Barnett on Business Travel



February 9, 1992 -- Next time you travel the planet, patronize companies trying to protect it. Or that are at least making a genuine effort to repay a few social or environmental debts.

I don't mean companies trumpeting a tour to the rain forest. Or hawking a photo safari to Kenya. The travel industry should - and is starting to - own up the fact it has to give something back. Some hotel chains are making a difference.

Helmut Horn, chief executive officer of Chicago-based Coastal Hotel Group and a dedicated environmentalist, teamed up with George Washington University and the Cousteau Society to host a serious symposium exploring ways to preserve the coastal waters and sea life in the Florida Keys. Horn, an ex-Olympic swimmer and former West German 100-meter backstroke record holder whose Cheeca Lodge is a major resort on Islamorada, persuaded Jacques Cousteau himself to get involved.

Horn developed a state-of-the-art water treatment plant and recycling program and worked with local deep-sea fishermen to develop a catch-and-release program that has slowly taken hold. Now all 15 hotels in the Coastal Group have some environmental enhancement or conservation program in operation.

Hyatt Hotels and Resorts also are going all out. For the last 18 months, Abdul Suleman, Hyatt's regional vice president and managing director in San Francisco, has been dispatching up to 20 employees every Wednesday from his four hotels for a day of street sweeping, weed pulling and picking up litter. Most are managers. All volunteer for the job and are paid by Hyatt.

The effort, in concert with San Francisco Beautiful, a civic organization, is more than a public relations ploy.

"When I was transferred back to San Francisco, where I started my career, the city looked dirtier," Suleman explains. "But it's critical to our business - and the city's economy - that people get a favorable impression and return again."

The "broom brigade" was only the beginning. Now Suleman is tackling the city's biggest problem: helping the homeless. No, he's not giving them spare rooms, but he is giving homeless individuals a chance to work at the hotel.

"We're starting with one person, who is being trained for six weeks at the Hyatt Regency for a job based on their interests and capability," he explains.

"If the person works out and we have an opening, we'll put him or her to work at one of our four hotels," says Suleman. "If we don't have an opening, the person will at least have the training, a certificate from us, and the Job Finders Network will help him get a job."

Suleman's efforts are part of Hyatt FORCE (Family of Caring and Responsible Employees), a chainwide effort by its 105 hotels to get involved.

The hotel company also has an active recycling program that gets results. At the Chicago Hyatt Regency, 10 full-time "recycling stewards," equipped with two sorting tables, four glass crushers and two trash compactors, sort through the hotel's waste - newspapers, cardboard, computer printouts, empty miniature shampoo containers.

A Hyatt spokesperson says the Chicago hotel's $250,000 annual garbage bill has been cut in half since the program started, and $5,000 worth of hotel items discarded by mistake - coffeepots, linens, silverware - are recovered monthly.

Westin Hotels and Resorts, with 62 hotels in the United States and 10 other countries, have a "consumption control" program in place worldwide.

"Considering an average American uses 100 gallons of water, expends 25 kilowatts of electricity and disposes of 3.5 pounds of waste every day," notes Michael Corr, Westin's senior vice president of marketing, "these consumption figures quickly multiply by hundreds in large hotels that have a 'full house' of guests."

By simply paying attention, The Westin Bayshore in Vancouver, B.C., recycled 161,000 pounds of garbage and saved $12,500 in trash hauling charges. The Westin La Paloma in Tucson, Ariz., saved 53,000 gallons of water and 11,000 kilowatts of electricity.

In Chicago and Detroit, Westin gives soap, shampoo and toilet tissue to homeless shelters. The Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles has a massive recycling program that includes selling its kitchen grease to a local renderer, which turns it into soap. The Westin Philippine Plaza in Manila recycles linens into uniforms.

ITT Sheraton has taken a bold step. While it controls energy consumption, recycles and uses products that do not damage the atmosphere - no chlorofluorocarbons, thank you - its Brussels-based management, which oversees its 10 hotels in Africa, is raising money for 10 conservation causes.

Here's how it works: An optional $1 surcharge is added to guest bills and Sheraton matches the contribution. The first year's goal was $250,000, but a spokeswoman says $150,000 was actually raised. Indeed, it's a start in the right direction.

New York-based Loews Hotels last year launched an ambitious, imaginative "Good Neighbor" policy for all its hotels. For instance, the staff at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in California pitched in and rebuilt a homeless shelter. In Dallas, the Loews Anatole donates meeting rooms and teaches English as a second language. At the posh Regency and Loews New York Hotels, City Harvest or other food banks pick up food that is left over from banquets and restaurants.

"Normally, that food goes to the employee cafeteria or is tossed," says Jonathan Tisch, president and chief executive officer, who dreamed up "Good Neighbors."

But then the wealthy Tisch family, owners of Loews, gets deeply involved in trying to remedy civic ills. For years, Tisch's mother was a volunteer phone counselor at the Gay Mens' Health Crisis and no one knew who she was.

When Loews opens a hotel, it turns a publicity stunt - power breakfast Monopoly games - into fund-raisers for local charities. At the just-opened 443-room new Loews Coronado Bay Resort on San Diego's Coronado Island, General Manager Randy Gantenbein not only hosted the Monopoly game - Baby Shamu the whale from Sea World and popcorn mogul Orville Redenbacher played, among others - but he and his staff also cleaned the beach and raised money for Camp Able, an aquatic camp for disabled youngsters.

Preserving history and culture is a prime goal for hoteliers in exotic locales. The Ritz-Carlton Mani Lani on Hawaii's Big Island spent a small fortune restoring a sacred pool on its grounds where King Kamehameha once fished.

"We cleaned it, installed a system that pumps in fresh and salt water and preserved the ecology," explains Herve Humler, regional vice president. While all mainland hotels have staff recycling coordinators, in Hawaii, keeping the environment intact is a "corporate objective," he adds.

What can individual travelers do to help when they hit the road? Hyatt-owned International ReCycleCo and the American Society of Travel Agents offers these tips:

Travel only with recyclable and reusable products.

Buy small sample sizes of toiletries and refill them for each trip.

Pack canvas totes instead of plastic bags.

Don't use disposable cameras. Recycle film containers.

Fly airlines with an extensive recycling program. American, United, Southwest, Delta and USAir are among the leaders.

This column originally appeared in the Albany Times Union

Copyright 1990-2009 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.