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How IT Can Go Green

The focus on sustainability or "going green" is quickly becoming a major trend. But let’s face it, being environmentally conscious is the right thing to do, and it should be a business imperative for everyone. After all, a significant portion of the hospitality and tourism industries rely on the natural beauty and desirability of destinations: beach resorts, mountain ski lodges and canyon-land ranches. As such, we all have a vested interest in protecting the environment and seeing to it that our industry can continue to thrive for generations to come.

We can logically conclude that focusing on green initiatives to ensure sustainability is good for the environment, the prosperity of the hospitality industry, our guests and the bottom line. As industry professionals, we are stewards of resources and of our environment. To this end, we must be sensitive to all stakeholders' needs and issues when making decisions and ensure that we are making wise decisions with a focus on ethics, long-term implications and the Triple Bottom Line (i.e., profitability, social capital, and environmental stewardship). All three components go hand-in-hand and are essential to success and sustainability, not to mention great leadership.

In the world of information technology (IT), the green movement is taking shape. There are numerous opportunities for IT professionals to take leadership roles in helping their organizations to adopt sustainable practices. Technology is a tool to provide solutions, but regrettably, technology can also be a source of the problem due to factors like energy consumption and the environmental impacts when disposing of obsolete or broken technology (i.e., e-waste). Therefore, we will need to look at situations and technology usage via multiple lenses to try to assess the net impact to determine if the outcomes are truly desirable and positive versus negative. This often requires asking tough questions and looking for possible unintended consequences before decisions are being made.  

Opportunities in the green IT movement include the following:  

1.    Using IT responsibly and effectively to reduce energy, water and paper consumption: Energy management systems are effective at controlling guest comfort while saving energy consumption and costs. Serving guests through digital signage, smart phones to replace key cards, and e-mail to reduce paper flow are also great ways to conserve resources, save money and have a positive impact on guest service and the overall guest experience.

2.    Deploying effective technology practices such as Energy Star compliance to power down computers automatically after periods of inactivity and server virtualization: This means having applications which share a common server rather than each application hosted on a separate server. This leads to less computer hardware, lower power consumption, and less cooling required for the data center or computer room.

3.    Tackling e-waste and deploying recycling technologies to reduce environmental waste and impacts: Many electronic firms offer responsible recycling programs for used hardware. Technology can also be utilized to assist in the recycling process. For instance, a food waste recycling system can process daily food waste into a usable landscape by-product such as a fertilizer. Instead of recycle bins, some hotels may want to take a cue from Pepsi and Whole Foods Market and consider installing interactive recycling kiosks throughout the property. These machines can assist with the property's recycling efforts and streamline some of the operational logistics of collection without increasing the demands placed on the already overworked housekeeping staff. To encourage guests to avail themselves of this recycling service, recycling kiosks can issue cash, vouchers (e.g., activities or services in the hotel), or loyalty points.

4.    Digital marketing practices: Using digital media instead of print media is a great way to save money while reducing the impact on the environment. By tapping into social media, you can let guests be involved in green practices and spread the word virally about all the good the organization is doing. For instance, to win Chipotle’s "Wrap What You Love" contest, the participants shared and promoted their pictures to get the most "Love this" votes from their friends, family and co-workers. For each vote, Chipotle donated $1 to the non-profit organization, supporting its effort to create new markets for sustainable farmers. As a result, the company successfully contributed nearly $100,000 to this organization and attracted Millennials' attention and engagement in this cause marketing campaign.

5.    Marketing strategies to report and promote green practices: There is a growing environmentally conscious market, a profitable segment to tap. Therefore, you should develop proper marketing strategies targeting this market segment, find ways to promote green practices throughout the firm's distribution channels, and market green as part of the organization's value proposition.

All of the items listed above have direct bottom-line implications. Like any business initiative, green IT projects will require strong commitment from an organization’s top management and investment in time and resources at all levels. The specific investments will, of course, vary based upon several factors, such as the type and scope of the initiative; the size of the organization; volume of business; location of doing business; the ease of implementation; and a host of other considerations.

Similarly, the benefits or return-on-investment will vary as well. Generally speaking, the payback period for green IT initiatives is likely to be a bit longer than other types of projects (e.g., 5-6 years for a solar energy system), but the good news is the upside potential can be significant. Managers should apply sound business rationale and discipline in analyzing the opportunities, costs and benefits. Many will be quantifiable; however, we must also realize there will be many intangible benefits (e.g., social capital and good will). Other times, there may be legal or regulatory requirements driving what organizations must do.

Be mindful that there are many market forces at work, such as the competitive dynamics between companies, as well as the demands and expectations from guests and the communities in which properties are located. Therefore, we must take a holistic approach to our evaluation and decision-making while realizing that not every initiative will be summed up in hard, quantifiable terms. Leading our thought processes should always be the question: "What is the right thing to do?"

To help your organization on its journey to action, please consider the following steps:

1.    Educate employees and guests to improve awareness of environmental issues and green practices in your organization and the industry.

2.    Conduct an energy audit to see where and how energy is being consumed and to establish a baseline. Continue these audits on a regular basis.

3.    Track energy, power, water and paper consumption on an on-going basis and set goals to reduce these consumption levels.

4.    Shut down printers and photocopiers periodically to force more electronic communications. Offer to send guests folios via e-mail rather than print them.

5.    Benchmark best practices from other countries and industries. Europe and Asia are much further ahead of the United States on many environmental matters.

6.    Seek suggestions from employees and guests, and offer rewards for ideas that get implemented.

7.    Recognize and reward desired behaviors.

8.    Celebrate and market key successes.

Clearly, hotels and resorts are in the business of making money, but they must do so in a conscientious manner, or what Whole Foods Market co-CEO John Mackey terms "Conscious Capitalism." As stated earlier, focusing on the environment and green IT practices is not counterproductive with one's desire to make money. Often times, there are a number of cost-saving benefits and opportunities to win new business because of what a company is doing in terms of green. In fact, many meeting planners now include clauses related to green and recycling practices in all of their meeting and event request for proposals.

Additionally, for many guests, particularly Millennials, environmental stewardship is a key topic that resonates with them. It has become one of the decision-making criteria used to select companies in which they do business, including hotels and resorts. Thus, failure to address these issues and market one's green initiatives can result in lost business opportunities, while companies on the forefront of this movement have an opportunity to create competitive advantage.

The environmental focus is here to stay and must be embraced. What matters is what you do next, that is, how you implement your green IT strategy. To reiterate, going green is not a choice; it’s a business imperative. Our future and that of our industry are dependent upon it. As we conclude, consider an old Native American proverb that should sound the call to take action: "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." In order for tourism to prosper, we cannot afford to let our environment erode.

Daniel Connolly, Ph.D., is the associate dean for undergraduate programs at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business. Jungsun (Sunny) Kim, Ph.D., is an assistant professor for the hospitality program at Texas Tech University's College of Human Sciences. This article is based on a webinar series sponsored and produced by HFTP and the AH&LA Technology and E-Business Committee, which can be accessed at  

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