At a conference in Orlando last week (full disclosure: Marriott covered travel costs to Orlando), Marriott International executives had a message for some three thousand general managers of the company's hotels. From now on, said the executives, Marriott would be tailoring its hotels – and its marketing efforts – toward Millennials, the generational cohort that represents the future of the hotel industry's customer base.
“These Millennial travelers will be our dominant customer segment for the next 20 years,” said Janis Milham, global brand manager for Courtyard, Marriott’s 30-year-old brand for business travelers.
Hotel rooms have been reworked to appeal to the design sensibilities of younger travelers. Lobbies, often treated as little more than a conduit for ferrying guests from the front desk to their rooms, have been made more welcoming and communal, with Starbucks cafes, free WiFi and bistros that serve small plates and plenty of booze.
Marriott even announced this week that it was importing AC Hotels – the chic, design-focused, ultra-European hotel brand – to North America to snatch a larger slice of the multi-billion dollar market of trendy travelers born after 1980.
And Marriott knows that Millennials care about more than sleek design; they care about sustainability, too.
“Today what's different, I think, between Boomers and Millennials, is that there's convenient green and real green,” says Brian King, Marriott’s senior vice president of global brand management. “The Millennials,” he says, “especially the younger Millennials, are super sensitive about green.”
Still, Millennials' "super sensivity" might balk at the size of Marriott’s environmental tread, a footprint so colossal that it must be measured in the millions of units. In 2011, for example, Marriott’s more than 3,800 hotels emitted the equivalent of nearly 3 million tons of carbon dioxide, consumed more than 53 million cubic meters of water, and burned more than 6 million megawatt hours of energy, according to the company’s sustainability report [PDF].
Some industry experts have wondered whether the type of hospitality expected at upscale hotels fundamentally undermines efforts to go green. According to a report from the International Hotel Management School at the Breda University of Applied Scientists, “a significant portion of the hotel industry leaders is indeed skeptical to applying environmentally friendly practices in a hotel setting.”
Imposing as these environmental and industry challenges may seem, Marriott has decided to tackle them. Arne Sorenson, who last year replaced J.W. Marriott Jr. as the company’s CEO, seems to be Marriott International's man to do the tackling.
“We talk about [corporate social responsibility] all the time, in the board room,” says Sorenson in his calm, deliberate baritone. “So it is a very visible part of what we're doing.”
Sorenson, whom underlings admiringly call “Arne,” co-founded Marriott’s Global Sustainability Council in 2007, and in 2008, he launched Marriott’s rainforest preservation partnership with the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation in Brazil to adopt 1.5 million acres of jungle.
“When you ask: ‘Is there leadership in the C-suite?' I would say, 'Arne's our Chief Global Citizen,'” says Kathleen Matthews, who sits in the C-suite herself as executive vice president and chief global communications and public affairs officer. “He basically challenges the team to try to figure out how you can do [a project] so that it meets both purposes,” sustainability and profitability.
Under Sorenson’s leadership, Marriott has set a goal of reducing energy and water consumption by 20 percent per room compared with a 2007 baseline. To that end, the company has deployed a slew of advanced technologies in its hotels to “monitor, control and optimize how we effectively operate equipment to reduce consumption,” according to Lenny Jachimowicz, who leads the company’s engineering team.
Marriott has also developed LEED-certified room prototypes that can be installed at new and existing hotels without having to achieve certification on a case by case basis.
“It's pretty rigorous to go through a LEED certification, and we've actually worked with the U.S. Green Building Council to pre-certify so if you build this prototype exactly… you don't have to go through all the hoops to be LEED-certified,” says Milham. “Most of our new builds are LEED-certified.”
Matthews credits the attractiveness of the LEED prototype to Sorenson’s driving leadership.
“When we had the volume-build LEED certify prototype for all those brands,” she says, “he challenged the organization to figure out a funding model for that project” so that hotel owners “would get a return based on the energy and water savings on that project within 18 months, so that it wasn’t just a green volume prototype that was sitting out there that nobody would ever build because it was too expensive.”
Sorenson agrees that environmental and economic benefit must be coupled for sustainability programs to succeed.
“You should not hold these initiatives to any lower standard than you do anything else, because if you do, you will not put enough pressure on the environmental movement to develop technologies which are highly replicable,” he says.
“We won't change the world if we instead say we just want you to do it because it’s a good thing to do even though it doesn't make any economic sense.”
Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens