The Greening of Gaylord

The company hit hardest by the May flood seizes the opportunity to 'green' up [From the September/October issue of Nashville Post magazine]

When the Cumberland River breached its levees and poured into the Opryland Resort & Convention Center last May, officials with Gaylord Entertainment Co. quickly realized that they faced a disaster. They also recognized that, beneath the brown river water, lay a green opportunity.

When the four-million-square-foot hotel and convention center reopens November 15, just six-and-a-half months after rising waters forced thousands of guests and staff members to flee, the building will look much as it did before the flood. Behind the scenes, however, changes made by Gaylord during the hotel’s restoration will have significantly altered the facility’s environmental footprint.

The company already had committed itself to reducing its overall corporate environmental impact over time, says Andy Mims, the company’s first-ever vice president of sustainability. The flood just moved the timetable forward for some of the bigger changes needed at Opryland, the oldest of the company’s four properties. After all, all of the equipment necessary to operate the hotel — huge commercial air-conditioning units, natural gas turbines, a laundry that washes and dries 16 tons of garments, bedding, table cloths and other items every day — had been submerged and needed to be replaced.

Why not, to the extent possible in the ambitious time frame the company allowed itself for reopening the hotel, install equipment that uses less energy and water and has less impact on the city’s air quality? Even better, insurance and tax refunds are helping to pay for the restoration.

The company has told investors it expects to spend $215 million to $225 million to restore its various Nashville properties. Of that, $165 million to $172 million will be spent to restore the hotel. Those costs are being offset by business interruption and property insurance proceeds of $50 million and a federal tax refund of approximately $30 million.

Gaylord President and COO Dave Kloeppel says that 35 percent of the rebuilding cost will involve replacing “central plant” electrical, mechanical and plumbing equipment.

“Every investment in the central plant is a green investment,” Kloeppel says.

For Gaylord officials, this was more than the savvy aligning of rhetoric with the reality of post-deluge repairs. Indeed, Kloeppel and Colin Reed, Gaylord’s chairman and CEO, had begun discussing ways to restrain their company’s environmental footprint a year earlier.

“Colin had the same vision,” Kloeppel says. “We began an exploration of what it means to have a sustainability strategy.”

To this end, they hired Mims and charged him to first gain an understanding of Gaylord’s overall environmental impact and then to craft a sustainability strategy for the company’s four convention hotels.

Then the Cumberland River spilled over its banks.

Mims quickly found himself focusing on repairs at Opryland — as well as at the now flooded home into which he and his wife and two young children had just moved.

Faced with a flooded facility, Mims’ measurement of Gaylord’s overall carbon footprint would have to wait, but Mims knew there would be ample opportunity in rebuilding from a slate washed clean.

“[The Flood] gave us an opportunity to upgrade the equipment,” Mims says.

The Power House, where the hotel generates 35 percent of the electricity it uses each day, the laundry and the heating and air-conditioning systems will be 10 percent to 20 percent more efficient, he says. The company will emphasize recycling and promises to send far less solid waste to landfills.

For years, Opryland has produced much of its own electricity, using natural gas turbines that emit less pollution than the coal burned by TVA at its Gallatin fossil plant to provide much of the Nashville area’s power. Gaylord is installing new turbines, made by the Solar Turbine Co., that will generate 4.5 megawatts of electricity.

Mims acknowledges that natural gas is a nonrenewable fossil fuel and may not meet a purist’s definition of green. But it’s cleaner than the electricity available on the grid, and producing power on-site has two additional advantages. First, no voltage is lost during transmission, as is often the case with long-distance power lines. Second, there’s the steam.

The spinning turbines produce heat, which could simply be vented away. But Gaylord is capturing it to generate steam for the kitchen as well as the laundry room, where the hotel processes 12 million pounds of laundry a year. In the facility, new water-stingy “barrel-style washers” that resemble front loaders on steroids, will “significantly” reduce energy and water consumption, according to Mims.

In the laundry, Gaylord is installing yet another waste-heat reclamation process to heat water for the washers. In addition, the company has eliminated the use of perc, a hazardous solvent, in its dry cleaning process and is finding alternatives to harsh laundry detergents.

