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Rethinking Food Waste: Q&A with Hilton’s Max Verstraete

Max Verstraete Hilton“We want to be responsible operators and buyers,” says Max Verstraete, VP of corporate responsibility for Hilton. The hospitality company, which has 14 brands covering more than 5,000 properties in 104 countries and territories, buys a lot of products. “Whether it’s furniture or ketchup bottles for room service trays, TVs, electronics — pretty much anything you can think of — we’re probably buying,” he says.

To help keep track of those products’ impact, Hilton created a proprietary platform called LightStay that analyzes and displays a hotel’s energy, water, and waste performance. It’s part of the company’s social responsibility strategy, called Travel with Purpose. Last year LightStay won an Environmental Leader award. One judge commented, “The company not only had the vision to have ambitious sustainability goals, but developed and effectively implemented LightStay as the enabling technology to achieve them.”

Travel with Purpose also inspired the creation of Meet with Purpose, a program to help professionals reduce waste while incorporating health and wellness into their meetings and events. Recently we spoke with Verstraete to learn about Hilton’s sustainability strategy for food, including sourcing and menu design.

What is Hilton’s current environmental strategy, especially around waste?

We try to leverage our global footprint by driving local solutions. If we can do one thing across the majority of our footprint, we can have a big impact. We look at energy, water, and waste. When it comes to waste, we’ve been focusing not only on reduction, but also better management. It becomes difficult to continuously reduce your waste output. However, there is opportunity through better recycling, donation programs, repurposing.

One of the areas we’ve been focusing on for the past couple years through our partnership with the World Wildlife Fund is food waste, the biggest waste stream in our operations. We’ve been doing pilots around the world to figure out how can we better separate our food waste, measure it when possible, compost it, or install food digesters — and what are the countries with laws that allow our hotels to donate food safely.

Where and how is food waste generated in hotels?

The buffet is an area where we see issues with over-production. The other is our menus for events. You’ll talk to folks in the field and they say, “For my guests, the buffet must always look like it’s full and the food is fresh.” When you’re talking to meeting planners, one of the worst nightmares for them is that a client’s event runs out of food. Third-party meeting planners might be over-ordering.

We launched the Meet With Purpose program for more sustainable meetings. Some of it is around creating menus that do not have waste associated with them, that have more balanced foods and smaller portions that are locally sourced.

What are the pilot programs you’re working on related to food waste?

We have somewhere between 15 and 20 pilot programs around the world. There are quite a bit here in the US, and some in Asia and Europe. We’re trying to figure out what are the best practices, the best solutions that we can put in front of the 5,000-plus hotels around the world.

We’re part of the World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab with Google, Panera Bread, and other partners trying to change consumer behavior to select menu options that are more sustainable. We’re testing different recipes like the “avo-club sandwich.” Instead of proteins it’s an avocado, which does not have such a big environmental footprint. And doing burgers where, instead of a 100% beef patty, it might be 50% beef, 50% mushroom.

Typically the highlight of a menu is going to be that juicy steak. Where are we putting our veggie options so when you read them it’s not like, “I don’t want this boring salad, I’m going to go for the burger”?

It’s complicated. I can relate to it as a traveler. When you’re on the road, finally in your room and you had not great food, whether on the plane or in the airport, it’s easy to grab the menu and go for the burger. But we’re making good progress.

What’s the business case for reducing food waste?

It is more difficult to prove because sadly it’s cheap to throw stuff away. It’s a tougher sell than energy or water. However, through awareness with our operating teams on how much food waste is generated and by measuring it, we believe we can bring behavioral change. We can change menus for our restaurants, buffets, and catering events — how they’re set, what we’re buying, how we’re buying — which ultimately has a positive impact on food costs.

There are not many hotels today separating and measuring their food waste. That’s part of what we’re doing through pilots is figuring out best practices and technologies that can help us show the positive impact on food costs. Ask any hotel if they can find a solution to bring food costs down, they’ll be all over it.

What else are you working on related to food and sustainability?

We released industry-leading sustainable seafood goals last year. We’re going to source 100% of our seafood more sustainably. We’re looking to new markets where we can source from Marine Stewardship Council certified fisheries and Aquaculture Stewardship Council certified farms.

Sourcing is complicated not only because we buy just about anything you can think of but, looking down your supply chain, one supplier has another supplier has another supplier has another supplier. There’s a lack of transparency. In 104 countries, you get very little centralized purchasing.

But 80% or more of global fisheries are over-stretched. We have a lot of restaurants around the world and we sell a lot of fish. The fact that we’re running out of fish is a risk to our company.

In hospitality, are there challenges around communicating sustainable food choices?

When you’re spending $200 to stay at a hotel, there’s also a certain level of expectation. You’re going to take that shower with the nice showerhead. You’re going to have this really nice breakfast buffet. This is true of events, too.

People are more and more receptive of products and brands that are sustainable and responsible. We’ve been able to integrate some changes. We measure what we’re doing through LightStay. And we have reports that hotels can run so that information is up online.

For food waste, there are efforts outside of Hilton through ad campaigns. As awareness grows and our customers want to know more, we’re also able to put information out there.

Do you envision a time when a hotel stay won’t have a big footprint?

I think innovation will get us there. If you look at energy and lighting, there is new technology out there every six months that can allow us to have a more efficient product, savings associated with it, and less of an environmental footprint.

And we’re seeing it with food waste. The moment consumers make decisions with their wallets, that’s going to drive innovation. So yes, I do envision that day, whether it’s for me or one of my daughters. I can envision it.

We’re now accepting submissions for the 2018 Environmental Leader Awards. The final deadline is December 15, 2017. Learn more here.

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