Christopher Warren is the proprietor of Crystal Creek Meadows in Kangaroo Valley Australia, a country lodge and spa retreat certified by Eco-Tourism Australia, and the founder of My Green Butler, a service innovation which stimulates guest participation in a hotel’s sustainability agenda. He works as a tourism consultant advising hotels and governments, and recently designed the first Certificate in Innovation for Sustainable Tourism for the International Centre for Responsible Tourism. We asked Christopher for his thoughts on sustainability and how he ‘walks the talk’.
Do travellers care about sustainability?
Yes, most do. However, there are thousands of definitions for sustainability so one has to accept that travellers define sustainability using their knowledge and common sense (based on their life experiences). Consequently, sustainability means different things to different people. Likewise sustainability will have different relevance to an individual across the wide variety of travel experiences they may take, for example as a business travellers, parent, partner and friend, you might consider experiences from an different economic, social and environmental aspect. Furthermore, many socially acceptable practices have invisible resource consequences which people are not always aware of. For example, preparing for a business meeting and wearing a suit and then requiring an air-conditioned room to work in rather than wearing suitable clothing for the outside temperature. Society is complex and sustainability factors are therefore not always apparent to individuals. Most individuals assume that their travels are not harmful to the environment or community because the company has taken care of negative impacts. They care about sustainability but are not always presented with responsible options to enable them to apply those values.
Is the hotel industry really serious about addressing sustainability?
No, many are not. Some may disagree with my point of view because examples of water and energy efficiency and community deeds can be cited. However, I think we have reached a cross roads which is far more significant than technical eco efficiencies and CSR. Climate Change, social change and ecological decline require us to rethink how we operate. The Victorian concept of a hotel has in many ways not changed. We have similar buildings, similar anonymity, similar room structure and services. Meanwhile, we see rapidly changing lifestyles, modes of business, broadening of affluence and significantly increased leisure time for the middle class which is growing globally. This is set against declining inner city air quality and increased noise levels, increasing temperatures, loss of natural habitat and subsequent drop in wildlife specifies and numbers. However, the public’s awareness of environmental challenges and socially unacceptable business behaviour is growing, requiring businesses to hold a social licence to operate. The hotel industry’s sustainability both in terms of its durability as a concept and their external social and environmental impacts calls into question their modus operandi because of the levels of food waste, standardised resource use, space and privacy expectations from the public. Today’s challenges could be a launch pad for more dramatic change which considers a hotel’s sustainability holistically beyond resource efficiency and CSR. We have the opportunity of breaking free from the current model to a much more innovative concept. The is particularly true of hotels which are primary management companies rather than holders of building assets, this factor has changed and should be used to lever the sector’s sustainability.
What do you see as the leading trends in sustainability for the hotel industry?
There will be an increasing level of investment placed into building management systems and intelligent HVAC equipment. Greater control (where the infrastructure permits) will be given to the guest for thermal comfort and lighting. Green corporate events and their subsequent footprint will continue to grow, but that does not necessarily mean that hotels will maintain their market share. Other venues which have greener credentials (e.g. botanic gardens, national parks, creative reuse of buildings integrating renewables) will become more attractive.
There will be requirements for increasing detail of carbon footprints in order to meet the Paris Agreement. This raises an increasing need to establish accurate carbon accounts from the beginning as the media and NGOs will increasingly be studying companies’ longitudinal trends.
Local food, food grown on site will continually be desired and positively exploited by chefs.
What are the 3 biggest challenges for the hotel industry in the next decade and how is sustainability a part of the solution?
Costs, staff and differentiation. Costs are only going to increase particularly in energy, water and waste management. Sustainability is part of the solution through technical efficiencies but equally important is behaviour change of both staff and guests. We are under valuing both the staff moral benefits that sustainability brings, and that guests are willing to participate. To break free of the current model we need to innovate and to innovate we need high calibre staff which have both practical skills and conceptual knowledge of what sustainability is and how it can generate commercial success for hospitality. The challenge is that the knowledge is not sufficiently well grasped and the operational structures need to change to permit innovation which must involve design thinking solutions. Differentiation is essential in an increasingly competitive and crowded market place. Sustainability does provide the catalyst for creativity that can aid differentiation. Differentiation is difficult due to the dominance of online travel agents, as we have to comply with standardised presentation and information. We must use new and old methods to break free from this strangle hold so we can effectively show how sustainability practices offer our guests a co-created and even a co-produced experience.
What bothers you most within the sustainability discussion?
We are limiting ourselves with conversations about techno efficiencies. We are not grasping the nettle to pull ourselves out of the current nexus of consumption, carbon emissions, resource use and the need to provide a healthy quality of life for all living things. We are using the word ‘sustainability’ to sweeten minor changes and in so doing causing confusion as to the genuine meaning behind sustainability, which can lead to consumer scepticism. Secondly, after meeting 14,000 guests I can honestly say that the public are changing and are delighted to see honest, positive efforts, they then reciprocate. Those in the industry who claim guests will not participate need to question how much their own business has adopted change. The Paris Agreement gives us only a little chance for massive change. There is no room for internal posturing, we must act. Good actions are great business enhancements for staff morale, guests, suppliers, investors and your own peace of mind.
What do you see as the biggest urgency for the planet?
Reduce carbon emissions. The fastest way to achieve this now is through (a) preventing waste, waste management including changing food preparation, buffets and plate size, (b) significantly cutting energy use – through practical infrastructure which enables guests to better control their environment and the redesign of public areas, (c) investing in renewable water systems including black water, (d) investing in your own renewable energy system, and (e) carbon philanthropy where you can invest in your supply chain’s carbon footprint and help smaller operators and producers to reduce waste.
What legacy would you like to leave behind from your leadership?
Confidence that we can overcome the challenges, that we can use creativity to actually improve the guest experience through more mindful services which make people happy and more satisfied.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A cartoonist, I like to see the funny side of life.
Which is your favourite hotel, apart from your own, and why?
The Inn at Whitewell (a 14th Century coaching inn and manor house) in the north west of England. It is located in a hamlet, next to an old church and surrounded by the beauty of the Lancashire countryside. The settling is perfect and tranquil. Inside the bar stocks wonderful ales (like Theakston’s Old Peculiar), the restaurant serves excellent dishes using local lamb, beef and venison. The rooms are Comfortable with a capital C because that is their primary focus. Every room is unique with rich inviting colours that create an air of relaxation. Windows view lush views that beckon to you to take a country stroll and savour fresh air and good company. Their sustainability efforts can be seen in the joy of showcasing the best from Lancashire, the vintage furniture, the promotion of local ales. I love it so much I had my wedding there!
Give us an example of how you, in your personal life, walk the sustainability talk?
I literally walk through the house and ensure our system are working efficiently, I share progress and challenges with my children to boost their resilience and see the future positively. I apply what I say through for example renovating our kitchen using mostly reused furniture. It is essential the children see examples of this abstract concept called sustainability.