The pandemic has not pushed the environmental rallying cry of 2019 aside for hoteliers, who say that guests still are demanding luxury but in ways that are sustainable, memorable and experiential.
REPORT FROM EUROPE—The COVID-19 pandemic has catapulted sustainability and environmental consciousness even farther up the hotel industry’s agenda, with hoteliers and designers excited at being able to experiment combining style with substance, according to sources.
At a panel titled “Designing for sustainable hospitality and tourism” at the recent Designscape conference, Erik Nissen Johansen, creative director and founder of Stylt Trampoli, said the three pillars of sustainability are environmental, social and economic.
Blanche van Berckel, founder and CEO of Vous Hotels & Retreats, said the expense of creating, opening and operating a hotel requires everyone to be on the same page.
“(Sustainability) is a circular thing,” she said. “It has to start from an investor point of view. If they do not care, it will not filter down to management. I think most people could see the demand from customers, but hoteliers still have a role to create awareness in the culture.”
Nissen Johansen, who has designed approximately 200 hotels, said in some cases sustainability is an initial focus, but investors can be scared away by costs.
“Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg have made (the issue of sustainability) become more positive, where before it was negative. It used to be the case of use less energy, if not people will die, but it now is about happiness. It is not about being monastic or being birched,” said Jerry Tate, partner at architecture firm Tate Harmer, also based in London.
Tate said his original clients were the Scout Organization, designer Habitat and the National Trust, so his firm’s evolution into hotels mirrors this rise in environmental consciousness.
He said those sensibilities are not limited to a small group of people creating small hotels.
“Premier Inn does not get the credit it deserves in environmental design,” Tate said. “Hotels are uniquely positioned to give guests the experience of what a sustainable life can be.”
Today’s leisure travelers are driven by emotion, and hoteliers must reach them by expressing the message it is possible and advantageous to live in a different way, sources said.
“Then you have to design it from your gut feeling,” Stylt Trampoli’s Nissen Johansen said.
Sustainable travel will have an even greater importance in the next 10 years, when a hotel’s beauty will stem from sustainability and environmentalism, panelists said.
“That is what luxury will be about,” Vous Hotels & Retreats’ Van Berckel said.
She added it is prudent to avoid greenwashing but still to talk the talk and walk the walk.
“It is top-down the right culture,” she said. “Educate guests, staff and management. Some guests get angry as they are consistently asked to do small things (regarding sustainability), but they do not see (their kindness) in their experience or bill.”
Tate said one aspect of travel architects and designers cannot control is how far guests will travel.
“We can help by creating projects that make people understand that having a holiday in their own backyard has huge worth, that there is space to discover, and also to have a conversation as to what it is that people perceive luxury to be,” he said. “It is not now about flying to Goa and staying at a 5-star hotel. The freer you feel, the more luxurious you feel.”
A Norwegian living in Gothenburg, Sweden, Nissen Johansen bought and transformed a small Swedish island near Gothenburg called Pater Noster with a lighthouse and four houses and buildings into a nine-room hotel.
Van Berckel sees the current crisis as a window of opportunity for such properties.
“I saw a gap in the market for small hotels that are sustainable. We are about to sign our first property in the autumn,” she said of her London-based company.
Nissen Johansen believes traveling farther distances also will become more sustainable.
“There are 5,000 people who live on Bequia (in the St. Vincent & Grenadines), and then arrive 5,000 cruise passengers who do not spend anything and just leave litter. That is criminal, and awareness of this is growing and growing, and if that is changing, then hotels need to be distinctive,” he said. “There is no need either to buy from another country, even if it might be more expensive.”
Van Berckel said she expects to see a “real big shift in the whole mentality” of taking vacations and travel in general, with hoteliers playing a major part in this.
Sustainability in travel and hotel stays is how guests test living a sustainable life, Tate said.
“We are not necessarily designing for apathetic travelers. People want to test drive how it is to live in a more sustainable manner,” Tate said
Van Berckel said hoteliers need to look carefully at their supply and energy chains to make sure they are well-integrated and contain nothing nasty.
“Renovations can be made to be energy-conscious, while for new-builds it is a must,” she said. “It is not so difficult to say to suppliers that we do not want to accept anything plastic, and move away from the idea that unlimited food provides more value to guests.”
Tate added travelers increasingly want better sleep, light, ventilation and night skies.
“When we were children, no one used to go on holiday eight times a year, or every weekend. Let’s have fewer trips but stay for longer,” Van Berckel said.
“The new Rolex of today is making new contacts, friends and experiences,” Nissen Johansen said. “Some guests will navigate to this sooner, but all will come.”
Tate said the long-term goal is to curate how the experience architects and hoteliers create can help people live in a more sustainable way.
“And it is not that experiential is always bound to be sustainable,” he added.
“There are seaweed and crabs on my island,” Nissen Johansen said. “You can teach people that they can live in a better way, and that it is the luxury of tomorrow. This is super-easy, and it does not require huge capital.”