Gina Edner, Associate Director for Environmental Sustainability at Starwood Hotels, talks to “Green is Good” from New York. With approximately 1,000 hotels in nearly 100 countries, eco-conservation across Starwood’s brands makes a major difference. Edner says that Starwood’s green programs began simply from its customers inquiring about conservation policies and more efficient places to stay when traveling. The company has moved from those humble beginnings just a few years ago to an ambitious plan to reduce energy usage by 30% and water usage by 20% by 2020. “We operate hotels around the world, and they use water and energy and produce waste every day,” Edner says. “Our goal is to reduce our impact. We’re in the business of customer service. Some of our guests expect to stay in environmentally conscious hotels when they’re traveling. We want to provide products and services that meet those needs.”
John Shegerian: This edition of the Impact podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy. It is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider, and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States, and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.
John: All right. This is John Shegerian. I never could have imagined when we started the Green is Good Radio Show back in 2006, that it would grow into a big podcast called The Green is Good podcast. And now we’ve evolved that podcast to the Impact podcast which is more inclusive and more diverse than ever before. But we did look back recently at some of our timeless Green is Good interviews and decided to share some of them with you now. So enjoy one of our great Green is Good episodes from our archives and next week, I’ll be back with a fresh and new episode of the Impact podcast. Thanks again for listening. I’m grateful to all of you. This is John Shegerian.
Announcer: Welcome to Green is Good, raising awareness of each individual’s impact on the environment and helping to create a more beautiful and sustainable world. Now, here’s John Shegerian, Chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International, and Mike Brady.
John: Welcome to Green is Good. Mike, it’s so great to be in studio with you today.
Mike Brady: Hard to believe another week has come and gone John, but this really is the high point of my week as I know it is yours. Because for the next hour we’re going to get together, have some fun, and have a few moments of “oh wow” discovery and, well, together we’ll get to entertain, empower, and inform our audience and do what we can to make the world a little bit greener place.
John: Well, you remember last week when we had the UK edition of Green is Good, it was both of our shows came right out of the UK?
Mike: Sure do. In fact, I just got over my jet-lag a couple of days ago.
John: Well, today, I think Linda Ramos who’s so kind enough to book all of our shows, I think Linda is creating these geographic specific shows because today is our New York edition of Green is Good.
Mike: All right, so what have we got in part one?
John: Part one, we have our great friends from the NRDC. Courtney Hamilton is so kind to bring us all of the great thought leaders from the NRDC all the time. I’ve said this to Courtney before, I think they have the deepest green bench in the industry and I think that’s going to be proven again here today. Because we have Paul McRandal on, who is going to be talking about their new Great Green online tool called smartercities.org. I think our listeners are going to really enjoy this. This is a very important topic and a very important tool. So everybody should come on back after our sponsors to Green is Good.
Announcer: If a little Green is Good, more is even better. Now, back to Green is Good with John Shegerian and Mike Brady.
John: Welcome back to Green is Good. Today, we’re so excited to have Paul McRandal on from my hometown of New York City, New York. Paul is the editor of the NRDC Simple Steps, and Smarter Cities website. Paul, welcome to Green is Good.
Paul McRandal: Well, thank you for having me.
John: We’re so excited. Mike and I have been so lucky and blessed to have so many amazing thought leaders and visionaries on from the NRDC. We’re just thankful to have just another great person, Paul. You’re on today to talk about something really amazing, something we touched on months back with Wendy Gordon and you’re here to talk about smartercities.org. Tell our listeners today how it’s evolved and where the project and where your website is right now.
Paul: Well, right now, we’ve just released a report on energy and we looked at what cities across the country were doing to help conserve energy and reduce their carbon footprints. It’s both an efficiency point of view and a way of looking at how they’re paying for green energy. We have launched this as a new project and we are going to take every three months a new report on and look at things like transportation, look at water usage in cities, look at green building and smart growth, and all this sort of thing so that we want to give a full rounded picture of what cities across the country are doing to green their environmental profile. This will take about three years but we hope to really be able to highlight a lot of stories and tell about what are the best things the cities are doing.
John: Paul, we have so many questions to ask you today. But here is a question. The NRDC is just an amazing organization and we’re just huge fans of it here at Green is Good. So many of your, as I said, thought leaders and writers, and visionaries have been on our show already. How do sausages get made, though? How did you guys come up with this great idea? How did that really happen, our listeners and Mike and I want to know that?
