Earlier this year, the South African Hotel Verde became the first hotel in the world to achieve double LEED platinum status. Far from being a remote ecolodge, however, Hotel Verde is found at Cape Town’s airport. Jeremy Smith speaks with Hotel Verde’s owner Mario Delicio and its general manager Samantha Annandale about the challenges of developing such a unique hotel.
1: What inspired you to make Hotel Verde a sustainable hotel?
Mario: Having been brought up in Germany with all the rules of waste separation and growing up with that sensitivity for environmental concern, I felt that Africa is far behind European countries. Having spent around 4.000 nights in many hotels around Africa and the world the last 25 years, I always wondered why so many bottles of soap, shampoo, cream lotion etc are wasted although hardly used. Why everywhere lights were on even in the night and not used. And in Africa especially the air cons were running 24/7 and cooling to the maximum. From these various experiences the wish grew to show that it can be done differently. I am also a father of 3 daughters, and that responsibility for making a difference for a better tomorrow was also a driving force.
2: How does being a responsible hotel help your business attract potential customers?
Samantha: Whilst there are a number of travellers who seek out eco-friendly accommodation, the majority of first time guests tend to choose our hotel based on its location. However, we have an extremely high number of return guests who almost always return due to the fact that we place emphasis on being a responsible hotel. There is a feel good factor that is attached with knowing as a guest, that you are doing the right thing and doing your part just by choosing a certain hotel. I also believe that our staff are healthier, happier and proud of the ethics for which the hotel stands – this directly affects their level of service and ultimately keep our guests coming back and spreading word of our hotel.
3: How do you engage guests in your responsible tourism activities?
Samantha: A guest’s stay or conference at Hotel Verde is completely carbon neutral at no extra cost to them. All guests receive a micro carbon offset certificate that allows them to feel invested in an accredited project that reduces global carbon emissions and has a social benefit. There are also a number of strategically placed signs around the hotel in order to educate guests about a number of the sustainable interventions at the hotel, as well as, to encourage them to be more responsible. All guests are able to take a site tour of the hotel with specific attention to what was done with regard to sustainability, whilst an interactive sustainability channel displays consumption and savings data.
Earth Hour is celebrated once a week in order to engage guests with the concept started by WWF. We also have a guest involvement programme which ensures that guests are rewarded for making their stay more responsible. An inhouse currency has been developed for this purpose called Verdinos. Some of the ways that guests can earn Verdinos include: splitting waste correctly in rooms, using the power generating gym equipment and re-using towels. Verdinos can then be used instead of real money at the bar or in the deli. Guests are also able to donate any unwanted items to the clothing bank at reception. All of these items are then donated to a nearby shelter.
4: What is the responsible tourism initiative of which you are most proud?
Samantha: Whilst Hotel Verde consumes only a fraction of the water and energy that most hotels consume and has a far lower carbon footprint than most businesses, the greatest impact has been its intervention to guest and other stakeholder mind-set shifts towards a more sustainable economy, work and personal life. We have hosted so many educationals, in-depth site inspections and been given so many opportunities at conferences and trade shows to share our story, that the educational, as well as, the greater impact on our staff behaviour and spirit is the aspect of the hotel that has proved to be the most effective and of which we are most proud.
5: What positive impacts does your tourism business have on the community / environment where you are based?
Samantha: We always consider the local community first when hand picking new staff for the hotel and aim to provide a greater point of learning for interns and hospitality students. We always favour local, previously disadvantaged entrepreneurs through the procurement process and attempt to support members of our nearby community in any means we can. For example, a female entrepreneur has since had to employ four more staff members to create the biscuits that we supply in the rooms and deli. All art in the hotel is local including the room floor artworks that were created through a school art programme showcasing the concepts of 45 grade 11 students turned into beautiful works of art by local crafters. Every opportunity that we have to get involved, and where we are able to help, we will do so, be it through financial or accommodation support or physical labour and time spent. A big factor taken into consideration is also the impact on biodiversity on the hotel site and surrounding areas. This is why we chose to lease the adjacent property from the City of Cape Town and restore it by planting over 80 endemic and indigenous trees and building a jogging track around the wetland on the property to encourage guests to enjoy the outdoors. We also uplifted the area around the hotel in order to make it more accessible to pedestrians and cyclers – especially our staff.
6: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?
Mario: The inflexibility of certain companies to think out of the box. The usual “this is how we always have done it” shows how little creativity there is. We often had to force companies to change things or do things differently unless we would not consider them. Is it funny, how suddenly every company is proud that they were our supplier. Hotel Verde today is probably the most used reference. A company such as Stefanutti has become the “green building expert” because of us.
Samantha: Ensuring that each and every element is as sustainable as possible in the hotel. There are some aspects where this is near impossible to achieve due to lack of resources, higher costs or lack of buy in from suppliers. But we are seeing this slowly change to our advantage.
7: What advice would you give to any entrepreneur starting a responsible tourism business?
Mario: After 2 years of operation and seeing the figures on energy saved, water saved, waste which we have diverted from landfill and the costs of our operation, we are proud indeed. I would make it even more clearer: if anyone is not building green than he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. Having built a green hotel did not make financial sense through and through, but has given our hotel a huge amount of press exposure. An increased staff morale and boost in motivation. We all want to work for a successful company after all.
Samantha: That it is important not to get caught up in the fast accelerating trend of sustainability and potentially become victim to greenwashing. It is important to rather focus on being holistically sustainable, being honest and being ok with the fact that sustainability is a journey and not a destination – it will always take continuous work and conscious effort but it is most certainly worth it in the end.