It’s an unlikely gamble: Las Vegas, the desert metropolis of casinos, suburban sprawl, golf courses, and glittering lights, wants to remake itself into a model of sustainable development. Hotel and casino operators are investing many millions of dollars to save energy and water, and reduce their carbon emissions and waste.
MGM Resorts? massive City Center development is one of the world?s largest LEED-certified projects. The Las Vegas Sands built a solar thermal power plant on the roof of its convention center to provide hot water for swimming pools, spas, and guest rooms. Hotel-operated limousines run on compressed natural gas, which burns cleaner than gasoline, and high-end restaurants like Sage offer farm-to-table produce, artisanal meats, and sustainable seafood.
The greening of Las Vegas is being driven largely by business travelers and the city?s position as one of the top meeting destinations in the United States.
?You?re not going to find many Fortune 500 companies that are not meeting in Vegas at some point,? says Michael Dominguez, Senior Vice President of Sales for MGM Resorts.
?We view sustainability as a core part of our business strategy,? says Gary Loveman, the Chief Executive of Caesar?s, which has invested more than $70 million in energy-efficiency programs.
If Las Vegas, a brand that is all about fun and frivolity, takes sustainability seriously, it?s a safe bet that the rest of the hotel industry is equally committed to reducing its environmental footprint as well as becoming more socially responsible. But how green is Vegas, really? The lights on the strip still glitter all night long. The carbon footprints of big operators such as MGM Resorts shoot skyward as they add new capacity. And it?s hard to get your head around the idea that transporting nearly 40 million visitors a year to a desert city that averages about 4.2 inches of precipitation a year ends up being sustainable in a meaningful way.
And that?s the way it goes with the rest of the hotel industry, too. Every major hotelier?Starwood, Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHC, and the rest?has invested in energy and water efficiency, reported its carbon footprint online, reduced waste, organized ?green teams? of engaged employees, and embraced social programs ranging from recycling soap and toiletries to teaching employees to recognize and report human sex trafficking.
That?s all well and good, but these efforts are not yet comprehensive or comparable in a way that would allow corporate travel buyers and managers (or, for that matter, leisure travelers) to measure one hotel chain against another. Nor are there reliable, broad-based, third-party standards, ratings, or rankings that reward industry leaders and shame laggards, as there are in other business categories, ranging from seafood and forestry to cell phones and appliances.
?The industry, in general, is still getting its feet wet,? says Jennifer Silberman, who has been Vice President of Global Corporate Responsibility at Hilton Worldwide since 2010. Like other big hotel companies, Hilton says that sustainability?which it calls corporate responsibility, and others label corporate citizenship?is about more than going green.
?Our definition of responsibility is holistic,? Silberman says. ?It includes environmental, social, and corporate governance issues.?
One clear sign that the hotel sector has lagged others? Transparency?or the lack thereof. Hilton published its first thorough corporate responsibility report in 2013, and Starwood plans to release its first sometime this year. Hyatt began reporting in 2011, and Marriott in 2006. By comparison, Shell has been reporting on its environmental performance since 1997, and tech companies such as Intel (which began reporting in 2001), Hewlett Packard (2001), and Microsoft (2003) have had sustainability programs in place for a decade. Nike began reporting in 2001, Gap in 2004. Not until companies measure and publicly report on their actions does real change come, sustainability experts say.
The good news is that the hotel industry is making unmistakable progress as a strong business case emerges for environmental and social initiatives. Indeed, industry executives cite three reasons why they have begun to take action on the sustainability front: to save money, attract and motivate their employees, and respond to demand from business and leisure travelers.
The first and biggest driver is the cost savings generated by efficiency. Hilton Worldwide, for example, says it has saved about $253 million since 2009 by reducing energy, waste, and water use.
?Everything we do has a positive return on investment,? says Randy Gaines, Hilton Worldwide?s Vice President of Engineering, Housekeeping, and Laundry Operations for the Americas. ?Over 90 percent of our projects have paybacks of less than two years,? he says. All of the nearly 4,000 Hilton Worldwide properties must use LightStay, a proprietary software platform that calculates their sustainability performance and helps spread best practices.
Meantime, the Las Vegas Sands, which operates some 15 million square feet of space in its hotels, convention center, and casinos, tackles about 100 environmental projects a year, including the installation of energy-saving lighting and low-flow plumbing fixtures, reports Katarina Tesarova, the property?s Executive Director of Sustainability. Some pay back their investment in less than a year, she reports.
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