Mr. Weissman

Eco-Friendly Practices

Partnering with Your City to Promote Sustainability in Tourism

By Arthur Weissman, President and CEO, Green Seal, Inc.

As tourism expands world-wide, the need and desirability for more sustainable tourism grows as well. All the articles in this issue are premised on this theme; this article provides a practical approach to promoting sustainable tourism through partnerships with your local jurisdiction and related entities.

Consider that the focus of most tourists will not be on your property itself, but more likely on its context - the city outside it or the natural areas that are their destination. That doesn't mean they won't care about your sustainability practices, but rather that they should be open to considering them in a broader context. Knowing that your property is part of a larger sustainability effort in your city or other jurisdiction can only enhance the overall attractiveness of your positioning.

The good news is that the hospitality industry already partners in many cases with the municipality in the formation and operation of convention and visitors' bureaus (CVBs). Although these may be independent, self-governing agencies, they usually have strong ties to the jurisdiction they serve. The partnerships discussed and recommended here include the CVB model but go beyond it in two respects: directly including the city or jurisdiction in the partnership in an active role; and focusing on sustainability in the partnership, among other potential themes.

Benefits of Partnering with Your City

Having your city as a partner in promoting sustainability is a smart move for several reasons. Sustainability is new and cutting-edge, and having the city behind this essential initiative makes your destination more attractive as part of a larger effort, a community and region that is looking to the future. A number of the cities we work with tell us that their goal is to become the "greenest city" in America. This has become intensely competitive in order to attract tourists, businesses, and younger demographics. The greening efforts of just a few properties, even with the support of their CVB and hotel association, do not have the same impact if the elected city government is not on board.

Another benefit of a city partnership for sustainable tourism is that it can bring additional credibility to the effort. Greenwashing still abounds in the marketplace, nowadays often in more subtle forms. Governments must be especially careful about their claims and promotions, and so their programs tend to be more realistic from a marketing perspective. In some cases, they choose to partner with third-party assessment or certification bodies that can attest to the sustainability activities of the government or its businesses.

A city partnership provides more support for a property's sustainability efforts. At a minimum, a city's endorsement of sustainability can direct tourists to it and resonate with an individual property's activities. Even more, a city can provide various forms of financial or in-kind support for sustainability initiatives undertaken by the hospitality industry within it. We saw both forms in successive administrations in Chicago: Mayor Daley, aiming to make Chicago the greenest U.S. city, subsidized Green Seal certification for a number of downtown Chicago hotels; while Mayor Emanuel's sustainability director subsequently gave "moral" support to Green Seal's pilot restaurant certification program in the city, appearing at its press roll-out and endorsing the program.

Finally, a city partnership can bring in additional partners beyond the city and its CVB that help support sustainable tourism. Other governmental agencies at the Federal, State, or local level that are not typically involved in tourism may have an interest in promoting sustainability. These may include the environment departments, utility agencies, or the Federal Department of Energy (DOE). Each of these may provide staff or programmatic support, and in some cases actual funding or grants and subsidies to hotels. For example, DOE's Better Buildings Challenge provides loans for buildings to upgrade their major energy systems. Local utilities may provide rebate programs to upgrade water- and energy-consuming fixtures and appliances.

Key Aspects of a City Sustainable Lodging Partnership

While forging a special relationship with your city beyond the CVB can clearly help promote your sustainability efforts, such a partnership must be designed carefully to have the aforementioned benefits. Specifically, the partnership should require the city to have some stake in it; should be for the long-term; must be staffed; should be memorialized in some form; and should be maintained continuously.

The City Must Have a Stake in the Partnership - Any partnership succeeds only when each party has a stake in its success and contributes to it. In this case, hotels clearly benefit when more tourists come to their city and stay with them because of their reputation for sustainability. The city also has a stake in this success and needs to provide something beyond the usual support it affords the CVB.

Municipal support can take a variety of forms. The city could provide additional in-kind resources focused on sustainable tourism, such as portions of staff time in the environment or marketing department, or assistance with conferences and press roll-outs for the program. Staff efforts can be focused on a higher level of marketing and promotional support, such as an advertising campaign promoting sustainable tourism in the city. Or more technical work by city scientists can track and document the health and environmental benefits of sustainable tourism.