Paul: Okay. Well, where it all started was about 2005. We were looking at, and we were depressed, by the situation it hasn’t changed much, the fact that the federal government has really abdicated any responsibility for dealing with global warming. But at that time, Seattle’s mayor Greg Nickels came up with the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and he has now managed to get over 1000 mayors across the country to sign up for that. It seemed like cities were where the action was. Cities were where environmental change was happening in the US. We wanted, given that the federal story was a little bit depressing, to say the least, we wanted to get out there and show what cities are doing and what their residents and citizens should get behind and encourage and learn from so that cities that perhaps may not have gotten on board yet, could pick up from these other places.
John: Great, so how do you define then a smarter city and how do you rate these cities?
Paul: Well, what we call smarter cities are cities that are using their environmental resources and also the people who live there in a, essentially a smarter fashion. They’re not polluting their air, they’re not polluting their water, they’re getting their people also to help out in this and are learning from them. We are excited that places like Reno, Nevada, which has a green summit annually and invites all the residents of Reno to come in and provide ideas and talk about the coming year’s environmental initiatives and programs. That’s a broad idea of what a smarter city is. Then what we do, is we go and find for a particular sustainability factor, what we call, and in this case it was energy conservation and production. We look at what is the best data available, what are the best reports showing across the country how cities maybe are producing energy or the carbon footprints of cities. There are several reports we looked at in this case. Then when we can’t get enough information from those reports, we send out surveys to every city in the country that has a population of 50,000 or more. That’s 655 cities in total. We want to be as inclusive as we can. We go back to the cities, again and again, to encourage them to fill out the survey to help them with whatever we can so we can get as much information as possible.
John: Well, so now you are launching this great website. Again, for our listeners out there in front of your laptop, computer, iPad, it’s smartercities, cities.org. Go to that site, it’s amazing. Mike, you’ve got the site up in front of you now.
Mike: It’s really cool. John, there’s a list of all of the cities that are already being tracked. It kind of shows what the matrix are and why these cities are the cities to watch. It’s really cool and I would like to encourage our listeners to hit this site and then find out what you can do to get whatever city you happen to be listening in, listed as one of America’s smartest cities.
John: Thank you, Mike. That’s a great point. Paul, how did you come up with the first 22 then? Why 22 and how can you grow that over there? What’s your vision at the NRDC to take it out? How big can it go? Can 22 eventually become 655 or what’s the goal?
Paul: Well, that’s what we would like. We would like to even go to smaller cities if we could. It’s really a question of manpower.
Paul: But the thing is that we set a series of thresholds. We said if cities have reduced their energy consumption per capita, below a certain amount, if cities have a target for their energy reductions, if they reached a certain set of thresholds, then they became smarter cities. We didn’t rank them against each other we just asked that they meet these standards.
John: Got you.
Paul: We didn’t get the top 10 cities. We got 22, of which there were different numbers in different size categories.
Mike: Paul, let me ask you. Just looking through your site, I kind of sense a recurring pattern here. It seems like part of the impetus for these cities to even begin their own energy audits, etc, and finding out ways of becoming more efficient as a municipal government, when it comes to energy and wastewater treatment, etc, there is an economic side to that. Am I picking up a pattern here?
Paul: Well, that’s obviously very important. We are in pretty austere times too. Cities are trying to find money wherever they can and ideally without having to lay off more employees so they are reducing hours than doing anything. But saving energy is a prime way to do this. Many of them find that their buildings are inefficient, that there are simple changes they can make to their heating and cooling systems, that they can change the lighting and make, put it in LEDs and streetlights and so on. All of these end up being big money savers. Those allow cities to provide the programs that the citizens need and keep the city in good repair.
John: I’ve been on your site, Mike’s on it now it’s wonderful. I mean, we’re so excited to be able to talk to our listeners and share this with them. Talk a little bit about the first 22. First of all, explain how come there are so many cities from Texas how did that happen? What do you think is in the water down there?
Paul: Well, Texas is interesting. It’s a pretty unique state. One of the reasons why is because it owns its own power grid. That allows the state to make decisions that no other state really has the power to do, so to speak. Among these, they have made wind power a priority. They generate twice as much wind power as the next highest state, which would be Iowa. The amount of wind power that Texas generates accounts for more than 30% of all the wind energy created in the US. What they have chosen to do is, back in 1999, they mandated the state put out 2000 megawatts from renewable energy sources by last year. Then in 2005, with wind farms coming online, they increased that mandate up to 6000 megawatts by 2015. At that state level, you had a big push in El Paso, Austin, Dallas, in Texas these are the cities that are all on our list. They’ve all benefited from these mandates but they’ve also made strides on their own that are quite impressive.
John: Interesting. Before you got back the questionnaires and as this was evolving internally at the NRDC, and you were, I’m sure, guessing to yourself which cities were going to be the superstars to start this whole process and which maybe we are going to be the laggers. What cities really surprise you both on both sides, especially on the good side? Because we love focusing on good here. What were the good surprises?
