Hotel chief reveals why sustainable is cheaper than you think in one of Africa's most exciting luxury hotels
If helping save the planet wasn’t good enough reason to build sustainably, then you might be surprised to discover your staff will work harder too, according to Verde Hotels’ CEO Bruce Walker.
“We have seen increased productivity and reduced absenteeism of staff, the increased marketability of the product, the considerable free press exposure and last but not least, the improved return-guest portfolio and positive word of mouth improved by the luxurious and sustainable product,” he says.
On March 21 Hotel Verde Zanzibar – Azam Luxury Resort & Spa opened its doors to guests after a three years of construction. Billed as East Africa’s greenest hotel, the five-star 106-roomed, building was commissioned by owner and Zanzibari-born businessman Said Salim Awadh Bakhresa.
The company had already earned earned international recognition for the Hotel Verde, Africa’s greenest hotel near Cape Town Airport. And the three-year project in Zanzibar started with a blank sheet based on sustainability to ensure the promotion of responsible tourism. Initiatives include renewable energy generation, reticulated grey and black water recycling systems, waste management, a heating ventilation air conditioning (HVAC) system and regenerative drive elevators.
During construction, the hotel has followed the criteria of the Green Building Council and will manage and operate as a certified sustainable establishment, offering guests a carbon-efficient stay.
After 30 years in hospitality CEO Walker explains that sustainable, luxury and profitability can work together.
“The holistic approach of Verde Hotels aims to demonstrate that luxury and sustainability are not mutually exclusive and can coexist in an environment of thrivability,” he said. And he admits Verde’s philosophy is not only good for the planet, it is great for guests as well.
“As an accomplished hotelier, Verde Hotels has enlightened me to the bountiful possibilities and opportunities that lie within the realms of sustainable building and management of hotels. The ecological mind-set which Verde Hotels manages hotels has brought about a refreshing challenge in the way that I see the future of hotels worldwide.”
For many observers, sustainability has become an overused word in not only the hotel industry, but also across the construction sector. Walker explains that there is a clear difference between ‘green initiatives’ – recycling waste, reusing water on gardens and banning the use of plastic straws – and a proper sustainable building.
He said: “The list is nearly endless when going the ‘extra mile’, from the way the building is designed to minimise heat loads, to the paints and adhesives used to minimise and eliminate harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or formaldehyde.” He’s referring to the chemicals used in many paints which can linger for years, damage the environment and even cause visitors to feel ill.
“For a proper sustainable building, the technologies, techniques, in the building and the effect on neighbouring rivers, communities and even the night sky is considered,” he said.
Water use in the Hotel Verde is carefully monitored with recyling ensuring water used once, can be reused for flushing. Water conservation is not only green, it has become a vital part of future business plans across the region. South Africa received a proper warning this year with the drought in Cape Town – narrowly averting standpipes – while the a rest of the country is still under threat of shortages. So, how does Walker think the hospitality sector across Africa can prepare for changing rainfall patterns?
“Safe and clean water is a precious commodity globally and needs to be treated accordingly everywhere, not just in water stressed regions or when experiencing a severe drought,” says Walker. (continued below picture)
“Rainfall and weather patterns are shifting the world over and the hospitality sector can greatly contribute to water security. Even the most efficient hotels can usually achieve the same luxury and comfort with less water.
“Most properties need urgently and seriously to look into water efficiency measures and alternative water supplies. It is important to responsibly match the various types of water users with available water supplies.”
But is ‘sustainable’ just a marketing tool? Does Walker believe that the hotel guest really cares about sustainability and what evidence is there?
“The responsible traveller trend is clearly growing,” says Walker. “More and more guests, travel agencies and corporate are inquiring about, noting or commending sustainability initiatives or achievements in the hospitality industry.
“The younger generation makes up more and more of the market share the market becomes more conscious of a need for responsible tourism, green buildings and operating practices.”
And he believes hotels that ignore their green footprint will lose customers. He produces reports, especially from the USA market, which shows increasingly businesses for example, insist their employees stay in recognised sustainable hotels.
“And there’s a lot of evidence that those people will then choose green hotels for their own personal use in the future,” says Walker.
If sustainable is the future, and Verde clearly believes it is, then how much extra does it cost to build a fully functioning sustainable hotel compared with a’normal’ building of similar capacity?
Walker admits Verde did spend more: “The green budget it still being finalised at Hotel Verde Zanzibar but the premium is around 5 to 8 per cent. This is often difficult to quantify and also depends on what is considered a standard specification and quality of design/construction.”
“However, it’s a fairly small premium in construction cost and it is quickly outweighed by the operational utility savings.
“We have seen increased productivity and reduced absenteeism of staff, the increased marketability of the product, the considerable free press exposure and last but not least, the improved return-guest portfolio and positive word of mouth improved by the luxurious and sustainable product.”
The hotel was built under using the Green Building Council South Africa’s Green Star SA custom hotel tool and Walker confidently expects a five-star rating.
“Once the final commissioning and documentation aspects are wrapped up, the certification submission will be finalised by our green building consultants, Ecolution Consulting, and handed to the GBCSA for review and award rating.”
His final advice to would-be green constructors is to get in early, be involved from the intial architect design and always consider the whole.
“Climate, context, client, operation and priorities should always be considered,” he says. “The most important part is to garner a firm commitment to embarking on a sustainability journey, to consider a holistic approach to sustainability throughout design/construction/retro-fitting but also in operations, staff campaigns, guest communication and community engagement.”