Sustainable hotels: how data and technology power Hilton’s Travel with Purpose

Customer experience excellence reigns supreme in many industries. For hotels, the guest experience outweighs any other priority, as mentioned in a recent article on technologies in the hotel industry.

Yet, there’s another essential goal climbing up the priority ladder of hotels for several years: sustainability. Virtually all hotel brands nowadays have an official sustainability program. The increasing importance of sustainability in hotels is also related to king customer’s demands in more than one sense. Moreover, sustainability and guest experience can go hand in hand in many areas as we’ll see.

According to a survey of 72,000 Hilton guests, social, environmental and ethical considerations are central to their buying preferences, especially those younger than 25 years old.

A look at sustainability in hotels and insights into how a sustainability program gets realized and measured in practice, with technology as an inevitable enabler.

Hotels started taking initiatives regarding the environment and sustainability many years ago – and for many reasons and in many ways, including inviting you as a guest to think about the environment. Yet, today, the environmental and social measures taken by some go way further. A point in case: Hilton. Back in 2018, Hilton announced it would cut its environmental footprint in half and double its social impact investment by 2030.

Sustainability in hotels - sustainable travel concept

Hilton would reduce carbon emissions by 61 percent and reduce water consumption and produced waste by 50 percent, to mention a few goals. Moreover, Hilton committed to expand its soap recycling program and send zero soap to landfill, among other ‘Travel with Purpose’ goals.

Travelers look for sustainable hotels – some facts

At the occasion of the announcement, Hilton released the results of consumer research it had conducted, based upon a survey of 72,000 Hilton guests. And the conclusions were clear: ‘social, environmental and ethical considerations are central to their buying preferences, especially those younger than 25 years old’.

One-third of respondents to the survey (33%) turned out to actively research information on a hotel company’s environmental and social efforts. The percentage of those doing so was higher in the case of leisure travelers and lower among business travelers. Moreover, in the age group under the age of 25, the percentage rose to 44 percent.

Organizations across several industries know that younger generations are more conscious regarding specific topics, including the environment. They’re even transforming some of their operations and activities as a result, among others in real estate, building management and building system integration. A hotel, of course, is a building too. It has an environmental footprint and needs/consumes quite some energy. It’s perhaps not that impactful as a healthcare facility, an airport, a smart factory, or any other critical power facility but still.

LightStay tracks energy, carbon, water and waste data, as well as social impact metrics including local sourcing, youth training and volunteer hours

Now, again, all this isn’t new for hotels. As Shovan Sengupta, the Global Vice President for Schneider Electric, in charge of the hotel segment says in an interview on hotels and its EcoXpert ecosystems, hotels have KPIs based on the reduction of water, electricity, gas, and carbon emission.

And Hilton has already reduced carbon emissions and waste by 30 percent and water consumption by 20 percent since 2008 (enabling it to save over $1 billion in operating efficiencies in around a decade). To stay on track of its goals, the company has an award-winning performance measurement system, called LightStay, which comes back several times in this article. You can also read more about the sustainability and social impact investment and the mentioned consumer survey.

Embedding sustainability in hotel operations

Time to look at some factors, including technological ones, that help Hilton achieve these goals. In the earlier mentioned article on technologies in the hotel industry, we covered an expert learning session, ‘Digital hotels for higher performance’, hosted by Shovan Sengupta at Schneider Electric’s Innovation Summit Barcelona 2019.

One of the panelists was Paulina Godfrey, Senior Director of Energy and Environment EMEA at Hilton. Paulina was asked about the Travel with Purpose ESG program of Hilton several times, provided more insights into how it works, and shared some views. Let’s take a look.

As Senior Director of Energy and Environment for Hilton, Paulina looks after about 250 hotels in the EMEA region out of around 5,900 hotels Hilton globally has across 17 brands and 114 countries and territories.

Hilton is redefining sustainable travel with Travel with Purpose , Paulina reminded, adding that it’s more important than ever to do so now.

She pointed to the goals the company committed to, adding that, with the science-based targets Hilton signed up for, it won’t just reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2030; once that is achieved, Hilton will reduce emissions by another 20 percent (by 2050). You can track how the company is doing with its 2030 target progress yourself, transparency indeed.

And to do so, the company needs partners, and as mentioned technologies. In her role, Paulina is also involved in new technologies, energy procurement, energy efficiency projects, environmental and engineering training, and environmental reporting.