An even greater and more powerful stake for the city is to provide subsidies or grants to support a sustainable tourism program. This may involve direct help in paying the fees for hotels to apply for and receive certification for sustainable operations. It may take the form of grants or loans to hotels for equipment upgrades to improve energy or water efficiency, from large capital expenditures like chillers to small ones like lamps or faucets. There are state and Federal programs that can assist cities in such funding, such as the Better Buildings Challenge of the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Program Must be Long-Term for All Parties

Developing a sustainability program is not a short-term endeavor, particularly in the tourism sector. Hotels have daily demands and emergencies that make it difficult to focus on longer-term initiatives like sustainability or certification, and a concerted long-term effort is required for the latter. Cities and other hotel partners must understand this timeline and be willing to stick to the program for the long-term.

By "long-term" I mean years, not months. It takes time not only for individual properties to get with a sustainability program, but also for a critical mass of hotels in the city to get behind it. Our experience has shown that this kind of voluntary program requires time for the parties to learn how to work together, to learn the substance involved in being more sustainable, and to determine what specific goals they want to achieve. Any initiative involving the city will, moreover, necessarily involve its bureaucratic processes and the competing initiatives of the mayor's office.

A Dedicated Staff is Required Amongst All Parties

A sustainable tourism program with the city will occur only if managers designate staff to implement it. Having dedicated staff does not mean that they are solely devoted to the project, but rather that they are expected to spend a meaningful portion of their time on the program. Dedicated staff also become the "point persons" for the program in their agencies, and their involvement and ownership help propel the program. This means, of course, that the staff must have sufficient capability to implement a sustainable tourism program, and they should be at a level sufficient to give it the required backing.

The Partnership Should be Memorialized

Government priorities and administrations change over time, so if the partnership is to endure over the long-term, it should be memorialized in some form of agreement among all parties. This need not be overly legalistic, but be forewarned that anything involving the government will take time and will probably have to go through the city's legal department. A memorandum of agreement is one suggested format that is formal but not legalistic or binding like a contract.

The documentation of partnership should spell out who the partners are, their roles in the sustainable tourism program, what the program involves, the planned timeline for activities, and mechanisms for tracking and maintaining the program. In practice, the key contacts should develop a good working relationship that may vary somewhat from the literal provisions of the agreement, but the point is to have something in writing that maintains the program through possible changes in personnel or priorities.

The Partnership Must be Maintained

Finally, as with any program, a sustainable tourism program with your city must be maintained more-or-less continuously over time. Both the hospitality industry and its clientele will not respond well to an initiative that is intermittent and lacks real support on the part of its sponsors. The city must be committed for the long-term and its involvement memorialized, as just discussed. But all parties must consider the program as an on-going part of their operations, not just an occasional promotional effort.

Examples of City Partnerships in Sustainable Tourism

City of Los Angeles

A good example of a productive partnership with a city for sustainable tourism is the Los Angeles Green Lodging Program, which includes the second-largest city in the U.S. as well as its CVB (the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board (LATCB)) and Green Seal as the primary partners.

The partnership formed in 2008-9 as the Los Angeles City Council began formation of a green business program to promote the city's sustainability credentials and stimulate the private sector to be more sustainable. After considerable vetting and consultation with stakeholders, the city chose Green Seal for a program to encourage hotels to get certified to reduce their environmental and human health impacts. The LATCB, a critical link to the tourism industry, was brought in as the third member of the partnership. Over the years other partners, such as the LA Better Buildings Challenge and the LA Hotel Association, joined the effort.

A formal memorandum of understanding was drafted and, after many months in the city's legal office, signed by the founding three partners. It spelled out the roles and responsibilities of each party. For example, it made clear that Green Seal was the certifier and sole arbiter of its certification mark, and put an emphasis on joint roll-out and marketing of the LA Green Lodging Program, including involvement of the mayor and mutual branding for the program. It also addressed communication among the parties, which is very important for the success of any partnership.