Paul: Well, I have to say El Paso is one. I really didn’t know that it had made the kinds of moves that it has done. When you think of the top green cities, you think of these West Coast cities.
John: Yeah, of course.
Paul: El Paso just doesn’t have that reputation. But, in fact, it’s been working on putting a 20-megawatt solar power plant, to begin construction this year. It has a new mission to limit its energy use to 70% of its 2008 levels by 2014. It’s setting these targets and it’s working towards them in a very concrete fashion. That’s actually made it pass a lot of our thresholds and really stand out. El Paso is a story that we’d like to mention.
Reno, as I mentioned before, is another interesting city, both for its green summit and the research that it encourages there. Even on city hall, they’re doing tests of different types of windmills to see which are most efficient windmills. They’re looking at the city’s geothermal energy, because as Senator Harry Reid has said, “The city is sitting on what could be the Saudi Arabia of geothermal energy.” In a fairly conservative state like Nevada, Reno is really making strides.
Mike: Well, it’s really interesting too, Paul, just looking and again, I’m getting this information from your wonderful site. I want to give it again, a shout out to smartercities.org, which is really cool. Talking about El Paso, they’re sitting in the middle of a desert and most of us in the Central Valley can understand what water shortage is like. But they’ve increased their annual supply of water by about 25% because of a desalination plant that was created to treat the existing brackish water that is there. Now with only about less than 9% or 9 inches of annual rainfall, this is a really important thing and another important step that is proving why El Paso, Texas is one of the smarter cities in America.
Paul: Yeah, that’s water supply and handling waters and drought are going to be a really important issue. NRDC also just released a report showing that, by 2050, global warming is going to have a serious impact on the water supplies of counties across the US. Many of them will be facing much more dire conditions if we do nothing. These issues are very much tied together. We have to get our energy conservation and our carbon emissions under control. Because it will have effects that will attack our food supply and it will impact our water supply across the country.
John: I know with regards to your definition of smarter, part of the definition is efficiency, sustainability, equability, and livability. Besides carbon footprint and wind and all those which that’s tied to, what about other programs that were unique that really inspired you and you are able now to highlight on this great website and inspire other city managers and mayors across America to maybe potentially implement these type of unique programs?
Paul: Well, yeah, there are a couple we’ve already mentioned. But I’d just like to mention one, a small town, which actually is not in our list, it’s too small.
Paul: We published a piece on them at Ellensburg, Washington, which is a small, high prairie community in Washington state. They are the first city in the US to have a community solar project in which the residents funded the creation of a set of solar PV generators that feed into the grid. Those residents each get back a small amount of money for the investment they put in. This saved them from having to put power PV cells on their rooftops and have the hassle of installation there and instead concentrated on one area. That was kind of a a neat thing that even small communities can do.
John: Interesting. On the site, our listeners always email Mike and myself and they ask us how can they get involved. What’s the door or the window for them to step through to become part of the solution in this green revolution? Talk a little bit about some of the features on your website in terms of citizen reporting and city wiki’s and things like that. Explain how our listeners can now become integrated and part of the conversation on what you’re doing with smartercities.org?
Paul: Thank you for mentioning those tools. Yeah, the city wiki is an area that we set up to allow anybody who wants to tell us their story about their city to just put up information and to encourage responses from their committee members and others. We then would be happy to draw from that information, report on these, and then follow these stories up. We’re really interested in getting people involved in there. We’ve got, in fact, a 14-year-old girl who has been working with us on a school garden program and she wants to get others encouraged through the city wiki. That’s one way to do it.
We have consumer reporter stories, I’m sorry, citizen reporter stories and there we are encouraging citizens, again, to send stories to us that we would vet and work on and post. That’s a little more of an edited version of this. But it’s another area where we like to encourage people. But I’d also like to mention that for each of the cities, we provide tool kits.
Paul: Those tool kits are links to programs where anybody can get more information about the real nitty-gritty of what the city is doing. They can see laws passed. They can see the details of initiatives and programs and their bench-marking and so on. That kind of information is the kind of thing cities need when they are trying to implement a new program. A citizen who wants to recommend that a city take up a community solar project can point to Ellensburg and can point to the specific pages and can bring that information with them to city council meetings.
John: So the essence of what’s going on here is you are democratizing the spreading of best practices among the cities and also encouraging the denizens of these cities, if they see something, to say something and report it back up to your website which then gets to have visibility to all.
Paul: Yeah, that’s a nice way of putting it. That’s really what we are doing, highlighting stories and trying to get the city administrators and the citizens excited, involved, and talking to each other across state boundaries and city lines.