How Hilton wants to redefine sustainable travel - Travel with Purpose - source and courtesy
How Hilton wants to redefine sustainable travel – Travel with Purpose – source and courtesy

So, how are technologies related to sustainability and with guest satisfaction, the latter being key for Hilton as well?

Paulina points to the previously mentioned survey that Hilton conducted and clearly shows there is a growing demand for sustainability and sustainable operations of the hotels. With customer expectations being key for Hilton, this means that sustainability has to embedded into the operations of Hilton, also because it helps drive guest satisfaction, she adds.

Innovating with the guest experience and sustainability in hotels in mind – how both are connected

Take the example of two technologies mentioned in our previous article and put forward in the communications of Hilton these days: Digital Key, and Connected Room (via the Hilton Honors app).

Obviously, both are, first of all, great for the guest experience. With Digital Key, you can save quite some time and hassle, and staying in a so-called connected room does come with its ‘experiential’ benefits too.

When guests aren’t physically in their booked rooms – typically around 70% of the time – hotels can power down devices such as the television, HVAC, and lights, dramatically reducing energy consumption

However, Paulina emphasized, both are also clearly connected to sustainability: “Digital Key allows us to reduce the amount of paper that is used in checking in and out and the plastic cards to open the room.

Connected Room offers even more opportunities for us to control the energy used in the guest room because if the room ‘knows’ that the guest is not in there, it can easily step back all of the settings to those that are economical for an unoccupied room”.

According to Hilton, when guests aren’t physically in their booked rooms – typically around 70% of the time – hotels can power down devices such as the television, HVAC, and lights, dramatically reducing energy consumption. The company applies AI and machine learning to optimize energy efficiency and guest comfort

Two examples of how innovative technologies, as said a competitive differentiator for hotels from a guest expectation and branding perspective as well, at the same time, can drive sustainability of hotels. Yet, of course, there is more, much more.

Before looking at some additional examples, however, what (other) steps has Hilton taken to achieve its sustainability goals, and how does the company monitor progress?

That was precisely the question that Shovan Sengupta asked during the expert learning session.

The way Hilton is tackling the challenge is threefold, Paulina replied.
  • One part concerns energy management and optimizing the energy management in individual hotels, whether it’s through the upgrades of the equipment, through smart controls, or through a general better understanding of the building and making it work for the occupants rather than for itself. Yes, that indeed does mean things like IoT, big data analytics, and more technologies to enable that ‘understanding’ that starts with visibility.
  • A second component of the approach is energy procurement. In many of the regulated markets, Hilton actively procures its energy looks at procuring green electricity. However, the core concept is to reduce Hilton’s consumption first and foremost.
  • The third step will be working with people because human behavior sometimes means a lot more than technology. Paulina: “Even the small changes of individuals that are working with us, working for us, or visiting us, can have a significant ripple effect on the entire globe.”

To illustrate the latter, Paulina shared some statistics. In the first hundred years of Hilton’s existence, the company welcomed 3 billion customers and trained 10,000 team members in sustainability. Moreover, the company does a lot of back of the house projects with the hotels.

The importance of a smart system: LightStay

And how do they monitor it all? This is where LightStay, the corporate social reporting platform, comes in again. It contains information from all of the hotels because it’s a brand standard.

So all 5,900 hotels have to report their energy and water waste, operational features, and building characteristics into this system, leading to a massive database.

Digital Key allows Hilton to reduce the amount of paper that is used in checking in and out and the plastic cards to open the room

The system initially started as “you report, it gives you feedback,” Paulina says. However, it has developed and continues to develop, adding ever more capabilities to leverage it in several interesting ways. So, it’s probably not a coincidence that not too long after the panel debate, we read that Hilton’s corporate responsibility management system LightStay has achieved ‘GSTC-Recognized Standard’ status (the GSTC is the Global Sustainable Tourism Council). Hilton is the first major hotel company to achieve this recognition. More about that later.

Paulina mentioned a few examples of how LightStay can be used now:
  • The LightStay tool can not only help a hotel benchmark the property performance against similar hotels; it can also help set an annual target looking at where the hotel is within its class or benchmark, and how it performed before.
  • A more recent development is that the system can now also project a hotel’s energy in the future. It can project up to 12 months of energy water performance, looking at occupancy and weather data. And when a specific month is there, the hotel can see how it did, where it had to be, what challenges need to be tackled, what is going well, etc.?
  • Hilton also uses the platform to communicate this knowledge among the entire portfolio, enabling team members to access it, look at best practices, learn, and share experiences.

