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Hoteliers used to make an extra effort just to offer non-smoking rooms. Now they’re going several steps farther, leaving out chlorofluorocarbons and volatile organic compounds while adding in-room recycling and efficient water fixtures.

As the nation’s travelers go green, so go hotel chains seeking to accommodate them on an entirely new level. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. last week introduced a new effort to seek green certification for its entire Element extended-stay brand, with more than 20 hotels set to open by the end of next year.

Starting with its first location in Lexington, MA, opening in July, Starwood will pursue Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the US Green Building Council for every Element it builds. Others are planned in major hotel markets such as New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas and Orlando.

“With the launch of Element, we’re creating a new way to build hotels and guest experiences through the lens of environmental responsibility,” Starwood CEO Frits von Paasschen said in announcing the effort April 21. He pointed out that the actual elements required for LEED certification are achievable at a minimal cost premium, and the chain’s initial investment can be recouped in a few years.

Other major hotel companies are following the LEED path: Cambria Suites, a new chain by Choice Hotels International Inc., is considering submitting its new hotels for USGBC approval, including a dozen locations being developed throughout the Southeast in years to come.

“We are closely examining how that drills down to developers and what type of modifications we will need to make sure all our future hotels are LEED-certified,” Brad LeBlanc, VP of development for Cambria Suites, tells GlobeSt.com. “We’ve got to research every item and the costs to the developer to see whether there is any return to it and if it actually has more impact. At the end of the day, it all has to be measured.”

Element, which promises what is termed as an “eco-chic” experience throughout its properties, offers a lengthy list of elements making its guest rooms green. Showers will include conservative water fixtures, dispensers will replace tiny bottles and wrapped soaps, and filtered water will be available in all rooms. Starwood estimates its Element Lexington “laboratory” site will save 942,000 gallons of water each year.

Each room throughout the chain will have its own recycling bins for recycling paper, plastic and glass. Even the do-not-disturb signs, customarily made of paper or plastic, are being replaced by more durable and reusable magnets, and preferred parking will be reserved for guests driving hybrid vehicles.

As far as true environmental impact goes, Element will buy wind power to offset 70% of electric use through the first two years of operation: use CFC-free refrigerants in its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems; and put low-VOC paint and carpeting in all guest rooms. Natural light will be abundant throughout the premises, including a 16-foot “window wall” in the main lobby.

LEED requirements also include minimizing waste and pollution during the construction process itself, such as minimizing soil erosion, sedimentation and dust. Once the buildings are finished, smoking will be prohibited.

Industry observers say the effort by hotel chains such as Starwood is as much about marketing as cost savings, such as asking guests to reuse towels and bed linens to conserve water. Yet they note that it is better to build an entire hotel chain like Element from the ground up, rather than retrofitting existing facilities and replacing systems and appliances.

“There are going to be customers who will prefer to stay in a green hotel, and maybe they’ll pay a little more for that,” says C. Patrick Scholes, lodging analyst with J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. in New York City.

LeBlanc says the potential impact on Cambria Suites developers’ return on investment is being weighed against consumer demand for LEED-certified hotels and how far into the future that demand will last. He says he isn’t aware of many other hotel chains that are going green to this point, but “I’d be surprised if they don’t.”

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