The green hotel goes global

In 2007, the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) found itself faced with a growing problem. As interest around sustainability was building, more customers were requesting information about hotels’ green features. With thousands of properties around the globe, however, the company had no single sustainability standard to refer to. Moreover, existing rating systems such as LEED and BREEAM did not address the unique needs of the hospitality industry.

Together with Arup’s sustainability consultants, IHG ultimately decided that the best way to address the need for a global standard for hotel sustainability was to create one in house. We worked closely with the company’s corporate responsibility team to build on its understanding of what was most important to owners and guests, then created (and continually refined) a platform tailored to these needs.

Green Engage carbon calculator

Six years later, IHG’s Green Engage tool has been rolled out in almost 2,300 hotels around the world, reducing carbon emissions by 19% and lowering energy consumption by 11.7% (the equivalent of almost 30,000 homes’ annual energy use). To date, the tool has saved IHG an estimated $31m in operating costs across its properties. In 2011, it became the first existing hotel sustainability rating system approved for LEED pre-certification.

We spoke with IHG’s Paul Snyder and Maury Zimring and Arup’s Karin Giefer to learn more about Green Engage.


Can you tell us a bit about the evolution of the tool?

Karin: We understand buildings and their systems, but we had to partner with IHG to understand their business so we could tailor the solutions in the built environment to their model. They’re focused on providing quality and consistency in their guest experience, and you can’t compromise that. You don’t want the guests to have a bad experience because of not having enough water in the shower to get the shampoo out of their hair, or because the hotel is so green that you don’t have toilet paper.

Effectively, we took the best from the sustainability metrics that have been developed around the world, like LEED and Green Globes, and applied them to IHG’s business model, creating something that was relevant to their needs and their global reach.

Paul: Green Engage was first invented in January 2007. It’s an awfully different world now. Even as the ground has shifted around us, Green Engage’s relevance has only gone higher because of the way it’s been structured and designed.

For example, six years ago RFPs for big corporate accounts were asking, “What are you doing around green? Are you doing something around green?” It was almost like ‘check yes’ or ‘check no’, and it was for the client to judge how authentic that answer was. These days, they’re asking “What’s the carbon footprint for one of my room nights in your estate?” And Green Engage can answer that question. It was able to answer customer questions six years ago, and it’s still able to answer them even though they’ve become much harder and more rigorous.

Every time we make things better it actually expands the universe of stuff we could do even further

As you go through successive waves of enhancement, it’s easy to think you’re driving toward this point where it will be done, it will be perfect. Well, what we’ve actually found is that every time we make things better it actually expands the universe of stuff we could do even further.

Maury: One of the things that has been really important about our evolution has been understanding our primary stakeholder group. We have a lot of stakeholders when it comes to corporate responsibility, but our hotel employees are the number one stakeholder for Green Engage. Now that we’re really engaged with answering their needs the tool is evolving really rapidly, and it’s helping our hotels evolve really rapidly in relationship to sustainability.

So we’ve established a cycle of doing usability studies with our general managers. Early last year we spent about a month setting up a usability study, conducted by a third party. We pulled general managers from every region and representatives from every brand and had them go through action items, pull up green solutions, find out if the content that they were seeing was what they expected to see, if the navigation was what they expected.

Green Engage action plan

What was really different about this particular user study is that we wanted to make sure that they were understanding the content in Green Engage in a way that they could implement on the ground. We weren’t just testing the tool; we were testing that the information translated well.

We learned that the properties wanted more specific information. We had provided a lot of flexibility in the past, believing that that’s what they wanted, but now that they had spent more time with the tool they really wanted more step-by-step implementation guides for how to achieve various green solutions. They wanted to see case studies of other properties that had achieved that action item, the system they used, and how it had worked. They wanted to understand the financial data, return on investment, and pros and cons.

A lot of the data we already had, but some we had to partner with Arup to build in. Last year was a really huge year for us to change the way we bring these solutions to life for our properties. Now, for every single green solution there’s a step-by-step implementation guide, there’s cost information, there’s case study information, there’s a narrative explaining the background and context. They’ve got a whole slate of information. Our hotels are providing great feedback; they’re finding this really useful.

Green Engage team

In the next year we’ll be really pushing engagement with the tool, pushing our hotels to complete more and more action items.

Are any of the sustainability targets that Green Engage works with — energy, water, waste — particularly tricky?

Maury: Waste is always a challenge because it’s so dependent on location. Each hotel has its own municipal infrastructure with different recycling and waste opportunities, so providing useful guidance in a global tool is challenging. We’re still growing and learning there.

How has Green Engage differentiated you from other companies? What has its value to IHG been?

Paul: The primary value has been to the individual hotels and their operations. Green Engage makes hotels able to better service customers — both individual travelers and big group accounts — that care that we’re doing something substantial and authentic around sustainability. It helps us answer questions like “What are you doing with regards to sustainability, because as part of our supply chain we only want to purchase from sustainable suppliers?”

There’s also obvious value in terms of efficiencies at the unit level. Inefficiencies bring down profitability, so that’s highly relevant to any kind of property.

And then there’s also value in terms of employee engagement. When you go through successive generations, from Generation X — that’s me — to Generation Y and whatever comes after that, they don’t want to work for enterprises or businesses that aren’t authentic and substantial and impactful.

Green Engage makes hotels able to better service customers that care that we’re doing something substantial and authentic around sustainability

And then finally, the data we have from Green Engage helps us understand not only what our impacts are on the environment itself, but also the shared value opportunities where we can actually have substantial impact on our environmental performance, our guests, and our economics all at the same time. Because Green Engage is so robust, because it has so much data, because of all the work that Arup did with us in terms of the modeling and the solutions that are so customized for hotels, we’ve got a very good, discrete read on how we can manage our environmental impact to the betterment of all our stakeholders.

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