ISSN 1108-8931


Year 6 - Issue 74 - Sep 05

Sponsored by: Zante Feast Discovery Holidays, Hana Maui Botanical Gardens, Jorth Consult Limited, Pacuare Lodge, Ecolife 2005 Fair

Index of Interviews

Elliot Helman:
Greening San Francisco's Tourism

Mr Elliot HelmanElliot’s interest in tourism, conservation, and sustainable development grew out of his volunteer work in Africa in 1990- 1993. He has since completed a Masters Degree in Ecotourism from San Francisco State University (graduating with honors in 2004) and is currently involved in promoting urban ecotourism in his hometown- San Francisco, California through the San Francisco Green Hotel & Hospitality Initiative. Elliot was also the first person to join ECOCLUB, in early 2000. You can chat to Elliot Helman LIVE on Tuesday 27 September 2005, at 15:00 GMT, at the Live Chat Centre.

Whose initiative was SF Green Hotel & Hospitality Initiative (SFGHHI), what prompted its creation and in what ways is it innovative?

In a way, the creation of the San Francisco Green Hotel & Hospitality Initiative (SFGHHI) was a result of the events of 9/11. I was working as the Environmental Specialist at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts has an exemplary environmental program for all of its properties. I was in the position of driving the program for the flagship property in SF. As a result of the post-9/11 economic down turn, my position was dissolved.

With the situation in the hospitality industry what it was, I decided to focus on finishing my graduate degree at San Francisco State University with a special major in Ecotourism. With a group of partners, I own a plot of land on Lake Malawi (Africa). For my graduate project I was working on a 'triple bottom line' business plan for the development of an ecolodge on the property. As I immersed myself in my studies, writing a business plan, and part time work, I remained involved with a number of local organizations focusing on environmental issues in the hospitality industry, which is SF's largest business community.

I heard about a commercial recycling grant program sponsored by the city's Department of the Environment, which was designated to assist the commercial sector in increasing recycling. I submitted a grant proposal, which was similar to the work I had been doing at the Fairmont. This grant, however, was designed to offer support and services in the area of recycling to all hotels in the City of SF and was specifically intended to mesh the policies of the city with the business needs of the hotels.

The grant was accepted, but involved almost 3 years of red tape with the City. I began my position as director of the San Francisco Green Hotel and Hospitality Initiative in January of this year. The grant is funded by the city and administered by my Alma Mater, SF State University.

The grant is innovative in that it leverages a number of existing no-cost programs available to hotels which both reduce negative environmental impacts while reducing waste removal costs to the hotels. The key component is that the grant funds a position (mine) for a coordinator, mediator, negotiator, and general support person. I am able to coordinate between the hotel environment and the regulatory and support programs of the City. While there are free services available, such as recycling, energy audits, and water and energy saving rebates; as well as low-cost/reduced-costs services (food waste composting) many hotels were not taking advantage of these programs. Given the nature of the hospitality industry, staff are busy with ongoing duties and dealing with the unexpected events which arise given the nature of the business. Even in properties where there is a genuine interest in environmental matters, it is no one's job to be looking at these issues. What was needed for the hotels to take advantage of the programs is exactly what the SFGHHI provides: a person who could coordinate between existing programs and hotel staff, to bundle together the best recycling options for the properties. In essence, having one knowledgeable person, dedicated to working as a liaison, educator, and facilitator is what has been most successful and useful to the hotels.

What is your personal role within the SFGHHI?

The grant under which SFGHHI is administered has only one staff person - me! However, I have been able to utilize the services of student interns, which allows me to increase the effectiveness and impact of the work. The student interns are another innovative aspect of this program. It is a concrete way to get the 'next generation' of hotel managers to be aware of these issues and what can be done to mediate them.

You are also involved with the SF Hotel Non-Profit Collaborative (HNPC) - kindly explain its achievements and in what way it complements SFGHHI?

The HNPC is an informal association of hotels and non-profit organizations in the City. It provides an avenue for hotels to identify possible ways of diverting usable discards that are typically part of a hotel's waste stream. This would include food overages, beds, bedding, furniture, bathroom amenities, convention items, etc. Instead of ending up as landfill wastes, these items become assets within the community through donations to non-profit organizations that serve the homeless and poor populations of the City. As the hotels take advantage of recycling these items it also cuts back on their waste removal fees (which, in San Francisco are among the highest in the nation).

The HNPC was established about 8 years ago by Jo Licata, Community Projects Manager at the SF Hilton & Towers, one of the largest hotels in the city. The hotel sits at the crossroad between the City's cultural center- Union Square; with galleries, theatres, and restaurants; and the City's notorious Tenderloin area where homelessness, prostitution, and drug use are prominently seen. The Hilton literally has its front doors in the Union Square district and its back doors in the Tenderloin.

