When it comes to sustainable hospitality, Cindy Ortega is all in

This week’s Nature of Business conversation was with Cindy Ortega, Senior Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer at MGM Resorts International. We had a lot of fun talking about her work at MGM, their customers, the CityCenter project, employee engagement, and much more.

Ortega has been with MGM for 20 years after taking an entry-level management position out of college. It was an unlikely place for her to land, really, in that she grew up on a cattle ranch in the middle of Utah with the closest neighbor five miles away — a far cry from the glitz of Vegas. But she loves it.

And today she runs the sustainability program for a company of 62,000 employees and 15 hotel resorts in Vegas and across the United States. Her group consists of nine people; she pointed out that her team really functions as an internal consulting firm. Each individual has an area of expertise and the team creates and unveils the sustainability program to the operating units and properties thereby equipping them with the necessary tools to implement greener practices.

It’s not easy stuff. As Ortega explains, their hotels aren’t merely buildings with rooms and a coffee shop on the ground floor. These are hotels with theatres, retail plazas, and conference centers. In other words they really are each mini cities and the environmental impact can be significant.

Ortega used the Mandalay Bay Hotel as an example of MGM’s efforts to increase recycling rates. They created best practices, particularly with food waste, and within a few years were able to increase recycling rates by a whopping 400 percent. The team then took these best practices and went down the Vegas strip to their other hotels to implement these practices that they honed at Mandalay Bay.

One of the main challenges Ortega and her team initially found is that there were not enough companies to handle the volume of waste and recyclable materials MGM hotels produce. To remedy this, MGM has worked with various small companies and helped build them up. In fact, they have done so with four small companies over the past four years.

This challenge was never more apparent than when MGM embarked upon the construction of CityCenter — the single largest environmental project in the world and largest privately funded project in the U.S. At $9 billion and roughly 18 million square feet, CityCenter consists of five high-rises, 5,000 hotel rooms, two condominium buildings, and a high-end retail plaza, theatre, and conference center. And at its peak of construction, 8,000 construction workers were on the job.  

To make it work, MGM loaned a company $2 million to increase the size of its facility and to buy more trucks. They then handled all of the recycling and the money that MGM lent them helped pay down the loan. Ninety-four percent of the waste for CityCenter was recycled.

CityCenter is certainly an example of true grit.  A monumental task, MGM wanted to embark upon a project that truly changed Las Vegas: to build something around the city of the future. A core component of the plan was to build with sustainability in mind. They picked seven well-known architects who collaboratively and successfully made it happen.

Ortega points out that it was really easy to say no to sustainability in construction. Descriptions that came to mind were “risky” “expensive” or “aesthetically displeasing”. But they persisted and not only created something opulent, they have received 6 LEED Gold certifications to boot. And the environmental aspect of CityCenter has become in its own story.

I wrapped up our conversation by asking Ortega how issues around sustainability percolate through a company as large as MGM. I was somewhat surprised that she said it hasn’t been too much of a challenge –that people really appreciate what she and her team do. Then she mentioned the environmentally themed musical where every speaking, dancing, and singing part featured an employee of the company. It was six-month project and 42,000 employees saw the musical in three days — that’s engagement.

They are an entertainment company, after all.