I recently enjoyed a long chat with URBN Hotels marketing director Victoria Hajjar about the challenges and rewards URBN has faced as China's first carbon-neutral hotel. Also after the jump: useful tips that carbon-conscious business travelers and green startups in China can use to save money, reduce their environmental footprints and spruce up their PR.Stephan Larose: What kind of projects has URBN invested in to offset its carbon footprint?
Victoria Hajjar: We're not married to one single project; it can change year to year. Carbon credits are a huge business here now, so these days it isn't so difficult to offset your carbon locally. Two years ago we were working in a Shenzhen landfill. That was interesting. We invested in a methane collection system that prevented waste gas from escaping into the atmosphere. Now we work with a Swiss company called Sichuan.
SL: What were the greatest challenges you faced in trying to establish this green hotel? As a pioneer in this industry in China, did you have sourcing or labor issues?
VH: From a marketing standpoint, it's been incredibly challenging to get everyone on the staff on board with this idea of sustainability. It's easier to understand coming from the West where environmental education generally starts at a young age. When I was in grammar school we celebrated Earth Day every year. Here we need people to not only understand these unfamiliar concepts but to be ambassadors of the brand and we're still working on it. We have a lot of very enthusiastic, professional, fantastic people that work for us, but getting everyone to the next level of being really invested in this philosophy is something that we're always going to be working on. But we work with Shanghai Roots and Shoots and are talking to them about implementing a series [pullquote]They come here because we're a hot, sexy, design hotel with a great restaurant and great spaces, comforts and service, that's why people come to this hotel.[/pullquote]of internal programs to get people excited about sustainability. Things move slowly when you're very busy, but we're planning some internal audits that will measure our daily paper usage, energy usage, even the ink that we use, to show how these affect the environment and hopefully get people more involved.
SL: What kind of training do your employees receive in order to become more carbon neutral and sustainability conscious?
VH: When employees come into URBN they go through a very regimented orientation process. We have a sustainability PPT, a presentation on our Million Tree Project done in conjunction with Roots and Shoots, but it takes much more than a PPT. What we're trying to do now is implement programs like eco-audits through Roots and Shoots. They also have student ambassadors who come and do fun sustainability-oriented activities with us. We've been open since 2008 and it's taken a while to get everything fine tuned and to find the right people for the positions, but I think the hospitality industry as a whole is faced with similar staffing challenges. Now our business is very strong so we can start looking at more proactive programs for getting people involved with the message.
SL: Do people see themselves as active protagonists through the training?
VH: I think so, everyone from our ayis to our front office staff to everyone in the back are conscious of even small things like trying to avoid printing and turning off our computers, it's there but it can always be better. Our front office staff are really good at talking about our programs to our guests and offering them the opportunity to offset the carbon from their flights by buying trees for the Million Tree Project, which we promote in our rooms and front desk. But we can always be better, there's always room for improvement and that's our focus moving forward.
SL: Does the lack of standards or a concrete framework add to that challenge? Because it's not like you can say: "Hey here's a rule, or an international guideline."
VH: I've been to many lectures about this. Let's talk about sustainability in China from a marketing perspective. There have been a lot of studies conducted showing that consumers are interested in green products. Well, why aren't they buying them? Why isn't China a leader in this industry? There are a couple of reasons. Obviously the money's there, but people are very smart. Chinese consumers have an inherent distrust of these products' green and sustainability credentials because there is no real certification. In Western countries we have LEED certification but LEED doesn't do much in China. No certifying body really exists. As a result, Chinese consumers don't really believe that these products are good for the environment so they mostly ignore them.
SL: Chinese consumers must be pretty savvy to evaluate the credence of green claims against the reality of the regulatory environment.
VH: Chinese consumers are smart and have a lot of money and they're making a huge impact on the world economy. If things are marketed the right way, China could be a leader in this industry. Sadly international companies in the US and Europe with very strong green marketing strategies simply don't spend money or time here in China because they don't think it's worthwhile. But the studies I've seen tell me they're missing out. If these companies, which have a lot of legitimacy in the eye of the Chinese consumer, spend more money and energy to promote a sustainable agenda it could really pay off. And if international companies start doing it, Chinese companies will follow. I think it'll happen
SL: It seems like consumers are ready for that new paradigm, but someone needs to show leadership.