The General Manager of the hotel, at the time of Jo's position being established wanted to do something about the graffiti and other problems that were literally at the hotel's back door. He established the Community Projects Manager position in order to, as Mr Gantz eloquently puts it, "be a good neighbor." Ms Licata began by establishing a relationship with the personnel running the non-profit social service agencies working within the community at the back door. Jo started by asking them what they needed and how the hotel might help.

The hotel began to make donations-in-kind of the many items that hotels typically throw away but still have a useable life. Jo began communicating her work to other hotel people and over time, more hotels have joined and become involved.

Since I have begun work on the SFGHHI, I have made involvement in the HNPC part of the bundle of services I offer to the hotels I work with. The way I see it, reducing costs and environmental impacts through donation is just one of the many tools at the disposal of an urban hotel. I have been able to almost double the active involvement of hotels and other hospitality organizations in the Collaborative. We are now averaging upwards of 10,000 pounds of donated materials per month (we were at 13,741 pounds for August), which represents a cost savings to the hotels of $80- $250 per month (depending on the volume of donations and type of garbage service they have).

We currently have the active involvement of approximately 20 hotels (with perhaps another 20 sporadically involved) and around 30 non-profits.

What in your view are currently the major ongoing problems of the San Francisco Hotel and Hospitality Sector, within and beyond the environment?

A major problem right now is the ongoing labor dispute. While the lock out of workers that we saw at the beginning of the year has ended, there has been no resolution and no contract. And there doesn't seem to be any movement towards resolution.

A specific discussion of all of the issues is beyond the scope of this interview, and frankly, beyond my full understanding. I can say however, that union issues are an ongoing problem in the work that I do. Any change in work procedures at a hotel (such as a change from throwing everything in the trash to sorting items for recycling and/or donation) is seen as a potential violation of the union agreement. For example, if a hotel wants to begin collecting bathroom amenities (soaps, shampoos, lotions, etc.) that now go into the garbage for donation to a homeless shelter, the housekeeping staff typically sees this as a union issue requiring a renegotiation- a lengthy and costly process for the hotel. Consequently, most of the environmental programs at the hotels that involve staff are 'voluntary.' If they require employees to make sorting for recycling (or donating) part of their job, they will be in violation of the union agreement. In order to change their environmental performance, hotels must change the ways in which they operate. If every change requires a renegotiation, there will be very little impetus to change.

The current labor dispute has cost hotels (and the City) million of dollars in lost sales. Hotels are less likely to make any changes or do anything that involves union issues in the current environment. It is also worth noting that during the lock out period, virtually all recycling ended at the affected hotels, as the remaining staff struggled to simply keep the doors opened.

Another problem I see is the lack of market demand for a 'green' hotel product. Businesses respond to consumer demand. When consumers demand responsibility from businesses, it pushes business toward responsibility. I have not seen, or been able to uncover, any significant demand (or even interest) on the part of consumers for hotels to act more responsibly (environmentally and/or socially). Part of the problem may be information/education. Most people don't even think about these issues, particularly in urban environments, particularly in the 'developed' world.

A good case in point was the recent World Environment Day (which was actually a week) activities here in SF. The hotels that were chosen by WED for housing the UN delegates and their entourages were not any of the ones who have been most actively involved in either the HNPC or the SFGHHI (that is, those most actively involved in dealing with issues of sustainability). Instead, they chose hotels that were not affected by the labor dispute, which meant non-union hotels. While the majority of the large hotels we work with are union, there are non-union hotels that are part of our programs as well. However, it seems that environmental performance or commitment were simply not a part of the criteria that WED had for selecting accommodations. A huge opportunity was lost to both highlight and reward the hotels that supported the ideals of WED and to allow the to profit from their efforts. Moreover, I fail to see how patronizing non-union hotels (those that refuse to allow the union in) furthers the cause of striking hotel workers.

How do you measure SFGHHI 's performance? For example, how do you monitor where the recycled material ends up? And where does it end up?

I compile monthly reports that I submit to the Department of the Environment and to the administrator of the grant at the university. The report includes the following information: Amount of hours spent at each hotel Activities engaged in Amount of material recycled at each hotel Amount of food waste composted at each hotel Amount of material donated from each hotel

I also keep detailed records of materials donated through the HNPC. These include: Items donated and dates of pick ups Names of donating hotels Names of receiving non profits Weight of material donated Disposal cost savings for each donating hotel

As I said, we average over 10,000 pounds of donated material through the HNPC. On the recycling and food waste composting side, I have been averaging between 70,000 - 100,000+ pounds of recyclables and food waste diverted per month.

All of the recycling and composting is done by our municipal trash company (Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling). The food waste is brought to a facility about 60 miles outside of the City where it goes through the several-month process of breaking down into compost. Golden Gate has received organic certification for its compost, so is able to sell it at a premium. The majority goes to farmers, particularly to vineyards in Northern California's rapidly expanding wine country.

