Michael Driedger, CEO of Operto Guest Technologies, has more than 2 decades of experience in architecture, green building design and construction combined with a passion for energy efficiency, sustainability and intelligent ‘Smart Stay’ systems. He is well placed to contribute to the topical discussion about how the vacation and short-term rental industry can reduce over consumption of energy and just do better in our time of climate change. – Editor

Greta Thunberg was named Time person of the year in 2019 for a reason. The article, explaining why she was chosen, put it best when it said that ‘she (Greta) has succeeded in creating a global attitudinal shift, transforming millions of vague, middle-of-the-night anxieties into a worldwide movement calling for urgent change’. 

Getting people to care about climate change has been historically very difficult. It’s always off in the ‘maybe’ distance for both business and personal interests. It’s even hard for those who do accept the science behind climate change, to make acting upon it part of their daily life. 

However, very recently, the entire travel and hospitality industry – including the vacation and short-term rental industry – is starting to sit up and take note as customers become more aware of their carbon footprint and far more conscious of their impact environmentally. Slow travel, sustainable travel and flight shaming are becoming more mainstream and people are starting to act on their concerns and beliefs and furthermore sharing their actions across social media. Sustainability has earned bragging rights in 2020. 

This has created an increased focus on yet another set of guest expectations. A growing section of the booking public is more interested in their carbon footprint, eating local, and eco-tourism, rather than lavish spa vacations. 

The environmental footprint of the travel industry has been a discussion point for more than 25 years. This topic of saving and not using things stupidly – being sustainable – was the reason I took my first degree in archaeology so long ago. While standing in a dumpster full of drywall I had installed earlier that year, I thought ‘There is no way that we survived as a species this long by doing things like this….’ That led me to a career in sustainable architecture and engineering, which then led me to founding a company called Operto

A few years ago, whilst working with hotels (as part of a larger green building project), I noticed that the energy model predictions showed that the hotels were going to have the same energy footprint as the hospitals on the project. After talking with a number of engineers on the project (because I assumed this must have been wrong), they confirmed that this was indeed accurate. ‘Both building types never turn off’, they stated ‘both hospitals and hotels are 24/7 all-year-round on facilities.’

Digging deeper, I found that the hotels were only getting to about 60% room occupancy over the year. Additionally, most guests also only spent 8-10 hours of a 24 hour period in their rooms (much of that sleeping). My big questions were, ‘Why couldn’t we just turn everything off? Wouldn’t this save a ton of energy and carbon? Wouldn’t the hotel operator also save money if energy was simply turned off when it wasn’t being used?’ Of course, these exact same questions and the theory apply to vacation rentals… Your home, when occupied by guests, is likely to increase its energy usage by 2 to 4 times – even when the guests are not actually at the property (as the last cleaner or guest likely wasn’t thinking to set back the thermostat or to close the window). 

Until fairly recently, it has been difficult, or nearly impossible to get anyone to prioritise this topic. Also, buildings are designed (usually) with no tech solutions to connect them or to control energy consumption in relation to the booking systems or to the actual occupancy of the space. 

After learning that there wasn’t a system which could connect these disparate pieces between the building, occupancy and energy devices, I decided to found Operto. The simple idea was to connect booking and occupancy data to smart thermostats, such as Tado and Ecobee, in order to intelligently monitor consumption. What we ended up creating was a robust access control solution for automated entry. It made total sense to use the room (front) door as the trigger to turn things on and off. 

As Operto has evolved, the focus has shifted from automating ‘check in’ in vacation and short-term rentals to making an impact on energy. Because this is not only better for us all, through using less energy, but also because it saves property managers and owners money by consuming less and because, I believe, this is also what the guests are increasingly prioritising. That’s why this all started. It’s far less courageous than what Greta is doing, but it’s something which clearly needs addressing. 

For the vacation and short-term rental industry, the impact isn’t likely to be small either. Let’s start by looking at just the total energy profile of all the vacation rental properties in Florida as an example, using the VRBO number of 140,000 available rentals. 

While utility rates vary across Florida let’s use an average of 12 cents per kWh. Since home size also varies widely, we will work on the small side and assume the average size of these homes and apartments is 1,000 sq.ft (so we can estimate that there is about 140,000,000 sq.ft of rental space in the entire state). If you then take the US EPA building performance database value for energy as 44 kWh/sqft/yr, our assumption is that each property spends about $5,000 a year on utility costs and also generates about a pound of carbon per kWh. So at a state level, in Florida, I estimate that $700,000,000 is spent on energy a year, with 6,160,000 pounds of carbon generated.

Translated, if property managers could save 20% in energy consumption within the properties, it would save those paying utilities in Florida $140,000,000 dollars a year and 1,232,000 tons of carbon. What these significant savings require, is simply turning things off when no one has booked the unit or if no one is there. Simple! While, of course, there is a greater degree of complexity and nuance to taking 10% savings to 30% savings; the technology is now readily available to make this happen. 

Now even if you don’t believe in climate change, by reducing energy consumption, the worst thing that can happen is that home owners in the state of Florida would save $140,000,000 a year collectively. As property managers, by making moves towards the reduction of the over consumption of energy, (when the guest isn’t in the property) you won’t affect guest comfort and you won’t be agreeing with one political view over another. You’ll be saving yourself or your owners’ money. You’ll be making your properties more self-sufficient thereby saving yourself time. You’ll also be decreasing the risk of someone accidentally turning your property into a sauna (and with hot and humid conditions you get mould…). 

There isn’t really much of a downside to combating climate change. The worst that can happen if climate change isn’t real is that we make the world a better place and save money. 

Change in all aspects creates an initial discomfort because most of us have got used to the way things are now. The changes to come in the vacation and short-term rental industry will include much more than energy savings, but adapting to inevitable change and staying ahead as a leader is important. 

The single-minded focus and determination of young people like Greta should serve as our inspiration for tackling the challenges of 2020. They all ultimately tie back to the same problem that affects us all. 

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