The Future of Sustainability: Challenges and Possibilities

By Rohit Verma Executive Director, Cornell Center for Hospitality Research | March 04, 2012

Co-authored by Glenn Withiam, Executive Editor, Cornell Hospitality Quarterly

For those with a long memory, the term sustainability may seem like a new name for an old concept. We might remember the ideas embodied in sustainability as energy conservation, natural resource preservation, or waste reduction, among others. Today's concept of sustainability embraces all those ideas and more, as hospitality operators seek to develop an integrated approach to "green" operation. In this article, we examine the challenges and promises of sustainability, with an eye to helping the industry move forward on what is arguably a complex and sometimes controversial endeavor. The problems connected with sustainability start with a series of myths and misunderstandings. Indeed, for people with a long memory, one of the chief myths is that sustainability is just a current fashion that will eventually fade.

We think not. Although it's true that sustainability has a certain trendiness, the drive for sustainability also comes from hospitality firms' sincere desire to do the right thing, a push from corporate customers and meeting planners, and the reality of existing and prospective government regulation. In all of this, one of the major current challenges is simply to define what constitutes a program of sustainability and, therefore, how to measure sustainability efforts. Fortunately, the industry is making progress, as we explain below. The chief benefit of sustainability is the prospect of saving money with a well designed program, as well as meeting customers' stated demand that hospitality firms demonstrate their sustainability commitments.

Based on information developed in numerous studies by Cornell's researchers and from participants at a series of roundtables addressing sustainability, we examine the measurement issue, detail the benefits of sustainability programs, and attempt to untangle the complexities involved in consumers' attitudes toward and participation in sustainability programs. Hospitality operators who have attempted to address sustainability issues already know that these three areas, and indeed all aspects of sustainability, are intricately interwoven.

Defining and Measuring Sustainability

In general, sustainability practices involve programs and techniques to manage carbon, energy, water, and waste. If only it were that simple. In the most recent sustainability roundtable, participants heard that global hospitality operators were involved with some 350 mandatory or voluntary sustainability initiatives, including such formal standards as ISO 14001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star program, and Green Globe. At the same time, operators also operate a melange of building types, which makes it difficult to implement system-wide sustainability policies.

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Sales & Marketing: Selling Experiences

There are innumerable strategies that Hotel Sales and Marketing Directors employ to find, engage and entice guests to their property, and those strategies are constantly evolving. A breakthrough technology, pioneering platform, or even a simple algorithm update can cause new trends to emerge and upend the best laid plans. Sales and marketing departments must remain agile so they can adapt to the ever changing digital landscape. As an example, the popularity of virtual reality is on the rise, as 360 interactive technologies become more mainstream. Chatbots and artificial intelligence are also poised to become the next big things, as they take guest personalization to a whole new level. But one sales and marketing trend that is currently resulting in major benefits for hotels is experiential marketing - the effort to deliver an experience to potential guests. Mainly this is accomplished through the creative use of video and images, and by utilizing what has become known as User Generated Content. By sharing actual personal content (videos and pictures) from satisfied guests who have experienced the delights of a property, prospective guests can more easily imagine themselves having the same experience. Similarly, Hotel Generated Content is equally important. Hotels are more than beds and effective video presentations can tell a compelling story - a story about what makes the hotel appealing and unique. A video walk-through of rooms is essential, as are video tours in different areas of a hotel. The goal is to highlight what makes the property exceptional, but also to show real people having real fun - an experience that prospective guests can have too. The June Hotel Business Review will report on some of these issues and strategies, and examine how some sales and marketing professionals are integrating them into their operations.