Engagement For Sustainability

The Sweet Success of Engagement - Scot Hopps

Adding a little sugar to your morning coffee improves the taste, and adding a little more improves it yet again. But continue to add sugar, and at some point that little addition of sugar will eventually start to ruin your cup of Joe. This phenomenon is referred to as the law of diminishing returns - which states that adding more of one factor while holding other variables constant will at some point yield lower returns per unit of input.

EcoVision Sustainable Learning Center Picture of a coffee cupAdding a little sugar to your morning coffee improves the taste, and adding a little more improves it yet again. But continue to add sugar, and at some point that little addition of sugar will eventually start to ruin your cup of Joe. This phenomenon is referred to as the law of diminishing returns - which states that adding more of one factor while holding other variables constant will at some point yield lower returns per unit of input.

Aside from the fact that this is being written in the wee hours of the morning, what does the law of diminishing turns have to do with sustainability within the hospitality industry? Simply put, the efforts of one dedicated person or a small dedicated team working on sustainability will make great impacts up to a point, at which time, like most systems, the additional effort has a smaller, if not negative effect. How can we avoid wasting time, resources, and even sugar as we fight the good fight?

Engagement is the answer
The trajectory and impacts of your efforts don't need to stagnate. Through a consistent and comprehensive effort to engage your organization, you will be able to get more out of yourself and those around you. As the Director of Sustainability for Saunders Hotel Group, a Boston based hotel owner operator, I have learned that sustainability cannot be confined to the hands of a few – rather, putting it into the hands of many is the key. What follows are my recommendations for how to do just that.  

Know your audience
If you are to leverage the human capital around you, you'll need to know your audience. We've distilled our efforts to focus on four groups for sustainability messaging and the questions they need answered:

  • Individuals (travelers and team members) - "How does it affect me?"
  • Corporations/Corporate travel planners/Gov't business - "How do you align with our mission and our goals? And can you help us to report or quantify these efforts?"
  • Vendors and suppliers - "How can I give you what you want?"
  • Owners/Managers - "How does this relate to our top line? Our bottom line?" 
These are broad strokes, and I certainly encourage learning as much as you can about your audience. But if you try to discuss your dollar or kilowatt hour savings with a guest, odds are they won't care, or worse, they'll wonder why their rate increased from the previous stay if you are saving all this money. If you pitch a project to an ownership group touting the reduction in carbon dioxide equivalents, you'll receive a number of blank stares. On the flip side, a corporate travel planner may want to tout their carbon neutral meetings or may need to report the carbon impact of their room nights, so our HCMI score becomes very relevant. Furthermore, vendors certainly want to hear if there are features such as life cycle analysis or fair labor practices that you look at when evaluating competing products.

Few will find it controversial to suggest that more engagement and targeted messaging will help overcome the challenge of diminishing returns - but how do you take this concept from paper (or screen) and put it into action?

My GM is too busy
Even if you have buy-in from the top it doesn't mean you have engagement. In 2014, we began sitting with our GMs to fill out Trip Advisor's Green Leader survey. Trip Advisor has the attention of our management teams because of their ability to generate a dialogue directly with our guests (or potential guests). Therefore, asking the GM to take part in filling out the Green Leaders survey is less of a hurdle than other green certifications. I cannot stress enough how differently managers perceive the importance of sustainability if the GM is calling them asking the questions. Your GM should never be too busy for guests, and Trip Advisor has made the link between sustainability and bookings very prominent.

Lenox Hotel in BostonLeverage competition
At The Lenox Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay, our green team meetings, after years of efforts, have stagnated. So recently, rather than sit down and discuss the agenda as expected, I paired everyone up in teams and challenged them to identify electricity saving opportunities throughout the hotel. The winning team would get a prize. The result was different managers pushing for the value of their projects. So I inverted the typical process and came back to the table with ways to do what they suggested, rather than things the sustainability team was championing. In reality, the goal of energy reduction hadn't changed, but our Director of Sales now had a stake in whether or not we improved the efficiency of our walk-in coolers. 

Guest engagement is certainly the Holy Grail, and there are myriad efforts and philosophies trying to get guests to care – or even better, act. What I'll offer specifically about guests is to put it in a language that will appeal to everybody, and focus on the areas that guests touch, taste and feel. For example, MindClick Global did extensive research on what guests care about, and cleanliness was always at the top. Furthermore, they found that guests care significantly about the products they are putting on their bodies and what they are putting their bodies on (think bedding). Knowing this should inform your approach when communicating sustainability to your guests – less about water saved from reusing towels and more about the softness of the sustainably harvested cotton it is made of.

Picture of coffee cup with quote from Scot HoppsCorporate Travel
Zooming out from the individual guest, it’s important to think about who may be selecting the particular hotel. Oftentimes the corporate travel planner who chooses venues has different selection criteria than the individual might if traveling alone (or paying on their own). Two years ago each of our hotels began leveraging the impact of our green energy and carbon offset purchases by communicating them to our corporate business. If lowering the impact of their corporate travel is important to them, we give them the numbers to back it up and offer a point of differentiation from the hotel down the street. 

Get more by doing less
There is an army ready to work on sustainability on your behalf – the most abundant being your suppliers and vendors. We have heard time and again that our vendors just need to know what we want, and consistently they have delivered. In a recent guest room renovation, we took the workload of sourcing sustainable products out of our hands and put it on our designer. By sharing our desire to make our renovation as sustainable as possible, we were legitimately able to consider cost, quality, appearance, full lifecycle benefits, and functionality all together to make the best choice on every product and material we selected. We've repeated this successful approach on projects big and small. Turns out, vendors are doing a lot internally and have plenty of green products to share with us; all we needed to do was trust that if we told them what was important, they would meet our needs. 

Using all parts of the buffalo
There aren’t many journeys that begin with coffee and end with buffalo, but stay with me a bit longer. Most are familiar with the reputation of Native Americans for using every part of an animal they killed, whether it was for food, clothing, shelter, or tools. Similarly, I'd strongly suggest making use of all definitions of community when exploring ways to extend or expand your impacts. In Boston, well known for its abundance of colleges, we have worked with universities on a number of levels. From interns, directed studies, and group projects to advanced studies by professors or inter-disciplinary research; we've leveraged them all to help with our sustainability efforts. The topics have ranged from marketing to engineering, graphic design to waste diversion. In turn, we have offered our time to guest lecture or post job offerings for our company to create a real symbiosis. We have created similar partnerships with K-12 schools in the area, community groups, and local businesses. If we are able to teach, learn, or get someone new on the path to sustainability (internally or externally), we've succeeded in our goal. 

Sustainability can't be an extra step, shouldn't be an isolated department, and mustn't hinge upon the efforts of a few. There are so many ways that a dedicated few can make lasting change to how business is conducted - not only in the hospitality industry but across all industries. It will come from trusting those around you, making participants out of everyone whether they know it or not, and strategically magnifying your efforts.

Imagine, just one spoonful of sugar having the potency to sweeten everyone’s cup.

Scot Hopps is a guest contributor and Director of Sustainability for Saunders Hotel Group, a Boston based hotel owner operator; “...rooted in a commitment to sustainability in all we do.”  

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