Trade Talk: Alexandra Murray of Hilton

The global hospitality giant’s Area Vice President and Head of South East Asia elaborates on sustainability programs around the region and Hilton’s vision for a net-zero future.

All photos courtesy of Hilton

Why do you think hotels should take greater responsibility in inspiring travelers to live greener?

The way we travel undoubtedly has a huge impact on the environment. As a company that has been operating for 103 years, Hilton is deeply committed to the destinations where we operate in. And as one of the world’s largest hospitality companies, we recognize it is our critical responsibility to our communities and our planet, so the destinations where we operate can remain vibrant and resilient for generations of travelers to come. This includes fostering opportunities for our guests to travel more sustainably through a wide range of initiatives aimed at making a positive environmental and social impact, from reducing the use of single-use plastics to opting for locally- and responsibly-sourced food ingredients.

 

In your opinion, what are some of the major challenges when it comes to developing sustainable tourism in South East Asia?

As travel recovers, the consumption of resources naturally increases and we have identified three key areas of environmental impact: energy, water, and waste. Waste, in particular, is more closely linked to occupancy than energy or water and we are working with our partners, including waste haulers, suppliers, and donation partners, to find innovative ways to reduce waste.

By the end of 2023, all our hotels across the region will offer full-sized bath amenities instead of miniature toiletry bottles, reducing each hotel’s single-use plastics footprint from bathroom amenities by at least 50 percent. Our Digital Key program allows guests to check in virtually at more than 80 percent of our properties worldwide. To date, Digital Key has been used to open more than 135 million guest room doors and has reduced plastic waste by more than 125 tons globally. Many of our hotels around the world have also implemented sustainable hydration solutions such as reusable drinking vessels, refill stations, and closed-loop bottling systems.

We know that developing sustainable tourism and addressing climate change does not happen overnight and through our work alone. We are fully committed to do our part and it is crucial that everyone in the industry recognizes the need to do their part and commit to collective action and work together to further sustainable and lasting change in the region.

 

There’s a lot of greenwashing these days. How do ordinary holidaymakers identify brands or companies that are actively making a difference for the planet?

Social and environmental impact has long been a priority for us. As one of the world’s largest hotel companies, we take our commitment to driving responsible travel and tourism very seriously. We are the first global hospitality company to set science-based climate targets to hold ourselves accountable, with a robust corporate governance structure to strategically review and recommit to our goals every five years. Our targets are validated by external organizations such as the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a global body enabling businesses to set ambitious emissions reductions targets in line with the latest climate science.

We are also committed to measurable progress and have enhanced our measurement systems to track progress towards our goals. Our hotels use LightStay, our proprietary ESG management platform that allows us to track our energy, emissions, water, waste, and social impact. It is a brand standard for each Hilton property to log their environmental and social data into the LightStay platform, which allows us to measure progress towards our environmental and social goals across the company. LightStay has been recognized by the UN-founded Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), the most respected seal of approval for sustainable travel and tourism practices. In 2021, LightStay was also recognized by Google as an approved program for their initiative to label eco-certified hotels. When searching for hotels on Google, consumers can now find the green leaf beside all Hilton properties, indicating their commitment to sustainability practices.

We have received significant recognition for our ESG efforts and progress, having been named to the World and North American Dow Jones Sustainability Indices (DJSI) for five consecutive years. We are also the only hotel company to earn Gold Class distinction in S&P Global’s Sustainability Yearbook.

 

The organic Iris Farm at Conrad Koh Samui.

What are some sustainability initiatives guests can take part in when they stay at a Hilton property?

Across the region, our properties have a wide range of initiatives and meaningful experiences to make sustainability very accessible for our guests. For example, guests at Conrad Koh Samui can embark on a tour of the resort’s Iris Farm to experience how vegetables and fruits are grown organically and try their hand at collecting eggs, composting, and harvesting vegetables — all which they can then enjoy as part of our curated menus.

Conrad Maldives Rangali Island offers its own coral propagation program where guests have the opportunity to place coral “babies” onto a rope where they will be rehabilitated in a coral nursery at sea. Participants will also receive updates from the resort over the next one to two years, so guests are kept informed on how their baby coral is growing and learn when they get transplanted into their natural habitat.

Conrad Bangkok seeks to connect our guests with the communities in which we operate. Since the hotel opened in 2004, each and every elephant silk doll that is given to our guests is handmade by a group of artisans in Chiang Mai to help further our guests’ appreciation of local craftsmanship and connect them to the community.

 

Can you tell us a bit about Hilton’s Travel with Purpose 2030 goals? What sort of environmental targets is the group aiming to hit within Southeast Asia?

Travel with Purpose is Hilton’s Environment, Social, and Governance strategy to redefine and advance sustainable travel globally. In 2018, we launched our Travel with Purpose 2030 goals, making us the first major hospitality company to set science-based climate targets to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in line with climate science. It is integrated through every aspect of our business, including our operations, our supply chain, and our engagement with our communities.

This year, we have raised the bar on our carbon and energy goals and launched ambitious new social impact targets on a global level. From cutting our hotel portfolio emissions intensity by up to 75 percent by 2030, we also aim to cut water use and waste by 50 percent in our managed operations. On the social impact front, we aim to create 5 million learning and career growth opportunities for Team Members and communities with a focus on underrepresented groups, meaningfully impact 20 million community members, and promote responsible, inclusive conduct across 100 percent of our value chain operations. These new goals will help us pave the way toward a net-zero future and shift our focus to measuring the immense impact we are making across the globe.

 

Left to right: A sustainable menu at Conrad Centennial Singapore; staff members at Conrad Koh Samui’s Iris Farm.

