How hotels can operate in sustainable ways, save money and get great guest reviews

Image: Getty Images/ zstockphotos

Image: Getty Images/ zstockphotos

Tourism has emerged as one of the hardest-hit industries during the coronavirus pandemic, yet, its income is paramount to the survival of most countries. Now is the perfect time to build in strategies that ensure environmental and economic sustainability as hotels, airlines and destinations look at how to rebuild for a more resilient future.

To a holidaymaker, a tourist experience is often about fun and relaxation, but from a business perspective, the tourism industry is a heavy hitter. The size and growth of the industry is responsible for 1 in every 11 jobs worldwide, and contributes 10 per cent to global GDP – an economic contribution that is critically important to many nations around the world, including Australia.

The celebrated economic contribution of the tourism sector comes as a substantial environmental cost. The industry generates eight per cent of all global greenhouse emissions and contributes up to 12.5 per cent towards global warming.

Tourism also produces more than 35 million tons of solid waste annually – a staggering amount. At an individual level, catering to a single guest for one night requires, on average, 300 litres of freshwater.

The challenge for tourism and hotel operators is how to reduce their environmental footprint without affecting guest satisfaction or their bottom line.

A monument in Bucharest, Ilfov, Romania.

Image: Getty Images/ Alexander Spatari

Image: Getty Images/ Alexander Spatari

Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, Professor Sara Dolnicar, and her team at The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School are developing solutions to reduce the environmental damage caused by tourism without increasing the cost to tourism businesses, or compromising guest satisfaction.

Dolnicar says hotel signs asking guests to reuse towels, forgo their room cleans, or encourage environmentally responsible behaviour do not work, operators can leverage psychology to develop practical measures which can be easily implemented.

“We have been working on reducing wastage and increasing sustainable measures for a few years now, and can recommend a number of simple things hotels can do – from our own research and the work of our colleagues,” she says.

Reducing plate waste at buffets

“Uneaten food left on guests’ plates is not only a waste of money for the hotel, but it is a double disaster in environment terms,” says Sara.

“Many precious resources are used to produce the food, and if it is thrown away it goes to landfill where it produces methane while decomposing. Methane warms the planet by 86 per cent more than carbon dioxide."

“Guests leave a lot of food uneaten on their plates at buffets: about 15 grams per person per day at a breakfast buffet, and 233 grams across all meals of the day.”

Already, researchers have developed practical ways to reduce plate waste:

Use smaller plates – Reducing the size of plates by just 3 centimetres reduces plate waste at hotel breakfast buffets by 20 per cent. Of course, plates cannot be tiny, but many hotels still use large bowl-like plates, seducing guests to take more than they can eat.

Make it OK to return to the buffet – Many guests are embarrassed to get more food from the buffet, and instead overfill their plates. However, going back to the buffet is the right thing to do, as it prevents guests from overfilling their plates. Table signs explaining this approach reduce plate waste by 20 per cent per.

Make it fun – Vacations are all about fun. “It is important to make it fun for visitors to behave in environmentally friendly ways,” says Sara. A great example from Sara’s research is the use of a simple stamp collection game for families.

When checking in, families are given a stamp collection booklet. Every day at the dinner buffet when the entire family leaves no uneaten food behind, they get a stamp. At checkout, the children can redeem the completed stamp booklet for a prize.

“All kids love stickers and stamps, right?” says Sara. “The game reduced plate waste among families by 34 per cent.”

“The beauty of the stamp game is that it reduced food costs for the hotel, reduced food waste, and increased vacation fun for children, while supporting parental messaging about eating up – truly a win-win,” Sara says.

“The hotel in which we conducted our research saved 8000 Euros in two months, although families made up only a fraction of their guests.”

Professor Sara Dolnicar discusses her research on injecting a sense of fun into sustainability.

Image: Getty Images/ miljko

Family getting breakfast at a hotel buffet.

Reducing room cleaning

A typical room clean in a four-star hotel uses 35 litres of water, 100 millilitres of chemicals and 1.5 kilowatts hours of electricity. A routine room clean – as opposed to full room clean after a guest checks out – costs a four-star hotel about $13.

Yet many hotels continue to offer daily cleaning for fear of being seen to be lowering standards. Sara’s research shows that this concern is unwarranted.

Move to free room cleaning on demand – Instead of asking guests to use a ‘Please do not clean’ door sign, guests can use a ‘Please clean my room today’ sign. This little modification in the hotel’s standard procedure reduces the number of cleans by 63 per cent.

In the hotel in which Sara’s team conducted their study – a three-star city business hotel – guests did not even notice the difference. They genuinely had no need for their room to be cleaned daily, so their guest satisfaction was not affected.  

Professor Sara Dolnicar discusses how a simple change can make a significant difference.

Share savings with guests – Hotels save money by not cleaning a room. Guests know that and are sometimes cynical when asked to waive cleaning for environmental reasons. Offering to split cost savings with guests overcomes such cynicism, reducing room cleans by 40 per cent.

As Sara explains, “We don’t give customers cash, but instead, give them drinks vouchers.”

“Who does not love a free drink? More fun for tourists, less cost for the hotel and less harm to the environment – an excellent outcome,” says Sara.

Professor Sara Dolnicar explains how 'splitting costs' with guests helps decrease room cleaning.

Towel reuse

Laundry consumes huge amounts of water, energy and chemicals, accounting for one-third of greenhouse emissions of a room clean. A few simple approaches can increase towel reuse according to recent studies.

Use peer pressure – While people tend to largely ignore general appeals to reuse towels, telling them which percentage of guest who stayed in the exact same hotel room puts them under pressure, leading to a 44 per cent increase in towel reuse. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses!

Make guests display their commitment publicly – In one hotel guests were informed at check-in about the hotels’ environmental efforts, and invited to help by committing to reusing their towels and wearing a publicly visible commitment pin around the hotel.  With this simple strategy, towel reuse increased by 40 per cent.

Using recycled paper serviettes.

Large, thick cotton serviettes are still frequently used at breakfast tables in hotels and are three times more harmful to the environment than recycled paper serviettes.

Explain a simple switch – Many hotels worry that recycled serviettes will disappoint guests or feel ‘cheap’. However, Sara’s team proved that this not the case. In one study, they replaced cotton serviettes on the tables with recycled one-way paper serviettes and put a sign on the table explaining the environmental benefits of those serviettes.

Guests could still get a thick cotton serviette from the buffet, but most did not. As a result, cotton serviette use dropped by 95 per cent, while guest satisfaction remained unchanged. The feedback Sara received was that hotel guests did not care about the serviettes – all they cared about was the food.   

“There are many ways to make hotel operations more sustainable. As researchers, we rely on collaborations with hotels to identify those opportunities. Without our hotel partners we would have never even thought about cotton serviettes,” says Sara.

Professor Sara Dolnicar discusses her research which encourages a serviette switch.

Images: Getty Images/ BongkarnThanyakij; Max Shen

Soap and hand towels in a hotel.
The dining area of a restaurant.

Reflecting on her research studies in hotels, Sara says, “This is the most meaningful research I have ever done – every time something works, the entire team is ecstatic.”

“We love pushing the boundaries of knowledge, and we love developing and testing new ways of making tourism more sustainable without asking hotels to pay a lot of money, or asking tourists to sacrifice their vacation enjoyment.”

“Testing our ideas in hotels is the only way we can know for sure they actually work, and that’s what research is all about – understanding how things work, and changing them to create better futures.” 

Are you a tourism business looking to make a sustainable change? Contact Sara and her team.

Plan for resilience with a Master of Tourism, Hotel and Event Management

Learn more