And it doesn’t stop there. At the time of the debate, Hilton was already looking at opportunities of having real-time information within the system. Each 15 minutes, half-hourly, etc. where available so that the system can help individuals with alerting when the consumption suddenly goes up.

You can imagine that from a technology perspective, we’re not just talking lots of data and connected parts here but also intelligent capabilities for predictions, benchmarking and visualization tools, cloud-enabled features, solutions enabling real-time alerts, the list goes on.

It probably won’t come as a surprise either that Hilton has been and is working with Schneider Electric that has different solutions in the scope of its IoT-enabled EcoStruxure platform. Moreover, the company is involved in the hotel sustainability program of Hilton on a corporate level. It offers similar services and capabilities to other leading hotel brands as Shovan explained in our interview.

Yet, back to Hilton, because we did promise a deeper dive into how a sustainability program in a hotel is strategically and practically approach and Paulina’s interventions in the panel debate allowed us to do so.

Paulina also emphasized that thanks to LightStay, engineers can use one system to find information on several items, rather than having to use different systems. The silos that we indeed still find in many large – and smaller – organizations on the level of various information systems solved by using one integrated solution, offering an integrated view. Precisely what people in facility management are increasingly looking for, regardless of how various parts of the building traditionally were connected with different systems.

Closing the loop of sustainability data and reporting

For the engineers, it makes life easier. And the reporting part isn’t just targeted at them. The LightStay system and its reporting are targeted at any team member in the hotel, and data can be shared with customers so they see the impact of their stay at Hilton hotels. That’s what we call closing the loop. Furthermore, the data also gets shared with academic institutions.

To achieve GSTC Recognition, Hilton developed a Responsible Travel and Tourism Guide that leverages the existing capabilities of LightStay to apply the GSTC Criteria across its management system

Are there challenges? Sure there are. One of the particular challenges for hotels, for instance, is that the hotel owners are franchised, managed owners. And for them, operational costs, of course, are key, so it’s essential that they see the benefits of the sustainability system. That’s another thing that LightStay enables Hilton to do: showing that sustainability helps them save costs at the end of the day. The numbers are there, as are the lessons learned from others that are turned into cases to help each hotel owner get there.

When talking about sustainability in hotels, there are, of course, more parameters one can take into account, not all of them were tackled during the debate that focused on particular initiatives and technologies. Beyond technologies, hotels have ample ways to be more sustainable, and at Hilton, several of those are used as well. Involving people, for instance, is still one of the key pillars of the program as we saw – and let’s not forget that green energy to name another one.

Hotels also exist within a broader ecosystem and environment where initiatives are taken as well. One of them is mobility. Here the panelists also had an interesting discussion on electric vehicles, for instance. Hotels can foresee electrical vehicle charging points and, in fact, Hilton already has several across the UK, in big projects in the US, in The Netherlands, etc.

Paulina added that more and more customers expect it and that it also helps Hilton in several ways. It doesn’t just help in attracting customers for all the mentioned reasons and more; it also helps with business customers who want to conduct a meeting in a hotel and charge their vehicle while doing so.

Achieving ‘GSTC-Recognized Standard’ status.

There’s certainly more to be said, yet let’s finish for now with two things, knowing that other hotel chains also have quite impressive sustainability programs.

One is a video at the bottom of this article that tells a little bit about what Schneider Electric and Hilton have been doing. Schneider Electric ‘offered Hilton innovative, energy-efficient solutions that delivered lower costs and sustainable value to all aspects of hotel operations, from board rooms to guest rooms, and every level in between’.

The announcement from the Global Sustainable Tourism Council tells us more about LightStay and how it tracks energy, carbon, water and waste data, as well as social impact metrics including local sourcing, youth training, and volunteer hours. Or how, through the use of LightStay, every property in Hilton’s portfolio is certified to ISO 9001 (Quality Management), ISO 14001 (Environmental Management) and ISO 50001 (Energy Management). Or how…well, you can read the rest yourself here. We recommend you to since it explains what it took Hilton to get there and shows what the GSTC stands for and does.

In fact, the very existence of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, and how people look online for hotels that do well from a sustainability viewpoint whereby GSTC standards are often mentioned, tells a lot about how sustainability in hotels truly matters.

More soon in the interview with Shovan. Below is that promised video to watch with Hilton Worldwide’s Director of Strategic Sourcing, Energy Management, Thomas Webster. He explains how, in partnership with Schneider Electric, Hilton can maximize the guest experience while maintaining cost-effective energy solutions, including interesting data and a look at the Hilton dashboards.

Disclaimer: we are supported by the EcoXpert partner program of Schneider Electric.