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Cash-Crunched Resorts and Hotels Find That Going Green Is a Good Way to Scrimp on Money

From composting guests' uneaten pancakes to washing bedsheets with ozone, some hotels are taking radical steps to go green.
 
 
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When breakfast-buffet diners pile more bacon, biscuits, homefries and pancakes than they can eat onto their plates at the Embassy Suites Hotel in South Lake Tahoe, California, it goes uneaten, abandoned in jagged, stickily gleaming heaps. But it doesn't go to waste. Tipped into bin-bags, tons of leftovers are toted about 10 miles to Full Circle Compost. Full Circle sells its compost to nearby Hungry Mother Organics, which uses it to grow lettuce and heirloom tomatoes. Full Circle also sells soil to the Embassy Suites: It's the only soil used in the hotel's leafy atrium, a skylight-illuminated indoor forest stocked with $500,000 worth of ficus, ferns and palms.

"The soil I buy might have been our guests' pancakes twelve weeks ago," says the hotel's chief engineer David Hansen. "This is my lab."

Having become impassioned about green technology while helping Robert Redford create Utah's Sundance Resort, Hansen began implementing it upon being hired at the Embassy Suites a few years ago. Sustainability measures here run the gamut from LED bulbs and Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee in guest suites to impressive recycling strategies to free-range chicken served in the restaurant to compostable corn-fiber cups and bags. A computer-operated temperature-control system allows staff to preprogram which meeting rooms need to be warmed or cooled, when, and for precisely how long. Sensing from afar a room's temperature as well as that of the air outside its windows, the system's central "brain" automatically opens or closes air vents in that room to cool or warm it. Before this system was installed, AC and/or heating ran 24/7 in all such rooms, occupied or not.

Such measures reduce energy and waste, but they also save money. Green tech reduced the hotel's operating budget by over 10 percent last year -- including $361,000 saved in energy bills and $33,000 saved in waste removal, Hanson says. Bottle-and-can recycling saves the hotel over $700 a month.

And that's the bottom line in a travel industry that's being battered by a downed economy. Browsing the rock-bottom deals at DIY sojourning sites such as Priceline.com (Galapagos Islands, here we come!), you can almost smell the desperation to fill hotel rooms, cruise-ship cabins, and tour-bus and airplane seats.

The Embassy Suites reduces costs and attracts eco-conscious guests with green tech. Others in the industry are scrambling for whatever slender footholds might help them survive. Some sculpt niche markets. Surfsand Resort in Cannon Beach, Oregon hosts an annual dog show and provides guests year-round with "pet welcome baskets"; each includes a pet bed, doggie treats, towel, sheet, placemat, poop bags, and food and water bowls. The 12-hotel Kimpton group offers yoga rooms, Playstation 2-stocked "chill" rooms, celebrity-themed suites (the Grace Slick Suite, the John Lennon Suite, the Kathy Griffin Suite) and the Haagen-Dazs "Sweet Suite."

Some haven't been so lucky. Bankruptcies litter the landscape all the way to a horizon whose sparkly skylines and rosy-fingered dawns used to be rhapsodized in magazines such as National Geographic Traveler, National Geographic Adventure, Travel & Leisure Family, Travel & Leisure Golf, andTravel & Leisure Russia, all of which ceased publication within the last two years.

Mexicana Airlines filed for bankruptcy this week. Japan Air Lines filed for bankruptcy in January. Its restructuring plan mandated cutting 15,700 jobs -- a third of JAL's workforce --and over 30 routes. These are just the latest casualties. Alitalia filed for bankruptcy in 2008. Las Vegas Casino Lines, a Florida-based fleet of gambling-cruise ships, filed for bankruptcy last year. So did another, the Palm Beach Princess. So did the online discount aggregator eCruiseStore.com. So did Germany's Transocean Tours and that country's leading river-cruise company. Around the world, the pile of travel-industry corpses grows higher and higher.

"It's been a two-year slump," says former New York Times reporter Blake Fleetwood, who owns five New York City-area travel agencies. "Hotels are sitting empty. Lots of them are closing down and selling up for anything they can get."