The air conditioning system will also be more efficient. Gaylord is replacing three of the chillers that treat the building’s air and is overhauling four others (a move that allows the company to participate in TVA’s energy efficiency incentive program). Combined, they can produce a total of 9,000 tons of chilled water to cool the air inside the hotel’s 3,000 guest rooms, 12 restaurants and 600,000 square feet of convention, exhibition and pre-function space. All told, the hotel has nine acres under glass.

“Just using modern technology” will improve efficiency, Mims says.

But though Mims is eager to talk about the greening of the Opryland Resort & Convention Center, he is quick to put it in perspective. For now, Gaylord’s No. 1 goal is to meet its self-imposed — and quite ambitious — deadline for reopening the property. For a company that has estimated a loss of up to $62 million from the interruption of business at its Nashville attractions, reopening trumps all.

This tight timeline is one of the reasons the hotel is not currently pursuing goals such as gaining LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED provides third-party verification that a building was designed and built to meet certain environmental goals. Gaylord is pursuing LEED certification at its Texan Hotel & Convention Center outside Dallas, but the process is time-consuming, and time is something Mims does not have an abundance of at Opryland.

“Here we’re not focused on LEED right now,” Mims says. “Here, we’re focused on getting the hotel open by November 15.”

All that is green need not be LEED. Gaylord has shown a willingness to meet sustainability standards set by third parties. For example, the Gaylord Palms Hotel & Convention Center in Orlando has satisfied the state of Florida’s requirements for green certification. Granted, such greening was both a nod to sustainability and practical—such certification was required before the state would allow its employees to stay there while traveling for business.

It’s at these junctures — where sustainability meets savings — that many of Gaylord’s initial attempts to green up can be found. Gaylord has installed low-flow toilets in its 8,000 guest rooms, it has replaced incandescent light bulbs with efficient compact fluorescents, and computerized building management systems turn lights, heat and air-conditioning on and off in meeting rooms and public spaces as necessary.

“You turn off a light, it makes a huge difference. It’s possible with very little changes to have a huge impact,” Mims says.

Implementing sustainable practices is often a matter of enlightened self-interest. Business travelers, the bread and butter of convention hotels like Gaylord’s, have begun to express a preference for facilities with such practices in place. Hospitality industry employees have begun to demand them, if for no other reason than environmentally friendly environments are safer and healthier to work in. Investors are demanding changes, as well, since sustainability practices don’t just conserve natural resources, they conserve dollars, too.

“Where you find carbon, you find dollars,” Kloeppel says.

The industry is keenly aware that saving the planet and saving money go together, says Pat Maher, green consultant to the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “Every one of the major hotel chains has someone like Andy Mims.”

Still, as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Jennifer Henry points out, the travel industry is particularly hard on the environment, consuming vast amounts of fossil fuels and water. Planes, trains and automobiles all emit greenhouse gases.

“The reality is, people are going to travel,” Henry says. But hotels with sustainability programs can at least reduce the impact. “Overall, companies that have some sort of initiative are forward-looking,” she says. “They’re not sticking their heads in the sand; they’re trying to stay one step ahead.”

For Gaylord, the next step is to reopen the Opryland Resort & Convention Center. Next, by the end of the year, Kloeppel says the company will know the size of its greenhouse gas footprint and then set goals for reducing it.

Lapsing into business school speak, Kloeppel says that sustainability must become a “key strategy” for Gaylord and, ultimately, part of the company’s culture. Kloeppel, who owns a LEED-certified home, intends to do his part to encourage the transformation.

“What I can provide is a bully pulpit,” Kloeppel says.

Ultimately, the flood-hastened greening of one of Nashville’s corporate giants merits recognition yet not necessarily outright kudos. After all, most of the big-ticket changes — even if consistent with the spirit of a previously determined greener approach — were forced upon Gaylord by Mother Nature. Still, the changes are being made, and it would be unfair to dismiss them just because the they are restricted in scope and ambition by the immediate need to reopen the doors of one of Nashville’s lodging lodestones.

As it stands, the floodwaters put Gaylord firmly on Nashville Post’s 2010 list of the Music City’s most eco-friendly businesses. Whether it makes the list in the coming years will depend on just how determined Kloeppel, Reed and Mims are to make Gaylord a leader in sustainability and green design.