Sustainable retreats

Times Staff Writer

He's no Al Gore, but Kermit the Frog may have summed it up best: "It's not easy being green."

Just a few years ago, hotels that encouraged patrons to use linens and towels for more than a day -- and the guests who did so -- were applauded as being environmentally friendly. But now, experts in "green" travel say, it's time to start trying a little harder.

Lucky for travelers, the hotel has to do most of the work. Your main task is to choose wisely.

"There are many shades of green," said Glenn Hasek, publisher of the website Green Lodging News. Five years ago, forgoing fresh sheets for a day might have been enough. "In 2008, no. I think the bar has been raised about what is green."

Only a small fraction of the more than 47,000 U.S. hotels are enrolled in formal green programs. So far, just 11 hotels have been constructed to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards, and there are only 314 Energy Star-certified properties designed to reduce energy consumption.

But other hotels are adopting such eco-friendly habits as using glass or biodegradable paper cups instead of Styrofoam, installing carpeting and furniture made from recycled products, and retrofitting with low-flow showers and toilets.

"Eco-chic" suites are now being offered at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts in San Francisco and Washington. Sponsored by Lexus, these $869-a-night suites include the use of a low-emission hybrid luxury car. The suites are decorated with organic materials and stocked with eco-friendly toiletries and organic wine. Coffee tables are made with leather recycled from Lexus vehicles.

"It's a phenomenon that has really started to take off in the last year, year and a half, but there are many hoteliers that have been green-minded for years," Hasek said. "The fact that there's a relatively low number of certified hotels is by no means a true reflection of how many hotels are actively pursuing energy or water conservation."

Environmentally sensitive

With a little research -- on such websites as Environmentally Friendly Hotels and "Green" Hotels Assn. -- would-be travelers can find places that follow green practices while offering competitive room rates. Such travel websites as Orbitz and also are starting to designate hotels that follow green practices.

Some hotel companies have taken a chainwide approach. Kimpton, a boutique hotelier, said it has changed 40 operational practices, including printing only on recycled paper with soy ink, using nontoxic cleaners and placing recycling bins in every room.

The restaurants feature organic food and the mini-bars are stocked with such items as Tom's Natural Toothpaste, organic crackers and organic licorice logs.

Hilton and Marriott also are adopting green practices, with dozens of their properties Energy Star-certified.

Niki Leondakis, chief operating officer for Kimpton Hotels, said the changes had resulted in the recycling of 117 tons of cardboard and 52,000 coat hangers, and the conserving of 50 million gallons of water through the use of low-flow faucets.

Kimpton's new Hotel Palomar in Westwood includes body-heat-sensing thermostats that will adjust the temperature when no one is in the room. And, like some of the chain's newer properties, it is a recycled building -- formerly a Doubletree Hotel. The chain has converted an old post office, a former department store and an empty warehouse into hotels.

"The business case is very strong for a green or environmentally sensitive operation," Leondakis said. "People's values are driving their purchasing decisions."

In addition to the public, the trend is being fueled by companies such as Microsoft and Aveda, which make it a priority to patronize green companies, she said. About 16% of the chain's business is the result of its eco-practices.

A quiet oasis

Two hotels in California are LEED-certified: the Orchard Garden Hotel in San Francisco and the 133-room Gaia Napa Valley Hotel in American Canyon. The Gaia, with rates starting under $100 a night, is a quiet oasis with a large pond and fountain, Bali-themed spa and rooms named after animals: orangutan, osprey and chickadee.

Gaia developer Wen Chang, who named the hotel after the Greek goddess of the earth, said being environmentally conscious is helping his bottom line.

Soap and shampoo are dispensed in large, permanent containers instead of mini plastic bottles, which Chang called the most-"shameful" aspect of the hospitality industry. Employees wash windows with vinegar instead of chemical cleaners. In his conference room, sunlight shining through magnified solar tubes brightens the space with the intensity of high-wattage bulbs.

"This is the best investment in the whole hotel," he said, adding that each skylight cost just $258. "This is just natural light."

Sunlight pours into the hallways too. It is so bright that one guest from New York complained to Chang, a Taiwanese immigrant, that his hotel was wasting electricity.

He told her they were solar tubes -- and not using any energy. Later, she sent him an e-mail, thanking him and saying she planned to install the tubes at her home.

Such interactions are what Chang has been hoping for -- combining profit with social responsibility, or what he calls the three Ps: profit, planet and people. It's been part of his philosophy ever since, as a child in Taiwan, he remembers watching a report on the BBC about Americans dumping excess wheat into the ocean.

Growth in green

The hotel, open less than two years, is still working out the kinks. The restaurant opened only two months ago. But with occupancy in June running at 80% and a second LEED-certified hotel under construction outside Redding in Anderson, Calif., Chang is envisioning opening Gaia Hotels in Sacramento, the Silicon Valley and San Diego.

His goal is clear, written on the wall, right behind the front desk: "Our mission is to change the world one traveler at a time."


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