Boston Hotels Lead `Green' Push

Ecological program at Saunders family properties boosts business while reducing water, energy, solid-waste costs

GLISTENING crystal chandeliers hang in opulent splendor. Arching mirrors reflect images of the well-dressed sipping espresso. Guests speaking several languages cross the floral-patterned carpet. There is no question that this is an elegant, international hotel.

Yet in the Boston Park Plaza's lobby there are also recycling bins hidden under fabric. Nearby, at the Copley Square and Lenox hotels, other seemingly out-of-place items are found: computer-paper pads and cards telling guests that they may choose not to have their sheets washed every night of their stay to save water and detergent.

This is all the result of a program started in 1989 by Tedd Saunders, environmental affairs director of Saunders Hotel Group, which includes the three hotels.

Since then, the Saunders Hotel Group has saved each year $142,347 in water, $95,920 in energy, and $41,280 in solid-waste costs. For his efforts, Mr. Saunders and the hotels have earned a leading spot in the industry and boosted convention and other group business by $2 million.

``We're not only disproving the theory that the environment is antibusiness, but actually enhancing what we have,'' Saunders says. This has meant: beauty (restoring the Lenox lobby); function (packaging material with shredded paper); and cost avoidance (giving food scraps to a pig farmer instead of putting them in the garbage).

``This [program] has served as a role model,'' says Shawn Flaherty, a Travel Industry Association of America official.

With hotel occupancy rebounding from a recent 1991 low of 60.9 percent, the cost of such a program is critical, says Kathryn Cochran, spokeswoman for the American Hotel and Motel Association (AHMA). ``But they've shown it's not as cost-prohibitive or difficult as originally thought,'' she adds. ``The fact that they are a family-run, relatively small operation is where their innovation came from,'' says James Post, a Boston University management professor who has studied the Park Plaza program.

Ms. Cochran notes that the Saunders Hotel Group was in a better position to launch a program of this kind, than, say, Holiday Inn, with 1,630 United States properties and non-relative decisionmakers, and hotels rated by the American Automobile Association, whose quality standards could complicate the issue.

For Saunders, quality is the first concern. For example, their hotels will wait until just the right energy-saving lightbulb that fits their decor becomes available before switching.

``We're not trying to go back to the '70s. We're not wearing Birkenstocks.... We've got to make this viable for now,'' says Liz Kay, Saunders's business partner.

``The most we ask is that [guests] try this,'' Saunders says, adding that feedback shows that guests like having a choice about participating in these measures.

A 1992 travel association survey reveals that consumers would spend 8 percent more for a ``green'' supplier, Ms. Flaherty says.

The biggest test, says Gary Saunders, the hotel group's chairman and chief executive officer, was replacing most amenity bottles with bulk shampoo and other product dispensers. First, the Park Plaza removed shower caps. After guests did not seem to mind and responded well to environmental messages in their rooms, amenity replacement was tested in 20 rooms. Guests in these rooms responded positively. ``Part of our business is show business. Presentation is important and security, too,'' Mr. Saunders says. But guests who still like a bar of soap will find one in their rooms.

Then there is the challenge of keeping staff interested. This is done through a reward, recognition, and education system - by ``giving [employees] a feeling of involvement,'' Tedd Saunders says. For example, a fund from returned deposits on bottles and cans enables employees to buy new items for their departments.

Guests are also educated. Bathroom plaques offer this: ``It takes more than 2,000,000 gallons of clean water just to bathe and feed one adult for a year.'' The Park Plaza even has a video and phone line so guests can learn about its initiatives.

So far, the program has run fairly smoothly. After Saunders met Ms. Kay, a TV producer who he hired as a communications consultant, the two decided to expand the program. In 1992, Saunders started up Eco-Logical Solutions, a firm that now manages the initiatives. Peter Allison, in charge of the Copley Square and Lenox programs, and JoAnne Shatkin, who manages a contract with Harvard University food services, later joined the team.

Saunders and Kay sit on an AHMA committee that educates the industry, consumers, and the media about ecological hotel practices. Saunders has co-authored a book, ``The Bottom Line of Green is Black,'' and in 1992 was awarded the Environment and Conservation Challenge Award from the President's Council on Environmental Quality, among other prizes.

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