If you have stayed at a hotel recently, you have seen a card in the bathroom exhorting you to help the planet by reusing your towels, thus reducing the amount of water, energy and detergent used by the hotel. Such appeals are typically based on guilt - you reuse the towels and the hotel receives the financial benefit.
The success of such efforts, however, is tenuous because it is entirely contingent on the convenience and good will of the guests.
Westin Hotels, however, have harnessed the free market to find a better way.
When I checked into my hotel in Charlotte last week, I noticed a door hanger lying on the bed which read:
"Make a green choice. Enjoy a $5 voucher at participating food and beverage outlets or 500 SPG Starpoints awarded at checkout for each night you decline housekeeping."
Instead of guilt, Westin recognizes that sharing with their customers the benefit of conserving resources is likely to make the program more successful. And they are seeing results.
Chris Para from the Westin Charlotte said the program has grown in each of the three years they have offered it. He estimates that 16 percent of guests take advantage of the program. This is a remarkable result considering what it might take otherwise to cut water use for laundry by about one-fifth.
The program was actually conceived at the Westin and Sheraton in Seattle where the "green" ethic is ubiquitous. But it goes beyond simply cultivating a green image. Westin enjoys financial benefits in two ways. First, it saves money by reducing the laundry and housekeeping costs. Second, it is an initiative Westin can use to attract corporate customers from organizations requiring their employees to stay at "green" hotels.
The group most likely to be incentivized by the program and use it are business travelers, and Westin's Starwood points are a particularly attractive reward.
Interestingly, Para seemed sheepish when I asked if the hotel benefited financially from the program. By providing benefits to the hotel and customer, however, the program is more likely to stand the test of time. Too many green programs are based on people being willing to endure inconvenience or cost and are jettisoned when times get tough. With the hotel benefiting, they are more likely to continue and even expand the program.
Instead of apologizing for the benefits they receive, Westin should be proud. Those financial rewards may encourage other hotels to follow suit, further reducing overall resource use.
By harnessing the incentives of the free market to do more with less, Westin, its customers and the environment all benefit.