Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the 3rd annual Sustainability Roundtable at Cornell University. The roundtable was attended by several notable industry executives from Marriott, InterContinental, Starwood, and Wyndham. It covered five topics: sustainability across global platforms, standardizing environmental footprints of hotel stays, customer choices, sustainability in the meetings/events sector, and leveraging trends and overcoming barriers in sustainability. Participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds; hospitality franchisors, owners, operators, suppliers, consultants, utility providers, investors, and researchers were all represented. In short, it was a meeting of the best, most passionate minds in sustainable hospitality. Although their discussion covered a wide range of important issues, the session that I found most interesting was “Sustainability and Customer Choices,” which I’ll briefly touch on.
The session on sustainability and customer choices began with a presentation about a CHR study about guests’ participation in sustainability programs. The study showed that, over the past four years, guest participation in hotel sustainability programs has not increased, although the number of programs has increased. Walker Lunn, founder of EnviRelation, asserted that participation in sustainability programs should not be an option. Rather, customers should be forced to do it; for example, there should not be an option not to recycle in guestrooms. Lunn cited Steve Jobs as an example of telling the customer what to do: Jobs never did any market research, and he instead dictated to the marketplace what it wanted.
Needless to say, much disagreement arose out of Lunn’s statement–both from industry and academic attendees. Sustainability programs should never be compulsory, said Professor Verma, Executive Director of the Center for Hospitality Research. Choices are linked with tradeoffs, and guests should be able to decide on the tradeoffs they make. Jennifer Bauchner, Director of Rooms and Sustainability for Starwood North America, suggested that customers should be given an option until the green option becomes fully accepted by the industry. For example, guests used to receive printed folios all the time, but many hotels have started offering the option of an email invoice. The electronic folio is now becoming more standard.
The most interesting point in this discussion came from Michael Giebelhausen, Assistant Professor of marketing at the Hotel School. Giebelhausen pointed to some research on guest participation. Consistent findings in choice studies showed that mandatory participation leads to lower guest satisfaction, while optional participation leads to higher satisfaction. This is the concept of thought virtuosity: when a guest makes the conscious decision to participate in a certain aspect of a sustainability program (e.g., reusing a towel), there is a positive affect, and the guest feels good about herself. This increases satisfaction, but the flip side is also true. If a guest chooses not to participate, she will feel worse about herself, and the negative feelings will leak into their satisfaction ratings of the hotel.
The challenge, therefore, is to create appealing sustainability programs that command high participation among a wide variety of travelers.