Water shortages threaten hotel industry
06 APRIL 2015 8:04 AM
Legislators and bureaucrats are taking aim at the hotel industry as a way to mitigate water shortage problems in California and elsewhere. Are you ready?
Let’s face it: The hotel industry in the United States over the past 20 years has mostly been paying lip service to sustainability issues. It’s difficult to blame hotel owners and operators for that attitude because environmental issues are seldom major operational or profitability concerns at most properties.
There are exceptions, of course, but for the owner of a typical mid-market suburban hotel, green issues typically are only seriously addressed for one of two reasons: the vague promise of operating cost savings or the public relations glow generated by being a good and green citizen.
That situation is beginning to change, especially in California and the Southwest. The culprit is water, or the lack thereof.
Much attention in the press in recent months has focused on the drought in California and the oft-cited statistic that, given current rain and snow patterns, the state has a year or two before it runs out of water.
That seems to be an exaggeration, and actually the state probably won’t run dry next year and maybe not the next. However, the state and the federal governments are beginning to take notice that hotels use a lot of water and could be a ripe target for regulation.
Here’s some math to illustrate why hotel water has become a hot-button issue: The average American shower consumes 17.2 gallons of water and lasts 8.2 minutes. At a 100-room hotel with 60% occupancy and 1.5 guests taking a shower each day in each room, about 90 showers a day are taken, using more than 1,500 gallons of water daily. Over the course of a year, that’s more than 500,000 gallons of water per hotel.
Of course, the typical hotel uses a lot of water for other things, especially laundry, but also everything from cooking to ice in drinks at the bar.
It’s no wonder then the hotel industry has become a target of well-meaning legislators and bureaucrats looking to save some precious water for the state. The California State Water Resources Control Board recently instituted new rules that among other things require foodservice establishments to provide water only to customers who request it and mandate hotels give an option to guests of not having linens and towels laundered daily.
These measures generally are benign and reflect practices in use at many, if not most, restaurants and hotels. They should have little short-term impact on hotel operations in the state. However, if the drought and water shortage worsens, more draconian limitations could be placed on hotels.
Other, slightly more creepy but related news came recently from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which issued a small grant to researchers at the University of Tulsa to develop a low-cost wireless device that would monitor water usage during hotel showers. The idea is guests could hop on a smartphone app to see how much water they use and take steps to decrease that amount.
It’s a silly idea that probably won’t gain any traction. But as with the efforts in California, it could be a harbinger for other legislation or bureaucratic edicts if the water situation worsens.
Some executives in the hotel industry, especially at the brand-company level, understand the role of water as a precious natural resource. Both Marriott International and InterContinental Hotels Group have made water conservation a cornerstone of their sustainability efforts, and the results have been promising.
In a recent update of its corporate responsibility initiatives, IHG announced in 2014 it achieved a 4.2% reduction in per-room water usage in water-stressed areas. By 2017, the company hopes to reach a 12% reduction.
Similarly, Marriott last month said global “water intensity” in its worldwide managed hotels decreased in 2014 by 5.3% over 2013, and 16.3% since 2007. The company’s goal is to reduce water consumption by 20% from 2007 levels to 2020.
I live in Cleveland, on the shores of Lake Erie, so water issues are difficult to comprehend for me. We have plenty of it, and judging by the nearly 70 inches of snow we’ve had so far this winter and spring, we won’t be lacking any time soon.
However, for many hotels in water-deprived areas it’s important for owners and operators to begin making plans to conserve the most precious of all natural resources. Like real estate, they’re not making any more water, so we need to nurture what we have.
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