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Eco-friendly hotels bring 'green' to downtown

hurrying down the teak staircase of the Old Bangkok Inn, already late for a dinner party across town, I asked Joey, the young man behind the reception desk, to hail me a cab. "You could take a taxi, but it will be slow and boring," he said, citing Bangkok's notorious traffic problems. "Or," he said, with a glint in his eye, "you could have an adventure!"

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Ten minutes later, with directions clutched tightly, I found myself on a Thai long boat, a motorized version of a gondola, jostling for a seat among the office workers headed home for the evening, and racing through the city on the waters of a narrow canal. Within half an hour, after a transfer to the SkyTrain, the city's efficient mass-transit system, I had arrived at my friend's home, suitably impressing my fellow guests with my skill at navigating the labyrinth of an unfamiliar city. (I felt even more smug the next evening, when my host — a two-year resident of Bangkok — arrived more than an hour late for drinks because he had taken a taxi and gotten stuck in traffic.)

Steering guests away from gas-guzzling taxis and toward alternative forms of transport is just one way the Old Bangkok Inn is actively distinguishing itself as an urban "green" hotel — one of the increasing number of places that are adopting that strategy.

A decade ago, the term "eco-friendly accommodation" usually meant snuggling up under a thick quilt at a chilly mountain lodge, eating vegetables from the owner's garden and recycling your trash before hitting the nearby nature trails. Now the term is increasingly becoming compatible with both "luxury" and "cities," as more chain and boutique hotels — with views of skyscrapers, not trees — incorporate sustainable green practices into their policies.

Among some prominent examples: the Apex City of London Hotel (www.apexhotels.co.uk), which has an environmental blog updating customers on the hotel's most recent green initiatives; the Ibis Paris Porte Clichy Centre (www.ibishotel.com), which features a photovoltaic facade that draws solar power; and the Lenox Hotel in Boston (www.lenoxhotel.com), one of the first hotels to offer climate-neutral rooms and to entirely offset carbon emissions for electricity.

"I am seeing the biggest growth ever right now when it comes to hotels adopting green policies, and it is in the cities and suburbs as well," says Kit Cassingham, founder of the 3-year-old EnvironmentallyFriendly
Hotels.com, which now lists more than 2,800 green hotels around the world and rates them by green trees rather than stars, the rating determined by how many of 29 criteria listed on the Web site they meet. (The list includes everything from composting, to gray-water recycling, to community service, to not automatically leaving newspapers outside each guest room door.)

Kathryn Potter, senior vice president for marketing and communications at the American Hotel & Lodging Association, has also noticed a new eco-attitude in the industry. "In 1996, we launched a towel and linen program, and all the high-end hotels said they couldn't possibly participate because their guests expected top service," said Potter, whose association offered members the now-familiar cards that allow guests to request not to have their bedding and towels changed daily. "We recently launched a 'Green Best Practices' list, and we had more than a thousand hits in the first two weeks, which for us was astounding," she added, noting that the worldwide Fairmont Hotel chain was one of the first big hoteliers to embrace going green.

Using a creative approach

At the eight-room Old Bangkok Inn, Nantiya Tulyanond, the hotel's owner, made the environment a priority when she turned the old family house into a hotel. "I felt strongly that we wanted to reduce our impact and try to be a green hotel," she said, adding that it was also important to her 31-year-old son, Joey.

To that end, no trees were cut down during the inn's renovation, and most of the fixtures (stairs, doors and windows) were constructed from salvaged teak wood, with the worn details in the rebuilt wood adding to the authenticity and charm of the rooms. (As do the Thai silk bedspreads, pillows, and curtains — all, of course, locally produced.)

More critical, however, is the Old Bangkok Inn's solar energy program. Sunlight streams through panels on the roof, not only flooding the upstairs hallway with light during the day (reducing the need for electricity) but also heating the water for the entire hotel. Amazingly, not once did I wait for warm water to emerge from the shower head (a low-flow one, of course, situated next to a matching low-flow toilet with dual flush.) Nor did I miss the now standard hotel bathroom kit of lotions and potions, particularly since two small green porcelain containers in the shower were filled with the most fragrant-smelling shampoo and soaps.

As well as a linen and towel reuse option, the inn has room sensors that shut down the lights and appliances (including the flat-screen computers) the moment a guest leaves the room, and guests upon check-in are immediately asked if they would like to donate a dollar for each night they stay (a notable amount in Thailand), which the hotel then matches. The money is given to one of several community organizations — including a shelter for impoverished children and an animal rescue foundation. Additionally, there are copies of articles on global warming in each room, and rather than the typical breakfast buffet filled with too much food (and often imported products), the morning meal consists of local specialties including delicate coconut pancakes, Thai doughnuts and fresh fruit. (One morning, Tulyanond dashed out to buy roseapple from a passing fruit vendor, so eager was she for me to taste it.)

A different kind
of green

Being green is not just about saving the environment, it is also now about saving money. "I think a lot of the hotels adopting green practices are doing it primarily for financial reasons," said Cassingham of Environmentally
FriendlyHotels.com, adding, "I don't really care about their motivation. Either way, it ends up being about conserving."

Steve Ancona, the project manager on what is being billed as New York City's first green hotel, Greenhouse 26, scheduled to open next year, readily acknowledged that "being green is also about being profitable." Ancona predicted energy savings of around 30 percent thanks to a geothermal system that will heat and cool the 27-room hotel. In addition, the elevator will generate energy through its braking system, though a lack of space (a problem for urban hotels) restricts them from putting in a gray-water system.

Hugo Germain, a third-generation family member of the Groupe Germain company that has been bringing boutique hotels to Canada since the '90s, can attest to the cost benefits of creating a green hotel in a city. In September, he became the general manager of the first ALT Hotel, in Montreal.

"We wanted to break ground here and offer a low-priced, yet chic, green hotel," said Germain. Already, he is seeing a savings of nearly 35 percent on the geothermal heating system the company installed when the hotel was built. What's more, he has been able to pass that saving on to the consumer. All of the hotel's 159 rooms are 129 Canadian dollars a night "with no fluctuations," he said, adding that Groupe Germain had not cut back on style for the urbanite: Even the recycling bins in the rooms have been designed in wood since the company disliked the normal plastic containers.

"We are planning to open them in 15 different cities across Canada," he said. "I think when it comes to choosing a hotel, if it is well priced but green, people will pick the green one."

Eco-friendly hotels bring 'green' to downtown 03/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 1:08pm]

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