To show your hotel is truly sustainable, hoteliers should invite guests to view their back-of-house operations.
One of the most frequent questions I get asked by journalists is about how you can tell if a hotel is truly sustainable. They often bombard me with a long list of certifications and ask me which one is most reliable. I have to admit to them that I don’t have a 100% waterproof answer.
I am not a big fan of sustainability certifications. In my over 20 years of experience in sustainable luxury travel, I have seen too much greenwashing at hotels that supposedly have gained a maximum certification in sustainable practices.
At the Cayuga Collection, we do participate in sustainability certifications, but more to help our teams get organized and have a structure in their reporting. We know that it is easy to cut corners in the various certification schemes as there is typically no follow-up after a questionnaire was handed in and very little on-site revision due to cost reasons.
Therefore, I recommend a different approach. When you are looking to stay at a sustainable resort, hotel or lodge, these are the steps I suggest you follow.
Check out the hotel’s website first. Review the sustainability section and make sure that the claims of the hotel go beyond just recycling, turning off light bulbs and not changing the sheets every day. Look for innovative and difficult things to do. Pay attention to programs that involve people and communities.
When you make a reservation, ask the reservations agent on the phone or in an e-mail about the hotel’s sustainability program. Ask them to not just send you a link or a press release but to describe in their own words what sustainable programs are happening at the hotel.
If you feel comfortable about the website and the reservation agent’s response to your questions, maybe also take a look at some online reviews on sites such as Google and TripAdvisor and look for mention of sustainable practices. Sustainability certifications and sustainability awards are a bonus, but not totally necessary in my opinion.
Be aware of hospitality awards in general. Many of them are “pay-to-play” schemes or reward the public relations company that can get the most people to vote online for a specific property. Look for awards like Tourism for Tomorrow by World Travel & Tourism Council or World Legacy* by National Geographic that sends auditors at their own expense to rigorously review the practices of hotels on the ground.
Once you are staying at the hotel and you would like to make sure that the hotel is really walking the walk on sustainability, I recommend you speak to a couple of staff members. Not necessarily the GM or the person that oversees the sustainability program. Talk to line-level employees on the job: A housekeeper cleaning your room, your server at breakfast or a gardener picking up dry leaves at the beach. Ask them what sustainability means to them and what they do on the job every day to make sure that the hotel is sustainable. This is really the acid test as you will either get empty stares (hopefully not) or passionate answers and example of their efforts to be truly sustainable.
At our Cayuga Collection Hotels and Lodges in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama we go even a step further. We consider ourselves “transparent” hotels. We invite anybody interested to accompany us on a walk through the back of the house of the hotel. No areas are off limits. The kitchen, the laundry, maintenance and even the area where our staff has their meals or sleep if they live “on campus”. We even show you our trash separating and weighing area and our sewage treatment plants. And as a reward for your interest, our staff cook invites you for a cold fruit juice and a homemade local snack.
It has been amazing to see how satisfied guests turn into raving fans after taking this tour. They learn that we eliminated single-use plastic bottles and straws over 10 years ago. They understand why we avoid recycling at all costs since it is much better to refuse or reuse in the first place. They find out about our career path opportunities, company doctor program and benefits packages for our staff. But most importantly, they get inspired to become a bit more sustainable in their own lifestyles and take some of the ideas that they learned back home.
And in recent months, we added information on our COVID-19 safety protocols to this tour to make sure that everybody feels safe and confident about staying with us.
So next time you stay at a hotel that claims to be sustainable, ask them to give you a tour and show you how they implement their sustainability practices. I would love to hear about your experiences.
Hans Pfister is co-founder and president of the Cayuga Collection of sustainable luxury hotels and lodges.
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*Correction, 29 December 2020: This article has been updated with the correct name for a National Geographic program.