About five years ago, the staff at the Doubletree Hotel in Portland saw that customers were becoming more interested in sustainable travel and meetings.
At the time, the hotel had a linen reuse program and they recycled, but it didn't have a single, formal sustainability initiative or vision.
Since then, the hotel has transformed itself into a facility with an extensive composting program, a subsidized employee commuter plan and environmental purchasing policy. The Portland Doubletree-Lloyd Center buys renewable energy, performs an ongoing energy and water efficiency retrofit and is now one of two Green Seal certified lodging properties in Portland.
In this Q & A, General Manager Steve Faulstick recently sat down with Contributing Writer Sarah Fister Gale to talk about the hotel's sustainability initiative and how it has reduced employee turnover, generated business and improved its bottom line.
Sarah Fister Gale: So maybe we can start by telling me a little bit about your role at the hotel and then we'll go into talking about some of the green or sustainable efforts you have put in place.
Steve Faulstick: OK. I'm currently the general manager of the hotel and I have been in that position for 3 years.
Prior to that I was director of operations at the hotel dating back four years prior to that. So I've been at the hotel all told for just over eight years.
SFG: When did the hotel first start looking at sustainable approaches to its facilities management?
SF: I think as far as a real intentional look, Sarah, that's a great question because first of all we're in Portland, Oregon so there's a lot of natural elements in place already.
I think really the genesis was (when) we saw an increasing amount of requests from customers as it related to sustainable meetings or sustainable travel.
I'll give you the technicalities of that. Essentially when a convention or a group wants to do business with us they'll send us what's called an R.F.P., a Request for Proposal. They will (ask) how many rooms do you have? What kind of meeting space? Tell us about your restaurants. (They are) ensuring that we meet all of their criteria.
So what started popping us is we saw a lot of people asking about our sustainability initiatives. One of our key sales managers and I started working our way through that and the light kind of went on at the same time that said all these things that we're talking about are becoming more and more in demand from our customers. That really is kind of how it started. It was customer curiosity.
SFG: When did you start seeing these kinds of requests?
SF: Back in about 2002, 2003.
SFG: OK. So I'm guessing at that point you didn't have any formal sustainability initiatives going on?
SF: We had initiatives going on but they weren't part of the plan if that makes sense.
For example, Portland has got probably the best recycling program in the United States so we were doing that. The Doubletree Hotels had the linen reuse program, so we were doing that. But it was just random things that were out there and they weren't really part of the focused cause that we have now with sustainability.
SFG: So, how did you go from random "Portland's offering it so we'll just do it" kinds of projects to a more formal approach to sustainability?
SF: That's a great question. I think a lot of companies today face the same thing. We wanted to be out there and talk about being sustainable and green but there was really no description of that in our industry.
So what we tried to do early on is identify with a credible organization that we could be certified with. We realized there wasn't much out there in the terms of hotels.
There's some for-profit organizations that we didn't want to do and we came across Green Seal. Are you familiar with them?
SFG: I am.
SF: OK. Green Seal was an organization that dabbled a little bit in hotels but was really into manufacturing, but when we looked at their criteria we realized that this would be something that we could hang our hat on. Here's something we can be out there and talk and resonate with customers and say, "Yeah, we're green. We're sustainable. And here's how we prove that. We're Green Seal certified."
SFG: OK. And at that time did they have a certification for hotels?
SF: Yes, they did. Primarily the hotels were in the Northeast, as well as (in) a lot of the national parks. Several national park hotels had aligned themselves with Green Seal but certainly not in the mainstream lodging industry.
SFG: Right. So you reached out to them and how did that process take place?
SF: Well, first of all it's an incredibly credible organization because it's not a certification that you can buy or influence because of who you are or what company you work for. (It's) a very credible not-for-profit.
Essentially what happened is we approached them and they talked to us and gave us a three-ring notebook binder full of the elements that needed to take place for us to be certified.
It was a good educational process as well because we realized that there was so much stuff that we were already doing but there was a whole new frontier, if you will, of things that we could or should be doing. This was a real scientific approach to that.
SFG: So you took this binder and did you just go through it one by one and make all the changes? Did you identify the low-hanging fruit to get started with?
