March 30, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

Entrepreneur opening green luxury resorts

The Gaia Napa Valley Hotel & Spa sports all of the usual amenities: pools, gardens, spas, cable TV, in-suite coffee machines. But it's also one of the greenest hotels in the nation, according to its founder.

Wen-I Chang's hope is to build a series of resorts that will blend environmental consciousness with the sort of creature comforts consumers expect to find on their vacation. Introductory rates at his new hotel in California's upscale wine country are $99 a night.

The 133-room hotel, which opens Friday, consumes 26 percent less electricity and 45 percent less water than a similarly sized establishment, Chang said. The countertops, floor tiles and carpets were made with recycled materials, and environment-friendly sealants were used in the construction.

Photos of Gaia Hotel and Spa

Although many of the green touches are more or less invisible to the average guest, the environmental factors are also one of its key selling points, he said. If tourists have a choice between staying at an ordinary resort and a green one, they might opt to experience the different one.

The Gaia will initially seek guests who have at least a slight new-age bent. The resort's informal motto, Chang added, comes from a line in the diaries of Marco Polo: "Expect the unexpected."

The lodging industry has been leaning greenward for some time, if only in modest ways. For years, many mainstream hotels have urged guests to forego daily laundering of sheets and towels as a way to cut down on water use and the effluence of detergents.

More recently, hotels have started actively marketing themselves as eco-friendly. The new Orchard Garden Hotel in downtown San Francisco, for instance, bills itself as the city's greenest hotel; it makes use of chemical-free cleaning products, recycled paper and soy-based inks. "With every visit," its Web site proclaims, "you contribute to the environment's health, while enjoying our city's finest accommodations and services.

Chang's facility expects soon to be LEED-certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a benchmark applied nationwide to both residential and commercial properties on five points of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.

Whether "green" will become a major watchword in tourism remains to be seen, but consumers are increasingly gravitating toward products that are, or appear to be, safer for the environment. Organic produce is one of the fastest-growing segments in the grocery business, boosting sales for companies that sell food- and water-purifying systems. Wal-Mart Stores and others are also experimenting with solar power and alternative types of packaging to both cut their utility bills and appeal to customers.

Some companies have also begun to dip into eco-friendly building materials like new kinds of drywall.

The sun looms large at Gaia. Solar panels will provide about 10 percent of the resort's electricity, and skylights have been liberally placed in the hotel to optimize the ability to use sunlight to illuminate interior rooms. At the same time, the roof contains a coating that reflects the sun's heat, which cuts down on the hotel's air-conditioning needs.

The hotel's decorative swan pond will also serve a function by helping regulate the ambient temperature.

Chang's next resort, near Redding in Northern California, is already about 50 percent complete. The parking lot was cut 20 feet short, and sewer lines were rerouted to save an elderberry tree. "It's a very ugly tree," he said, adding that the company tried to preserve a large number of the surrounding trees during construction.

A third hotel will be built in Merced in Central California. If they succeed, more will follow. Half of the net profits, he added, will go to charity.

Chang--who has worked with Hilton and other hotel chains, and actually runs the hotels through his company, the Atman Hospitality Group--hopes to turn a profit from these hotels, but it's also something of a personal quest.

About eight years ago, he was eating in a restaurant in Santa Cruz, Calif., when he noticed that the waitress hadn't brought water to the table. She explained that they were only brining water at the request of customers because of a local shortage. Soon after, he was south in Palm Springs, where he heard how the water level was extremely low.

"That morning, I took a two-minute shower rather than the usual eight-minute shower," he said. "From that point, there was a butterfly effect."

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