Spokane Journal of Business

Red Lion goes green

Partnering with Ecova, company sets goals high to lower energy use, costs

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Red Lion goes green
-—Staff photo by Treva Lind
Red Lion Hotels' David Barbieri says the company is changing to more energy-efficient LED bulbs in many hotels as part of its plan.

Spokane-based Red Lion Hotels Corp. executives say the company's energy costs declined by six figures over a 12-month period ending last November, a savings they attribute to a new sustainability strategy put in place at its 28 corporate-owned hotel properties.

The hotel chain had a reduction of $177,000 in energy costs, or a 2.4 percent decrease in energy consumption, compared with the year-earlier period, says Rich Gleave, its vice president of facilities. Those figures come from the company's most recent energy performance report, he says.

In fall 2011, Red Lion hired Spokane-based Ecova Inc., a utility-bill and energy management subsidiary of Avista Corp., to help it develop an energy-efficiency strategic plan. The plan included energy audits at two hotels for a baseline, internal communications, and initial steps at all properties to reduce electricity, natural gas, and water use.

The steps range from installing better insulation for sliding glass doors in 400 guest rooms at one site to implementing a rooms energy policy that guides housekeeping staff with daily energy-saving tips. It also includes a new "weatherboard system" designed to help housekeeping employees quickly and consistently set thermostats in rooms based on the daily outdoor temperature.

"We're about a third of the way into the process of implementing the cultural changes at hotels," Gleave says. "Now, we're focusing on some of the physical things we can do. The strategic plan was built to cover a five-year period, so we're really in the beginning of it."

It's also sharing best practice strategies through newsletters with its 20 franchise hotels.

As another example, its Red Lion Hotel at the Park, at 333 W. North River just north of downtown Spokane, recently replaced older fluorescent lighting with more efficient LED lights in most of its large meeting rooms.

David Barbieri, Red Lion senior vice president and chief information officer, says the corporation tried in the past to reduce energy consumption, but needed a more comprehensive and measurable approach. With its analysis of energy consumption, Ecova brings that to the table, he adds.

"It's easy to say, 'I have a recycling bin, so I'm green,' but that doesn't start to scrape off the tip of the iceberg," Barbieri says. "We wanted to measure ourselves against goals, so you know you're making positive gains."

He says Ecova provides monthly statistical analysis and breakdowns by property. The analysis includes studying utility billing and other data at each hotel site, and factoring variables such as weather conditions and occupancy rates that can impact how much energy and water is used.

"Ecova looks at the analysis on the actual consumption of resources such as natural gas, electricity, and water, and helps us normalize differences in weather that can impact costs from year to year," Barbieri says. "We can feed them our occupancy numbers, and they can eliminate variances based on occupancy."

He adds, "There are lots of things you have to take out of the equation to figure out actual use."

Barbieri declines to disclose Ecova's contracted costs that include utility bill-paying management services, but he says early into the partnership, Red Lion started seeing positive returns as far as reduced energy-consumption costs. He also cites benefits beyond the bottom line.

"Cost savings is an easy way to justify it because it's quantifiable," he says. "I was a bit surprised by the degree of positive reaction we're getting from employees in implementing this action. We have a way for people to submit suggestions, and we're seeing a surprising amount of feedback."

He adds, "Once it all starts to happen, there has been side benefits in regard to customer service and customer comfort in the temperature of the rooms. We've seen some operational benefits that have nothing to do with sustainability. We run a tighter ship."

In late 2011, Ecova completed energy and water audits at Red Lion hotels in Kelso, Wash., and Salt Lake City, as two sample properties. It analyzed systems and equipment, billing data, and industry averages, among other information. The two audited sites at the time spent almost $500,000 combined each year on energy, a newsletter report said.

However, Salt Lake site employees in late 2011 completed a project that sealed sliding glass doors in 400 guest rooms with an adhesive foam rubber, which eliminated drafts and street noise. Energy costs for December 2011 at that site came in $6,000 lower than anticipated, a report said.

Holly Brunk, a Portland-based Ecova manager of awareness and training services, says Ecova has provided Red Lion with a number of integrated services.

"We work with them collaboratively," she adds, which includes what she says Ecova calls five keystones: data, people, infrastructure, marketing and reporting, and continual improvement.

"They're able to have a deep understanding of their water, energy and waste use for cost savings and to manage that use long term, and be able to measure that," she says.

The analysis helps a client know how much energy is being consumed, she says, "but also what kind of energy, what sites may be using more than the other, what systems might be driving that use."

Discussing strategy with people at a business organization also is important, from the executives to employees who can take daily steps, she adds. Infrastructure improvements may include installing more efficient heating and air conditioning systems at sites that are affordable upgrades.

"We're looking at return on investment with the client," she says. Eventually, a strategic plan becomes so imbedded and part of organizational practices that Ecova can walk away from it, she adds.

Typically, Ecova will work with a client on strategic planning for a year or more, depending on the client's needs. Ecova's utility bill-paying service is usually ongoing with its clients, she says.

As part of Red Lion's recent strategic planning, Gleave says Ecova also assisted with internal communications that included newsletters and online energy efficiency seminars.

Red Lion's new weatherboard system is a posted board of information for staff that has three color-coded cards—black, blue, and red—that tells employees at a glance how to set cooling and heating equipment based on outdoor temperatures. It says when outdoor temperatures drop below 55 degrees, the equipment is set at low heat or 67 degrees. It's turned off when weather is moderate, up to 80 degrees. When days reach 85 degrees or higher, the thermostat should be on a low-cool setting.

Red Lion's housekeeping and maintenance staff also are trained on the new rooms energy policy with 14 guidelines. A few examples include turning off lights in unoccupied areas, opening drapes to make use of natural light to clean, and reporting leaky faucets.

Gleave says the company is steadily installing more energy-efficient equipment and doing physical improvements as they make sense. "As equipment ages out or breaks down, we can replace them with more energy-efficient appliances and equipment," he adds.

For example, a Red Lion hotel in Redding, Calif., recently installed an on-demand, tank-less hot water system in its laundry facility to replace a conventional storage tank that operated constantly to keep 800 gallons hot. The new system heats water only as needed, which can compensate when occupancy is down.

"There are times an on-demand system isn't the best option, but many times it is," Gleave says. "Literally, every piece of equipment we're evaluating that way, whether it's an air handler, a chiller, a cooling tower, or boiler."

He adds, "We've identified potential highest payback first."

Even prior to the strategic planning, Red Lion had taken steps to reduce water use, such as installing more efficient toilets, shower heads, and faucets with flow restriction, he says.

Ecova's monthly report also tracks estimated emissions reductions for Red Lion as another measurable goal, and its reductions thus far equate to taking nearly 300 vehicles off of the road. While the company has set a high goal of reducing its energy consumption eventually by 10 percent, the 2.4 percent reduction so far is significant within a multiyear process, Gleave says.

"People here really care about these goals," he says. "So many people are excited to have tools to drive down energy consumption, and the same is true of water consumption."

Treva Lind
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Reporter Treva Lind covers natural resources and technology at the Journal of Business. A Nevada transplant and recovering swim mom, Treva has worked for the Journal since 2011.

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