Responsible Luxury has been the codename for all things at ITC Hotels! Going Green has been their mantra for many years now, long before we heard all this talk of climate change. What has this journey been like, and at what cost? How will this translate into Responsible Tourism for the country at large, for all its stakeholders. We met with Nakul Anand, Director Hotels, ITC on how much the industry has moved towards green tourism.
It was one thing to achieve targets for all your owned properties. How do you take this message to hotels you run as different kinds of joint ventures?
Speaking with the owners, we have a master plan to convert all hotels at some time into some form of a sustainable feature and classification. What exactly would that be, we are working on various blueprints, et cetera, but very clearly we would continue with our progression and take it further to managed properties, take it further to the other franchised properties like WelcomHeritage; even if it be a franchised property, but absolutely committed to the cause of sustainability.
How do you see this journey? You seem to have started well before others were aware of it?
Maybe, we were years ahead of our time. I was acknowledged Green Hotelier of the World in 1994 or 1995 by the International Hotel Association in Amsterdam. Now I am talking of that so many years back.
Post that, sometime between 2005 or 2008, we began responsible luxury. That was only one hotel because I was then the GM. Then I subsequently took over as VP operations and then we started. When I took over as CEO, we converted that green outlook into luxury and subsequently into responsible luxury.
But this process of getting your managed hotels or franchised hotels onboard, is that going to be an easy ride?
It’s not! I think that luckily for us, we have had great success with the hotels that have already converted in terms of acceptance. What was the problem earlier, and when I give you my document to see that people always believed that luxury and responsibility could not go together or luxury and sustainability couldn’t go together. If you were a green hotel, you were sacrificing comforts of the customer. You would throttle the water pressure for him. The AC of his room would be off. He would have to suffer for 20 minutes. Switch it on, and wait for his room to cool. You will not change your bedsheet every day. You would throw your towel and say, I will not change my towel. That’s not luxury.
Then came the opportunity when we had a choice. We were converting from the Sheraton brand to the Luxury Collection. We were getting into the luxury collection and ITC’s DNA was green. Now what would I choose? Do I choose green or do I choose luxury? I said, we will choose the path less travelled. The only option for us was a combination of both, together. Thus, was born responsible luxury.
Now somewhere around at this point, ITC Gardenia was being built, so we converted ITC Gardenia into a platinum. We built it as platinum rated building, one amongst the first platinum rated hotels in the world, to prove to ourselves that it was possible. It also won the award for the most luxurious hotel of that year. Giving us the confidence the two could coexist. The moral of the story being that you come and indulge, leave the backend to us, use as much electricity as you like, but it comes from renewable sources. Right? So, while you are sleeping, while you are enjoying and while you’re indulging, we are taking care of the backend. At the end of it, you will leave with a positive footprint or the lowest carbon footprint that you could have in any hotel.
But isn’t there a cost to it?
There’s a cost to it, but cost was never a motive. Let me explain to you. It wasn’t an option. A non-green building would have cost less, but the cost of operations was X. A green building was going to cost more, but the cost of operations was less. So, there was only one way to do business that was green for us. Fortunately, it pays for itself over the years. We were setting an example for others to follow. We were also being responsible because we felt it was necessary that we should be!
Over how long a period?
Depends from hotel to hotel, place to place, et cetera. You can’t generalise it, but certainly the operational costs of renewable energy are much cheaper. Recycling water, there are capital costs much higher and operational costs, much less. Over the years, it pays for itself.
For a smaller hotel, like a hundred room hotel owned by an individual?
The same rules would apply. The formula is the same.
Have you moved into the larger ambit of educating the industry as a whole?
Yes, yes. Even suppliers, even vendors. Let me tell you, it’s a very scary future. We all know what’s happening with global warming. Where we are, we already set our goals with 2030 commitments, et cetera. So, there’s a big fear. Now. Every company has sworn, a Unilever, a Proctor and Gamble, and ITC, and Tata has sworn that they will have X carbon footprint by 2030. By 2050 we will be carbon neutral to something. We have all made commitments. If I have to do this, I have to do this in every aspect of my business. Am I right?
