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'Green' Initiatives Touted as Smart Tactic for Tourism in New Jersey

Conference attendees told 'sustainability' appeals to business travelers, bolsters bottom line for hotels.

Ziplines through a cloud forest canopy, solar-heated showers and compost toilets are images typically associated with “green” tourism.

But those attending a conference held at a chain hotel in an office park hard by a busy interstate, heard that hotels in New Jersey also can – and should – jump on the “green” bandwagon.

That’s because business and corporate travelers do pay attention.

While 41 percent of leisure travelers expect a nod in the “sustainable” direction of energy efficiency, waste recycling and water conservation, a much higher percentage -- roughly two-thirds -- of frequent business travelers expect hotels to adopt “green” measures, according to Leilani Latimer, director of sustainability initiatives for Sabre Holdings.

In general, “green” is equated with good value, she told about 75 industry representatives gathered at the DoubleTree Hotel in Franklin Township, off Route 287 in Somerset County.

What’s “green tourism?” According to Latimer, whose company includes Travelocity, as well as airline and tourism support systems, it’s hard to define but customers know it when they see it.

Many travelers look for third-party certifications that hotels, resorts, restaurants and attractions actually recycle, or have reduced their daily loads of wash, or have preserved habitats, Latimer said. Some facilities extend the term to include local farm-to-table restaurants.

One reason why she became a board member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, an industry group, Latimer said, was to try to coordinate the 143 agencies and organizations that issue “green” ratings.

That does not count government initiatives, like the new “green hotels project” sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Funded in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the idea is to help the hospitality industry, often a heavy user of energy and other resources, to meet regulatory standards, reduce emissions and even cut costs, said DEP’s Ky Asral, the program manager.

Generating roughly $38 billion in annual revenues from about 900,000 visitors a year, tourism has been an engine of the state’s economy, Asral said.

The DEP aims to “partner” with venues looking to improve their performance by reducing energy consumption, use of hazardous material and waste products, Asral said.

Anyone searching for a model hotel chain need look no farther than Parsippany-Troy Hills, the home base of Wyndham Worldwide, said Jeana Wirtenberg of Fairleigh Dickinson’s Institute for Sustainable Enterprise, another sponsor of the conference.

In 2006, the hotel, resort and rental chain launched an initiative to reduce its carbon emissions 20 percent by 2020. Wyndham has adopted and publicized a range of other strategies, some globally and some local, from new building operations to clothing made with recycled plastic to encouraging managers to bike to work, Wirtenberg said.

Newsweek has chosen Wyndham as the “greenest” hotel company for two years running, and Fortune rates it as the most admired company in the industry.

Turning good intentions into reality requires collaborative efforts “across governments, across industries, across companies,” said Faith Taylor, Wyndham senior vice president for sustainability and innovation.

“This is an issue not just here in New Jersey, it’s across the world, and the opportunity is huge as we see climate change continuing,” Taylor said.

Global warming is having a personal impact on some conference attendees, as major New Jersey tourist attractions and communities attempt to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Going “green” can be good business, according to Margaret Hunter of New Jersey American Water. In a data-packed presentation, she showed charts of water usage and related energy demand and costs.

With subsidiaries around the country, American Water sees “more and more droughts,” Hunter said. North America has the world’s most intensive water uses, she noted, and river basins through much of the West are feeling the impact.

But in the hospitality industry, upscale hotels and especially resorts in the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia, as well as the Caribbean, use far more water than the average American hotel, according to Hunter. Simple steps such as showerheads that reduce the flow of hot water, more efficient laundries and re-use of non-potable water can save money and energy, she said.

There are other ways for hotels and restaurants to go “green.”

Some small vendors saw the conference as an opportunity to introduce themselves to major players in an industry with room for growth. Bee Bold Apiaries of Essex County had the conference’s best visual -- a glass-walled demonstration hive filled with bees going about their business.

Newark native Joseph Lelinho left commercial finance 20 years when his interest in bees turned into more than a hobby. The honey-supplier business – which he operates with partner Eric Hanan, a former TV producer -- took a leap forward when the Hyatt in Jersey City invited the company to establish hives on the roof.

In a difficult time for bees -- with colonies collapsing due to pesticides and changing climate – the company sets up hives to supply honey for businesses from the Washington, D.C., area to Massachusetts. The relationship with Hyatt has expanded to include several other hotels in the chain; hotel chefs use the honey produced by the hives.

Others are looking for ways to establish more localized business relationships. At Somerville Bicycle Shop, Michael Izzo is looking for hotels or businesses willing to participate in rentals of bikes for guests or employees.

At his highly regarded New Brunswick restaurants Stage Left and Catherine Lombardi, Frank Schott said he has forged relationships with area farmers. The deals satisfy the growing demand for customers to eat authentic local food, he said.

Getting that sort of “green” message out to customers and potential customers can be easier than it might seem, according to Latimer.

For one thing, “they want to be thought of as users,” who “participate in the process” rather than simply consumers of products, she said. Having staff who can talk about food sources, cleaning products or energy savings is all part of the marketing, she said.

Even as New Jersey’s Shore-inclined tourism industry looks apprehensively toward the coming season – the state BPU was on hand to present information on loans available in areas affected by the storm-- the appeal of “green” tourism is timely throughout the state, said Michael Kerwin of the Somerset County Business Partnership, which planned the conference.

“We did a study last year and the numbers were just jaw-dropping,” he said, with $1.2 billion in tourism revenue nationally and higher-than-average spending among cultural and heritage travelers.

“We pride ourselves on being ahead of the curve, and this is the logical next step,” he said.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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