A role model for sustainability

Chooleng Goh, general manager of The Athenee Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Bangkok, walks the sustainability talk and flies the sustainability flag high. She shares with Rachel AJ Lee her motivations, next upcoming project, and recent TCEB appointment as sustainability champion.

What inspired you to steer The Athenee down the sustainability path?
A few years ago, I attended a forum organised by TCEB (Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau), where the MCI director of sustainability, Guy Bigwood, shared stories of how the London Olympics achieved ISO20121 (the international standard Event Sustainability Management System accreditation).

I thought to myself, wow, if the London Olympics can do that, surely we can achieve the certification as a hotel too. It took us nine months to prepare for it, and we received our first certification in 2013. We were also the first hotel in the world to achieve it. But achieving the award is just the beginning of a journey, not the end. (The Athenee also passed recertification in 2016 and 2019)

How do you encourage your team to keep sustainable at the core?
While I had the vision, there was no way I could do it alone. To first broach the sustainability idea to our colleagues, we conducted a competition between the departments, where each would draw or build something based on the idea of ISO20121.

Another part of the launch comprised a skit during townhall which revolved around why we needed to have green initiatives. It was such a funny drama that the team remembered it. That’s how we got our colleagues on board.

But as staff turn over quickly in the hotel industry, we ensure that every new colleague goes through a sustainability education where we share more about ISO20121 with them.

How does the hotel’s planning team work with corporate planners to ensure Green Meetings?
We start off by sending proposals to clients electronically. Once they confirm, the contract is also done electronically, then we talk about the setup. We have a checklist, and as clients go down the list, a sustainable setup is always offered.

When they ask what it means, we’ll explain more. For instance, meeting rooms are linen-free, the air-condition is set to a more eco-friendly temperature, and if there’s excess food from the event, organisers can choose whether they want to donate it to a church or an orphanage located in the vicinity. Most of our corporate partners agree to this, which is great. In 2013, (when Green Meetings first started), we had 35 sustainable meetings. The number has grown to over 200 this year.

Aside from meetings, could you share a few examples and successes of sustainability on-site?
We have reduced our preparation waste for our buffet line by 10 per cent with better planning. For example, the team will calculate the approximate number of people eating, and mid-way through the buffet, they will prepare a dish a la carte instead of refilling the buffet tray. Because once the food is displayed, it cannot be saved or reused anymore.

At the start of 2018, we partnered with Scholars of Sustenance Foundation (a Bangkok-based organisation that collects excess food from hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, and delivers them to those in need across the city). When we started, we were donating about 270kg per month. This year, our donation has been reduced to 200kg per month.

This means that the team is more conscious of certain menu items. If an item is not popular, they won’t be making so much of it.

Next, all our guestrooms provide glass-bottled water. We used to provide 190,000 straws per year – when we started counting in 2017. The hotel’s current paper straw consumption is about 80,000. We do not provide a straw unless someone asks for it, but certain items, like drinking from a coconut, is difficult without a straw. We also have signs that encourage our guests to skip the straw.

We have also reduced our staff canteen food waste by 20 per cent this year.

Moreover, 100 per cent of the rice served at this hotel is organic and locally-sourced, which helps to reduce our carbon footprint, and provide Thai farmers with a livelihood as we source directly from them, which in turn pushes our food costs down.

What’s your next big project?
I want to move to organic fruits and vegetables, which is better for our guest’s health, and the environment.

Although 50 per cent of the population in Thailand is in the agriculture business, less than one per cent of the country’s produce is organic. We can encourage these farmers to plant more by consuming directly from them. The hotel serves over half a million people per year, which averages to about 1,000 people per day.

If I can purchase a large volume of organic products, these farmers will see demand and be encouraged to plant more. But this is challenging as fruits and vegetables are more perishable than rice.

I had some questions raised by the chefs, who weren’t sure about going organic, as these farmers cannot guarantee what vegetables they could produce. But I pointed out that we didn’t have to name the vegetable in menus, and call the item seasonal organic vegetables instead. It’s all about changing our mindsets.

As the general manager, what is your sustainability goal for the property?
My personal goal for the hotel is to keep on doing what is best (for the hotel and the environment), because it’s all about progress. What we did last year, we can definitely do better, while looking for something else we can improve on.

How can the hospitality industry as a whole, be more sustainable?
We can learn from each other’s best practices. For example, we – myself, the F&B manager, and hotel manager – speak a lot at forums, share our sustainability efforts and try to lead by example. Since 2014, we’ve already shared our knowledge with more than 5,000 people. Hopefully, we can inspire people to do the right thing.

In our business, especially luxury hotels, there is a lot of waste. Travelling itself is already considered a waste for a lot of people. We cannot do zero waste, but at least we can start reducing.

I was recently appointed sustainability champion for TCEB, and for Thailand as a whole. This initiative will kick off next year. In the next three years, TCEB wants to market Thailand’s sustainable venues (such as hotels and convention venues) to the world. My job is to gather the heads of these meeting spaces, and hopefully inspire them to become more sustainable. So when an international events organiser wants to hold a meeting or incentive in Thailand, they can be assured they are choosing a sustainable destination.

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