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Fri 30 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Can luxury hotels be green?

That was one of the challenging questions debated by some of the Middle East's finest environmental minds at last month's Growth of Green Hotels Conference in Abu Dhabi.

That was one of the challenging questions debated by some of the Middle East's finest environmental minds at last month's Growth of Green Hotels Conference in Abu Dhabi.

In a region where luxury is a necessity and guests expect indulgent products, surroundings and service, is it possible for a luxury hotel to maintain environmentally-friendly practices?

Green Technologies director Mario Seneviratne has worked in Dubai since 1977 and has been involved in the sustainable design and construction of many industrial and commercial buildings.

He says that greening the UAE's hotel industry is a challenging task because hotels are inherently averse to sustainable practices.

Being a five-star hotel is about providing the amenities that guests expect and it’s also about choice.

"Hotels, by their basic philosophy, are very opulent and luxurious in the way that they do things and customers expect luxury," Seneviratne says.

"As a result," he adds "people tend to not be cost effective or efficient in their design".

Seneviratne says the way to combat this is to first change financial models; he believes that "if everything is financially justified it can also be environmentally justified".

Seneviratne says it is a mistake to categorise hotels as ‘green' or ‘not green' - he believes all hotels should be at least adhering to a basic green benchmark.

However, he concedes that this benchmark is easier to implement in new hotels, compared to the often difficult task of retrofitting existing properties.

ECOS Hotels director Ralph Noblet agrees that there is a "huge advantage" when starting from scratch.

"The way you design, expose and even orient your hotel all influences your environmental impact," Noblet explains.

ECOS Hotels is the Middle East's first environmentally-friendly budget hotel brand. However, Noblet admits that the company's research has consistently proven customers are far more price driven than environmentally conscious.

"We made a survey to see if being a green hotel would make an impact on our guests; 95% of respondents said they would book with us because we were a budget hotel, while 5% said they would come for the environmental initiatives," he explains.

"Of that 5%, most of them would be willing to spend either AED 200 (US $54) or AED 2000 ($540) for a room, as long as it was environmentally friendly. That's a hard fact to accept, but as a result, we are firstly positioned as a budget brand."

Noblet says the reason for implementing environmental initiatives is two-fold for most hoteliers; the first is to position the property as a green hotel and the second is to pre-empt future regulations that will require hotels to be more energy efficient and sustainable.

One of the biggest challenges, Noblet admits, is convincing owners and investors.

"When talking to owners, their first questions are about whether it will cost more to go green," he says.

"Yes, there is an initial investment, but there is also a return on that investment."

Noblet believes that implementing and maintaining green initiatives should be a joint responsibility between owners and operators.

Seneviratne, meanwhile, is adamant that cost is not an excuse to avoid implementing green equipment in a hotel.

"It doesn't cost more. I say with all conviction - a green hotel does not cost more than an ordinary hotel," Seneviratne maintains.

"There is a high cost of equipment that you do need to justify, but you can save money with a return on investment within four to seven years. The basic equipment does not cost more."

Particularly during the current period of growing economic uncertainty, many hotels are unwilling to make large investments, even when there is a guaranteed return.

However, general manager of Farnek Avireal - a leading facilities management company in Dubai - Marcus Oberlin believes now is the time to act.

"As the financial crisis comes it is the time to takes steps...this time could actually boost certain technologies and companies," says Oberlin.

He adds that while there is an emphasis on sustainable design for new hotels, more should be done to bring existing properties up to standard.

While general consensus shows that hotels are concerned about spending during a time that is likely to see cut-price room rates and lower occupancy, Noblet remains confident that budget brands will weather the storm.

"A five-star hotel selling rooms for AED 2000 ($540) per night will have to reduce its prices by a huge margin during slowdowns," he explains.

"The margin of loss for a budget hotel that cuts its prices is much lower. There is a huge loss for the luxury brands, but as a budget offering we will be able to manage. People will choose to stay with us because they can afford it."

Noblet has also implemented an innovative incentive scheme at ECOS to encourage guests to participate in the company's environmental initiatives.

"We will have a standard amount of energy and water that should be used by each guest and if they use less than that amount we will give them credit that can go towards a discount or free room in the future," he says.

"If they are over the limit we will obviously not charge them, but we will offer strong examples of what that waste has caused."

Fairmont Dubai's environmental chairperson and public relations manager Alka Patel says that while Fairmont is committed to its environmental programme, as a luxury property the clients must come first.

"Being a five-star hotel is about providing the amenities guests expect and it's about choice - guests can choose whether to participate in programmes or not," she explains.

Patel admits that cost is obviously a major factor implementing green initiatives, particularly when it comes to F&B.

"Sustainable cuisine cannot be expected for a while," she says.

"Organic products can cost up to three times as much as non-organic, which is definitely a cost consideration for F&B departments."

Instead, spreading awareness is one of the first and foremost priorities for the Fairmont Dubai.

"Our greatest marketing tool is our colleagues - it all starts at a grassroots level," says Patel.

"We also have guestroom tent cards describing initiatives like our towel and sheet recycling programme."

She believes these awareness-raising techniques increase guests' appreciation of environmental initiatives, which can be leveraged to increase bookings by fostering loyal clients.

Furthermore, the hotel's recycling efforts have generated increased revenue that can be used on further environmental projects.

In this way, Patel believes the hotel can continue to improve sustainability and environmental practices without compromising on the five-star facilities that clients expect.

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