Hoteliers strive to conserve amid drought
22 APRIL 2015 7:31 AM
As California’s drought enters its fourth year, hoteliers are being forced to abide by government mandates and measures.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—As California's devastating drought enters its fourth year, hotel operators are feeling the strain of rising utility bills and tougher limits on water use. The crisis unfolding in the Golden State is likely to shape government policies and internal hotel strategies in drought-prone regions around the world, brand executives said.
In California and beyond, “we do eventually anticipate more water regulations in the long term,” said Marianne Balfe, Marriott International's director of energy and environmental sustainability in the Americas. “Currently it is only happening in a few specific areas where water stress is particularly acute.”
In April, California Governor Jerry Brown ordered businesses and communities to cut statewide water use by 25%. The move came as California's snowpack reached its lowest level on record. NASA water scientists have said that, given current conditions, the state likely has enough water in its reservoirs to last just one more year.
Now urban water agencies are facing fines of as much as $10,000 a day for failing to implement conservation measures. Hotels are subject to penalties. The Biltmore Four Seasons in Santa Barbara, for instance, was fined $48,000 in 2014 for using about 1 million gallons over its monthly allotment.
“We have implemented a number of measures to reduce water consumption for the property in the last years and have been very successful in reducing consumption. In fact, a recent visit of the local authorities even highlighted us as exemplary for reducing water consumption so much,” according to Holger Frehde, the hotel’s director of marketing.
Balfe said California's water shortage has prompted operational changes at Marriott's properties in the state. The company's food-and-beverage outlets now serve water to guests only upon request. The policy reflects a new state standard aimed at preventing restaurants from filling glasses that go untouched. Another water rule requires hotel operators to give guests a chance to decline fresh towels and sheets. Balfe said Marriott already encourages its guests to reuse linen and terry for at least two to three days.
The company also has advised its properties to limit outdoor irrigation and convert landscape to native or drought-tolerant plants. Marriott adopted a similar strategy at its Courtyard Dallas Plano in Legacy Park in Plano, Texas, another drought-stricken area with strict local water rules in place.
On top of desert landscaping, Marriott's Plano property installed weather-based irrigation controllers, high-efficiency spray nozzles and low-flow toilets and showerheads, enabling the hotel to curb its water usage by 31%, Balfe said. Across Marriott's properties worldwide, the brand reduced its water intensity—or water usage per square foot—by 5.3% in 2014 compared to a year earlier, and by 16.3% compared to 2007.
“Marriott recognizes the importance of freshwater conservation not only to its operations, but to the communities and travel destinations we serve,” Balfe said. “The new regulations in California … demonstrate the importance of our conservation efforts.”
Cost cutting through conservation
While upgrading toilets and sinks and redesigning landscapes costs hoteliers a significant sum upfront, investing in water conservation ultimately can offset the costs of soaring water and sewage bills, executives said.
Host Hotels & Resorts, for instance, has seen its water rates grow by more than 5% on an average annual basis during the past four years. At Marriott, water and sewage rates in U.S. properties rose 6.6% on average last year.
“Water utility rates are the fastest increasing utility cost in our domestic portfolio,” said Michael Chang, Host's director of energy and sustainability, design and construction. “Dwindling water supply and increasing water costs are already a reality. We believe the trend will continue, if not increase, in California due to the state mandates.”
Chang said Host already is prepared to address potential physical and regulatory challenges related to water scarcity. The company has set a target to reduce water use by 15% per occupied room by 2017, compared to 2008 levels, in all its domestic properties.
Along with typical conservation efforts, such as installing low-flow water fixtures and rainwater capture systems, Host is piloting "smart" irrigation systems in eight of its California hotels that connect wirelessly to relay local weather and geographical data to digital irrigation networks. The technology can pinpoint precisely when plants need watered—and when they don't—to help cut down on wasteful sprinkling. Chang said Host's eight irrigation systems have curbed annual water consumption at the hotels by about 5%, or 11 million gallons.
Laundry services are another key area where properties in drought-stricken regions are looking to conserve.
Kirk Lok, president and CEO of Lok Group of Companies in Sonoma County, said he recently installed highly efficient washing machines in two California properties and a hotel in Nogales, Arizona. The machines use polymer beads to extract soil from sheets and towels, cutting down on water, detergent and chemicals. So far, Lok Group is saving thousands of gallons of water and about $400 a month at each hotel.
“Our industry is always looking for ways in which we can save money, and (water) conservation is one way of doing that,” he said. “It's a feel-good thing, but more importantly it's become good business.”