The LA Green Lodging Program has demonstrated both the opportunities and the challenges accruing to a municipal sustainability partnership. Having the weight of the city behind the program - including the mayor's office, the environment department (now part of the Department of Sanitation), and the mighty LA Department of Water and Power (DWP) - has given the program tremendous credibility with the city's tourism industry and helped encourage hotel owners to participate. In addition, the DWP, through the effective efforts of Sanitation staff, provided a grant or incentive program to subsidize 50% of a hotel's certification application fee and 25% of its first year's monitoring fee.

I've already mentioned the potential length of time involved in dealing with city bureaucracy, especially the legal side. Another challenge may arise from a change in administrations. In the case of Los Angeles, this not only didn't hurt the program, it actually helped it; but in other cities we have seen the opposite effect, even if the political party doesn't change. Staff resources at the municipal level may also be an issue, and even if there is a commitment on paper, that may not always translate into practice. On the whole, with the proper expectations and understandings in place, a city can be a very valuable partner.

Any long-term partnership has its vicissitudes as the priorities and resources of its partners vary over time. The LA Green Lodging Program is no exception. Fortunately, all parties have maintained the partnership regardless, and it is at its strongest point since it was formed. The new mayor (Eric Garcetti) helped jump-start the program with press conferences and incentive grants, and Green Seal established a small office in southern California to catalyze the program.

The re-energized LA Green Lodging Program is already showing the effects. Hundreds of LA hotels are being engaged to consider applying for certification, with the incentive of the city's grant program and the mayor's direct backing. As more and more hotels apply and get certified (if they meet the requirements), the city has a better story to tell the outside world about its sustainability record. A study our California office helped initiate at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Bren School of Environmental Science and Management is finding real reductions in certified hotels of greenhouse gas emissions. This benefit not only serves the state well under its legislation AB 32, but also contributes to mitigating a critical environmental challenge of our world, helping put Los Angeles in the forefront of the issue of climate change.

Other Examples

Chicago also partnered with Green Seal in sustainable tourism, twice: in 2007-8 under then Mayor Daley, where the city provided a full subsidy of a hotel's certification application fee; and informally, in 2014 on, when Mayor Emanuel's sustainability officer gave her moral support and presence to the launch of Green Seal's pilot restaurant certification program.

In the Chicago case, the partnerships were less structured and shorter-term than in Los Angeles, and that reduced their effectiveness in promoting sustainable tourism. While it was great to have the full subsidy from the city for hotel applications for certification, we found that some hotels did not fully value the program as a result; consequently, the LA grant program was structured differently as a cost-sharing with applicants. Still, it was wonderful to have Mayor Daley speak in person at our press roll-out in 2008: his commitment to the program and to making Chicago the greenest city was palpable and heart-felt.

Other municipal sustainable tourism partnerships are in the works, but have not yet coalesced, in cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Madison, Wisconsin. It should be mentioned that the same kind of partnership may work also at the state level; Green Seal has, for example, had green hotel partnerships with Pennsylvania, Georgia, and California.

Property owners and managers, along with their CVB or hotel association, should give serious consideration to a more formal partnership with their municipality for promoting sustainable tourism. Having their city (or, in more rural areas, county) directly engaged in promoting sustainable tourism can be a benefit to all parties. The city can tout its sustainability credentials to the outside world, and each property that participates in a genuine sustainability program (such as one based on third-party certification) can promote itself accordingly. Incentives and mayoral publicity can give weight to a sustainable tourism program and catalyze its acceptance across the sector.

If you are interested in implementing a municipal partnership in sustainable tourism, talk with your CVB and mayor or council member. Point out the benefits to the city and the industry. The steps to implement are not difficult - some form of written agreement is best, and the city can decide on its level of engagement. There is lots of precedent and experience to draw on, as described here.

Arthur B. Weissman, Ph.D., is an environmental professional with over thirty-five years of experience. As President and CEO of Green Seal, he has led the organization both as a force to promote the green economy and as the premier nonprofit certifier of green products and services in the United States. Dr. Weissman joined Green Seal in 1993, Becoming President and CEO in late 1996. Prior to joining Green Seal, he was responsible for developing national policy and guidance for the Superfund program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He also served as a Congressional Science Fellow and worked for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. Mr. Weissman can be contacted at 202-872-6400 or aweissman@greenseal.org Please visit http://www.greenseal.org for more information. Extended Bio...

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