Definitely Doug 10/18/19: Sustainable Innovation

by Doug Rice

Sustainable Innovation

Sustainability can yield multiple benefits to hotels. Saving energy and water yields direct cost savings. Revenue can be generated by guests who prefer to deal with businesses that minimize their environmental impact. And many would argue that conserving scarce resources is simply the right thing to do.

This week will highlight a few innovations that hotels can consider if they want to improve their environmental footprint, or even just save money. One of the experts I spoke with was IHG’s Area Director of Engineering for Northern California, Harry Hobbs. Hobbs has an impressive track record at saving money by going green. The InterContinental San Francisco at Moscone Center opened in 2008, and was already energy efficient by most standards, with utility costs at 2.8% of total revenue vs. 4% for comparable hotels. Hobbs wasn’t happy, though, and led a retro-commissioning just a year later that brought it down to 1.4%. The hotel’s EnergyStar rating increased from 64 at opening to 89 now. Results like this deserve everyone’s attention, and call attention to how energy-inefficient even new-build hotels can be.

The specific actions that can generate savings will vary significantly from hotel to hotel based on factors like climate, cost of energy and water, building materials, services offered, and mix of space utilization. The ideas presented here won’t work for every hotel. As for costs, remember that utility rebates, while less common or lucrative than they were in years past, can still sometimes help to reduce or eliminate capital and conversion costs for some projects.

Guest-room management systems (GRMS) are common sources of energy savings, and can definitely save money at most properties, if they are installed and managed properly. This is, however, a huge “if,” based on my discussions Hobbs and some of the vendors in the space. There are many considerations, and I’m going to defer that topic for a future column, so that I can do it justice, and today I will focus on some interesting sustainability-related ideas unrelated to GRMS.

One solution, which IHG has deployed at more than a dozen hotels in Northern California, is Stem. Stem is a provider of battery storage capacity and related analytics, which can help hotels reduce peak-hour electrical utility pricing. Batteries can be charged during off-peak hours, and the stored low-cost electricity can be used during periods of peak-hour pricing. But battery storage is tricky – if you misjudge demand and use it too soon, you can easily end up with no juice left just when rates peak; if you wait too long, then the low-cost energy you charged the batteries with during off-peak hours never gets used even though it could been used to reduce peak-hour demand on the utility. As opposed to systems that can tell you retrospectively what you did well or poorly, Stem performs analytics on data collected from the hotel in nearly real time. It measures and projects electricity use for coming hours, then uses analytics to optimize the use of the batteries. It’s a simple concept with powerful results.

In recent months, many hotels have joined a war on single-use plastics. Major brands have announced the elimination of single-use plastics for toiletries. While this can certainly generate cost savings, it also has an environmental impact and is increasingly the subject of both regulations (just last week, California passed a law banning them) and public shaming. While many of the opportunities in plastics are, like these, outside the scope of a technology blog, one that is not is guestroom keycards. The vast majority are plastic, are non biodegradable, and end up in landfills or, worse, floating in the ocean. Card supplier Made by Oomph! recently introduced a hotel keycard called Pulper, made of wood fiber that is water- and weather-proof. They are still ramping up production, but in quantity they believe the cost will be similar to that of plastic cards. Pulper keycards are not yet fully biodegradable, because of the RFID chip or magnetic stripe, but they reduce the nonbiodegradable footprint of a keycard to a very small percentage of the original. Moreover, keycard manufacturer Smartrac recently announced its Green Tag program to close this gap with biodegradable RFID chips. Unfortunately, these have not yet shown up in commercial hotel products, but hopefully they will soon.

Another set of innovations centers around reducing food waste. Kitro is a data collection and analytics product that can reduces kitchen food waste. Their goal is to achieve a 40% to 60% reduction, which can raise food profit margins by 2% to 8%. It requires very little work on the part of the restaurant staff, beyond disposing of all food waste from the kitchen and serving areas into a Kitro unit -- basically a garbage can equipped with a camera and mounted on a scale. The camera is activated whenever the scale detects anything being added. Image processing and machine learning technologies identify the waste, and a data point is created identifying the date, time, weight, type of food, and in some cases state (e.g. raw meat vs. cooked). Analytics then enable the chef to see exactly what is wasted, when, where (e.g. preparation vs. left on a plate), and how much. One institutional kitchen that periodically served a Greek dish on pita bread discovered that almost all of the pita bread got thrown away (it turns out no one liked it). By changing to a better quality supplier, they virtually eliminated the waste. Breakfast buffet restaurants learned how to manage refills of scrambled eggs, bacon, and other dishes toward the end of meal periods by checking trays more frequently and replenishing in amount based on the number of diners still in the dining room. Kitro has grown rapidly in its home market of Switzerland and is starting to branch out into neighboring countries, but is not yet available elsewhere. Dörte Bachmann, Sustainability Director for SV Group, a large Swiss restaurant and hotel operator, reported a 34% waste reduction just during a 3-month pilot, and Kitro expects most sites will continue to find even more savings over the longer term.

Sustainability is a big area with a lot of innovations, more than I was able to mention in one week. I’ll revisit the topic before long to talk about some others. If you’ve seen something you think is cool, please drop me a line so I can be sure to look at it!

Douglas Rice

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