SF: Well, absolutely. It's interesting as I look back at it because the culture of the hotel has played such an important part of that and our approach, so we never approached this as our instruction manual to get to the pot of gold.
We approached it as it fits our culture of wanting to be a responsible business. We realized that all the initiatives that were being spoken of had tremendous value, of which several were going to have the side effect of more revenues or less profit, but we didn't approach it that way. We just approached it as the sensible business practices to take on.
SFG: OK. Let's start by talking about the things that you discovered you already were doing.
SF: We already had a very comprehensive recycling program. I think that was the biggest. We had a recycling list of about 16 different things that we could recycle within the City of Portland. That was a big one and that was one that we found was a big step and it was also something that resonated quite well with customers and employees.
So I think as we talk about the low-hanging fruit, that was it. Then we had a lot of things related to energy. The energy crisis back in 2000 caused us to evaluate a lot of our operational practices around water, electricity and gas usage.
SFG: So what were you doing to conserve energy?
SF: We have a property energy system put in that was able to be maintained from a main computer so we were able to have a centralized control, thus allowing us to shut off wings of the hotel when groups weren't in.
From a water conservation standpoint, (we had the) same type of practices. Any time we had to replace a toilet or a showerhead, we replaced it with the low-flow toilet or a two-gallon per minute shower head.
Again we did those at the time, Sarah, because the technology was out there and it would save us money.
SFG: Great. And so you first identified those things you were already doing with the certification process. What did you begin (doing) that you hadn't already accomplished?
SF: I think formalized training was probably a huge piece of that.
SFG: Why was that a huge piece of it?
SF: Well, I think we realized that -- again, going back to this culture piece -- sustainability doesn't happen because we have one passionate person to make it happen. You really don't have a sustainable culture unless every person is engaged and involved from myself and throughout the entire organization. All 250 employees have (to have) the same spirit and energy behind being a sustainable organization.
SFG: So how did you get them on board? What kind of formalized training did you deliver?
SF: Well, as we (were) going through Green Seal, it involved a lot of engagement from our staff. What we tried to do was resonate with them that the reason behind sustainability has a depth and a value to it that's going to influence our customer. It's going to influence the environment. It's going to influence our bottom line. It's going to influence their quality of life in their workplace.
So (it was) resonating with them at many levels of why we were doing that. In doing so, we found that we quickly had a really excited core that found this an important initiative and that really got behind what we were doing and helped drive it forward. We created the green team, which was a committee of individuals from each department that could kind of help lead that charge for us.
SFG: So once the training was delivered, and once you had identified that core group of people who were excited about it, where did you take it from there?
SF: We again found new things at all times. One of the key measures we did is we identified our carbon footprint to kind of create the baseline to say, "OK, as an organization where are we at?"
In doing so, it helps (to) educate ourselves but also helped us in being able to set goals and really being able to see what kind of impact all of these operational practices that we were doing was able to have.
SFG: And how did you go about getting your carbon footprint?
SF: We had an organization actually come in and do it, a credible environmental organization called the Climate Trust. They actually did that, in part for education, but also for us to be able to create a carbon calculator for our property.
We offer groups and individuals the opportunity to offset their travel or their convention in the hotel.
SFG: And do you get a lot of positive feedback from that?
SF: We've gotten some very good feedback. We've gotten kind of minimal reception. I think unfortunately, Sarah, there's been a lot of bad press out there about carbon offsets in the last six or eight months.
However, the Climate Trust is, in our opinion, the most credible organization that is out there and they've got the great bookkeeping and accountability that talks about where those offset dollars truly go. We're confident that it's the right organization to be partnered with.
So as more education gets out there and quite honestly, as other green poser offset companies go away or fix their act, we're gonna find that we are already aligned with one of the best out there.
SFG: Now, going back, when you had completed your carbon footprint, was there anything that surprised you about it?
SF: Yes. We found that we were one of the highest water consumers in the City of Portland as far as large businesses.
SFG: And did that help you identify water consumption as an area to improve in?
SF: Absolutely. And again, this is part of working in Portland. There are so many agencies and organizations that help so the Water Bureau literally partnered with us. This was part of establishing our carbon footprint was approaching (them) and looking at our water consumption numbers over the years.
We contacted the Water Bureau and they said, "Yeah, you guys are actually one of the highest consumers out there." Not in some ridiculous way but a lot higher than we should have been.
So they partnered with us and said, "Hey, here's several initiatives that we can help you with." They gave us diverters, which is just a little plastic piece to put in our existing toilets without completely retrofitting them. That was able to save half a gallon per flush on each toilet.
They found very cheaply for us aerators for all of our sinks to be able to impact the flow. Through processes like that we've seen tremendous savings already.
SFG: So what's the lesson there? Were you surprised that the Water Bureau was so helpful?
SF: We were. Honestly, that's the lesson, Sarah.
The aggravating and frustrating thing for me is the assumption that's out there that it's gonna cost a lot of money to retrofit or to buy new equipment and I'm completely on my own. I think in almost any city, state, or township there are resources out there and areas that you can turn to for help from the knowledge and education standpoint, in grants and subsidies, and things of that sort.
Again I think the interesting piece is we're not spending millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars on new boilers and cooling units and things that you see (in) a lot in LEED construction. We just don't have those resources available to us. And yet we're able to have a tremendous impact just by changing the glasses that we look through at our level.
SFG: That's a good lesson for people to hear -- that it doesn't take a million dollars to make these changes.
SF: It's nice to have those big changes, don't get me wrong. And that's the next horizon for us but even without that there are operational practices that you can do, and there's partnerships and grants that you can work with.
SFG: So what other changes have you made besides the water?
SF: A lot of what we're doing is the first and that's the exciting part from a P.R. and a marketing standpoint. Portland was working on a compost program so (we implemented) a comprehensive compost program that's been huge for us. Essentially the premise of it is they found an organization that can compost all food products and not just garden waste but also proteins.
So our landfill diversion program has seen us divert 17 tons a month that now goes just to compost.
It is fantastic. And again, it's gonna cost money. It costs us a little bit of money to retrofit one of our compactors but we pay $95 a ton for garbage to be removed and we pay $60 a ton for compost to be removed.
So if you don't believe in composting and you don't believe it's helping the environment, that's great. But at least be a smart businessman and realize you're gonna save $35 a ton to go to the program.
SFG: That's a great example of cost savings. And now when you say you have a compost program, you don't have a giant heap of garbage rotting behind your hotel?
SF: No. We have a big dumpster that is picked up twice a week or once a week depending on how much is in there. Then we have big 55-gallon plastic garbage cans that are provided by the City that are in each department and in each area. It's a real simple program.
SFG: Any other changes or lessons learned that you think are noteworthy?
SF: Well, we did a lot. We switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, as an example. We're in the process of changing to low-flow toilets and the showerheads. The easy thing to say is it costs money. It costs money but the reality is the payback, the R.O.I., for all of those were enjoyed in year one.
SFG: What about cleaning supplies, chemicals or the way that you clean your facility?
SF: That's a big one and that certainly relates to Green Seal. That's an area that they're big into but it took a lot to source low VOC or low toxic chemicals. We met a lot of resistance from our existing providers. And again, it was really an educational process.
But in the end we were able to find quality products that were both cost-effective and met the needs from a cleaning standpoint. Obviously from an environmental standpoint, they were much friendlier.
So it took a little bit of work. We had to roll up our sleeves and do a lot of research but here's the good part of that story. Ecolab is who we were working with, and when we approached them saying we need this, this and this and it needs to be free of toxins and low VOC and all of these things, they said it wasn't something they have.
Three years later they have it and they're pushing us to get it. The reality is that three years ago, they had it as well but their organization didn't communicate throughout the field.
SFG: So when you say it was an education process, it was as much educating your provider as it was getting...
SF: Absolutely. Through the supply chains we've had to educate as I talked about. Well, first of all we had to get educated. Then we've had to educate our employees.
We've had to educate our customers and we've had to educate our supply chain. I don't mean have to like we're some noble, royal entity but if you're gonna do all this stuff, why would you do it and then not educate your customers?
And why would you not demand this out of your suppliers so they ultimately have to change the way they do business as well?
Suppliers are suppliers. They'll supply whatever it is you want in the end. If there are enough companies and hotels doing that, they're gonna change their colors without much of a fight.
SFG: Right. They just need to see the demand.
SF: Yes, and provide it at a cost structure that makes sense.
SFG: Right. Was there anything you weren't able to accomplish? Any roadblocks you couldn't get past?
SF: I would say the short answer is no. There are many initiatives out there. What can be frustrating is you're never gonna be there. You'll never be completely sustainable.
It truly is a journey and a path so there's a lot of initiatives out there. The next horizon for us is finding a green roof product and putting in bioswells on the property, and heading down the path of becoming LEED-certified from an existing building standpoint.
So really, I guess money is the answer to that but we're confident that we can overcome any operational roadblock as it relates to sustainability.
SFG: Have you measured your impact? Do you have numbers to support what your changes have accomplished?
SF: We do. Actually we are working to better quantify that. We've just touched the surface of the things that we're doing. We buy renewable energy. We subsidize employee transportation. We've got a lot of other great things going on.
Some of the fun ones are the savings of 400,000 gallons of water through our water savings measures.
SFG: That's over how much time?
Another big one for us, and I think it's one that's a real tangible goal, is we've gone from a diversion rate of about 20 percent five years ago to about 75 percent. So our total waste of the hotel is now at about 75 percent diversion from landfills.
So between recycling, reduction in use, and the compost program, we've seen a tremendous diversion from landfills.
SFG: That's great. What advice would you have for other companies, whether it's a hotel or another kind of business, on how to get started with this? How (do they) not to get overwhelmed?
SF: Well, I think first and foremost is it really has to start at the top. When I say that, Sarah, it's not about my ego or me but at any organization, and I think the sustainable stories will say the same thing. You have to have an invesment and ownership from the top to lead the vision.
SFG: Do you find that there are places where you've saved money by implementing these initiatives?
SF: Oh, there's very few that we haven't saved money. So when you address utilities programs and savings, we are spending less on utilities than we did four years ago. We'll spend three quarters of a million this year on utilities.
SFG: So as energy costs go up, your costs are going down?
SF: Yes, very clearly.
SFG: That's great. That's a great example.
SF: Yes. And this is one of the exciting ones: we're seeing a big reduction in employee turnover.
SFG: And you attribute that to your sustainability efforts?
SF: A big portion of it. And again it goes back to that culture. Our employees last year voted us as one of the top 100 places to work in the state. We were the only hospitality organization in there. (Our) employees feel part of something.
SFG: Going back to your energy costs, you say you're spending three quarters of a million dollars on utilities this year. What did you spend five years ago?
SF: About that same number. And again, you realize that not only the economy has changed from five years ago but our business level has dramatically changed as well so we're not only overcoming the obstacles of the price increases but we're also (seeing) an increased number of customers that are (going) through the hotel.
SFG: OK. So you have more customers and are presumably using the same or a larger amount of energy but your energy costs are less.
SFG: Again, going back to advice to other businesses, where do they start? If you've never implemented a sustainable initiative in your business. If you're ready to change everything but you're not sure what to do, where do you begin?
SF: Are you saying in our industry Sarah?
SFG: It could be in hospitality or any other business owner (that is) looking to reduce their energy use.
SF: Check with your industry experts. So for us, it's state or national hotel organizations and associations. I'd be hard pressed to think that there's an industry out there that doesn't have sustainable initiatives.
I think you can meet or talk to your local government and seeing and understanding what type of measures or initiatives they have. A lot of times, they will not only give you the knowledge but there's just a tremendous amount of monies available through grants, subsidies and tax deferrals that can help offset any up-front costs to you.
SFG: What kinds of grants, subsidies or tax deferrals did you benefit from?
SF: We have an organization called the Energy Trust. A very, very small portion (of everyone's electricity bill) goes into what's called the Energy Trust. Then they subsidize projects throughout the state that are gonna help reduce energy consumption.
For example, for our compact fluorescent light bulbs, one phase cost $22,000. They ended up subsidizing about $15,000 of it.
SFG: That's great. Well, this is an excellent story, Steve, and I appreciate you sharing it with me.
Sarah Fister Gale is a contributing writer for Greener World Media. This article originally appeared as a podcast on GreenBiz Radio.