Cornell Design Roundtable Grapples With Green Hotel Challenges in Development, Operation

Apr 30, 2009

Contact:  Jennifer Macera, 607.255.3101,

Cornell Design Roundtable Grapples With Green Hotel Challenges in Development, Operation

Hotel Industry Participants Say Conflicting Standards, Unclear Metrics Cause Confusion in Hotel Design

Ithaca, NY, April 30, 2009 - Although hotel operators are pushing in the direction of greater sustainability, the hotel industry continues to seek the best way to build and operate "green" hotels. Participants in the Hospitality Design Roundtable, a hotel industry research panel presented by Cornell's Center for Hospitality Research, noted that the interests of owners, operators, and guests sometimes collide, when it comes to determining exactly what constitues green hotel operations. The roundtable, held in April 2009, was chaired by Richard Penner, professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.

"Our discussion was disjointed at times," said Penner, "probably because of the many unrelated elements that must be considered for environmentally responsible hotel design and operations." Penner added that those elements include developers' reticence to spend more for green design, guests' apparent demand for green operation-even when they are not willing to pay extra for that-and the provisions of LEED certification-a green building rating system-which don't readily apply to hotels. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Sustainable construction is not the same as sustainable operation. As Simon Ford, senior vice president of innovation and design at InterContinental Hotels put it: "A green hotel does not equate to a green hotel experience." Companies that seek to operate in a sustainable fashion need to analyze each product and process. Not all choices are clear-cut, the roundtable participants observed. For instance, which is more sustainable: paper towels or electric hand dryers?

The Hospitality Design Roundtable participants noted the sometimes contradictory messages sent by consumers. Guests are interested in sustainable design elements. Indeed, everyone is "in favor" of green building, but there is little indication that hotel guests are generally willing to pay a premium to stay in a sustainable hotel. "Consumers are really clear: they want everything, they want green to benefit them, and that is how they will assess value," said David Jerome, senior vice president of corporate responsibility, InterContinental Hotels Group.

As sustainability becomes a strong guest consideration, a hotel's brand may drive occupancy more than its location. As Margaret McMahon, managing director of Wilson Associates observed: "Cradle to Cradle (architect William McDonough's sustainability primer) really scares you. … We are doing everything wrong."  To establish their green position, brands will need to establish clear standards for design and operation based on a foundation of sustainability.

The hotel industry panelists suggest that LEED certification remains a challenge for hotels, primarily because the standards were initiated for office buildings and other commercial structures that do not operate like hotels. "LEED is about buildings, not about hospitality," Penner suggested. Participants observed that the LEED standards apply more to urban buildings than to remote resort locations, but developers still seek LEED certification even when that is not appropriate for the location. "LEED is the 'loudest dog in the yard,'. the only metric we have for construction," said Ted Brumleve, director of development management services with Warnick + Company.

The roundtable concluded that hotels will need wide-ranging strategies to conserve natural resources and reduce waste, as well as policies for sustainable design, construction, and procurement. This may require expansion of the back of the house and changes in public spaces, for example, recycling bins off the lobby. Even with sustainability policies in place, there may be a limit to how green a hotel can be, given the nature of hotel operations. "One could build the world's greenest building; but if guests do not see how it benefits them, we will have missed a real opportunity to connect with our guests," Jerome observed. The roundtable members agreed that with or without LEED standards, the industry will continue to seek ways to be sustainable in both design and operations.

For more information about future roundtables at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, please visit

About The Center for Hospitality Research
A unit of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, The Center for Hospitality Research (CHR) sponsors research designed to improve practices in the hospitality industry. Under the lead of the center's 77 corporate affiliates, experienced scholars work closely with business executives to discover new insights into strategic, managerial and operating practices. The center also publishes the award-winning hospitality journal, the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly. To learn more about the center and its projects, visit
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