Others declare bankruptcy but remain open, taken over by banks. The lush, 18-acre, 40-year-old Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Florida's Longboat Key -- named America's top tennis hotel by Tennis magazine eight years in a row --is typical. Last year, Bank of America filed a foreclosure suit against the resort and its owner, claiming he had defaulted on three loans worth over $8 million. Having hosted 26 U.S. presidents, West Virginia's posh historic Greenbrier Resort filed for bankruptcy last year, claiming debts of some $500 million.

Over 22 airlines went bust in 2008 alone. That list included Hong Kong-based Oasis, Portugal-based Aerocondor, Canada-based Zoom, USA-based Aloha, Maxjet, Champion, Skyways, Nationwide, and many more, Fleetwood notes.

Some Americans still travel as much as ever, "but obviously we're not talking about construction workers," he says, "because they're out of work."

As the nation's jobless rate nears 10 percent and with another 131,000 jobs lost nationwide last month, summer getaways and ski trips are now impossible dreams for millions of Americans. Those countless students who -- every year until last year -- spent carefree postgraduation summers abroad are now staying put, searching gloomily for jobs and moving into their folks' basements and applying for food stamps and scrounging to pay off student loans.

"While the unemployment rate for bankers is bad, it's not that bad," Fleetwood notes. "So high-end travel isn't quite so seriously affected, while those at the low end are getting hit very badly."

Could that explain why Disneyland, a classic family-travel favorite, hiked its day-pass rates this week to $76 per person?

Travel agents are hurting too right now because struggling cruise lines, while eliminating their once-standard fees and port charges, are now slashing and eliminating the commissions they once paid agents. Airlines now pay commissions only on business- and first-class tickets, Fleetwood says. "We've all gravitated to the high-end stuff now, because that's where we still get commissions. We have no choice. We've been forced into this."

Michelle Obama's $375,000 Spanish jaunt might be the best example of how travel hasn't changed for the rich. Ohio travel agent Vicky Mary says she too is working with more luxury travelers these days than mid-range and budget travelers.

"Anyone who is in a position to go ahead and travel can now get such big discounts," says Mary, who recently booked a $10,000 seven-day Tahitian honeymoon trip for two clients. Luxury hotels are offering free meals and free fourth-night stays for those who can afford those first three nights. But fewer and fewer of us can.

Mary, whose parents founded Victoria Travel 50 years ago and has worked in the industry for nearly 40 years, compares the current downturn to others in the past.

"After September 11, people were afraid to travel because of terrorism, although those of us who lived through the 1970s had seen that before, with all those hijackings back then and the same radical-Islam problems. But starting two years ago, there was a new kind of fear: the fear that you wouldn't have enough money to travel." Even those with jobs became afraid that they and/or their partners would be unemployed by the time the trips they'd prearranged came around, Mary explains.

"After September 11, it was an emotional fear" that gutted the travel industry, spawning a raft of bankruptcies around the world. "This time, it's an economic fear."

Because so many companies are now running on fumes -- one among countless examples, UK-based Goldtrail package-tour company went bust last month, stranding 16,000 of its customers abroad -- Mary strongly recommends buying two kinds of travel insurance: one from the cruise line or tour operator, another from an outside insurer.

"Otherwise, it's devastating when people don't get their money back," she says.

Back at the Embassy Suites, David Hansen shows off the resort's laundry operation, where 120,000 pounds of linen per month are washed not with hot water or caustic chemicals but ozone. Injected into the hotel's washing machines, the gas is a fierce oxidant that punctures and breaks down bacteria.

The ozone process halves every spin cycle and sustains the linens' lifespan by as much as 50 percent.

"It also opens the weave of the fabric," Hansen beams, "which makes our linens come out brighter and softer" -- and cheaper, to the tune of $3,200 in electricity-bill savings every six months.

The resort's indoor swimming pool is sanitized not with chlorine but with Morton salt. In the 400 guest suites, GreenSwitch wireless technology shuts down lights and power in empty rooms, even if guests have thoughtlessly left everything on before departing.

From Orlando's Blue Tree Resort to Sitka's Alaska Ocean View B&B, dozens of hotels nationwide are going green.

"If saving money is the bottom line that it takes to change corporate America, sad as that is," Hansen says, "then so be it -- we're saving money."

 
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