Travelling in times of climate change: How the hospitality industry must increase its sustainability

Fridays for Future; Climate Package; Flight Shame (#flyingless): climate-change awareness has definitively entered mainstream consciousness. Nonetheless, travelling remains one of the Europe’s favourite leisure activities. But how can we combine holidays with sustainability? A major step would be to encourage industry to adopt a more sustainable mindset. Prof. Dr Willy Legrand, an expert on sustainable development in the hospitality industry, reveals what hotels must do to reduce their CO2 emissions – and why theories of sustainability should form part of every tourism and hospitality study programme.


Everyone is talking about climate change. How does that affect the hospitality industry?

The tourism industry is one of the larger industries in the world, generating roughly 1 in 10 jobs on the planet in 2017 (WTTC, 2018). It is a resource-hungry industry, and therefore a contributor to climate-related challenges; in turn, it is also directly affected by changes in weather and environment. Whether operating a ski resort in the Alps or a coastal retreat on a picturesque beach, whether sourcing food locally or organically, those involved in hospitality feel the effects of climate change first-hand. As such, climate change threatens the industry in many different ways, environmentally, financially and socially.

Suppose an investor wishes to establish a new resort on a low-lying island. A detailed risk assessment must precede the location selection, taking the climate scenario into account: what will happen with seawater levels in 20, 30 or 50 years?  How will the resort be heated, cooled or ventilated? Are there sources of energy readily available? What food can be served to the guests, where does it come from and how do we ensure a stable procurement? How do we manage the waste output of the property? With rising seawater levels, how do we ensure fresh water availability? Many destinations have already felt the direct effect of climate change and shortage of resources.

Are there any major innovators in this area?

If we consider that sustainability covers the environmental as well as the social and political pillars, it is difficult to settle for one example. This is a global industry, and thus, a sustainable hospitality does not translate into ‘one company trying to do its very best in a given market’. Rather, it is an entire industry that must collectively face up to the environmental and societal challenges. Nonetheless, there are always brands and hotels finding new approaches to being more sustainable. Here are just a few examples:

The Explorer Hotel Group in southern Germany and Austria is a ‘passive housing’ hotel concept. With the proper energy sourcing strategy, this translates into carbon neutrality.  The Boutiquehotel Stadthalle in Vienna, Austria achieved carbon neutrality in an urban setting. Similar to Explorer Hotel Group, it uses passive housing and features excellent examples of upcycling within its interior design.

Scandic Hotels is showing the other hotel chains what can be done in terms of the accessibility of its properties. Working together with guests with physical disabilities and people with special needs, the chain devised a 159-point standard following the journey of a guest through a given hotel.

Other innovations in hotel concepts are always exciting. For example, the modular accommodation Flying Nest by Accor, which uses marine containers as mobile rooms to be assembled where needed – an novel way of reducing the construction costs and related emissions of fixed properties. Treehouse hotels are also of great interest. The Resort Baumgeflüster in northern Germany caters to all of us who have a so-called ‘nature deficiency syndrome’, offering guests a great opportunity to reconnect with nature.

What advantages do climate-friendly hotels offer?

There are a series of direct, measurable advantages as well as indirect, difficult-to-measure, advantages. In the former category, we see the potential cost savings (short- and long-term) as well as the incentives offered to hotel companies investing in green technologies. Hotel businesses also embrace sustainability for the benefit of the accompanying image improvement. With increased public scrutiny, genuine commitment to a sustainable strategy – accompanied by real, positive action – is rewarded with peer and consumer recognition. This also includes positive online reviews and ratings.

A hotel implementing sustainability can also benefit from an improved competitive position when entering a market niche of environmentally friendly products and services; the aforementioned development of treehouse hotels, for example. In the difficult-to-measure category, a decision to move towards more sustainable or responsible management may result in a ‘feel-good factor’. It may translate into greater work satisfaction, enhanced employee morale, and simply a greater attractiveness to potential employees who want to participate in a company that ‘does good’. This represents another crucial issue, considering the current shortage of labour in this industry.

Where do problems arise?

The costs involved in installing a strong sustainability strategy, as well as the doubt on return on investments for those sustainability initiatives, are perceived as particular barriers. However, the greatest hindrance derives from the inherent complexities surrounding ownership, brands and operators in the hotel industry. While ownership and management is often under one roof in the private hotel industry, this is not the case for most hotel chains. The parties involved in the hotel investment and development are not the same ones who operate the property, which in turn may be running under a different brand. Furthermore, the significant investments required to implement a carbon-neutrality policy may result in capital being directed away from shareholders’ short-term gains and growth plans, and are thus not particularly popular. Therefore, the combination of the hotel industry’s structural business model and the emphasis on fast economic returns works as the greatest impediment to swift and necessary changes in light of the climate emergency.

In your opinion, what needs to be done in education and hospitality order to change the industry?

There are really two parts to that question. There are the professionals active in the hotel industry today, and there is the next generation of hoteliers, those currently at university; both parties have separate but related roles to play in developing the industry in the short and long term respectively. Since a large part of our carbon emissions is linked to the way we design, develop, construct, refurbish, retrofit and also heat, cool and ventilate our buildings, the larger picture involves both our current supply of hotel properties as well as the construction pipeline. The key issue here is to foster better coordination between investors, developers, brands and operators so that sustainability has a chance to be enacted from the very first planning stages, including the initial feasibility analysis. Some initiatives are already in place to promote such coordination.

What does all this mean for education in the hospitality industry?

The world in which we live demands that hoteliers not only possess knowledge in the traditional fields of operations, finance, marketing, PR, technology and communication, but increasingly too in the areas of stakeholder relationships, environmental management, and ethical and social responsibility. This is where the new generation of hoteliers will excel. The hospitality management curriculum therefore must keep abreast of this wide and varied range of topics.

Do younger students understand the importance of sustainability in this industry?

The millennial generation has an innate understanding that we cannot go on using the world and its resources the way we do right now – and this also applies to future hoteliers. As such, whether in the context of recruiting future staff or engaging with future customers, choosing sustainability is essential to staying relevant to both groups. Over the past 15 years, my contribution has been to this new generation of hoteliers. I was delighted to have the opportunity to develop and install sustainability programmes in universities in the US, South America, the Middle East, and also here at IUBH. From the 4 to 5 students who would choose a sustainable-hospitality elective course 10 years ago, I now fill classes. The level of knowledge is high: students can tell you that an average EU-based hotel consumes anywhere between 200 and 400 kWh/m2/year and that grey water recycling is not rocket science. The coming generation of hoteliers is acutely aware of the environment in which they lead the industry – and this makes me hopeful.


Prof. Dr Willy Legrand has been Professor of Hospitality Management at IUBH since 2003. In his teaching, he focuses on sustainable development and sustainability in the hospitality industry. Willy has contributed to numerous publications in the field of sustainable tourism. He is the principal author of Sustainability in the Hospitality Industry: Principles of Sustainable Operations and recently launched the first edition of HospitalityNet World Panel on Sustainability – a conference bringing together leading experts in the field of hospitality management to discuss relevant questions facing the hospitality industry.  

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