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Ecotourism goes urban

Hotels vary in steps to shrink their carbon footprint

Email|Print| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / February 4, 2007

"Green" travel is all the rage; even Prince Charles has sworn off his fleet of Royal Air Force aircraft and resolved to fly commercial (albeit not coach) to do his bit for the environment. Ecotourism is thriving in the world's back of beyond , and some conventioneers now insist on checking a city's eco-fides before booking their rooms.

Inevitably, hotels would jump on the bandwagon. Tedd Saunders , a co-owner of Boston's Saunders Hotel Group and president of EcoLogical Solutions Inc. , situates green hotels at the vanguard of "urban eco tourism." "We want to bring eco tourism out of the jungle and into an urban setting," he says. "The impact of this hotel" -- he is standing in the lobby of the 11-story, 210-room Lenox Hotel on Boylston Street -- "is like a whole region of eco-resorts ."

Saunders is something of an environmental fanatic. The Lenox and a companion hotel invest $11,000 each year in Midwestern wind farms to counterbalance, or offset, the carbon dioxide used in generating their electricity. Saunders drives a late-model Toyota Prius and even pays to offset his fossil fuel energy use at home.

But for every Saunders and Lenox, there is Chicago's Hotel Raffaello, which purports to be an "eco-hotel." In October, the refurbished Raffaello, formerly the Raphael, promised guests "an opportunity to experience an incredible green and eco renaissance" and claimed to be "one of the most technologically advanced green hotels in the country."

Quicker than you can say "cold cathode compact fluorescent lights " -- and we will be saying more about those later -- I traveled to Chicago to investigate the Raffaello's claims that it would reduce guests' "carbon footprint" while they luxuriated in a "soothing aesthetic of tranquil light beige and chocolate hues" just a few blocks from Lake Michigan.

I was equally eager to take in the promised 1,500-square-foot " ' green roof,' a soothing oasis with a hydroponic garden that will provide herbs and produce for the hotel's restaurant and spa "; the "eco living design library "; and "complimentary mountain bikes with biking and walking maps, all to further reduce your [carbon footprint ]."

None of which existed.

To be fair, the Raffaello is a perfectly comfortable, if pricey, hotel with an attentive and well-trained staff. It is true that the "spa-like" bathroom did have a "rain forest shower head," and was well stocked with Aveda organic products like shampoo and conditioner in those little plastic bottles that I like to give as stocking gifts at Christmas.

When I complained to owner Keith Menin that the Raffaello hadn't shrunk my carbon footprint by one millimeter, he answered that "we're putting measures into place." The rooftop garden , for instance , will be installed next summer. The restaurant and the spa are slated to open next month.

More casual eco-talk: When I noticed that a spokeswoman for the Fairmont Washington referred to "biodynamic wines" in the hotel restaurant, I inquired what these might be. She had no idea. Her boss, general manager George Terpilowski, came closer when he said "organic wines." In fact, so-called "BD wines" bring to mind Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner , who believed that "astronomical calendars and signs of the zodiac play a role in determining when to sow and harvest crops," according to London's Sunday Times.

Prince Charles practices biodynamic farming. But you already suspected that.

It is true that the Fairmont Washington has been aggressively re engineering its resource and energy consumption, from trivial to big-ticket items. The Fairmont, like the Kimpton chain of luxury hotels, has placed recycling baskets in each room, and, yes, they have installed cold cathode compact fluorescent lights in hallways and meeting areas. I visited on the day of the employees' Christmas party; the light seemed a little low, but spirits were not.

The big chains "are sharp as tacks" when it comes to conserving resources, Saunders says. "It's all based on cost. These programs aren't just for do-gooders. They reduce costs."

Saunders delights in giving "eco tours " of the Lenox, one of his family's six hotels. The men's room off the lobby uses waterless urinals, saving 180,000 gallons of water a year. Energy-saving lights are everywhere. Saunders replaced all the windows during a renovation in 2000 and re wrapped the 106-year-old building with a new "skin" -- modern insulation placed behind the original brick.

In a guest room, Saunders showed me the Lenox's proprietary television "eco-channel" -- he gets the DVDs from the New England Aquarium, where he is on the board -- and a copy of the Union of Concerned Scientists' "Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices," which is prominently displayed on the top of each guest room's writing desk. Saunders's own book, "The Bottom Line of Green Is Black," co-authored with Loretta McGovern (HarperCollins, 1993), sits more modestly inside the desk drawer.

In the bathrooms, Saunders is doing away with my beloved stocking stuffers and replacing them with more resource-friendly dispensers. "We go through 500,000 of these little bottles every year," he says. Naturally, the toilet paper is recycled and chlorine bleach-free, and instead of disposable laundry bags, the Lenox has thick, reusable bags made from recycled plastic.

Each bag has an environmental message stenciled on the side. In the middle of our tour, I burst out, "Tedd, you're really whacking the customer over the head with this stuff."

His reply: "These are dire times, Alex."

Saunders is big on messages. If you surrender your car to valet parking, it comes back with a flier hanging from the mirror that provides "Top 10 Tips to Save You $$$ on Gas, Improve Car Performance & Protect Our Environment." (Tip 10: "Use public transit when possible.") The Lenox encourages guests to use a hybrid town car service for trips to the airport, and it has struck a deal with Nike's Rescue Shoe program that allows customers to recycle their worn-out sneakers by dumping them in an "Eco-Chic" box in the lobby. Saunders is ditching the complimentary Evian water in the guest rooms in favor of Saratoga brand, reasoning that less carbon is expended in the transportation.

But he also knows that the more serious, big-ticket conservation measures take place in the back of the house, as the hoteliers call it, where customers never enter. The Lenox composts 120 tons a year of restaurant waste, which is rare in the hospitality industry. The Fairmont has invested heavily in energy-saving motors for its heating and air-conditioning system, and recently bought a new, institutional dishwasher that recycles its water, an unusual use of so-called recycled "gray water" in a hotel.

Saunders's hotels and the Fairmont chain have something else in common: They both purchase "offsets" for the energy they consume from fossil fuels. The idea is that you pay to cancel out your carbon dioxide emissions by financing an equivalent generating capacity of clean, renewable energy. Company-wide, Fairmont offsets the electrical energy generated by the chain's 249 check-in computers, an estimated 100 tons of carbon emissions, by investing in wind power.

Saunders offsets all of the Lenox's electricity use, using San Francisco-based 3 Phases Energy as the renewable energy middleman. "We've calculated how much CO2 we generate and how much we need to invest in wind and solar," he says. "We are getting the right to say we're carbon neutral."

Can your hotel say that?

Contact Alex Beam at beam@globe.com.

If You Go

Lenox Hotel

61 Exeter St. at Boylston

617-536-5300

lenoxhotel.com

Rooms start at about $200 a night, including taxes. The website offers several specials, including the Bed & Breakfast Winter Escape, from $189, which includes a full American breakfast. It's a perfect location and each room has a copy of "Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices," and a Gideon Bible -- beat that!

Raffaello Condominium Hotel

201 East Delaware Place, Chicago

312-601-8610, 312-943-5000

raffaellochicago.com

A standard room costs slightly under $200, with a "Breakfast at Raffaello's" package starting at $159. It isn't the Temple of Green it claims be, but it's a wonderfully situated, comfortable hotel halfway between bustling Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive .

Fairmont Washington

2401 M St., Washington

202-429-2400, 800-257-7544

fairmont.com/washington

In the middle of what passes for action in the capital : adjacent to the K Street lobbyists, not far from the White House, and a stone's throw from Georgetown. But access costs money. During the week, rooms can run $400-$500 per night, but prices plummet on weekends.

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