VH: I hope it happens. It's interesting for URBN. Talking about legitimacy, we've gotten a lot of attention locally and internationally for our carbon neutrality. In my opinion, I think people are very drawn to that concept because it is very quantifiable. Carbon emissions are very abstract, but we can look at our energy and water bills and all our waste and turn those into a dollar amount, which we can then dedicate to a good project. People connect to that and get excited about that. It's easy to understand, and people are fascinated by it as soon they grasp it.
SL: A reviewer at CNNgo commented that your green credentials are not in themselves reason enough to stay here, but at the same time everyone from the New York Times to Starwood Hotels are praising sustainability both in [pullquote]The new term that everyone loves is sustainable luxury, which is funny, as it's kind of an oxymoron.[/pullquote]terms of cash savings from efficiency gains to the PR impact on the modern environmentally-conscious consumer who demands their carbon offset. What challenges and rewards have you encountered as an innovator in this area?
VH: That's interesting; I have to agree with them all. We're a luxury hotel and our average guest is very impressed with our sustainable approach and eco-friendly business, but I don't think that's a reason they book us. They come here because we're a hot, sexy, design hotel with a great restaurant and great spaces, comforts and service; that's why people come to this hotel. Those that stay in green hotels exclusively are a little crunchier than our clients, they wouldn't mind going somewhere with no air conditioning. Our space has a lot more to offer than just being eco-friendly. The new term that everyone loves is sustainable luxury, which is funny, as it's kind of an oxymoron.
SL: Do you think URBN is demonstrating the viability of that model? That you can enjoy luxuries fairly responsibly by offsetting that heavier footprint with financial support of a greener model?
VH: Yes, and I think people would be surprised to know how much we recycle and locally source, it's about 90% of our products. It's great, it cuts costs. Importing marble from Europe is incredibly expensive and a lot of hotels do that, but we have so much more to offer than the fact that we're eco-friendly and I think that's what our guests appreciate the most, our services and our space.
SL: In terms of your design niche: the found object art, reclaimed antiques and upscale bohemian motifs differ from most fine hotels here, which do invest in that Italian marble and gilded everything luxury concept… cough… Four Seasons… cough cough... [laughter] …how unique is your design among Shanghai hotels, and how's that been received?
VH: I think we're the most unique hotel in Shanghai. Things are changing, in the past the average wealthy Chinese consumer would automatically be drawn to the marble and the chandeliers. In the past it wasn't natural for people to pay to go somewhere more low key. We don't look very extravagant right? But we've been getting more and more Chinese guests, things are changing and there is a segment of people that do appreciate the creativity, uniqueness and the exclusivity of the space. People are getting increasingly attracted to that. And that's really exciting for us. We don't want to be a hotel filled only with foreigners. We want Chinese here and we have a lot to offer the local community.
SL: I haven't seen any foreigners here yet, what's the ratio?
VH: Well I'd be lying if I didn't say most of our guests are foreigners coming from Europe, America and Australia. Things are changing, but the reality is most people come to Shanghai for business and the people who stay at our hotel are the more creative business people – the fashion designers, the textile buyers, the innovative technology set, graphic designers, that's our segment, but next year we'll devote more of our marketing towards the Chinese. We have a pretty solid following abroad, the foreign press has paid a lot of attention because we're unique in China. But hopefully we can get more local publicity, and it's starting to happen, China's changing fast, that's why it's exciting to be here.
SL: Has URBN won any accolades?
VH: We pride ourselves on being a local favorite. We just re-did our restaurant because we wanted to have a space that everyone comes to, not just a hotel bar. We made huge efforts to bring the Shanghai community in, local Shanghainese love our restaurant, and we love that because our space should be enjoyed by everyone. We've recently been recognized as Shanghai’s Best Boutique Hotel by both That’s Shanghai and Time Out magazines. In addition, Fodor’s Travel added URBN as a 2010 Fodor’s Choice selection, which is great and exciting because its kind of big time. And of course awards for our sustainable building and green hotel. We've gotten quite a few glances in our direction which is exciting.
Click the link to read part 2 Stephan Larose's China Travel Biz Insider: How URBN leads China's green leap forward
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