China Travel Hotel Biz Insider: URBN Hotels leads China's green leap forward (part 2)

Culture | by Stephan Larose
Posted: September 8th, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Part two of my chat with URBN Hotels marketing director Victoria Hajjar about the challenges and rewards URBN has faced as China's first carbon-neutral hotel. Read on for useful tips carbon-conscious business travelers and green startups in China can use to save money, reduce their environmental footprints and spruce up their PR.

(Read part one)

Stephan Larose: Glenn Hasek, Publisher and Editor of Green Lodging News said “Thousands of hospitality properties around the country and around the world are addressing energy efficiency, water efficiency and reduction of their carbon footprint for two reasons—it benefits the environment and it benefits the bottom line.” Has going green diminished your fixed operating costs or saved you money in other ways? Are there any other reasons going green makes economic sense? Victoria Hajjar: This is kind of interesting, and we owe thanks to our fantastic architects Beijing and Shanghai. What they do for us is very cool. They use us as sort of experimental platform for trying new water and energy reduction strategies. Lucky for us they do this for free, because we are unique and we're kind of a showcase for them in China. Their focus is low cost/no cost sustainability strategies, and last year they gave us a couple suggestions after monitoring our water and energy usage like keeping our lights on a dimmer setting—so simple. Things like monitoring our heating and cooling systems better. If you just flip everything on and walk away it's very wasteful, but if you spend just a little time monitoring where people are and what you're using and make tiny, nearly effortless adjustments, you can save a lot. We ended up cutting our energy usage by 35%, it's very exciting. [pullquote]Honestly, we really hope that people copy our idea—Victoria Hajjar, marketing director URBN Hotels[/pullquote]SL: 35% energy savings cost you practically zero? VH: Yeah! It's so fantastic, it was so easy! Now we're chatting about solar panels and carbon sensors in our air con units. This is really interesting. I'm learning so much from working here (laughs). Air con units pull fresh air in from outside which you need for health reasons, but pulling air in and cooling it down takes energy. Carbon sensors tell you what amount of fresh air you need so that instead of constantly pulling it in, it stops once the amount is sufficient. Then you save money. So they're very cool, love ICF. SL: The Chinese government is committed to huge reforestation efforts and massive investments in green energy, but where do you see the green hotel industry in China in 10 years? VH: Honestly, we really hope that people copy our idea. We'll always be the first, and hopefully we'll always be the best, but we hope that we inspire other businesses. That's why we release reports with ICF because we do want other businesses—not just other hotels—to understand that being green can cut costs and be good for your PR. It's just smart. I hope other businesses catch on; it would do nothing but good. But the hotel industry is a different story. Hotels and the travel industry are tremendously wasteful and account for a huge chunk of world pollution. Airports, planes and hotels are very wasteful. A lot of hotels have picked up small things like giving guests the option of how many times they want their sheets changed and towels cleaned; we do that here, that's very common all over the world now I think. But, I don't know of any other big green hotel projects going on in China now.

But I think there is a lot of positive development in well-established second-tier cities. Attention to sustainability in the next ten years there could be very serious, very real. Hangzhou is very green. There are a lot of cool companies and people there into sustainability. URBN Hotels is expanding as well, which seems to support the idea that there is a market for this stuff, which is exciting, so I'm very optimistic about green in China in the next ten years. As for hotels, I think they are and will be incorporating these practices, but who knows what degree they'll use them in their marketing practices. I guess we'll see. SL: How much does it cost for a guest to offset carbon from their flight? VH: You can buy a tree for 25RMB, no-brainer, it's very simple. The Inner Mongolia and it's really cool because it's a reforestation project with very quantifiable results. We need to rebuild the forest to stop desertification and sandstorms, but what's really great is that they give plots of land to local farmers. This gives them an incentive to take good care of the land, trees and soil, and they make a living for themselves. So the project helps the local economy and has a positive environmental impact. Roots and Shoots is just the coolest thing ever, they get everyone involved. I love that company. SL: Do you have any advice for environmentally conscious travelers looking to travel to China? VH: Um… stay at URBN (laughs). SL: What about for a business traveler that doesn't want to ruin the earth while trying to make a living? [pullquote]...being green can cut costs and be good for your PR—it's just smart—Victoria Hajjar, marketing director URBN Hotels[/pullquote]VH: With business travelers… it's unfortunate because unless you are very hardcore there are a lot of things that are unavoidable; for example, flights and all other transport. Unfortunately it's just unrealistic to expect that a business person on a brief stay will learn to navigate the subway. That's just life. What I would say is get involved by buying trees; it's so easy and inexpensive. SL: Do you know of any other programs or strategies people can employ here to lessen the environmental impact of their travels? VH: Roots and Shoots is the big one, they've got lots of projects. If you want to buy souvenirs, there are a lot of fantastic retailers here that do natural, organic, eco-friendly products, tons of them. A lot of them are our partners on the URNB Hotels website; they do a lot of really great things, beautiful gifts and services with a positive impact on the environment. SL: You mentioned that you hope other hotels follow your lead in the sustainable luxury market, do you have any tips or lessons you could share with your aspiring industry peers to help them on their way? VH: I would suggest other hotels take small measures to improve the "greenness" of their operations. From making sure all staff turn off their computers at night, to recycling paper, to printing less. These are small changes. In addition, I would encourage hotels to partner with a local non-profit that is focused on sustainability. These types of programs not only help the environment, but are a great PR tool! SL: Victoria, thank you so much for your time VH: My pleasure!

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