John: That is so wonderful and amazing. What we loved, Mike and I love to highlight solutions here and simple steps to not make this so daunting for both citizens and also the leader’s of cities. Can you share some of the simpler things that good and green cities are doing now already and that other cities can start doing immediately to start making them a smarter city?
Paul: Sure. Really, the most important thing, which is also a simple thing to do, is to set targets. Once you set efficiency targets, then you can find ways to work towards it. But you have to come up with a firm target to say, we will reduce our energy consumption or we will reduce our water consumption by X number of kilowatt-hours by 2010, by 2015, by 2020. You have a plan in place. Then you can start looking at the tools that are available to do that and thinking creatively about those tools. Among those tools are things as simple as installing LED bulbs in city signs. Some cities will do things like buying green energy, renewable energy certificates, which are wind energy that’s generated elsewhere. You simply buy certificates to encourage that wind energy to be created. It doesn’t involve the setup of a wind power plant or other green energy site, but at least it’s supporting that kind of move. That’s probably the simplest, least effort action you can take.
John: You’re saying then the most important thing to do is to begin the process by setting targets.
Paul: Yes, the targets really are the essential element here. Because if you don’t set targets and you don’t track your progress towards making those, then you really are just buying technology and implementing technology without a plan.
Mike: Okay, and the two important numbers when you set that target is a percentage or a number of what you’re going to reduce by what percent and by when. You need both of those, right?
Paul: You need both of those. Yeah, and you need the tracking, who’s going to keep track of this information.
John: Basically, what’s measurable is manageable and there’s no way to create a smarter city if you don’t start with measurable, therefore manageable goals.
Paul: That’s right. Yeah.
John: Got it. Let’s sort of morph the conversation then towards some of what’s going on in Washington and how that ties back to the cities. The whole issue of reinventing our economy with the green collar workforce. How does smarter cities have a role in the whole economy with regards to creating greening of jobs, greening of companies, and also the new green collar and emerging green collar workforce?
Paul: Well, one city that we’d like to point out in this as an example here is Oakland. Because they are dealing both with greening, creating green-collar jobs at a higher level, but also with creating entry-level green jobs for the poorer members of the community. They want to bring everybody with them into this green economy. They’ve created a green jobs core. They just graduated their first class of 40 back in 2009. They’re sending these skilled workers into jobs, doing retrofitting, weatherization, and so on. A number of cities like Portland too are getting stimulus funds from Washington and putting that to work weatherizing homes. A lot of cities have very poorly insulated homes that are leaking energy right out the windows and out the doors. If you get those homes sealed up properly, properly insulated, they will save a lot of energy that will save the owners a lot of money. It will save the city both the cost of having to get a new power plant, as the population grows and the emissions, both carbon and also, of course, we’re talking about pollution in terms of smog that affects people’s health. These weatherization jobs, require people on the ground to do it. You’re talking about five people working at every house, you get 500 houses or more. That’s a fair number of jobs that can be created.
John: Paul, unfortunately, we’re down to the last two minutes or so. Again, Mike and I and Green is Good are huge fans of the NRDC and all the great work you’re doing. Can you leave our listeners with some pearls of green wisdom on how they can become part of the solution, and not only with Smarter Cities but with the NRDC and other great organizations out there? What are some of the ideas that you can share with them right now as we say goodbye with our listeners on how they can become involved with the green revolution?
Paul: Well, what we like to do is to give people simple behavioral changes that they can make. Simple changes they can do on a daily basis. We encourage people to act up politically and to speak up to their congress people. But at the same time, we want people to just make the changes like taking the bus to work, riding a bicycle to work. We want them to buy food from the local farmers markets when they can to support local farms, which is not just a matter of promoting small farms but also is keeping the land preserved from being taken over by your residential housing units and so on that then pollute the waterways more. It’s a matter of taking some local actions like those and coupling them with this political activity. You can donate obviously to environmental organizations that support causes that you think are important. You can visit nrdc.org and others and find ways to donate. But you don’t just have to feel that your task is just giving up money to let others do things. You should step forward, speak up at your city council meetings, be in touch with your mayor, be in touch with your city council members. Let them know what’s important to you. At that grassroots level, the cities are a good spot to act on. You know your voice is more easily heard.
John: I love it. That is so great and well put. We’re so thankful for your time today. From New York City, New York, Paul McRandal. Please, for all our listeners out there, look at all the great things the NRDC is doing at nrdc.org. Also, look at the great website Paul and Wendy work on at smartercities.org This is just, smartercities.org is just another great and amazing visionary tool created by the NRDC. Paul McRandle, you are truly living proof that Green is Good.
Announcer: If a little Green is Good, more is even better. Now, back to Green is Good with John Shegerian and Mike Brady.