How do Meet with Purpose events drive positive change in local communities? And how can organizers or attendees manage their carbon footprint?

Our Meet with Purpose program gives customers, meeting planners, and travel managers the tools to integrate social and environmental considerations into their meetings and events, and to help their attendees Gather, Nourish and Impact purposefully.

For Gather, our proprietary LightStay platform helps guests convene in a more sustainable way by tracking and reporting on a group’s hotel-related emissions, so they can make informed, low-waste choices and obtain carbon credits to mitigate the carbon footprint of their gatherings. We also offer customers Carbon Neutral Meetings at many of our hotels, in which Hilton will offset the event’s carbon emissions by investing in a portfolio of high-quality carbon reduction projects with our partner, South Pole.

For Nourish, we offer climate-conscious menus featuring locally-sourced and sustainably-grown meals designed to boost energy and minimize leftovers, while also nourishing others in the local community by donating remaining food, where permitted. For Impact, we provide opportunities for meeting attendees to volunteer in the community as part of their stay. This empowers our customers to convene sustainably and assists them in achieving their own ESG goals.

 

What are some of the ways Hilton has been reducing food miles and cutting down on water and energy usage at its properties across the region?

Our hotels practice local sourcing, in which they procure food and beverage ingredients from local farms and fisheries as much as possible. Some of our properties also grow their own ingredients on rooftop gardens or farms.

Spanning around 8,000 square meters (or two acres), Conrad Koh Samui’s Iris Farm is one of the largest hotel-managed organic farms in South East Asia. The farm produces some 1,300 kilograms of fruit and vegetables and 6,000 chicken and duck eggs every month for the resort’s restaurants and bars, as well as cacao and coffee beans for chocolate bars and ice cream.

It is also a model of the circular economy, where the property can restore soil quality using food waste, grow produce for the hotel’s restaurants, and control the quality of the produce. The farm also leads by example in waste management. Around 2,500 kilograms of food waste per month are composted, recycled, and reused throughout the property, such as converting food waste into nutrient-rich soil products that gradually regenerate the soil to grow high-quality produce.

Across Hilton, we have established a global food waste reduction program in our hotels that includes thoughtful menu planning, food donation where possible, and recycling of food loss and waste to other uses such as animal feed and compost. This also helps to divert food waste from landfills.

To reduce energy usage, our hotels will begin transitioning to LED lights for all interior and exterior light bulbs over the next two years as part of our brand standards. We also work closely with our hotels to reduce water consumption, drive water efficiency, and recycle. We continually train our Team Members to take steps to save water, and many of our hotels also encourage our guests to join us in this effort. A number of our hotels across the region have also implemented or are considering pump optimization initiatives, in which Hilton has been working closely with our partners to provide our hotels with a no-cost or shared savings solution to increase water efficiency, reduce energy consumption, and save costs. The first hotel to implement this strategy is Hilton Hua Hin and the property now enjoys reductions of more than 30 percent in running costs on their large pumps.

 

The house reef at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

How is the group-wide commitment to going net-zero playing out in the design and construction of new hotels?

Net-zero is an extremely ambitious commitment that relies on dramatic transformational change, from technology advancement and legislative changes to renewable power infrastructure. As we pave the way to a net-zero future, we are taking incremental steps, and our ambitious 2030 emissions targets are a strong milestone in our journey.

In 2021, we refreshed our Energy and Water Efficient Design Companion Guide to guide hotels on design decisions and offer improvements that can be made during the property’s development, refurbishment, and maintenance to advance its environmental performance. We also track operational, design, and construction sustainability practices, enabling our hotels to share best practices across our portfolio and partner with our owners to build and invest accordingly.

Earlier this year, Hilton also announced a new commitment to venture capital fund Fifth Wall’s Climate Tech Fund that will invest in software, hardware, renewable energy, energy storage, smart buildings and carbon sequestration technologies to decarbonize the $10.5 trillion real estate industry.

Our commitment to sustainability extends from new hotels to our refurbished properties. Hotel Marcel New Haven, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, which opened early this year, is Hilton’s first net-zero hotel in the U.S. Originally designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer in 1967, the thoroughly updated property is entirely independent of fossil fuels, being powered onsite primarily from solar panels that cover both the hotel rooftop and parking lot while state-of-the-art retrofits of triple-glazed glass and insulation contribute to the energy efficiency.

In South East Asia, one of the most exciting energy and sustainability-related projects that is about to commence is a large solar-powered system in Waldorf Astoria Maldives Ithaafushi. Once installed and operational, the system will help the resort reduce its reliance on diesel fuel (an annual savings of around 550,000L) and cut the resort’s annual carbon emissions by around 1,531,200 kg. Our Conrad and Hilton properties in the Maldives are also investigating their solar options. We will continue to support innovation and improvements to our properties as we pave the way to a net-zero future.

 

What are the key sustainability trends that will shape the travel and hospitality industry in 2023?

Sustainability is not only trending, it has become part of almost every conversation and filters into travelers’ decision making on many levels. According to our newest trends report, The 2023 Traveler: Emerging Trends that are Innovating the Travel Experience, we found that more than ever, travelers are turning to travel for deeper, more immersive experiences as they look to create meaningful change and positively impact the communities they visit.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we also see this trend of sustainability in business travel as more customers ask to hold carbon-neutral meetings or reduce the environmental impact of their corporate travel, but are not sure how to update their travel and event programs to align with their own sustainability goals, initiatives, or corporate policies, nor how to measure the impact of those decisions. This is where we can come in to assist them as we recognize that the success of our business and meeting changing consumer demands is intrinsically linked to our ability to operate and grow sustainably.

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