Euromonitor International Interview Series: Inge Huijbrechts, Global Vice President Responsible Business at Carlson Rezidor

Euromonitor International is pleased to present an interview examining hotel companies’ strategies for sustainability and responsible business practices in light of the International Tourism Partnership (ITP) announcing four Goals to drive progress towards sustainability. Euromonitor International senior analyst Amanda Bourlier spoke with Inge Huijbrechts, Global Vice President, Responsible Business at Carlson Rezidor.

Can you tell me a bit about what Carlson Rezidor’s participation in ITP has been?

First of all, ITP is a very good, longstanding platform where all the major hotel companies work together on sustainability. Carlson Rezidor, we have been very active for many years, I think at least over 10 years on the platform, and actually almost since the beginning we had some involvement with the ITP. We have been a very active member of both the executive committee, which are the people like me who are vice presidents of sustainability, and also the governing council, which is like the board, , and also in the programs of ITP. Since a year and a half, the former CEO and now board member of Rezidor, the EMEA part of the business, is now the chairman of ITP. So our engagement is very active

Can you tell us about the new ITP goals for the hospitality industry?

This is actually a very important step for the hospitality industry, the hotel industry in general, because these 2030 goals will amplify the work that we are all doing as leading hotel companies on sustainability, both social and environmental sustainability. It is also our industry’s contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. In that sense, the four elements of carbon, water, human rights, and youth employment are very well tuned because they align perfectly with the UN SDGs. And of course each company like ourselves, we have already been doing a lot previously in the years running up to these goals and of course will now do more and accelerate our actions as well.

What additional responsible business practices is Carlson Rezidor focused on?

Our responsible business program within the company has existed for a very long time. We have Scandinavian roots, so you can imagine there was a lot of awareness already associated with sustainability from a long time ago. We had our first environmental policy in 1989, and that grew into a full-fledged responsible business program in 2001, so quite a long time ago. We’ve always been very active in achieving important steps in these four areas. For instance, in carbon/energy, in the last 5 years we have reduced our carbon and energy footprints by over 20% as a group. In the last 10 years we have reduced our water footprint by 30%.

We have always been very active in engaging with local youth and preventing youth unemployment, and also providing diverse employment through different programs. For instance, the Youth Career Initiative, which is an employability program for young people, and also through our Park Inn by Radisson hotels which engage with opportunity youth in their community around the world.

How, if at all, do these practices vary by brand or by geographic region?

All our practices have a fundamental focus and structure globally. We work globally on what we call “Think People, Think Community, and Think Planet”. Of course, in “Think People” it is caring about our guests and our employees. In “Think Community”, it’s all about contributing to the local community and being a responsible business there. “Think planet” is everything to reduce our environmental footprint in energy, carbon, water, and waste.

Those are the fundamentals that we do globally. That said, every brand of our 8 global hotel brands has a specific area they focus on. For instance, I mentioned the Park Inn by Radisson hotels; they work with local youth at risk through a program called “Adding Color to Life”. That’s a very successful program where the hotels engage with these youth in their local communities through sports, art, through training them for professional experiences, offering them traineeships. These engagements in the local community are solid partnerships. On top of that, the hotels that do that in the best way kind of “win”, and the prize is to work together to paint a large urban mural with a famous artist called Joel Bergner.

Another brand for instance is Radisson Blu, which focuses on water stewardship, which means everything to do with managing and reducing your water footprint in the hotel but also reaching out to the community to bring safe drinking water and hygiene and sanitation. We do this around the world and of course specifically in water-stressed areas.

Every brand has their own focus. For example our Country Inns & Suites and hotels in America work on literacy and programs to support veterans and their families. We do vary per brand because it gives the brand an identity and it’s also easier for our guests to associate with specific activities in their favorite hotels.

We do focus on specific programs for water-stressed locations. 40% of our hotel rooms are in water-stressed locations, so we need to take specific additional actions to make sure we do everything we can on landscaping and water consumption reduction in those places.

Are there any individual Carlson Rezidor hotels that you would highlight as being most innovative or engaged in responsible business practices?

We have many! Whether they are for instance in a place of being a green building, like for instance our Radisson Blu hotel in Chicago which is a beautiful building architecturally speaking but it’s also a fantastic ecologic building because it has a LEED Silver qualification. We have our Radisson Blu in Nagpur in the middle of India, which is actually a LEED Platinum. Our Radisson Blu resort in Fiji has the largest solar installation in the Pacific in a hotel. It’s an enormous resort so a lot of roof space, so they have an enormous solar installation which can cover up to 30% of the hotel’s energy needs. We have an excellent property in Kigali in Rwanda which we opened a little over a year ago. Their energy performance is 40% better than the country baseline, and their water performance is 70% better than the country’s baseline. These are excellent environmental performers. We also innovate in terms of renewables, in terms of de-carbonizing our hotels. We have just installed in the Radisson Blu in Frankfurt in Germany the first fuel cell CHP (combined heat and power installation) in a hotel in Europe. We’re constantly innovating as well next to what we do on environmental certification and renewable energy. Another example I could give is how we engage meetings clients with sustainability in general but also in our Radisson Blu hotels. We offer carbon-free meetings, which means any time a meeting is held at a Radisson Blu hotel we offset the footprint of that meeting, making the meeting carbon-free for the client.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in aligning and strengthening Carlson Rezidor’s responsible practices?

One of the challenges of course is our global presence in over 1000 locations. We are in 115 countries, we are 1,400 hotels in operation and development, so you need to be global and be local at the same time. The other element that brings a particular challenge is that we need to engage with many stakeholders because of our asset-light model, which means we don’t own the hotels, the buildings that we operate. We have to work very closely with the investors and the hotel developers and the hotel owners to work on minimizing the carbon footprint of the hotel and the environmental impact of the hotel because it’s their asset. In terms of engaging our teams, I think we’re doing quite well. If you look at the hotel business, hotel teams are usually very enthusiastic, very passionate people, so they want to get engaged in responsible business and serve their local communities. We also train all of our hotel teams globally in responsible business. In that sense, we certainly make sure responsible business is part of our business everywhere.

Which traveler segments put the most importance on choosing hotels with responsible practices? Has this changed at all over time?

It does change. I would like to highlight two groups. On the one hand, you have the corporate clients, who in many cases are also very much caring about responsible business travel and being a good corporate citizen. So they have these requirements when they book meetings and events or hotel rooms for business travel. It’s integrated in their RFPs (request for proposal), and today it’s already more than 60% of RFPs that have questions on the environmental performance or the social performance of hotels and the portion continues to increase. You also see it with the individual travelers, especially with millennials. On the one hand they are looking for the authentic experience in a location so often they are very interested in the community dimension of the work we do, how do we engage with the local communities, can they be part of it, can they experience it. On the environmental side they are very conscious consumers. A recent study by Booking.com has shown that 65% of travelers do look at environmental performance of a hotel. I think we will see more and more of that, which is also an excellent driver for us to bring even more activities to life.

Do you see a role for hotel companies in preventing or reducing the impact of overtourism? If so, what might that role look like?

I think tourism is first and foremost a force for good. When you look at the size of the industry and the fact that tourism in general employs 1 in 10 people globally, that’s an important positive factor. Of course there is overtourism in certain locations and it needs to be tackled. I don’t think hotels can tackle it on their own; I think a collective body, a body like ITP can have a role there. Or, even organizations that cover the whole tourism industry like the WTTC or the UNWTO. If we can come together in certain locations and bring every party to the table including local governments, that’s the way to tackle it. I don’t think individual hotels or even individual companies can do this. We need to come together, identify locations that suffers from over-tourism and where odds are in our favor and tackle this collectively. I believe this is what we should do and that we will start seeing it in some locations. For example if you look at certain cities with waste issues, partially created by the tourism influx. In such locations, hotels can bring groundbreaking solutions to the table. For example, our Radisson Blu hotel in Nairobi recycles 95% of its waste. That can only be done with a local partner. Imagine you bring all hotels together with social enterprises and local governments and rapidly scaled these best practices to tackle some of the consequences of over-tourism.

Do you see opportunities for hotel companies to use loyalty programs to support responsible practices or reward sustainable behavior by guests?

We do, For instance we have a program with Radisson Blu hotels called “Blu Planet Housekeeping”. Guests staying for more than one night can choose to not have housekeeping in their room. In exchange, we do a donation to a water charity or the guests can receive extra loyalty points. We find many guests want loyalty points in exchange for forgoing housekeeping. Another place where we see this is when we launch a new version of our loyalty program next year in Q1. We will heavily promote not to have a plastic loyalty card, but rather to go fully digital and subscribe on the loyalty app. This will also be a way to avoid sending millions of plastic loyalty cards around the world. I do think we can engage our loyalty members even more, but the initial actions are certainly there.

Are there any new technologies (or applications of existing technologies) that you are watching to possibly use to strengthen responsible business practices?

Yes! First and foremost, the hotel apps are becoming more and more prevalent and important. For instance, in our Radisson RED, which is our lifestyle select brand really focusing on art, music and fashion and attracting customers with a millennial mindset who are technologically savvy. In the RED hotels we have decided go totally paperless. No directory, no information pads, nothing whatsoever – everything is on the app and these guests don’t mind operating this way. They don’t mind checking in online and putting their room key on the app, so they don’t even need a key card and we expect that in the near future, there will be an even bigger uptake by guests of these digital technologies that advance convenience and sustainable efforts at the same time…

The other technological advancement we will definitely continue to see are on-site renewables, efficiency of solar panels will increase further, as well as increased battery storage capacity to take hotels off the grid, anything to do with energy generation, we will see a lot of evolution there. This will help us massively to de-carbonize our hotels in the mid- to long-term.

Anything else you would highlight?

The hotel industry will also put an important focus on protecting human rights in the value chain. At Carlson Rezidor, we have been consistently names as one of the most ethical companies worldwide for 8 years in a row and we have already a strong diversity program. This has led for instance to the appointment of the first ever native Saudi female General Manager in one of our hotels in Saudi Arabia. Truly groundbreaking! To advance our collective Human Rights goal, ITP will really focus on collective action in the hotel industry and will also be reaching out to certain key business partners of the hotel industry. It will look at talking to the construction companies when they build hotels and cooperating with our outsourced labor partners to make sure we uphold the same standards as in our community.