John: Welcome back to Green is Good, Mike, wasn’t Paul McRandle great? Smarter Cities, what a great concept, what a great website.
Mike: Well, you know, I was just thinking, John, while we were listening, especially with a lot of our listeners that I know like to check out the websites that we are surfing when we’re talking to our guests. I know a lot of our listeners, I can just imagine, are looking and thinking, boy, we could do this in our city. I want to get this kind of information. Maybe we could do this for the desalinization plant or maybe some solar activity going on that we could really save our city government, and ourselves as taxpayers, an awful lot of money.
John: And remember what Paul said, the citizens of these cities, of all cities, across America, big and small, can go on smartercities.org and have your voice heard. So do it. Get involved, become part of the solution. That’s our message to our listeners today.
Mike: And we all want to live in smarter cities and how about when we travel?
John: When we travel, we all want to stay in smarter hotels, and we’re so lucky today to have Gina Edner as our next guest. She’s the Associate Director of Environmental Sustainability for Starwood Hotels. Mike, I’m going to confess something. Starwood is not an advertiser on the show, but it’s my favorite brand to travel with. And I am a member of spg.com, which is their affinity program. And I stay in Starwood Hotels, not only around the United States, but around the world, and they are doing a tremendous job.
Mike: Well, a lot of people may not know the members or the brands of Starwood. So what would those be, John? I know Sheraton, Westin?
John: Yeah. Le Méridien, the W, the St. Regis brand, and their new Element brand, which is their green trailblazing brand.
Mike: Okay. And by the way, Gina, our next guest, had a major role in the new brand.
John: Yeah. She’s going to rock it. And I want all our listeners to come on back for some hospitality, inspiration and some green travel tips at Green is Good.
Announcer: If a little Green is Good, more is even better. Now, back to Green is Good with John Shegerian and Mike Brady.
John: Welcome back to Green is Good. And we’re so excited today to have Gina Edner on from New York City, New York, my hometown. Gina is the Associate Director of Environmental Sustainability for Starwood Hotels, my favorite brand of hotels. And let me just give a disclaimer. They are not an advertiser. We have no economic interest in Starwood, but we love their brand. Welcome to Green is Good, Gina Edner.
Gina Edner: Thank you so much for having me on the show. I’m so excited to share with you what we’ve done at Starwood and why we think this is such an important issue. We really have about a 1000 hotels now in a 100 countries. Realizing this creates real opportunities to influence everyday choices across the globe for our guests and associates.
John: You are so right, Gina, because when I started traveling for Electronic Recyclers International, a recycling company, it was about five years ago when I realized I had a lot of travel ahead of me, and Westin had just about then changed their policy to be the first hotel to go smoke-free. And I then said I’m going to become a Westin person. I signed up for your spg.com as soon as I learned about it. And spg.com to me has become, and is the greatest affinity program right now in the world. But I want to learn more about besides the no smoking, how this whole process evolved, how you joined Starwood, and how this whole greening of the Starwood Hotel brands, all of your great brands, has evolved over the years. So please share you know what’s the motivation besides no smoking, how this whole process evolved?
Gina: Sure. For us this probably started about three or four years ago after we had the no-smoking policy. We actually started getting a lot more requests from our corporate customers that we are going way beyond no-smoking. And they were asking tough questions. They were asking us things like, do you have a policy around environmental sustainability? Do you recycle? Do you have high-efficiency lighting in your hotels? Do you have green meeting services? Well, realizing it’s starting to really influence their purchasing decisions and who they’re going to stay with and who they’re giving a business to.
We had that and then we also had owner developers approaching us. We actually, Starwood doesn’t own a lot of hotels. We have mostly, we manage and franchise so, we have a lot of owner developers that were asking us how would they build one of our hotels a little bit more sustainable. Some of them had to comply with emerging local regulations. Some of them are just interested in building or operating more efficiently and they wanted to know how they’re going to do that with one of our brands.
John: Got you. Go on.
Gina: Yeah. And then we also had hotels that were existing hotels having such a big portfolio. They’re already doing a lot, but they really were looking for more guidance from us to do even more and more resources to do this.
John: So you started seeing by listening to your clients what the problems were, and what some of their concerns were. How do you then take all that information and start narrowing it down and prioritizing? How do you set tangible goals that can be achieved and start creating the process of making Starwood the greatest sustainability hotel chain in the world?
Gina: That’s a great question. We actually started by conducting a field survey. We were trying to see, what are the initiatives that our hotels are already doing. And we learned quickly there’s a lot going on in the hotels. However, we didn’t really have consistency on what was happening. What we did is we captured proven practices, what was happening in the hotels, and then we also identified areas where we might need to increase our efforts a little bit. And taking those, we developed a policy. We developed a global program and we kind of went on our way. We did set some more tangible goals.
