Travel has always had a love-hate relationship with the environment, especially when it comes to hotels. On the one hand, there are eco-friendly claims. Not so long ago, anything eco-friendly evoked images of roughing it in the wilderness, doing without the essentials, stripping back and sleeping scruffy. Then the pendulum swung, and now high-end ecolodges, boutique bush experiences and luxury resorts place a hefty price on the ‘environmentally responsible’ label.
On the other hand, mainstream hotels’ new towels every day, fully ramped-up air conditioning and 24-hour activity are not exactly sustainable, especially when coupled with travellers’ decadent I’m-on-holiday mentality.
In short, for a long time, it hasn’t always been easy for many a tourist to pursue green intentions. Hotels with sustainable practices always seemed to be too raw and rustic or too expensive or just not there at all. Couldn’t a green hotel be a normal business model?
Well, travellers and those who provide for them have indeed been waking up to the possibility of accommodation that is both environmentally friendly and enjoyable, profitable and accessible.
A Melbourne Trend-Setter
Melbourne is one of the greenest cities in the world. Well on target to carbon neutrality by 2020, it has won numerous accolades. It is also supporting renovations on over 1,200 structures, retrofitting them with sustainable systems. Green walls surround buildings, recycling bins are all over the city, and trams and city bikes are normal ways to commute.
And in the middle of it all, located in the very heart of the city, is Alto Hotel, the region’s first carbon-neutral hotel, an urban idyll that proves wrong the assumption that travel necessarily taints the environment.
Founded in 2005 as a boutique accommodation with a focus on energy efficiency, Alto is in the repurposed Unity Hall building on Bourke St, former headquarters of the Australian Railways Union. Committed to running an ecologically sustainable operation, the management is bursting with environmentally friendly initiatives – separate recycling and waste bins in the rooms, on-demand hot water, 100% use of renewably sourced electricity, energy-efficient lightbulbs and rainwater harvested for the gardening and cleaning.
It’s not just lip service. Last year, Alto best practices exceeded targets measured by Green Globe Earth Watch by over 76%, and they have won both high praise and awards from varying sources, including Green Globe, Tourism Victoria and Conde Nast.
But the independently owned and operated hotel is also committed to offering a comfortable experience to their customers. Beyond the heritage Neo-Baroque facade and modern decor decorated with black-and-white images of Melbourne, we find a swapping library, a comfortable lounge, a massage room, bedroom suites with small cooking facilities, chocolate on arrival, eco-electric-powered TVs and digital radios, and complimentary coffee at all hours. They also have deliriously comfortable beds and serve one of the best breakfasts I have had in my life.
So why don’t more companies employ this kind of approach, when it clearly works? Keen to learn more, I spoke to Gary Strickland, General Manager of Alto.
There was once an assumption that eco-friendly accommodation meant roughing it, camping and squat toilets. Today the perception is that it’s only premium and pricey, with luxury resorts charging a lot for being environmentally friendly. Who are your main clientele?
Our focus is on a being a quality hotel and offering first-class hospitality. This helps overcome the perception of “compromise” to achieve eco-friendly status. Our clientele are a mix of mainly leisure/holiday travellers with regular business guests. Over 40% of surveyed guests say that our enviro initiatives are one of the reasons they chose to stay with us. Bookings are based on guests’ personal values and how they align with our company values.
There seems to be a growing awareness of the need to engage in sustainable behaviour. Do you see this amongst guests?
We feel that there are some great ecotourism accommodations in countryside and near wilderness areas. While these do some significant and important work in areas of conservation and awareness/appreciation of natural settings, the greatest impact can be made in cities where there are greater numbers of travellers and therefore even a small improvement in environmental sustainability becomes magnified by the volume of travellers. Melbourne is a progressive city with a focus on being the most liveable. Sustainability is one aspect of liveability.
What feedback have you had from guests?
The comments are very positive overall. Initially, we did not promote our program in a major way, but once we started telling guests a little more about what we do, the feedback was immediately positive. Therefore we increased our communications in this regard. Many choose Alto due to our eco-friendly program and it seems that when you can prove that a hotel can be sustainable and still deliver on everything else, we are able to convince a few more people to think about sustainability in a range of areas.
Which are your ‘favourite’ initiatives?
My favourites are the free parking for hybrid and electric vehicles, as it gives a reward to guests who are making an effort with sustainability. It was devised by one of our staff, not a management idea. Easy to replicate is giving guests a bin for recyclable items. Most city-dwelling people do this at home, so it is already second nature. Even if they don’t use it, the hotel is not worse off in eco terms. It is also the most successful in adoption and utilisation. People love the bee hives on our rooftop and having the honey on our breakfast table is a novelty. There are so many winners here. Guests get tasty raw unadulterated honey, neighbours get pollination of plants, community gets an improved public gardens, agriculture gets a larger stronger bee population.
What is next for Alto?
A green wall in the foyer with some herbs and vegetables fruits is on the planning board. We are also installing a webcam for the bee hives, so guests can see them in action. Plus, improving our food and wine provenance to more local produce and sustainable producers, which will make us more integrated into the community.
One of the challenges that Alto has found is one seen across many businesses focusing on being ‘green’ – while people want sustainable options, they are generally not willing to pay more than a very small premium. However, the business model has clearly been a success, with over 75% of re-bookings citing the values demonstrated by the hotel as a key reason to visit again. Alto are on the lookout for opportunities to replicate and improve the concept, either in Melbourne or further afield, and a project for a new build from sustainable materials in Adelaide is in the early stages. Tourism can be profitable and sustainable, and within a city. It just takes people to prove it.