Sometimes defining moments in a life and career are easy to pinpoint, while other executives have a less obvious path. For Inge Huijbrechts – Global Senior Vice President Sustainability, Security and Corporate Communications for Radisson Hotel Group – one moment stands out
that encapsulates a passion for travel with concern for the planet. That ‘moment’ was a four-year sailing trip around the world, beginning in Belgium and ending with Inge first joining Toyota Motor Europe to lead sustainability and then Radisson Hotel Group.
“The trip went from Belgium to Australia, it took four years and it had been a life dream of mine,” recalls Inge, who embarked on the journey with her ex-husband.
“It seemed like the right moment, in our lives and our careers, to do it and actually it was. Once you get your mindset to a project like that, it's doable to give up everything, to sell your house, give up great careers and go. It's not a holiday, it's a different way of life. A journey like that is an exploration to yourself, to the nature around you, to the state of the world in very remote and pristine places.”
Although Inge got to see some of those incredibly remote places, they were far from untouched by the now recognised scourge of plastic waste – something which clearly had a lasting impact on her and her later career choices.
“Nature is stunningly beautiful,” she says, “but you see the impact of plastic pollution firsthand, even when you cross the ocean. You see plastic floating and on the windward side of all these remote islands, no matter where they are. So, luckily the topic is now on the global agenda.”
Sustainability is not just on the agenda, it’s arguably the number-one priority for organisations, governments and individuals as we begin to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. As it was expressed in the recent IPCC report published on August 9, climate change is happening, and we need to mobilise massively and decisively now that we still have a bit of time to turn the tide.
Sustainability has been talked about for decades – ever since the Brundtland Report more than 30 years ago – and in the corporate world, has professionalised over the last 15 years.
“After a career of 10 years as a successful executive in IT, when I came back, I was lucky enough to get hired by Toyota to be their CSR manager for Europe,” Inge recalls. “And that's still an amazing stroke of luck for me, but they needed someone who had the passion for sustainability, an understanding of the subject and an engineering background, which I do have. Plus, they were looking for sales capabilities to sell sustainability and corporate responsibility internally – and that was my chance.”
It is an opportunity that Inge grasped with both hands, leading the team at Toyota for close to four years before joining Radisson a decade ago.
During this time, Inge’s role has developed while the hotel group has also undergone significant changes – having two name changes and two changes in ownership.
“I would say I don't have to change companies because the company changes for me,” jokes Inge. “I started as a Director of Responsible Business, which is corporate responsibility. Then I got promoted two years later to Global VP of Responsible Business. And then, three years ago,
I was asked to add Safety and Security. And now since January I also lead Corporate Communications.”
The change of ownership of Radisson Hotel Group three years ago has brought with it a whole transformation programme – a detailed strategic plan for the group and its nine distinct brands. Inge says these 26 strategic initiatives – of which corporate responsibility and safety and security is one – have made the group stronger, more resilient and as prepared as possible to rebound after shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“At Radisson Hotel Group we speak about responsible business in terms of Think People, Think Community and Think Planet,” says Inge. “So that’s the three elements we care about in our mission to be a responsible company. Our duty of care globally, in an organisation with 1,600 hotels in 120 countries, is to keep everyone safe: guests, team members and people in our supply chain.
“One can certainly say there’s a nexus between Sustainability and Safety & Security. If you're looking at climate change and the associated risks, many of the impacts also affect the safety & security of our operations – for example, in terms of food or water security, local instability, and responding to increasingly frequent natural disasters. So in both fields of Sustainability and Safety & Security, my team and I look at those long-term risks and are doing the right thing to mitigate them to protect people, assets and the environment.
“By being a responsible corporate citizen, and by having impactful sustainability actions in place, you're actually going to make it safer for your company to operate.”
Radisson Hotel Group and its previous incarnations, has a rich history and strong record when it comes to sustainability – leading pioneering initiatives in the hospitality industry.
When it was still called Radisson SAS, it was the first hospitality company to have an environmental policy. This was back in 1989, when the Berlin Wall still divided East and West Berlin, smoking was allowed on airplanes, and the world wide web (internet) was born. It helps that Radisson has its roots in the Nordics, in Scandinavian countries with forward-thinking attitudes that are now really catching on around the world.
However, when it comes to sustainability, every company on the planet is shouting about their credentials and it’s hard for many consumers to cut through that
noise and discern how they can make responsible choices.
“I think we have a role as a company and an industry to make sustainability easy to understand for travellers and consumers,” agrees Inge. “And that's one of the things that I'm trying to realise now together with my CEO and our owners, Jin Jiang International, together with hotel and travel industry associations, to bring something together that can be the global hotel sustainability standard.”
Inge outlines that there is currently a great deal of information and a number of frameworks available, but sees an opportunity for a basic standard for sustainability that is widely supported by all tourism stakeholders. Hotels that meet this basic level should be able to display some kind of symbol, like a green icon. You could take that concept further of course, in the same way that hotels have a star rating system, that could be extended
to a hotel’s sustainability credentials – allowing consumers to make better informed choices.
Carbon neutral ambitions
‘Carbon neutral’ is another one of those phrases that we hear all the time and can be misleading for consumers. As well as reducing your carbon footprint as much as possible, most businesses need to offset their remaining footprint, and it’s important to provide transparency on each element.
Inge says there are very few companies who are genuinely carbon neutral just by zeroing their footprint in their core activity. When you are talking about buildings and 24/7 operations around the world, it’s almost impossible, so you have to include offsetting as the last step in the plan.
“We are the only hotel company with 100% carbon neutral meetings and events worldwide at no cost to the client,” says Inge. “It means we offset the footprint of all our meeting and events spaces worldwide.
“First, we aim to reduce the meeting location’s footprint to a maximum and then, we offset the remaining carbon emissions. For instance, in the Radisson Blu Hotel Basel, which is the hotel you see on my Teams background, they've made significant investments in environmental technology such as solar panels for water heating, efficient cooling & heating, building controls, etc.
“The meeting footprint is therefore lower, and we offset it with recognised quality projects that have both an environmental and a social impact. We are transparent because we provide a report to the meeting organiser, outlining exactly how much CO2 we have offset for their meeting. For hotels, if you want to reach carbon neutrality, it's all about energy consumption reduction, using renewable energy, and offsetting.”
When it comes to being a responsible business, next to actions for the environment, carbon neutrality and net zero, a company should also focus on Think People,
or social responsibility.
Diversity, equality and inclusion are top of mind in Radisson Hotel Group and in the public opinion.
Because of the global nature of its business, Radisson is naturally diverse, but it also excels with innovative initiatives.
Around 40% of Radisson’s 100,000 team members are female, in a total workforce that represents 137 nationalities. However, Inge does recognise that there’s an opportunity
to increase the diversity amongst senior staff, for example at General Manager level, where currently 20% are female.
“When you're on head-of-department level in a hotel, you can easily stay in the same country, but after that there often are requirements to move and take up more senior roles abroad. In our Diversity and Inclusion program, we have put a lot of attention on tailored career paths and allowing people certain flexibility, not being forced to move to where it's not possible to move with a family, for example.”
Inge highlights two countries where Radisson Hotel Group is really leading the way when it comes to equality and inclusion – Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
In Saudi Arabia in 2017, Maram Kokandi became the first announced female native Saudi General Manager of a hotel. She has been the general manager of the Jeddah Park Inn Hotel since its construction work began in 2017.
“She is a trailblazer. And because of that, and the Kingdom's push for local employment, we went from only 6 female team members to 190 in a few years.
“In sync with Maram’s appointment we also implemented a significant D&I policy in the Middle East by extending maternity one month longer beyond the legal minimum. This policy means a lot for young female talent and allows them to balance work and family.
Another success story in South Africa highlights inclusivity at Park Inn by Radisson Cape Town Newlands. The hotel is partially owned by DEAFSA the Deaf Association of South Africa and, as a result, the hotel is run by an inclusive team, including 30% deaf staff.
“It really is a tremendous success,” says Inge. “Deaf team members work both in front of house as well as back of house roles and are identified with a badge to inform guests. Reactions are very positive. The success at Park Inn has been an inspiration to take on more deaf team members in other hotels. One of the former team members of Park Inn by Radisson Cape Town Newlands was promoted to become the cluster financial controller of a number of our hotels in South Africa. Her growth shows that at Radisson Hotel Group, everyone has equal opportunities to succeed, to learn, to be compensated fairly, and to advance.”
Responding to the COVID challenge
While there are so many positive stories coming from Radisson Hotel Group, it’s important to remember the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on the travel and hospitality industries – probably one of the hardest hits of all industries worldwide.