We obviously operate hotels around the world, and they use water, they use energy, and they produce waste every day. And we do also source a lot of products for these hotels. That is an obvious goal for us. We want to reduce the impact. We should reduce the impact of our practices on the environment.
Gina: Then, another one really is, we are in the business of customer service.
Gina: What we do best is providing a great guest experience. Some of our guests expect to stay in environmentally conscious hotels when they’re traveling and what we want to do is provide products and services that meet those needs. They want to be able to stay green, so let’s let them stay in a greener hotel.
John: Got it.
Gina: Yeah, that’s kind of how we focus our efforts. And then just recently, we announced actual reduction goals. So we are pledging to reduce our energy by 30% and our water by 20% by the year 2020. A little aggressive, but we do think we can do it so, we’re pretty excited about that.
John: Okay. I want to learn, though, give us a little taste of the process how you’re going to achieve those goals. But also, how about waste? How much of the waste will you be reducing by 2020? Do you have a goal there also?
Gina: We haven’t set an official goal…
Gina: …for waste yet.
Gina: But we’re working on it. So one of the things that has been a challenge for us is to get actual waste numbers from our hotels.
John: Got you.
Gina: In order to set a goal, we have to have a baseline. A lot of the waste haulers have not been providing us traditionally with good numbers. Something we’re focusing on and we’ll hopefully have something in the next 12 months.
John: Great. And to that issue, though, I have to say in some of your hotel rooms that I stay in. There’s actually already a blue recycling bin. You actually use a recycling waste bin in some of the hotels. So I know you’re already moving in that direction.
Gina: Yes, we definitely have initiatives that address minimizing waste. We have providing recycling bins in guest rooms and public areas. We are trying to source more sustainable products that don’t have so much packaging, maybe compost when it’s available. So we’ll have quite a few initiatives that address minimizing our waste, we just haven’t set an official goal.
John: Gina, let’s go back to energy and water then. Those are great, big goals, and we applaud you for that. Share with our listeners what’s a little bit of the process of how you’re going to go about achieving the 30% waste the energy reduction by 2020, and 20% water reduction by 2020 in your great hotel chain.
Gina: It’s actually a combination of what we’re going to do there some low-hanging fruit, there’s operational practices. Makeing sure we turn off the lights. We put the set points of thermostats back at what they should be when a guest leaves. We change out the light bulbs, incandescent light bulbs, to put in more high compact fluorescent or LED lights. We started putting in faucet aerators. Most guests don’t even know if you have a faucet aerator in because most guests don’t. Nobody really turns the faucet all the way up because all that happens is it splashes you.
Gina: Things like that. But then also just making sure that when we irrigate at our properties, we don’t spray half the sidewalk or we over spray so much that there are huge puddles. It’s really simple things that we are starting with. And then we’re looking at kind of where we need to invest some capital. There are some great innovative technology out there. We do need to invest capital. So that will be our next step. And there is also just innovative solutions that we’re starting to play with that are out there, whether or not that’s renewable energy systems or that’s an energy management system that we can install in our guest rooms. It’s a kind of combination approach for us to get to that 2020 goal.
John: Got you. Gina, the green revolution has become a very fascinating trend and opportunity both here in the United States and around the world. A lot of revolutions start from the ground up. But what Mike and I have learned on this show, are great brands like yours and Walmart and other amazing international brands when great brands make decisions to go green, to go sustainable, it really moves the needle. What’s fascinating to Mike and I, and I want our listeners to learn this from you, is the issue of communication with over 1000 properties in about 100 countries and 145,000 employees or so, how do you get buy-in, How do you get to communicate this sustainability message and your goals to your associates and colleagues around the world so you get everybody on board and you get them bought in to this process?
Gina: I would love to say that everybody’s just so bought into the environmental realm, some of us. However, a lot of it starts with making the business case. There is definitely significant operational savings when you implement green operation initiatives.
Gina: Since we don’t own so many hotels, the majority are managed and franchised hotels. So any savings that we do incur for making these changes goes directly back to the ownership group. That’s a pretty winning argument when you think about it, especially when you don’t have to invest so much upfront. Yeah.
Mike: You’ve highly incentivized the local ownership then?
Gina: Yes, we do. And we even beyond just making the business case, we are trying to incentivize by providing other incentives or recognition within Starwood in general. That could be marketing funds, that could be awards and recognition programs. So we’re really trying to incentivize. It’s a little bit of a stick approach, but mostly, the carrot of the carrot and stick approach seems to be a lot more successful for us.
