The short-term rental industry faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to sustainability.
Unlike hotels, where services like housekeeping and recycling are centralized on-site, rental homes are dispersed over a given region, which can make streamlining operations in an eco-conscious way somewhat difficult.
Hotels, however, typically have a much larger carbon footprint than vacation rentals due to the 24/7 nature of the properties. “In contrast, since short-term rentals are typically individual homes or units, they are generally better equipped to conserve energy and water,” says Bob Milne, chief operating officer of vacation rental management company Vacasa.
Along with other corners of the travel sector, the short-term rental industry is starting to steer its attention toward sustainability efforts as players take stock of their impact on the environment and respond to changing traveler expectations.
The tech advantage
According to Michael Driedger, co-founder and CEO of property automation software company Operto Guest Technologies, sustainability and operational efficiency are effectively the same thing.
Not only is operational efficiency - say, to coordinate housekeeping services in a way that prevents driving across town - a more environmentally friendly practice, but it also can lead to freed-up time for property managers to focus on additional sustainability initiatives. "You save carbon, and you save money,” Driedger says.
Operto, which works with hospitality partners including Guesty, Hostaway and Cloudbeds, uses technology to streamline operations for property managers in a number of ways, including through keyless entry and smart temperature control to adjust the thermostat when properties aren’t in use.
There are more artisan, small suppliers who are definitely setting out with that sustainability purpose, and I think it's about hunting them out and finding people and organizations with the same values.
Helen Skeen - City Relay
With smart thermostats, "it will save property managers money, but ultimately it creates a better guest experience because they have the ability to turn up the temperature or set it back ... and if the guest is confused about how it works, the property manager can do it remotely.”
Milne says Vacasa likewise uses technology such as smart thermostats to track energy consumption. “When guests check out of homes that have amenities such as pools, hot tubs and gas fireplaces, our field staff gets there quickly to ensure these are shut off until the next guest arrives,” he says, adding that in 2020, Vacasa wants to begin conducting energy audits in its homes.
London-based property management company City Relay says, as part of its sustainability initiatives, it primarily uses technology to streamline communication channels. "That way, people don't have to congregate in a central space or drive across London to have a face-to-face meeting to get things done," says Helen Skeen, senior brand and content manager.
"Having those digital lines of communication [through programs like Slack and Trello] is essential to being able to do the job, but also making sure that in doing that job, we're not wasting resources and increasing pollution.”
Skeen says City Relay also offers a fleet of electric vehicles for housekeeping and operations teams to utilize, which helps cut its carbon footprint.
According to Airbnb, 88% of its hosts incorporate some form of green practice into their hosting, with 59% providing recycling, 39% providing information about public transportation, 47% providing bulk toiletries and 40% using green cleaning products.
The company says it has seen an “overwhelming desire” from both hosts and guests to take steps to support sustainable travel, and Airbnb provides a toolkit for hosts with environmentally friendly tips.
Skeen says City Relay is on a mission to become carbon-neutral as an organization over the next couple of years, and as part of its efforts, it has introduced eco-friendly products and amenities into its host homes.
As part of its mission to eliminate single-use plastics from homes, City Relay provides guests cartons of water from One Water, which funds clean water projects. Properties are also outfitted with recycled toilet paper, organic coffee pods and plant-based cleaning products.
Similarly, Vacasa says it uses eco-friendly light bulbs, shampoo, conditioner and soap in its vacation rentals, though recycling programs have proven challenging because “each home is unique, regional restrictions may vary, so we have to implement strategies on a case-by-case basis,” Milne says.
Skeen says sustainability is at the forefront of City Relay's decision-making, and it checks the green credentials of any potential partner before covering the commercial aspect, “which is something that any business, in this industry or not, can actually do," she says.
"There are more artisan, small suppliers who are definitely setting out with that sustainability purpose, and I think it's about hunting them out and finding people and organizations with the same values, but also being aware of the fact that - at least in the short-term - it's going to cost your business more.”
Making a case
Indeed, cost is often cited as prohibitive in making short-term rentals more sustainable.
According to Driedger, the reality is, “sustainability is always simple,” and the more complex a system is, the harder - and often more expensive - it is to maintain it.
He says it helps to pitch sustainable products in terms of dollars, not carbon. For example, if 170,000 vacation rentals in Florida were to cut their $700-million-a-month energy costs by 20%, the selling point would be to tell them they would save $140 million per year - which similarly saves one million tons of carbon.
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Skeen says City Relay aims to educate guests and hosts about sustainability efforts with information in house manuals and through marketing materials and in the booking channel, but it’s a “fine line” to walk.
"We don't want to force it down [anyone's throat]. It's a real balancing act, but we do want to let them know the choices we've taken and why and what it means for their stay and for the host properties,” she says.
“Our CEO is very passionate about being the good guys. I guess in this market, we're not always seen as favorable because people who work in short-term rentals can get a bit of a community backlash."
City Relay in turn supports community projects, including street cleanups and partnering with homeless charities.
Meanwhile, Airbnb is creating a new program that will offer $100 million to local initiatives around the world over the next 10 years. The grants will “focus on projects that promote cultural heritage, economic vitality and sustainable communities and demonstrate clear local impact.”
Airbnb’s Office of Healthy Tourism is also encouraging sustainable tourism through summits it hosts in destinations like Cape Town, Tokyo and Catalonia.
Though progress is being made, the short-term rental industry has a way to go, Driedger says. "All the answers are basically achievable - and they'll save you money - but there are so many other things people are trying to solve that they just forget this one reason."