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The key to sustainable hotels

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When it comes to sustainability, it's not how many rooms a hotel has, but how many keys. Green keys, that is. The Hotel Association of Canada's (HAC) Green Key Eco-Rating Program is a graduated rating program designed to help hotels, motels and resorts improve their environmental performance, and to recognize those that are committed to making a difference.

Participating hotels do a 160-question self-assessment online covering five areas of hotel operations: corporate environmental management, housekeeping, food and beverage operations, conference and meeting facilities, and engineering. The system then calculates a score based on these answers, and awards a rating of up to five green keys.

Canadian leadership, international expansion

An initiative of the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Hotel Association launched the Green Key Eco-Rating Program in 1997. It started small. Andrea Myers, Director of Member Services for the HAC says, "When it was first introduced, sustainable initiatives weren't as much at the forefront as they are these days. Then, between 2004 and 2006, the numbers really started to climb. Now it's just shy of 3,000 members."

At first the program was only available in Canada, but because many Canadian hotels are affiliated with U.S.-based companies, its popularity grew. "In 2007 and 2008, we overhauled the program to make it more applicable internationally," Myers says. The program now includes roughly a 50/50 split between US and Canadian participants, and about 45 properties outside of North America.

Greening incrementally

A hotel receives one green key when it's analyzed operations, noted areas for improvement, and created an action plan to minimize resource use and waste. A rating of five keys exemplifies the highest standards of environmental and social responsibility throughout all its operations and employs leading-edge technologies, policies, and programs. While the self-assessment and scoring are all online, once a hotel has received a rating, it may undergo an on-site inspection for verification.

Reports bring insights

And participating hotels don't just get a rating, the assessment also provides them with a performance report for each of the five areas of hotel operations. This report includes highlights — things they are doing that are great initiatives — as well as recommendations for actions they could take to increase the sustainability of their property and practices. "The program is designed to provide a snapshot of where the hotel is at this point in time," says Myers. "Participants are generally very keen to improve. We've heard from participants that the performance report is valuable and often shows them some things they could be doing that aren't that difficult and would make a difference."

Staff make a difference

Staff engagement is often an important part of improving a hotel's key rating. Many hotels are beginning to understand the value of having a green team, instead of just one person being in charge of environmental practices. With a team, the management can get feedback from various departments within the operation, and benefit from knowledge specific to each area. "Staff is a good starting place," says Myers. A lot of change evolves with feedback from different staff, and that builds an overall understanding of what's going on in each area of the property, what staff know and what needs to be done.

Read about B.C.-based Green Key rated hotels working to improve energy efficiency: