London's posh Savoy Hotel reopens after a pricey 'green' makeover

LONDON -- A year and a half behind schedule and well over budget, Central London's iconic five-star Savoy Hotel reopened to the well-heeled public last month fully restored to the opulence of its early-20th century heyday.

But while the likes of John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill might immediately recognize the look of the place, under its skin their favorite hotel has also been turned into one of the greenest, most energy-efficient hotels in the world. The effort to do all this took the three years the hotel was closed and helped fatten the restoration tab to £220 million ($350 million).

Deep in the bowels of the building, which was opened in 1889 by Gilbert and Sullivan impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, a combined heat and power plant pumps our 500 kilowatts of power, supplying about half of the 268-room hotel's needs.

All wet food waste is collected and sent to a biomass plant in the United Kingdom's Midlands to produce power for the nation's power grid. Heat from kitchen appliances is captured and reused to preheat the hotel's water. Cooking oil is turned into biodiesel, and all guest rooms have been equipped with low-energy lights.

"This is not greenwash. We can prove what we are doing. We want to be at the forefront. We want to be out there doing it," the hotel's "Green Team" chief Debra Patterson told ClimateWire as she sat sipping fresh orange juice in the hotel's famed American Bar on a cold Autumn afternoon in November.

"We calculate that our biomass is generating enough power to light up 20 percent of our guest rooms. It is also saving us about £22,000 a year," she added, noting that previously, much of this waste went to landfill.

Gilbert and Sullivan meet Kermit the Frog


And that is not all the hotel, which has played host to the rich and famous for more than a century, has done to green up its act during the refurbishment, leaving most of its competitors behind.

As a later American celebrity, Kermit the Frog, sang: "It's not easy being green." So the hotel's staff are all involved in the new policy. All paper is recycled, smart meters monitor and regulate heat and light usage, hybrid vehicles are included in the hotel's fleet for guest transfers, and all staff go through "green training" during their induction.

The hotel also initiated a project to clean up the Thames riverbank it overlooks -- spurring others to action. Environmental sustainability is built into contracts with its suppliers. It has even planted its own herb garden.

While little of this will be immediately evident to guests paying rates ranging from more than £300 ($476) a night for a simple room to £10,000 a night ($15,903) for the Royal Suite, Patterson sees it all as part of the aim that D'Oyly Carte said in 1930 was to make his hotel the most up to date. It was the first in the city to have electric lights and the first to have elevators, which were quaintly dubbed "ascending rooms."

"We don't want this to be 'in your face.' It is deliberately understated. We are the only five-star hotel doing environmental work at this level, so if a potential guest is interested in that, then I can't see why they would not come to the Savoy," Patterson said.

Biodynamic cocktails, green butlers and no offsets, thank you

She is a purist. No carbon offsetting for her to buy the hotel's way to carbon cleanliness.

"We looked at carbon offsetting but decided very early on against it. You could not be sure it was doing what it claimed -- whether that tree was actually going to be planted in that place," she said.

"And in any case, I didn't feel comfortable at the idea of paying to call ourselves carbon-neutral. I want what we are doing to be visible and verifiable."

Among the packages on offer to guests is the "Elements Stay Package" costing £825 a night ($1,116) for double occupancy, which includes, among other things, use of a bicycle -- with helmet thrown in -- a three-course organic dinner and biodynamic cocktail, and a "Green Butler."

These specially trained butlers, initially intended just for guests staying in one of the hotel's suites but now open to all rooms, will be primed to advise the eco-conscious guest on where to find the best organic restaurants, the most carbon-sparing transport companies and the best places to take their organic gourmet picnic hamper -- although the hamper itself is extra.

"In 2005, when I first put forward what I then called the Environmental Stay Package, the idea was dismissed out of hand," Patterson said. "It has been a real struggle, but I had to keep persevering, and slowly my ideas began to be taken up."

"When we closed in 2007 for the refurbishment, none of us knew if we would keep our jobs. My manager told me I would be staying, and my task would be to put the Savoy on the green map. That is what I have done and am continuing to do," she said.

Making honey on the roof?

In the end, only 75 of the 650 staff date from before the closure, which was supposed to last just 17 months but which kept on being put back as it was found that more and more work was needed, prompting recurring speculation that the hotel -- owned by Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and managed by Canada's Fairmont Hotels and Resorts -- might never reopen.

And sustainability and environmental friendliness are alongside luxury, style and opulence at the core of the agenda of a hotel that has counted Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin and Lena Horne among its performing artists and Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart and the Beatles among its glittering guests.

Gilbert and Sullivan had separate offices there, as they didn't get on very well despite their hugely successful collaboration in comic operas such as "The Mikado" and "Iolanthe," and its setting also inspired painters Claude Monet and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

British World War II leader Churchill often took his War Cabinet to the Savoy for lunch, and the hotel also hosted members of the British royal family over the years.

But the irrepressible Patterson is not about to rest on her laurels. "One idea we are looking at -- maybe for next year -- is putting beehives on the roof to make our own honey. We are also looking at the possibility of including English organic wines on the menu of the American Bar. The bar is world-famous. That would be something, wouldn't it?" she asked.

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