent years as hoteliers try and keep abreast of public concerns about the carbon cost of holidaymaking. Sometimes this may amount to the ubiquitous card in the hotel bathroom asking guests to re-use their towels, but in many cases it can go beyond this.

Even the term ‘eco hotel’ has its critics. Many hotels and beach resorts use the eco prefix simply because it sounds good in their marketing material. The list is long of beach resorts that promote themselves as eco and yet use diesel generators to run air conditioning, or ship staff in from distances, displacing local employees.

“Because of its open-ended definition, ‘ecotourism’ is interpreted differently by everyone,” Cameron Boyd, owner and founder of CESiaK, which stands for Centro Ecológico Sian Ka’an, says. “You have to watch out for places that promote ecotourism on no real basis.” The CESiaK resort is a shining beacon amidst the morass of marketing hype but not every hotel can or would want to go that far.

“We tend to not use the term eco hotel as this has been misused over a long period of time,“ Jason Freezer, sustainability expert at Visit England, says. “We feel it tends to focus the mind on one particular element of what we are looking for in responsible hotels. Sustainable, or responsible, hotel is the term we would prefer to use because eco tends to talk about environmental factors. While the ethos of ‘we should be doing something better for the planet’ is where all this is born from, it is an overused argument and one that we are fairly confident hasn’t changed minds over a long period of time.

“Sustainable, or responsible, hotels very much embraces the idea that looks at environmental impact as well as the economic impact and that it is important to be able to demonstrate their influence over the local economy and community and any negative impact that may occur.”

The steps that you take to make your hotel responsible would depend on how far down the path of sustainability you wish to travel, but surprisingly, adopting renewable energy technologies is often low down the priority list. There are some very simple and some very low cost, or even no cost, steps that any business can take. Many of these would be ‘back of house’ that guests would be unaware of – simple initiatives that any business or home would be encouraged to do, such as ensuring small appliances are not left on standby, utilising low energy lighting or even using local produce rather than going to a national supplier.

One often neglected link in the sustainability chain is accessibility and making sure the product is available for all. “That doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of ensuring wheelchair users are catered for, but having large menus on offer so those with poor eyesight can read the menu or other simple things to ensure all users are taken care of,” Freezer adds. “It is also making sure that all public transport information is available so that if people want to they can give the car a rest and reduce their carbon footprint. It is important to promote other local businesses so that people can see and get a general sense of what the local area is all about.”

Beyond this there are further steps that can be taken where some money may be needed, but that all depends on the level of investment and level of commitment that a business wants to take. “Simple things such as educating staff,” Freezer explains. “One of the best single investments any company can make is to make sure your staff is educated and engaged and know what they can and can’t do. We have seen research that shows that if you are to engage your staff on a topic you get a far more motivated workforce that will save with you, especially where they are trained specifically on sustainability issues.

“A business can then, of course, always take the next step of investing in more technological solutions. For example you could be looking at solar panels and other renewables; they are not right for everybody. However, the key driver for sustainable hotels is looking at the simple, low-cost things that can save you money and motivate the staff to really make a change.”

But to really embed sustainablility into tourism culture it needs to be about the bottom line and not simply a marketing fad. “Our strapline over the last couple of years around all of this has been rather than just saying ‘do this to save the planet’, which really doesn’t work, but to understand that sustainability isn’t about doing business differently; it’s about doing business even better. For us it is not fundamentally an environmental issue, it’s a business issue and that is what we are trying to drive forward.”

Badge of honour

As many in the green tourism industry argue, there are various tints of green. The eco tag itself is applied almost as a routine marketing tool, but the consumers are becoming more and more aware. Evidence of this comes from the Advertising Standards Agency where over the past five or six years they have received an increasing number of complaints about businesses that are claiming to be green or sustainable without any substance to it.

But that is not much use to consumers on the front line who are looking to book an eco-hotel or holiday. In Britain, depending on how you define a scheme or label, there are around 20 or so labels that a business can use to denote their environmental credentials. Some of these are internationally recognised and some are only very local.

Visit England have taken a step back scheme in the belief that it would muddy an already murky pool but instead are working with the International Centre for Responsible Tourism to verify the awarding bodies. “What we have done is introduce a process where we audit the auditors,” Freezer explains. “We will, on application, put a scheme through a third party processer and make sure it is robust and credible. We check that the criteria of the scheme are not only looking at all facets of sustainability issues, but that it is also being applied fairly and accurately.

“We know some of the schemes out there are fairly local and possibly just a case of being able to sign a form and you get a badge to say you’re green, but we know we need something to be far more substantial than that. We have this process and we work with an organisation called the International Centre for Responsible Tourism and they check out these schemes. Once they have done so we can then endorse that scheme and it enables the industry to have clarity as to which schemes are the best, and that most importantly consumers can have confidence that if they want to book a green product or sustainable hotel that they know which ones are genuinely sustainable.

Big business

A quick Google search for green hotels or holidays will provide ample evidence that this is a lucrative and growing market, but despite that it appears that sustainability is still not top of the criteria for choosing a holiday destination. One of the best respected eco sites is Green Traveller and its founder Richard Hammond is leading the renewable crusade. “A hotel’s green credentials are not at the forefront of a traveller’s mind when booking,” he says. “Being green however, has established itself as a secondary consideration.”

That in itself is enough to make hoteliers begin to take interest in that they can do to capture their share of this market. “Hoteliers are looking at the ethical imperative but can also see that they can save money by reducing energy use and water waste,” he says.

“It is a market that is growing, but when we ask people whether they would buy a hotel based on its green credentials, a lot of people would say ‘yes’, but we haven’t been able to measure yet how that actually transfers into a booking,” Freezer says. “We know, however, that the normal considerations remain constant, so things such as location, price and facilities are still the main driver and something like sustainability tends to add value rather than being a buying incentive in most people’s cases.”

According to research carried out by Visit England there are around 17-20 per cent of the market that do actively look for green hotels. But there is another interesting figure from the research that says that around 60 per cent of people who find out they are staying in a green hotel feel that it significantly adds to their experience.

But the key, Hammond continues, is for this to be driven from the top. “The new-build Tamworth Premier Inn was designed as a showcase of sustainability,” he says. “It has gone so well they are building another one this year. When you see big chains grappling with sustainability, it trickles down to smaller hoteliers.”

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