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Venerable US hotel sees future is green

This article first appears in Yahoo! UK & Ireland News on June 1, 2009

Our goal is to make sure that the Willard has the best environmental practices in the industry," said Herve Houdre, general manager of the luxury Washington hotel that has proudly faced the White House since it was built in 1847.

Since 2005, the Frenchman, who once headed up the Plaza Athenee and the Crillon in Paris, has been on a crusade to transform the luxury, 332-room Willard Hotel "into the first in the world to function entirely on renewable energy."

"This is not a marketing stunt, it's about the hotel industry's responsibility," insisted Houdre.

"We produce a lot of waste, we consume a lot of energy. Our responsibility to humanity is even greater," said Houdre, a staunch advocate of sustainable development.

The hotel, part of the IHG group (Intercontinental Holiday Inn), has hosted the likes of Abraham Lincoln on the eve of his inauguration, and Martin Luther King before he made his famed "I have a dream" speech.

But after a long and venerable history, it is embracing the modern age and for example now functions entirely on wind energy.

"It costs more," Houdre acknowledged, "but to compensate, we changed all the hotel's bulbs to LED ones and we saved 13 percent on the electric bill in 2006, or 130,000 dollars."

"We want to show that it doesn't cost more than not doing anything," he added.

As they arrive to check in at reception, guests are asked whether they would accept, for the sake of the environment, to have their sheets and towels changed less often.

A one dollar donation per night, which is optional, is used for charities encouraging sustainable development, such as the construction of wells in an Indian reserve or in South Africa.

"About 45 percent of clients agree not to have their sheets or towels changed. Europeans do it more often than the Americans, but we've feeling a change for some weeks," said Eric Dietz, executive housekeeper.

"And 78 percent of the clients are willing to pay the one dollar donation."

All the products used in the hotel, ranging from paints to soaps and liquid dish soap, are environmentally friendly.

And of course, in the kitchen, most of the ingredients for the French menu are organic or locally produced.

At the other end of the chain waste is recycled. Plastic, cardboard and organic waste are transformed into a weekly 3,000 tons of compost.

"Creating partnerships with distributors is very important to be able to minimize waste and buy more organic and sustainable products," Houdre said.

For 45,000 dollars, "sustainable" wedding ceremonies are organized with an organic buffet, menus made out of recycled paper and an environmentally friendly décor.

Clients appreciate the effort, staff say. "People come back because of this," said Fabien Odry, who is in charge of the diplomatic clientèle.

He remembered a Filipino delegation which was delighted to find out that the fish they had been served wasn't an endangered species.

"When you have a hotel, you can influence things in a small way," said Houdre.

 






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