Derek Picot finds that hoteliers are happy to pay lip service to eco initiatives, but few commit to radical action.

At the annual International Luxury Travel Market held in Cannes in December, the talk among hoteliers was of ethical and sustainable hotel keeping.

From the business traveller’s point of view, this can only be good news.
For the hotelier, the challenge lies in delivering; the correct approach is seldom the obvious one. To take one small example, should you use plastic or glass bottles by the bedside? Plastic is difficult to recycle, but not even glass can be recycled everywhere; if you’re in a resort on a desert island, ferrying all that glass to the mainland isn’t just expensive, it’s also, environmentally, a backward step.

Ethical initiatives

There’s more to being responsible than just considering the environment, of course. Many companies seek to benefit the local community. The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok has a programme to professionally educate apprentices in hotel service. This is in response to what the Thai government sees as a pressing need for well-trained staff throughout the country. The management warn that guests might come across young trainees who “may fall short of standards of service” and they ask for “kind and good-natured forbearance” in these circumstances. Five-star hotels like this should, I think, lead the way in demonstrating how to give something back to the local community. Customers will want to know about this too, even if it is only as a salve to their conscience for enjoying such luxury.

For business travellers interested in supporting ethical hotels, they might look no further than the values created by the World Tourism Organisation, which publishes a comprehensive set of ethical standards to follow. Highlights include fair pricing, sustainability and local community development. Some of the more challenging principles are the thorny subject of profit repatriation and local employment standards. Should hoteliers encourage collective bargaining and welcome union activity? Are all employees given a living wage over a reasonable working week? What is the position with regards to agency labour that is contracted to clean rooms or serve meals – are they treated on an equal basis to full-time staff and do they receive full employment benefits? The answers are probably not clear on any hotel information fact sheet. Similarly, trying to discover how much profit is given back locally to aid community development, rather than repatriated to a headquarters overseas, may well be shrouded by inventive tautology.

So here are a few things to look for when you take your next business trip. You might start by asking your chosen property about energy-saving initiatives. In Mallorca, for example, a number of hotels are investing in solar energy, and also using wood-burning biomass boilers to reduce electricity and gas consumption.

Another useful indicator of a hotel’s interest in the local community is how it supports smaller enterprises. A glance at the hotel menu should indicate that local produce is being bought and served.

Industry research by Cornell University points to a recent survey suggesting that 45 per cent of hotel guests would be prepared to pay a higher room rate for a hotel’s sustainable initiatives. However, when put into practice, travellers turned out to be not so committed. I can understand why. If you’ve experienced the irritation of motion sensors that suddenly plunge your conference room into darkness because no one has moved for 30 seconds, you’ll know what I mean.

Those who are truly committed to visiting a sustainable hotel could arrange their next business meeting at the Posada Amazonas. This hotel has won countless awards for its eco-friendly approach. Admittedly it’s in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, and it takes a day or two to get there from almost anywhere else, but it has all you need in terms of recycling, energy conservation and total commitment to the environment. You will be cheek to cheek with the local inhabitants; piranha fish in the river, a variety of flying bugs and the odd monkey or two. Thankfully, mosquito nets are provided in the bedrooms, and guides on the river will make sure you don’t dangle your feet in the water.

Meanwhile, I am going back to the World Tourism Organisation’s website to see how many global hotel organisations have signed up to its ethical guidelines before I choose my next stay. That shouldn’t take too long, as there were still disappointingly few on the list when I last looked.

Derek Picot has been a hotelier for more than 30 years and author of hotel reservations