One of the foremost environmental champions in this industry with over 30 years of experience in hospitality, Param Kannampilly is the chairman & managing director, Concept Hospitality Pvt. Ltd. (CHPL), a hotel management consultancy. CHPL owns & manages The Fern brand, India’s leading environmentally hotels & resorts. A name synonymous with the birth of ecotels in India or for that matter Asia, he is a member of the Board of Governors at IHMCT Mumbai and chairman of The Institute of Hospitality, London (Western India Chapter). In a free-wheeling chat with Shashwat DC of Sustainuance.
You have taken great strides to create ecofriendly hotels. But how did you get the public to believe that all this was real and not just subject to green-washing?
I realized that whatever efforts were put into making and developing ecofriendly hotels would all come to nothing until and unless there was proof that whatever was being done was true. I knew that until and unless we had an acceptance and a certificate stating that we had done this, nobody would believe us. So we took initiatives to spread the word as fast as possible. We were lucky that at the time of opening, there was a hotel convention. At the convention we invited all the heads to come and take a tour of our property. That was one way of winning over the public’s trust. But what we really wanted was a certificate that would really be proof that all this was not hogwash. So we wrote to Ecotel in the US and requested a certificate on the basis of the kind of work we were doing. They came and met us, verified our work and even trained the staff on handling the facilities. As a result, we have a very educated and knowledgeable staff that is well versed on the subject of what an ecotel is and how an ecotel should function. Of course there was criticism but we were able to cut down on that by getting industry peers to see for themselves what we were doing so they wouldn’t think it was greenwashing.
Mumbai is a hub where you have the leading brands as your competitors. Is there a space for five-star ecofriendly hotels?
We have an STP report that compares the performance of all the luxury hotels, so we know where we stand in the competition. We are at least three points higher than all the luxury hotels put together. Although that’s not much of a lead, it still is something.
Although you started this concept in the 90’s and hoped that the ecofriendly movement would catch on, you are however, the only person to have not only initiated something like this but also extended the concept to other hotels that you designed. Why is this so? Do hoteliers view sustainable development as a risk?
In my experience, knowledge is something that everyone wants, but they do not know how to go about it. So on our website, we have put quite a lot of data on everything that we have undertaken. But somehow they are skeptical about it and none of the certifying agencies are really going out as educators. So it is slightly disappointing to know that many are not interested and that the movement is growing but at a snail’s space.
There is no dearth of money as far as luxury hotels are concerned. They spare no expense in investing in the latest technology or expensive upholstery. Why is it that these top hotels at that time not move into the sustainability space?
We coined a term at that time – luxury with responsibility. Our ads always carried the words “luxury with responsibility.” What this meant was that all our actions were behind the scene. Though our guests could comfortably enjoy air conditioning, they were unaware that an SDL was been used or that the hot water being supplied was not via a geezer. We make sure that though we are moving in the direction of sustainability, the comfort of the guest is never compromised. We made sure that whatever product we used had been certified as being environmentally friendly.
We were the first to work with suppliers to take back their containers. We made sure that our products were never packaged in card board cartons but in crakes. All our pulses and vegetables that were packaged in polythene bags were immediately returned and we wanted cloth bags instead. Today a number of hotels have their buildings certified as being ‘ecofriendly.’ And that is where it ends. You can have 200 building that are certified as being ecofriendly, but what about the practices? To get your practices certified is a measure of your consumption on a daily basis of what you’re wasting on earth. That’s where the hotel industry is missing the point. Most of the hotels do not allow external certification mainly because it’s easy to get a building certified but what about the staff and the practices that truly account for the waste? Of course something is better than nothing, but if you want to move in the direction of being sustainable, go the whole way.
While sustainable development may seem rather fashionable, it may not be very affordable. Are customers willing to pay a premium knowing that the hotel is an ecotel?
A number of studies have revealed that between seven percent and 14 percent customers are willing to pay extra. If a tour operator gives tourists a zero-carbon emission holiday, they are willing to pay higher for it. We however have not conducted any kind of research because our country is still not getting the required number of tourists. We are getting about five to five-and-a-half-lakh customers, which is not that bad considering that China had to deal with much worse when they started out. Today, however, China gets about 35 million customers which is not the case with our country. Hotel business in India is dependent on the corporate movement. The corporate movement is a negotiated movement; it is not an individual choice movement. How this spans out is extremely simple. The company negotiates with a few hotels and you as an employee of the company will stay in one of those hotels if you wish to have your bills reimbursed. It’s difficult to conduct any kind of research as of now since the number of customers is not high. This will definitely change, but it will take time.
Most of the hoteliers who wish to incorporate sustainability are largely driven by the advantages such as cutting costs and increasing profits. However, the equipment needed to consume less power, or air conditioners that emit no CFCs can be expensive. Is that one of the reasons for skepticism among hoteliers?
This and lack of belief also has a lot to do with regard to the skepticism. However, it is what happens in the long run that truly matters. Yes, initially it is expensive, especially since some of the equipment is not available in India. But if you look at the wider picture, incorporating sustainable practices within the hotel is considerably cheaper. Our hot water for instance comes from air conditioning plants. The heat from the air conditioning plant is used by a condenser to heat up the water to 50 degrees. So by doing this we are saving on electricity without compromising on the comfort of the customer.
You have often stated that it is the staff that makes maximum use of the resources. How did you get the staff motivated to practice and understand sustainable development?
The most difficult task about running an ecotel is to educate the staff. That for us was the biggest challenge. To overcome that, we had what we called as a ‘green team.’ We had two employees from every department in the hotel empowered to stop any practices that were not in line with our green philosophy. And they became a powerful reckoning force. To further educate the employees, we made it mandatory that they sit for an exam testing their basic knowledge on the environment. So with that everything changed. This became very inherent to the hotel and was soon seen as a culture that needed to be followed.
When you first came up with the idea of an ecotel, there was no question of competition, mainly because no one else was running an ecotel. Did you view sustainability as profitable or was it a risk?
The idea of creating an ecotel came with number of perks because, it not only was different but also had a competitive edge. That’s when I took it upon myself to understand the subject of what sustainable development truly meant. That was when I realized that sustainability actually means three things – reduce, reuse and recycle. And it was on the basis of these three principles that we constructed the Orchid hotel. Our aim was to reduce on the energy system in the best way possible. So we made use of mono screw chillers – which is a type of conditioning plant that reduces the energy load considerably. I also made sure that during the construction of the hotel, the cement used had a recycling element in it. Then we wanted to reduce the water wastage because the BMC was not giving enough water. So we tied up with GEM who agreed to install a flow restrictor which cuts off water by almost 50 percent. We also made use of MDF made from cotton plants. All our furniture is made of MDF. That is how we have been able to build one of the most energy efficient hotels ever using the principles of reduce, reuse and recycle. Then we introduced a bumper panel, whereby the air conditioning was reduced by two degrees; half a degree every half an hour. In two hours it was reduced by two degrees.
How did you involve the guests to participate in the ‘green movement?’
We also created a small green button on the panel so that guests could voluntarily press it. By pressing the green button, guests were participating with us in the creation of a greener society. That is how we got the guests to participate into the act. We were the first to introduce an interactive TV because we wanted guests to know that our hotel was different. The interactive TV was essential as we had to communicate to each guest personally. It was with the help of these TVs that the message would flash, welcoming the particular guest and thereafter explaining what we were doing. That was how we built our clientele and fan following.