Travel being one aspect. Therefore, when Mr. Berry, for example, who works for Unilever, travels, he will have to justify travelling to the hotel which has the lowest footprint because that will add to the total carbon footprint of the company. Won’t I then be a preferred hotel over the other hotel even at a preferred cost?
No, but when you said you were ahead of your time, were you not too much ahead? I mean did you gain anything over this time, being the first runner?
I didn’t gain, but that was my philosophy. Today I can gain. That’s the difference.
But were your operational costs less? Over this period in time?
Yes. Operational costs were less, but capital cost for more.
So, like with ITC Gardenia, which you mentioned as an example, now it’s 10 years since you opened Gardenia.
Nearly 15 or 18.
Okay, so in that time, have you progressed in recovering some of the cost it took?
Every year it would have. Because simple thing like power, your power costs are going up. We get power at commercial tariff, not at industrial tariff, which is the second most expensive part of the running of our hotels. Right? But now you are buying it from renewable sources. You’re getting it from your own windmills. You’re getting it at one quarter of the cost. Just look at that as a difference.
How does one educate the industry at large; the hotel industry at large?
What gets measured, gets managed. I have data at large to prove.
But is there any agency which is spreading the word?
Yes. There is something called an SHA, which is a sustainable hospitality alliance where the leaders of all the companies like Hilton et cetera, sit on that board. I am part of that sustainable hospitality alliance.
This is based in UK and we have a CEO. We are the ones who are creating standards. What is the standard measure or benchmark? How can I compare hotel A to B? How can I share best practices, et cetera. It’s an industry wide effort.
Have customers come to recognize this now?
Customers are demanding it because their company is demanding it. Your company will tell you to give them a carbon footprint at the end of a year. Why Mr. Berry, did you cross so much? They will penalize you. So, you will firstly stay in the hotel with the smallest carbon footprint and secondly, you will take longer stays, but lesser number of trips; instead of four trips of three days, you may take two trips of six days. And save on your consumption of fuel. Aviation is a big part of your fuel costs. You are already seeing it. Then you’re going to combine business with leisure again because you want to save the fuel, et cetera, and you know can work from anywhere. Trends are already showing that 90% of business travelers say they’re ready to book a bleisure. They are ready to give some time for leisure, et cetera. Marriott’s data is already showing that business travel is getting longer.
It was earlier an average of three days; it’s getting four days or five days proving exactly the point that I’m trying to say. You are now the custodian of your company’s carbon footprint. You have a commitment to bring it down. You’ve committed 2030 & 2050, right?
Ok, so that is for the corporate traveller. What about people like me whose company is not dictating me anything? So, am I getting more alive to it?
It is up to us. But let me tell you, not so much the baby boomers where you and I come from, but the millennials and the Gen Z, very much savvy and very much conscious.
And you’re passing the word to your own customer there?
Absolutely, and to our associates. Our associates, our employees are taught in it. 10,000 employees.
Are you sensing a greater sense even amongst the industry or no?
Absolutely. Let me give you a typical example of safety. 30 years back or 20 years back, even in the hotel industry, even in a five-star hotel, if I walked 30 years back, having two wires from a vacuum cleaner going into a power point, it didn’t affect us. Today, it will hurt my eye and yours. It has to be a plug.
That is how things have changed. That is the cause of safety. I’m just giving, this is a very simple example to say this is how our bodies have got attuned. It looks like a cockroach to us, which may be accepted 15 years back. If it was in our room today, you leave the room; we check out of the hotel if there was a cockroach.
You used this example back about the towel not being changed every day. Do you feel the customer is wanting to use the same towel longer?
The customer doesn’t want to be bound by your laws. He wants to do what he wants. He may want to come back after three hours. That towel may still be wet. He wants the feel of a fresh towel. Luxury is a fresh white linen sheet at night. Not the one I slept in yesterday. I want a change from what I do every day at home.
So, are you changing the sheet every day now?
Of course, we are.
And you change the towel every day?
Of course, we do. In some hotels we give an option to the customer, but in our case it doesn’t matter.
What next for ITC, if you can go to another subject altogether?
We believe every hotel is working towards getting what is called carbon neutral, which should happen soon. This is not a problem. The problem is in the states. One of the big things in getting carbon neutral is getting access to renewable energy.
