How Hilton measures sustainability

The Gunther Report

How Hilton measures sustainability

Don’t you hate it when you check into a hotel, enter your room and find every light on and the radio playing? I do. Someone’s paying for the energy, and there’s no justification for the unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.

That shouldn’t happen at a Hilton -- not if Chris Corpuel has anything to say about it. Corpuel oversees the hotel company’s sustainability efforts, the centerpiece of which is a digital platform called LightStay that tracks efficiency projects and allows hotel owners to share best practices -- even simple ones like turning out lights in rooms that are unoccupied.

“I don’t know of a hotel owner who wants to use more energy,” Corpuel says. “We try to give them the tools to be more efficient.”

Hilton Worldwide, where Corpuel is vice president for brand services, does more than provide its hotels with tools. To fly the flag of Hilton or one of its  brands -- they include DoubleTree, Embassy Suites, Hampton, Homewood Suites and Waldorf Astoria -- hotel owners are required to measure their sustainability performance and demonstrate efforts to improve.

While every big hotel chain has a sustainability program, Hilton was the first major hospitality company to require sustainability measurement as a brand standard. The company manages about 3,800 hotels but owns fewer than 50 of them, so its brand standards govern what the independent owners can do.

“We’re willing to take down a flag for non-compliance,” Chris said, although that hasn’t proven necessary.

I visited recently with Chris, who is 38, at Hilton Worldwide’s headquarters in McLean, Va. The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, bought the hotel company for about $26 billion in 2007, in what was then the biggest hotel acquisition ever. It was right about then – inspired, in part, by a FORTUNE cover story about Walmart – that Hilton launched its first formal sustainability program. Soon after, Chris Nassetta, the company’s chief executive, decided that the company needed a global platform to measure the footprints of all its hotels.

Photo of Hilton hotel in Istanbul provided by Hilton

The LightStay platform grew out of that decision is extensive. It tracks some obvious metrics – electricity, water, waste and CO2 emissions – as others that you might not expect, to guide decisions around landscaping, transportation and purchasing. When Chris gave me a demo of the systen, he plugged the words “tomato sauce” into its database, and LightStay spit out a rudimentary analysis of the environmental impact of institutional foods -- stuffed cabbage rolls in tomato sauce, by ConAgra, to pick just one example -- that are bought by the hotels.

“It’s overwhelming, the volume of data that we have,” Corpuel says. “It’s probably one of the largest data sets of buildings in the world.”

LightStay also provides a Facebook-like social media platform for hotel owners and managers. The hotel executives can, in effect, “friend” others in the system and then measure their progress against their peers, as well as trade ideas.

Hilton Worldwide says that, since the introduction of LightStay, the company has saved more than $74 million in utility costs. It cut its energy use by 6.6 percent and its CO2 emissions by 7.8 percent. Waste was reduced by 19 percent and water by 3.8 percent. Of course, not all of the footprint is under a hotels’ control; it’s up to guests to decide whether they want to reuse towels or leave the AC on when they leave the room. Unfortunately, Hilton in the US has yet to adopt technology used widely in Europe that cuts off the electricity in a room unless a room key is inserted into a slot by the door. Guest satisfaction still must trump sustainability concerns, Chris told me.

Just for fun, I asked Chris to give me a peek at the monthly footprint of a single hotel. He picked the San Francisco Hilton (above), which has an exemplary record. Among other things, we learned that carbon emissions per square foot of the hotel were 8 lbs per month, water usage was 148 gallons per room per month and waste was 5 lbs. per room per month. Those numbers don’t mean much, without context, but what was interesting to me was that they were all far, far below system-wide averages – indicating that there’s plenty of room for improvement elsewhere.

Then again, San Francisco hotels have built-in advantages over their peers. Weather in the Bay Area is temperate, which reduces both heating and cooling costs, and the city has a good  recycling infrastructure, making it easier to keep waste out of landfills.

Why bother with all this measurement? Several reasons, Chris says. First, and most obviously, there are cost savings waiting to be realized. Second, institutional clients of Hilton increasingly want sustainability data. A group holding a convention at a hotel, for instance, may want to track and measure the carbon footprint of attendees. “It’s a differentiator with certain clients,” Chris says. Finally, Hilton recognizes that the travel business is at risk from climate change.

Hilton is the largest employer on the island nation of the Maldives, for example. Hilton and The Sundance Institute gave a sustainability award earlier this year to "The Island President," a feature documentary about the survival of the Maldives.

As Chris put it: “If there are no more snows on Kilimanjaro, if the Great Barrier Reef disappears, there’s no incentive to travel there.”