Chicago has always been a big convention town, home to the sprawling McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. The city has been built up with hotels to accommodate the high number of these national and international business gatherings. With so many options, the Westin Hotel on Michigan Avenue, part of Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, set about to differentiate itself from the pack. The hotel chose to reconfigure its meeting spaces in the main ballroom because not everyone needs a 2.6 million-square-foot exhibition hall.
The hotel came up with a plan that would divide its existing space to create right-sized rooms for a number of conferences and make them greener as well. “The ballroom used to divide up into two even halves,” says Bob Thomas, director of engineering for the Westin on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. “It was a little odd to have smaller groups in such large spaces. It now splits into six cubes, five of them usable for meetings and the sixth a vestibule.”
The changes go beyond simply providing appropriate-sized conference space. Because the rooms are smaller, they require less energy to heat, cool, and light. Construction on the Westin’s $7 million renovation was done between December 2011 and March 2012, in time for Chicago’s second-hottest-ever July of 2012, yet in that month, the hotel had a 5.5 percent reduction in natural gas.
These kinds of environmental gains are very important to hotels and other hospitality venues in Chicago and worldwide. New environmental standards established by the Convention Industry Council’s Accepted Practices Exchange in partnership with the American Society for Testing and Materials International make it easier for meeting planners to find a green venue. These standards encompass nine areas of hotel and meeting venue operations: accommodations, audio-visual facilities, marketing and communications materials, destinations, exhibits, food service, meeting venues, on-site administrative offices, and transportation. Initiatives are scalable to any size meeting—meaning, even planners for small groups can compare venues based on environmental features.
“By making the changes we’ve made, we’ve increased the marketability of the space,” Thomas says. “By increasing revenues, it improves the ROI on the renovations.”
Those renovations meant more than changing the moveable pocket doors. Because lighting and air-conditioning constitute the bulk of energy consumption, the systems for those had to be reconfigured. The 50-year-old building’s original HVAC system was well built and worth saving, so they opted to install new coils, dampers, air handlers, valves, and piping with the help of Westside Mechanical in Naperville, Illinois. New lighting fixtures included 5,000 energy-efficient CFL and LED bulbs that were put into the new design by Continental Electric Construction Company in Oak Brook, Illinois.
The Westin is also one of only 13 Chicago hotels recognized by the Green Seal program, which focuses on energy, water, waste, and pollution management. Green Seal measures how resources are managed in guest accommodations, where they can opt out of housekeeping services during their stay. Low-VOC paints, eco-friendly cleaning products, and multiple-use serving products are used wherever possible.
It is no fluke that this particular hotel is among that group of environmentally recognized Chicago destinations. All Westin hotels—along with its sister brands Le Meridien, Aloft Hotels, Four Points by Sheraton, and W Hotels, and others—participate in the Starwood corporate initiative called the “30/20 by 20” plan. The specific goals are a 30-percent energy- and a 20-percent water-use reduction by the year 2020. Because Starwood owns hotels in so many different climates around the world, the hotel chain left it up to each building engineer to determine how to achieve this plan.
“‘30/20 by 20’ respects engineers’ knowledge,” Thomas says. “It’s actually a very fun thing to be creative in how we reach these goals. We share a lot between hotels with a corporate best practices forum. It creates a competitive camaraderie.” Which is probably the reason the Westin Chicago competes successfully for business in a crowded hotel town.