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Posted: December 08, 2009

Green Acres

Colorado’s resort industry embraces sustainable practices, spending money for upgrades in a time of economic uncertainty

Susanna Speier

In June 2008, ColoradoBiz published a story profiling Colorado companies embracing sustainable practices. The Boulder Outlook Hotel was highlighted for its initiatives toward becoming a “zero waste property.”

At the time, Colorado’s capital was gearing up to host its first Democratic National Convention since William Jennings Bryan garnered the nomination in 1908. Not only did Denver’s August convention successfully launch a nominee who went on to become the first African-American President of the United States, it continues to be lauded as the greenest convention in history.

Colorado sustainability advocates boast that the state — now well within striking distance of its highly publicized competitors — is already setting the precedent other regions seek to emulate.

The “DNC was a huge turning point,” says Janna Six, education and outreach director for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. She attributes the current ubiquitous push to adapt more sustainable business practices to the momentum of the city and DNC’s collaborative green initiatives.

The Alliance collaborated with other nonprofit organizations, government agencies and businesses to host workshops on waste minimization, energy efficiency and water-saving methods for restaurants, hotels, event planners, printers and small-business owners. Businesses were inspired to implement green business practices that have endured a year after the convention.

Just as Colorado’s eco-friendly initiatives soared to new heights, one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history hit. Following the year Visit Denver referred to as a “banner year,” the travel and tourism industry plunged into one of its worst economic crises on record, with many corporate conferences canceled and workers facing layoffs cutting back on their vacation plans.

In Colorado’s new economic reality, should city and state government initiatives continue to encourage and reward costly retrofitting upgrades that municipal and state governments championed prior to October’s stock market plunge?  If so, will Colorado’s newly greened hotels and resorts be able to sustain themselves, not to mention their costly upgrades, until the economy bounces back?

“It is difficult to find ways to make investments in a downturn,” Gov. Bill Ritter said when ColoradoBiz approached him on the topic. “The downturn does not preclude investments from being made” because in the “new energy economy,” investments are primarily initiated by “high-end places that rely on corporate travel.”

Green practices currently being adapted and developed will give hotels that maintain them an even more competitive edge over time because, Ritter said, “sustainability is part of our future.”

NO TIME LIKE TODAY

Bob Trotter, manager of Vail Valley’s newest luxury resort, The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa, believes that time is now. Already, about 75 percent of event planners routinely request a list of the hotel’s sustainability initiatives prior to booking. Providing that list is not difficult for the Westin Riverfront; it’s now vying to be the first Colorado hotel to receive LEED certification. Trotter says some companies selected the hotel for a conference explicitly because of the resort’s sustainable practices.

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Trotter cites Chipotle and Thule as examples of two Colorado-based companies whose dedication to sustainability is such an emphatic part of their mission that the companies’ credibility would be on the line were they to patronize a venue that does not address it. Booking at a resort like the Westin therefore helps the company maintain its brand, he said.

Westin anticipates receiving Silver level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the second level of a points-based rating system that includes two higher levels (gold and platinum).

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The architects and engineers worked with Colorado-based company East West to add features that minimize the building’s impact on the environment and the local community. This is present in the design of the building itself, which includes a roof made from recycled tires, energy-efficient lighting and double-paned windows with argon gas filling the void between the two panes. This aids in the insulating ability of the glass as well as absorbing/reducing outside noise.

The LEED point system also rewards good stewardship initiatives taken during the construction process. When the hotel’s Gypsum-based drywall manufacturer refused to drive directly to Avon to deliver the Westin’s drywall order on the grounds that policy required all deliveries to be routed through Denver, The Westin Riverside agreed to a higher delivery fee to finally get the Gypsum drywall manufacturer to re-route.

The environment was spared 215 miles’ worth of delivery truck fuel emissions, the Gypsum manufacturer got more money for a 29.9-mile delivery than it would have gotten for making the policy-mandated 245-mile delivery, and The Westin Riverside scored additional points toward LEED certification.

The Westin also earned points toward its LEED certification by making the Riverfront Express Gondola used to transport Westin guests to the mountaintop of Beaver Creek ski resort also available to residents of the city of Avon at no cost.

As cars are not permitted in the gondola area, the snow surrounding the area stays clean. At the town’s request, the hotel fed the drainpipe used for melted snow directly into the marshland foundation it was built on, thereby helping to replenish the natural horticulture of the adjacent riverbank. Five acres of the hotel’s 19-acre property have also been available to the public in the form of parklands with a bike path, connecting guests and townspeople to riverside towns all the way to Vail and beyond.

Trotter estimates the hotel’s sustainable features increased the manufacturing cost by 5 percent. The Starwood Co. and East West expect to recoup this investment in five to 10 years.

Although the Westin Riverfront is well on its way to becoming Colorado’s first LEED-certified hotel, it’s not unique in its efforts to capitalize on the opportunity for green-branding. The Cheyenne Mountain Resort was just awarded Silver Tier certification by the International Association of Conference Centers after a retrofitting process.

