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by Sally Braley | February 25, 2013
Brenda Schultz, director of responsible business, Carlson Rezidor AmericasThe rising number of green hotel certifications can confuse the process of evaluating properties for their sustainability practices. In taking on that task for Carlson Rezidor Americas two years ago, Brenda Schultz, director of responsible business, vetted various programs for the company's North American hotels, which include the Radisson and Park Plaza brands. In the process, she compared Green Key, Green Seal, Green Globe, Energy Star and LEED certifications. Among considerations was the cost to hotels for participating. Here are her thoughts on the organizations, including the reasons why she chose Green Key as a standard for her chain's properties to attain.

The 159-room Radisson Hotel Phoenix ChandlerGreen Key (greenkeyglobal.com): "I was impressed right off because of their large presence in Canada. They had just expanded to the rest of the world. Their reputation in Canada was outstanding. Also, they were willing to negotiate costs, making it cost-effective for our hotels to participate." To earn a Green Key rating, a hotel's sustainability representative answers 160 questions in a self-audit. "When they hit submit, they get a Green Key rating," says Schultz. "No matter where they are on the scale, they get one to five keys, and an action plan giving suggestions on how to reach the next level. Pick some of these that you're able to do, and when you do your audit next year, you can get to the next level." The questionnaire assesses five main operational areas (corporate environmental management, housekeeping, F&B operations, conference and meeting facilities, and engineering) and nine sustainable practices (energy conservation, water conservation, solid-waste management, hazardous-waste management, indoor air quality, community outreach, building infrastructure, land use and environmental management). Green Key randomly audits 20 percent of the hotels in its portfolio each year. "Some of our hotels have been audited, and they always learn something," says Schultz, "but we find that most of our hotels have underestimated what they are doing."

LEED Certification (new.usgbc.org/leed): Schultz applauds Carlson Rezidor properties that seek LEED Certification, which is awarded on baseline, silver and gold levels for new and existing buildings. LEED evaluates building materials and systems, awarding credits for minimizing local environmental impact, water efficiency, energy performance, materials and more. "It's an outstanding certification for a building that can meet the requirement," says Schultz, "but in my opinion it's better for new-builds than for established properties, because most of them don't have the capital to reach the certification standard."

Green Seal (greenseal.org): This program develops sustainability standards for products, services and companies, and offers third-party certification for those that meet the strict criteria. "The biggest hurdle for us here was the cost involved," says Schultz. Also, to achieve the certification, a hotel has to meet all of the criteria on the Green Seal list. "If a hotel couldn't meet one of the standards, to spend the money to be inspected and come up with nothing didn't make sense for us. For our smaller properties that can be a difficulty."

Energy Star (www.energystar.gov): "We use them to track our water and energy consumption, but their process was not created for hotels, so it has some issues with understanding our business and why reach certain numbers," notes Schultz. "A hotel would get a better energy star rating if it was less occupied. The rating doesn't take occupancy into consideration. We would be thrilled to be rated low! That doesn't do us a lot of good."

Ultimately, Carlson Rezidor wanted to partner with one of the organizations, and Schultz sought a certification program that would work for the largest number of the North American hotels. Green Key fit those requirements. "With some of the other certifications, many of our hotels wouldn't reach the pinnacle," she says. "Still, when I was asked to vet the various certifications and help give guidance to our hotels, I didn't expect that it would become such a great partnership. If I left Carlson Rezidor today, I would happily take a position with Green Key, that's how much I think of the program." The company's current sustainability goal is to get more hotels signed up into the program. At this point, of the chain's nearly 600 hotels in North America, 97 are in the Green Key program (one hotel has a one-Green Key rating; 10 hotels have two Green Keys; 51 hotels have three Green Keys and 26 hotels have four Green Keys; another nine hotels are in the process of being rated). About 135 have a Green Key or other sustainability certification. Adds Schultz: "Ideally, I'd like every single one of them in the program."