John: Interesting. So now, what’s the flip side of that? How do you engage your guests then in this process, so not only are they excited because they are guests in your hotels and you are in the service industry, but that they also participate and start changing their behavior that they maybe even learned in your hotels?
Gina: That’s actually interesting. Our guests, as long as we make it easy for them to participate, they want to do it. But that means we do need to provide the recycling bins in a guest room or in a public area.
Gina: If you’re finishing your soda can, you don’t want to go hunting down a recycling bin, you want to be able to find one pretty quickly.
Gina: We are providing preferred parking for hybrid and fuel-efficient cars. But most important is why we’re doing all these initiatives, we still make sure we provide a great guest experience.
Gina: If you’re staying in one of our hotels, you don’t want to stand in a shower that is water efficient, but you can’t get the shampoo out of your hair.
Gina: Then you have a bad guest experience and you might not come back.
John: Fascinating. So you balance both the great guests’ experience that you are used to giving with your new sustainability initiatives.
Gina: Yes, absolutely. And the reality is that our guests want to feel pampered and they want to feel taken care of, and they want to stay in a great hotel while they’re staying with us.
John: Sure. Let’s switch and talk a little bit about one of your true babies, the new Element Hotel brand that Starwood created to be a sustainable brand. Explain your involvement with it. What’s the entire story behind it? And why, when I was online the other day, and again, this is not an advertisement, because Starwood is not an advertiser of Green is Good. Why has it become so successful? I saw the other day when they were rating new hotel chains, it got the highest rating, a four-star rating. Explain the genesis and where you’ve come with that great new hotel chain?
Gina: Absolutely right. The Element is a great example of balancing the interests of the guests with environmental consciousness. We actually call Element our eco-chic brand. It’s the first brand for us that really embraces a comprehensive green program, from the way we built it to the way we operate it. Interestingly enough, a lot of the things that we do, you probably won’t notice necessarily, and that’s really on purpose. So, we built it with much more environmentally friendly products, making sure we have just like a content in it and also, that it doesn’t smell or off-gas so much. For example, everybody kind of knows when you paint your house, or you buy a new car, you have that smell, the chemical smell, which is actually materials that are off-gassing over time.
Gina: Sometimes they give you headaches.
John: Oh, yeah.
Gina: When you walk into a newly built Element, you don’t have that smell. It’s not there. And we’ll make sure it also doesn’t come into there. So we have a green cleaning program that makes sure there’s not more chemicals introduced that’s much, much more environmentally friendly. And then the amazing thing that you can’t really measure is, with Element, we tried to have a really positive effect experience for our guests, but also associate.
One of the things we did is we introduced a lot of daylight. So literally anywhere in the hotel that you might be regularly occupying, you have a lot of access to daylight. And our guests as well as our associates really love that. They want to be connected to the environment to the nature outside, maybe just want to see what the weather is like. And the interesting part about that is, while making them feel good, it also reduces our energy costs because with more daylight you don’t have as much need for other lighting so it does save the energy as well.
John: That’s a win.
Gina: I just love that kind of stuff.
John: That’s a win for the hotel. It’s a win for the client. It’s a win for the environment. That’s a triple win.
Gina: You’re absolutely correct. And you mentioned already, Element has been coming rated so highly. It’s amazing even within the Starwood network, we have guest satisfaction index so we kind of look at how all the hotels are doing. Element has the highest one of all of our brands. This is a flex sort of brand. There’s not like a lot of restaurants. You don’t have a spa. It’s limited services that you get while you’re staying at the Element. Great services, however, it’s not a full service brand. But nonetheless, it’s so well-received. It’s just amazing. We definitely did it right.
John: Wait. Let’s stop there, Gina. I want our listeners to understand this and Mike, I want you to hear this. Gina is very humble. She was the lead designer on the Element brand.
John: And the Element brand has really become Starwood’s green trailblazing brand. And in fact, their first hotel, which was built in Lexington, Massachusetts, won the Gold Leaf Construction Award in December 2008. So Gina, this is truly your baby and you were designing all these things that you say that are now part of the Element of elements. You were really there putting these pieces together.
Gina: Yes, I was and very dear and close to my heart. I like to go back as much as I can, and I do. It’s a fantastic hotel to stay in. I mean, there’s many hotels we have in the Boston area, I usually choose to stay at the Element.
John: How many elements are there now? The first was built in Lexington. How many exists now?
Gina: We have about seven hotels currently open. There’s a few more under construction. So we have one in Houston, I believe. I actually think it’s the number one hotel in Houston rated on Tripadvisor, funny enough. We have a hotel in Denver, Colorado and in Summerlin, Las Vegas. Kind of across the continental US at this point.
John: Got it. So what have you learned from Element that you’ve been able to then leverage that information and knowledge into your entire portfolio? What was learned in the process and learned since the launch in terms of what really excites the guests and what they are enjoying that you’ve then been able to take across your entire portfolio?
Gina: From Element, we really did gather a lot of good information. Most of all that we could build a greener brand and more sustainable brand that our guests really love. I mean, that is fantastic.
Gina: There were things that we implemented, like dual flush toilets. We were a little nervous about dual flush toilets in the guestrooms, but they work. It worked fine. Sustainable material choices that we’ve made during the construction. The green cleaning program we have now implemented in all of our hotels. So there’s many, many items that we have already implemented and are leveraging across the entire portfolio. But then, we are even continuing. Element’s kind of a space is our little innovative lab. We’re trying out new things. So we’re trying out an energy management system right now with Element and that seems to be very promising. So we’re starting to kind of look at other brands where we might be applying that also.
Mike: Yeah. Gina, we had had someone on from Roto-Rooter.
John: Rot-Rooter, yeah.
Mike: Several shows back, they were talking about the home edition of the dual flush system. Now, that’s kind of a novel concept for a lot of people. What is the feedback been from your guests on the dual flush? Do they comment on that?
Gina: It was interesting. We actually haven’t had a lot of comments on it, to be honest. Because it is a transient person that stays in the room, we talked about how do we educate the guests.
Gina: What do we say which button to push? Number one or number two? I mean, it’s an interesting concept. And we were a little nervous because we don’t want this toilet to clog, especially in the hospitality. But we have not had any problems. The toilets are performing just as well. Our guests seem to get it. The water savings are proven for us so it’s one of those things we were nervous about, but it really has worked.
Mike: And you’ve already noticed a water savings at the property?
Gina: Yes, we really have. We went back late last year after the property had been open for about a year and we looked at all the utility bills because there’s always a difference between building green and then actual performance of a building. But the Element, Lexington at least, has been performing the way that we were expecting so that’s a great success for us.
John: How about when… Element is growing. It’s been a massive success and now you’re leveraging that information into your other brands. Give us a little visibility. We’re down to the last few minutes or so. Give us a little visibility on what’s on tap for Starwood’s green future. What’s about to happen?
Gina: We feel like a lot of the lower hanging fruit, we have tried to at least put into our program. So it’s being implemented currently. Now we’re really looking at what’s the next-gen initiatives for us. We may require a little bit more capital, but they usually have a pretty good return on investment story behind them.
Gina: We’re looking at our hotels. There are a lot of hotels that already trying out innovative solutions. Those are really like real-life examples for us. We can see what the environmental benefit is. We can see what the economic benefit is. So we’re really looking at leveraging from our hotels the proven practices, and then we’re piloting some other solutions as we are being approached by vendors we’re trying them out, seeing what’s next. Can we push the envelope even a little bit further? Some of our hotels are installing electric car charging stations right now, or they are installing wind turbines on the roof. There’s a lot of new things that are coming. They are becoming much more feasible, especially with the increased cost of energy. So we’re hoping to kind of take that to the next level and really start innovating because that’s one of the things we do best is innovation.
John: Got you.
Gina: Really doing that for us will be probably, and then engaging the guests more and educating. Education is a huge part, educating the guests, educating our associates, and the community.
John: Well, Gina, we have a lot of listeners around the world, and we get emails all the time after they hear a great and wonderful and inspiring guests like you. A lot of people that email us are in college or in grad school, and they want to be the next Gina Edner. As we close our show today, do you have some pearls of wisdom for our listeners out there who want to be the next Gina Edner? How they can get involved with the green revolution like you are leading it?
Gina: I think one of the things I do is I listen a lot. There’s are a lot of great stories out there. My background is not in environmental sustainability. I come from architecture and design.
Gina: I listen to all the innovative stories that are out there, what is happening. And I’m very passionate. Passion gets you pretty far. If you’re passionate about it and if you want to learn, because it’s such an emerging field, you can definitely make that your focus area. So I believe that’s really the key to this. It’s an emerging discipline. Listen, learn as much as you can, and be passionate about it.
Mike: Well, Gina, we are so thankful for your time today. You were tremendously informational and inspirational. You’ve proven to us that Starwood is truly the hospitality innovator and we’re so proud to have you on because Starwood is the green trailblazer in the hospitality industry. I know this personally. I’ve spent over 100 nights this year already in Starwood Hotels around the world, and you guys are just doing a tremendous job. I want our listeners who have gotten excited about this show to please go to look at Starwood’s great website starwoodhotels.com, or one of the greatest affinity programs in the world, spg.com. Gina Edner, we are so thankful for your time today. You are truly living proof that Green is Good.
Gina: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
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