Like its neighboring hotels, the Colorado Springs Marriott and the Broadmoor, the Cheyenne Mountain Resort went through the costly but eventually cost-saving process of replacing most of its incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs.

Although Brian Healy, the director of engineering at the Colorado Springs Marriott, was able to install energy saving thermostats and dual LED reading in every guestroom, Marriott restricts the water conservation initiatives that so many Colorado restaurants now embrace. 

 The hotel’s restaurant, according to Healy, is obliged by Marriott headquarters to provide complimentary water whether or not the patrons request it, thereby overriding Colorado’s water conservation initiatives to protect this particular way of positioning Marriott as a luxury hotel brand.

Healy also expressed frustration with the Marriott Corp.’s reluctance to support recycling initiatives on the grounds that on-site recycling bins containing bottles and cans might also counteract Marriott’s luxury brand’s image.

Despite the imposed limitation, however, Healy’s upgrades managed to pay for themselves within a year’s time of their completion, and the hotel received an award for successful energy reduction from the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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 At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Broadmoor sees water conservation as a means of re-enforcing the Broadmoor’s luxury brand, spokeswoman Allison Scott says. Its golf course was recently retrofitted, and the grass is now maintained with 100 percent recycled water. A full-time recycling coordinator now oversees the resort’s sprawling 2,000-acre grounds.

Recycling initiatives and the resort’s recent water, heat and cooling system upgrades have significantly cut utility costs while the switch to compact fluorescents has already paid for itself, the hotel says.

Despite the abundance of resources and the presence of a full-time recycling coordinator, however, the retrofitting process continues to be a gradual one. The Broadmoor is only just now installing recycling bins. In the meantime, the hotel leaves the placement of bins that do not complement the décor to the discretion of conference organizers. 

The Cheyenne Mountain Resort, despite lacking the financial resources to green up its golf course, began with a facility-wide customized recycle bin redesign.  Under the initiative of new facilities director Mike Van Duzer, an expensive but efficient recycling system was designed and installed with architectural sensitivity.

Van Duzer attributes most of the resort’s sustainability initiatives to ideas from a volunteer green team consisting of employees who range from management to housekeeping.

Staff even volunteered to scrounge area thrift stores to locate second-hand cutlery for use in the staff cafeteria.  Macro upgrades, of course, continue to be done as well. About $1.5 million was spent on a BTU main boiler replacement to further reduce energy output and save money.

GREEN WITHOUT FANFARE

Important as LEED and IACC certifications are in guiding resorts through the process of greening their businesses and assuring the consumer that a certain level of research, effort and investment has been devoted toward this effort, not all hotels and resorts in Colorado place this level of importance on the formal certification process.

Bob and Suzanne Fanch, the founders and owners of Devil’s Thumb Ranch, choose not to pursue government certification, despite the eco-friendly initiatives and innovations that inspired Travel & Leisure magazine to laud the resort as one of the greenest in the country. 


The Devil’s Thumb Ranch geothermal heating system provides 70 percent of the resort’s electricity, the Fanches say. Since purchasing the land seven years ago the Fanches have also stayed true to their commitment of only developing 3 percent and protecting the other 97 percent.

As the state’s ongoing battle with the pine beetle ravages mountain forests, the Fanches have developed a way to remove the hazardous dead beetle kill from their land in a way that directly contributes to mountain lodge design. Beetle-kill wood is recycled and used as interior wall paneling in their spa and main dining area.

The ranch’s original homestead house offers fine organic dining and a more casual large dining area, with European-style community tables and a three-story hexagonal fireplace made from rockslide rocks.

As there are no universal standards for defining and/or certifying state and nationwide sustainability initiatives, the resorts adapt practices as they go along. The relationship between those standards and the benefit to the environment, however, is difficult to determine.

“I don’t know that I’d shop for a hotel that has only LEED certification,” Janna Six says. “LEED tells you how green the building is but doesn’t say enough about how the hotel is operated.”

LEED certification doesn’t account for unnecessary waste a hotel might continue to generate.  It doesn’t reward companies that lower their carbon footprint by renovating old buildings rather than constructing new ones. Nor does it reward creative post-construction efforts such as the reused cutlery in the Cheyenne Mountain Resort’s employee cafeteria or the Devil’s Thumb Ranch’s beetle-kill wall paneling.

At the same time, not all of the Devil’s Thumb Ranch’s beetle-kill wall paneling is local, Bob Fanch says. Although the resort tries to purchase locally whenever possible, local recycled beetle-kill wood is not always easy to obtain. Consequently, the carbon cost of transportation must be compromised. Another recycled component of the ranch’s architecture is a barn wood imported from Indiana.

“More efficient and uniform codes would save money by reducing energy and water costs, and by making it easier for companies to comply,” Six says.

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