In many states, hotels are fighting battles because the hotel is the single largest revenue source that the state electricity board has. We are huge guzzlers and we pay commercial tariff, not industrial tariff. Nobody else pays commercial tariff. In many states, they have become adept at finding ways to not to give alternate energy to us. So, wherever I am not getting carbon neutral, I’m fighting the system. System is overtly shouting for all green. But down the line, everybody has targets to meet.
Just one other subject towards greening in a way, organic foods, ITC itself has gone into millet making. How much of that Indianness are you ready to absorb and put through across your hotels? I mean, for one, I miss your paan shop. I miss your mithai shop.
I think we do and I think the world is coming around. People are now looking for experiences. Even when they travel on business, they’re looking for an Indian experience. Therefore, our biggest strength is nobody gives you India like we do as we had said 45 years back. Our properties are built and rooted in the soil. Nobody can take that.
We have an identity wherever we have been.
Even our last hotel in Ahmedabad is called ITC Narmada. Our uniforms have always been Indian. Our cuisine has always been ethnically Indian, what we are famous for. There are a few things like this that are left like the Mithai shop, a few touches we certainly can bring back, but that is the way to grow and our differentiator is Indianness.
Let me also tell you nowhere else, but in our Vedic scriptures, that we talk of sustainability. The Vedic scriptures go back to 4,000 whatever years, talk of sustainability. So, in even following sustainability practices, you are following exactly what is Indian. Indian food, Ayurvedic forms of therapy, the whole science of food such as eat by season. Eat local is all sustainable. All that the world is talking today. We have done it from our childhood.
I noticed and I was very, what shall I say, impressed by the elevator – you have this new logo where you talk about going experiential and immersive and local experiences.
So, I go and stay in my Storii hotel in Dharamsala. I want to experience something local. They have tied up with the local villagers. They take me for a walk, one and a half kilometre. I go and meet this couple. We have cleaned up the kitchen. He will source local ingredients and cook food, which I will have with him. That’s a local immersive experience where we feel as part of the local society.
Somewhere it has to move towards responsible tourism for us all. And we are hearing all this while that hotel constructions at large in states like Himachal Pradesh, rampant violation of local laws. What can the hotel industry do?
We are a good means of communication. We are a good media for communication and I think we need to continuously communicate what is happening. Let me share with you something that’s happened. For years, our challenge, and I’ve been heading industry associations like HAI and WTTC and now FAITH. Our biggest challenge was convincing the government that tourism is an engine of economic activity and not an elitist activity. Because it was considered to be an elitist activity. Nobody wanted to touch it. Today tourism has changed to an industry for which governments roll out the red carpet. Mr. Modi calls tourism on a mission mode.
We’ve got 50 things happening in the country. So, people have begun to realize that tourism is totally a different thing. I think similarly it is important to educate people on the importance of tourism, the negative side and the positive side of it. I was there at the G20 in Goa where the GOA declaration was signed, the finest document that I have read, and I’m proud to be in Indian, that India could do it. How tourism can be the path to sustainable development goals of the world.
Who put it together?
The G20 task force for tourism, but it’s under India’s presidency and it’s called the Goa Declaration.
But the declaration that has come out is absolutely brilliant one that was unanimously accepted by all countries. Now that is moving towards responsible tourism and that covers the entire gamut of the tourism canvas. Create more spaces for tourism. Don’t put everybody in one city, create 20 more cities, create incentives for people to go there, what to do. Rural tourism. It covers the entire gamut of it.
But coming to our question of the example that we are setting in our own states, how hotels are rampantly, violating local norms, et cetera. I just feel that associations like HAI, FHRAI, WTTC, FAITH – somewhere we need to do more, some kind of education because we are getting a very, very bad name for the industry.
No, I think that we’ve had problem in one or two states. I think the situation is very much better than what it was before. I think some of the events, the last 60-90 days have come as bitter truth without naming in which state what has happened. But I think barring that, things are so much better. I think that these few places are also looking at correcting. It is much on the positive side, not withstanding these few recent aberrations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Navin Berry, Editor, Destination India, over five decades has edited publications like CityScan, India Debates and Travel Trends Today. He is the founder of SATTE, India’s first inbound tourism mart, biggest in Asia.