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Greening from the ground up at Hilton

In less than a year, new leadership has brought out the greenest in every department and made a Chicago hotel a more sustainable home away from home.

Nine months after taking over as general manager of the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, Stefan Mühle is just part of the way toward reaching his goal of transforming the property into a uniquely green destination with a “boutique heart and soul.”

Mühle, who co-founded the Sustainability Committee for the Hotel Council of San Francisco, knows a thing or two about greening a boutique hotel. During his time as general manager, the 104-room Orchard Hotel in San Francisco earned Green Seal and LEED certification. Transforming the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center will not be as easy as it includes a 386-room hotel, 18-hole golf course, ballroom, amphitheater, outdoor pavilion and 39 meeting rooms.

When Mühle began his new job, he said, the hotel portion of the property’s environmental program “was a bit in shambles.” There was a lack of operational consistency, as the property had been under another flag for many years and then had become an independent. Fortunately, at least one other part of the property was in good, green shape. The 18-hole Willow Crest Golf Club golf course had become a Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary thanks to the efforts of the golf club supervisor and golf pro.

In his first few months, Mühle said he gave department heads some ideas and started working on getting associates to change habits and behaviors. He said, for example, that it took time to eliminate Styrofoam and other disposable containers and plastics from the employee break areas and other areas of food and beverage operations. Overall recycling has improved and efforts have been made to be as paperless as possible.

Chef's garden at Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center

Recently hired chef Sean Patrick Curry keeps an edibles garden on-site, allowing for farm-to-table fresh honey and produce.

Laundry turns to cold-water washing

“Every department head has really stepped up,” Mühle said, citing the laundry as one area of operations that has been made more efficient. Thanks to a cold-water washing program introduced by one leading chemical supplier, hot water is no longer needed in washing and fewer chemicals are required. “From an operations perspective, they are confident they are using less labor,” he added. “There is less waste.”

With the hiring of Sean Patrick Curry as executive chef last fall, the property’s food and beverage operations have taken a decidedly sustainable turn. Curry, a big proponent of farm-to-table cuisine, previously had worked at the Marriott Naperville in Illinois and had developed contacts with more than 250 local farmers.  

This spring, Curry will install at least 10 beehives throughout the hotel’s 150-acre Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary. The beehives not only will pollinate a chef’s garden that Curry will source vegetables and fruit from, but also provide honey (over 200 pounds per hive) to be used in everything from cheese boards to cookies to cocktails.

“I am a big proponent of farm-to-table,” Mühle said. “We are putting it everywhere. We are probably the only hotel in western Chicago to go this route. We completely rewrote our banquet menu.”

The Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Resort & Conference Center is an IACC (International Association of Conference Centers) certified conference center and has earned a Green Star Certification through IACC. One step taken in the conference center to reduce environmental impact is the grouping of food and beverage stations. When possible, different groups share the same stations instead of having their own. This ultimately reduces waste.

Property participates in LightStay

From an energy standpoint, Mühle said the property is relatively efficient. A lot of the equipment is original to the building, which opened in 1986.

Booster pumps recently were installed to help get water to the hotel’s extremities more efficiently. Guests no longer have to wait as long for hot water — and as a result, run their faucets less. High-efficiency lighting has been put in place. Public restrooms have motion sensors. Guestroom LED televisions are Energy Star rated. A Blue Energy Committee meets once a month and because the property has a Hilton affiliation, it participates in that company’s LightStay program. Utility data is fed into LightStay and later can be analyzed and compared with other Hilton properties’ data.

The property, privately owned and operated by Portfolio Hotels & Resorts, soon will undergo a renovation costing more than $12 million. “We currently have a chlorine pool in place,” Mühle said. “We will change to saltwater with a UV treatment. I am looking into putting film on the windows on the sunny side of the hotel. This would be a $60,000 to $70,000 investment and have an ROI of about 18 to 24 months. I am looking at an energy management system. Old shuttle buses have been replaced with new Mercedes-Benz BlueTEC diesel vans."

Mühle said he is also considering putting in EV charging stations, but must overcome the cost of getting the electricity to where the charging stations would be.

“I am still looking for things that will become attribute differentiators,” Mühle said, adding that the LEED Silver Hyatt Lodge at McDonald’s Corporate Campus in Oak Brook is really the only other very green property in the Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center’s competitive set.

This article first appeared at Green Lodging News.

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