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The Naramata Inn was developed with a focus on sustainability.John Hollands/Handout

For Ned Bell, opening a restaurant and inn with a focus on sustainability and locally sourced products is well within his comfort zone. The man who helped make the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver’s kitchens 100-per-cent Ocean Wise and rode a bicycle across the country to raise awareness about sustainable seafood is an environmental champion.

So when it came to launching the Naramata Inn this spring – his latest endeavor, in partnership with his wife, Kate Colley, as well as Maria Wiesner and Paul Hollands – those were two of the most important selling points.

But a global pandemic can change things.

While the hotel’s sustainability efforts are a shared responsibility among the four owners, they decided they needed to hire someone to address the new coronavirus specifically. Now a “COVID consultant,” who will gather all related information, rules and responsibilities and translate them into functioning operations, will be among the hallmarks of the property.

“It’s a job I never thought I’d be hiring for,” Bell says, “but we want our customers to walk in the front door and immediately feel safe.”

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Ned Bell launched the Naramata Inn with his wife, Kate Colley, as well as Maria Wiesner and Paul Hollands.John Hollands/Handout

For hotels dealing with record low occupancy rates, focusing on health and safety seems like a necessary step to getting back on their feet.

But this new priority can come at a cost: In many cases, the industry’s green initiatives – rapidly gathering steam pre-pandemic – have been put on the back burner. A few months ago, social media was rife with criticism of properties that dared commit the sin of single-use plastics. Now, with so few people travelling, the pressure has let up. The sustainability issue has slipped from the headlines and, it seems, from the priority list of would-be vacationers, who are now more concerned with simply whether they can go somewhere safely. In the new normal, hotel chains that made news for forward-thinking environmental policies earn attention for COVID preparedness.

Pre-coronavirus, MMGY Global published studies showing that 32 per cent of American travellers said they were willing to pay higher rates to brands who prioritized the environment – and that the number was rising consistently.

“Travellers were starting to connect more to the long-term impact of their actions to their ability to travel,” says Katie Briscoe, president of the travel industry marketing firm.

But that’s changed. She notes a more recent study by Kantar, a global market research company, that found half of U.S. consumers surveyed said sustainability is not as important in purchasing decisions as it was prior to the pandemic.

That’s bad news for the planet, but perhaps welcome news for hotels that were falling behind on the issue, since COVID-19 safety protocols have meant an uptick in the adoption of disposable, single-use items such as water bottles, bathroom toiletries, room-service menus and even salt and pepper shakers. Plus, the items deemed necessary for health and safety including masks, disinfecting wipes and gloves.

Last month, the Hotel Association of Canada announced it had joined organizations such as the Global Business Travel Association in endorsing the American Hotel and Lodging Association’s “SAFE STAY” guidelines, which promotes industry-wide cleaning standards. It’s one of many such programs to launch recently. In others, hotel brands partner with recognized hospitals and health agencies to gain travellers’ confidence.

The result is what Briscoe refers to as “cleanliness theatre,” the previously private act of building maintenance now done out in the open so that consumers feel more comfortable.

“People feel safe seeing somebody with a UV light or somebody fogging or spraying something with chemicals that six months ago we might have been like, ‘Oh I would never want to be exposed to that,’” she says. “It changes that perception of safety in a time where your world’s been so shaken that your expectations are altered and what makes you feel safe is so different.”

Some hotel brands are trying to marry healthy stays with green practices. Dr. Sonya Graci, associate professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, points to Accor. The hospitality chain launched its ALLSAFE cleanliness and prevention label program (which relies on a third-party audit of new health and safety protocols) and held on to its managers responsible for leading sustainability efforts. While some plans, including a move from small in-room amenities to larger dispensers, have been postponed, the goal is balance.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” says Andrea Torrance, Accor’s senior vice-president, guest experience. “However, there are a number of measures that are possible in a COVID-19 world that also live by and reinforce these commitments.” She cites moves such as opting for reusable masks for employees, offering select amenities (such as minibar items, stationary and print magazines) only on demand and going paperless when possible.

Such an approach will sit well with non-accommodation tourism companies that aren’t ready to throw out the environmental baby with the coronavirus bathwater.

“Prioritizing accommodation with sustainable practices has long been part of Intrepid Travel’s supplier selection process,” says Tara Kennaway, senior product manager, operations, at the adventure tour company.

She disputes the idea that health and safety measures have to displace sustainability progress.

“Hygiene is not synonymous with single-use. We should be looking at encouraging avoiding single-use items and instead offering solutions. ... Once COVID-19 passes, the broader environmental impact of travel will still be there and we can’t lose sight of continuing to improve our sustainability as an industry,”

Dr. Graci has a less optimistic perspective, arguing that most properties never truly embraced a move toward being sustainable even pre-pandemic.

“There are still many hotels that don’t participate in waste reduction, that didn’t participate in even basic initiatives like recycling, that still had single use containers for coffee and creamers. …” she says. “These are simple, simple fixes and many hotels never even adopted that.”

But Susie Grynol, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of Canada (HAC), cites its Green Key certification program, which relied on an independent third-party examination of sustainability efforts and was poised for expansion into the United States, as an example of industry commitment.

The program hasn’t been shelved, but she acknowledges it has taken a backseat.

The need to balance priorities to such extreme degrees is likely temporary. And while the use of disposables will increase in the short-term, it’s possible that international travel being effectively paused will have a longer lasting effect on the environment, as it spurs globetrotters to reflect on their actions and appreciate the planet.

“I do believe that sustainability and responsible business practices are going to become more important in the future,” Briscoe says. “It’s still so critically important, it’s just not the most critically important thing right now.”

In the meantime, as Bell and his team at the Naramata Inn will do what they can. Menus will be printed on synthetic paper that can survive an intense cleaning, redesigned housekeeping protocols will roll out and in-room glass water bottles will be refilled with as little human contact as possible. But, yes, there will be disposable masks and gloves. It’s not an easy pill to swallow for an environmentalist.

“Sustainability is burned into our identity,” Bell says. “I do have to pick my battles so I can’t be perfect, but we have a really unique opportunity here to do things really, really well. And that’s what we’ll do.”

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