Will your hotel meet
new demand for sustainable travel?

As corporate sustainability teams set their sights on business travel, hotels with clear emissions reductions plans will find a competitive edge

October 11, 2021

Business travel is finally starting to return after its long hiatus—and that return is bringing fresh attention to the carbon footprint of road warriors. 

Before COVID-19, corporate travel teams were already prioritizing hotels with strong sustainability programs. But the year-long halt in business travel gave leaders ample time to rethink strategy, including sustainability impacts. Travel planners also experienced first-hand the simplest way to cut emissions: Skip the trip altogether by Zooming into that conference or sales meeting.

Now as the travel industry comes roaring back to life, corporate travel buyers are increasingly concerned about carbon footprints. But there’s a big gap between aspiration and reality.

According to JLL research, over 90% of top global corporations have set ambitious, publicly stated sustainability goals, based on a survey of 50 top firms. But a mere 19% have a clear sustainability action plan with committed spend to help them achieve those goals.

Hospitality leaders who rise to the opportunity by building greener new properties and renovating existing hotels can differentiate their brands in a rapidly evolving sector. That starts with understanding what corporate travel decision-makers will increasingly look for as they consider which hotels to include in their future plans.

What’s behind the growing demand for sustainable business travel

Leading global organizations have been championing sustainability programs for decades now, hiring Chief Sustainability Officers and taking other meaningful steps in the war on climate change. Though massive work remains, the bright side is many corporations have already slashed in-house carbon emissions.

Their next big hurdle: To reduce what’s known as Scope 3 emissions. Unlike direct emissions (Scope 1) and electricity purchasing emissions (Scope 2), Scope 3 covers upstream and downstream activities in the supply chain, from purchased goods to leased assets, and yes, business travel. These indirect impacts make up a significant chunk of all emissions, but can be the most difficult to change because they are outside of the direct control of the corporation. 

This is where hotel brands and properties have a new opportunity to differentiate themselves from the competition. According to JLL research, corporate travel can account for roughly 10-20% of an organization’s total Scope 3 emissions—and more, in fact, for travel-heavy sectors like consulting and professional service firms.

While flights account for the greatest environmental impact, hotels represent an important piece of the footprint. Yet although major hotel companies have indeed taken important steps to reduce waste, the industry as a whole still has some of the highest rates of emissions, power and water consumption of any building type.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the hospitality industry currently lacks one standout sustainability certification in the same way that LEED is the market leader for sustainability achievement in office buildings. While hotels can pursue LEED status, several other third-party certifications are also competing for market dominance in the hospitality industry. Additionally, not all third party organizations require carbon reporting to earn certification, and some big hotel groups have their own sustainability certifications that are self-reported and impossible to compare across brands.

For corporate travel buyers, this lack of clear information makes it challenging to easily identify the hotels that best support environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. For hotel leaders, it also makes it difficult to track and implement sustainability improvements, let alone make informed choices in the first place.

How to reduce carbon emissions in new and existing hotels alike

There are many ways to cultivate a net zero carbon hotel, whether constructing a new property or refurbishing an existing one. Following are a few best practices in both categories. 

  • Go for net zero in new construction. First and foremost, incorporate sustainability goals into building strategy from the initial design and planning phases. By embedding energy, water and waste reduction principles into every decision, hotel development teams can support sustainability goals, while driving efficiency and optimizing building performance.

    When building from the ground up, it becomes easier to bake in building materials that support emission reduction goals, extending from the façade and windows all the way through to the HVAC system and water treatment decisions. New buildings are also primed for more complex solutions, such as building automation, high efficiency energy management systems and onsite renewables.
  • Deepen sustainability in existing hotels. Improving sustainability in existing hotels is also viable—and key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, considering roughly 80% of the buildings that will be in use in 2050 already exist today. As companies increasingly recognize the importance of addressing the embodied carbon of building materials and construction, existing hotels can be a critical part of the solution towards driving toward net zero.

    Though the options may be more limited in an existing building, hoteliers can ramp up sustainability in several areas as part of a typical refurbishment cycle. For instance, if an HVAC retrofit is coming due, then now is the time to investigate and prioritize higher-performance solutions. Renovation periods are also prime times to address low-hanging fruit, like replacing inefficient lighting, toilets or shower-heads with more efficient options, or adding a building automation system to reduce energy usage.

    Additionally, manufacturers and the overall supply chain are responding with more sustainable products and are actively recycling old materials like carpet and wallcovering to minimize waste and to reuse materials that were previously discarded to a landfill.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it—ESG performance that is

Nearly 70% of the respondents to a Business Travel News survey say they rely on travel management and booking partners to provide data and support decision-making when it comes to sustainable travel strategy. So it’s important that hotel leaders measure and communicate their emissions reductions efforts—and successes.

Although there is not a single leading certification to use, there are tools to help differentiate your hotel from the competition. For example the Urban Land Institute’s Greenprint Center for Building Performance partners with The Cornell Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking (CHSB) index to provide hotel industry–specific benchmarks for energy, water use and carbon emissions.

Corporations are putting even more weight into their ESG strategies and related business decisions. For the hotel industry, this focus can directly boost the bottom line if effective environmental policies and practices are clearly in place and communicated. 

By walking the walk toward a net zero future, and demonstrating progress along the way, hotel leaders can help set their companies apart from the competition—while playing a part in slowing the climate crisis.