Earlier this month, Marriott International’s 30-year old headquarters building in Bethesda, Md., was recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council with LEED Existing Building Gold status. Among the changes that earned it certification: eliminating disposable products in the cafeteria; diverting all waste from the landfill to a waste-to-energy plant; and switching from evening to daytime office cleaning. Marriott currently has 40 LEED-certified or registered hotels and plans to have 300 by 2015.
After the LEED celebration in Bethesda, I talked to Marriott President and Chief Operating Officer Arne Sorenson, who co-chairs Marriott’s Green Council. Next month will mark his first year a president.
What are the challenges of getting a 30-year-old building LEED-certified?
It’s always harder to retrofit than to build intentionally from square one—from the installation of motion sensors in all the bathrooms, to the replacement of the heating and cooling systems. I think it also probably drove us toward a richer set of operational enhancements around recycling, energy efficiency and little things like hybrid parking.
One of my best friends is an Amazonian scholar, and he had a book-launching party. The governor of the state of Amazonas was there, and we were sitting around, chatting informally, and he said to me, we’d sure like your help with the Amazon. A year-and-a-half later, Marriott had an agreement with the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS). The notion was, how do you come up with a project which is very concrete, which our customers could see and touch if they wanted to? It’s not some intangible idea on carbon offsets. It’s a million and a half acres--roughly the size of Delaware--in the Amazon where we can say, that’s the land we’re protecting. Customers can see it on Google Earth, or they could go visit it.
How much money did Marriott give?
Marriott committed $2 million, and Marriott customers can now offset their travel and hotel stay by putting some money into the Juma Reserve. Or they can simply contribute money to help preserve the Amazon. We’re hoping with the efforts of FAS, Marriott and our customers, we’ll get to a point where this thing is essentially funded and sustainable forever. The amounts of dollars to do that are not huge.
So is it a sponsorship?
There's the JW Marriott schoolhouse, which is a very pretty but very simple structure. But neither the Brazilians or Marriott have any interest in seeing Marriott active in running the reserve. We don’t want to personally monitor deforestation, and the Brazilians—this is sovereign land—it’s their job to govern this place.
You said at all of Marriott’s brands, you’re not changing sheets every night. How much is that saving you?
The linen reuse program means we just remove and wash between customer stays, not every night. If someone spills ketchup or is there for a very long stay, there are exceptions. The Ritz-Carlton brand, a luxury product, was naturally a little more concerned that they assess whether their customers would react negatively to the program. They tested it out at a couple hotels, and there wasn’t a customer there—or in any brand—who cared. Across nearly 600,000 rooms, it’s a 11 to 17 percent savings in water alone, then there’s the soap and the energy from the laundry process. The numbers are massive—tens of millions of dollars a year.
The notion of sustainability—saving energy, using resources carefully—is sometimes incompatible with the idea of luxury--such as overindulgence and waste. How do you rectify the two in the hospitality industry?
I don’t think it’s our job to impose that on our guests if they’re not interested in it. I don’t think it’ll ever get to the point where we beat them over the head [with sustainability standards]. Even folks who are quite tuned-in and care about these things—we want to do it our way. I may drive a Prius to work every day, but I might really want an iced cold bottle of Evian when I’m done with my run. We think we need to provide an experience just as good as nonsustainable experience, but in a more responsible way.
We all have our little rituals when we walk into a hotel room. What do you do?
If I’m traveling for work, I don’t get much time in the hotel room except to sleep. My bags are typically taken to the room, and I may not get there until 10 or 11. If the TV had been turned on, I turn it off because I hate watching TV. But I always open every curtain in the room. It’s not because I’m an exhibitionist, but because I love natural light, like to wake up to natural light. In most hotels there’s no one on the other side of the window anyway, and if it works in that environment I love to have the windows or doors open when I sleep.
What keeps you awake at night?
Everything. People always say, “Don’t worry about the things you can’t control,” and I try to pay attention to that. So I don’t worry about the recession. But there are 3,300 to 3,400 hotels in our system today, and hundreds of them—and hundreds of our owners—are under financial pressure. And there’s customer issues and opportunities to grow in India or China, or to define a new product in Brazil. I don’t necessarily worry about these things, but I think about them enough that they populate my sleep.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com