The recyclables (waste paper, bottles, and cans) are sold on the commodities market. I am not really involved at that end- although the company is tightly regulated by the City and other governmental bodies and I feel confident that they deal with recyclables in an environmentally- and socially-responsible manner.

Does your initiative have (or is exploring), any inner city poverty amelioration and health improvement parameters, through or beyond recycling?

The donation aspect goes directly to programs working in these areas.

Last year, a major hotel strike and lockout affected San Francisco for almost a month, in a dispute over health benefit reductions and increased workloads. Could a hotel be using the environment (as window-dressing) and at the same time be oblivious to the needs of their employees? Does your initiative, or yourself, have any position on San Francisco hotel labour issues - or you feel that it is a taboo / divisive subject? 

I don't think that any of the hotels are using environmental programs as window dressing. The fact is that for the most part, the majority of hotels do not even make their environmental programs public. They just don't see it as anything the public might be interested in. I have offered to assist hotels in making information available to guests through tent cards or brochures; I have yet to have any success in getting a hotel to publicize their environmental initiatives. From a management standpoint it seems to be a matter of employee incentive (a 'feel-good program) or a cost-saving measure; but nothing worthy of publicizing. This is unfortunate because it could be an opportunity for industry to drive the market for green hotels by educating their guests.

Discussing the labor dispute is not taboo, but it certainly has been very divisive.

What has been the role of the state so far in assisting your non-governmental initiative? Would you welcome more government assistance, or would it compromise your identity?

I'm not sure here if you mean state (California) government, Federal (US) government, or any government at all. I have already explained the role of City government- they are funding my work for this year. I would welcome another year of funding, however, the City has elected not to fund the SFGHHI beyond this year. The HNPC has never had any other funding sources which is part of the beauty- diverting tons of material from landfills and providing support for the non-profit groups has not cost a single penny to taxpayers.

The State of California has initiated a Green Lodging Certification program. Under this program, hotels that gain Green Certification become 'preferred vendors' for state employees when traveling on state business. Marketing is a key element that seems to be missing from the state program; that is, there is not much marketing provided by the state to promote hotels that become certified. Moreover, state-sponsored hotel rates are well below the average cost per room in San Francisco, so I don't think this program will have much effect in our local market.

What is your evaluation of the laws governing tourism development in the San Francisco area in terms of their efficiency in protecting the environment?

There are of course many environmental laws that apply to all businesses, but I am not aware of any laws specific to tourism that aim at protecting the environment. It is an area completely under the radar screen

So is Urban Ecotourism slowly taking hold in San Francisco, or are we just witnessing a light green reform in the local representatives of multinational hotel chains?

With the exception of one locally-based, national hospitality company, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, I don't see any greening of hotels at the corporate level. I would like to see Urban Ecotourism take hold (along with a wider understanding and acceptance of the term). I think that San Francisco is in a unique position- we have a very environmentally (and socially) proactive and progressive City; this applies to citizens as well as local government. We have a fairly comprehensive set of municipally-available trash/ recycling/ composting services available to all businesses and residents, and a large number of non profit agencies doing excellent work. It seems to me that most of the progress I have described is a result of being in the right place at the right time- this community is ready for this and because so many of the pieces are in place, it is a fairly easy place to get this kind of work done.

Do you feel your initiative should be imitated in other metropolises around the world? And what should be avoided, in that case?

Absolutely. It is one of those things that seem to be so obvious one wonders why it doesn't happen more. But as far as I know, this is the only program of its kind; at least in this country (I would love to be proven wrong, though).

I can't think of anything specific that has happened that can serve as a warning to others. A few cautionary points that I can see (that we have not yet had to deal with) are making sure that the non profit organizations are dependable and reputable.

I know that recycling can be a very complex issue; in other areas hotels can actually generate revenue by selling recyclables to collectors. This is not the case in SF. There are a number of liability and union issues that must be ironed out. Again, in SF we are lucky that a local ordinance waives any liability in food donations when they are made in 'good faith.' Without this protection, many hotels/restaurants may understandably be hesitant to donate food.

One thing I would warn any city or municipality thinking about starting a similar program is to be careful about thinking that 'if I build it they will come.' There have been attempts on the part of recycling and waste management entities in other areas in our region to replicate the HNPC. They typically end up with plenty of 'takers' on the non-profit side, but without involvement and buy in from the hospitality industry up front, they do not do well in recruiting 'suppliers' on the hospitality side.

Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers, perhaps about your current needs or future plans?

As I hinted earlier, I would love to have more funding to continue a second year. While it appears that the City will not be providing funds, I am looking at other funding sources. I am also planning a project in Lake Malawi with a local partner, we already have a master plan, architectural drawings, a business and sustainability plan; just about everything we need to get started - except capital.

Thank you very much. I am sure readers will be interested in your current and future projects. There will be an opportunity for them to chat to you live on Tuesday 27 September at the Live Chat Centre.

Contact Mr Elliot Helman

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here



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