Inge first became aware of the novel virus from working on mitigation measures in the group’s properties in China as early as January 2020, but it’s fair to say most of us still believed this was a localised outbreak that would be contained. By the end of February, Inge was attending an annual conference in Las Vegas celebrating a successful year and launching new initiatives such as the group’s plan to phase out single use plastics. That same week a call came from one of the Radisson Blu hotels in Germany informing her of a cluster of infections amongst guests and staff. And that is when everything changed and the company’s global crisis management process kicked in.
“I would say the rest of 2020 was fully dedicated to managing the crisis – getting our company safely through this health and safety crisis became my full focus,” recalls Inge. “As lockdowns were decreed in an increasing number of countries, Radisson Hotels were gradually being closed. At one point, we had up to one third of our portfolio closed. No one saw this coming at this scale and for this duration; no one thought a year ago that we would still be in the global pandemic right now. Luckily, we had rolled out a global crisis management process consistently in the group since I took over safety and security. The process existed before, but needed to be made available in quality collateral, rolled out worldwide and regularly practiced. Thanks to our practiced global crisis management and some excellent initial decisions involving expert partners, we made it. Our hotels came through this safely, because we reacted fast, consistently and together with the right partners.”
The job is never done
Radisson Hotel Group turns acting for good into a habit and a consistent strategy. Over the last ten years, for example, it has reduced its energy and water footprint by 30%. Now the group has pledged to reduce their carbon footprint by another 30% by 2025, which Inge describes as “a tremendous but necessary target on the path to Net Zero”.
“This year we are setting our Science Based Targets – which means carbon reduction targets in line with the Paris Accord. This is
a next major step for us. Setting and achieving SBTs means building on the success of what we've done before, setting the targets, and then mobilising everybody to build and renovate green, to maximise our use of renewable energy and be climate efficient
on the operational side to achieve them,” says Inge.
Another initiative that was launched recently is a new partnership on green mobility for Europe. Currently 150 of the group’s hotels are already equipped with charging points for electric vehicles. This new partnership will accelerate the rollout of charging capabilities Europe-wide and leverage the latest ultrafast charging technology, especially in mature markets where uptake of EVs is growing rapidly. ‘EV driving is like the new wifi’; guests expect EV facilities to be available when they travel. Radisson Hotel Group’s vision is to connect all guests to green mobility moments.
Another major topic of today is the fight against waste – avoiding Single-Use-Plastics as mentioned before, and a concerted effort to tackle food waste.
“Food waste is hugely important because of its tremendous climate impact,” says Inge, citing a study that says 80% of a hotel’s carbon originates in the supply chain, and a large portion of that is food and beverage. Eating a vegetarian diet means 2.5x less carbon emissions than a meat diet. It is also estimated that 30% of all food goes to waste – these
are all products that took water and energy to grow, carbon to transport and process, etc.
“Hotels can play a major role in reducing their overall carbon footprints by simply reducing food waste and also by putting plant-based options on the menu.
In Radisson Hotel Group EMEA today 35% of our menu options are already plant-based (vegetarian or vegan). This is helping us and our clients to make an impact.”
Radisson Hotel Group has also signed an agreement with Too Good To Go – a social enterprise that operates in multiple countries in Europe. They connect the public with hospitality providers who have leftover meals to sell at the end of the day at an affordable set price, which helps the hotel avoid food waste and, at the same time, provides
a service to the local consumers.
Sustainability is a pre-competitive topic. Honouring the UN Sustainable Development Goal 17 – Partnership for the Goals – Radisson Hotel Group engages in key industry fora to help make tangible change.
In May 2020, we put the power of the collective in action together with the World Travel and Tourism Council, when we
helped create the Safe Travel Guidelines which are now adopted by over 300 destinations worldwide.
Radisson Hotel Group also plays an active role in the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, an organisation which is promoting responsible hospitality for a better world. It comprises 13 companies totally committed to working together on sustainability, and represents 25% of the industry in terms of number of rooms.
Considering around 70% of the industry is made up of independent hotels or small groups, this 25% is made up of the major groups – including Marriott, IHG, Hilton, Hyatt, Radisson Hotel Group, large producers like Caesars and innovative groups like Soneva. In the Alliance, these groups work together on coordinated efforts and initiatives covering People and Planet. That includes carbon footprint, climate action, youth employment and human rights.
“The SHA has been around for over 25 years and we have already issued industry tools to measure carbon footprints for hotels in
a consistent way. Same for water,” says Inge. “We're working on a waste methodology and hope to deliver this together with the United Nations World Tourism Organization UNWTO.
This collaborative approach extends from Radisson Hotel Group into numerous innovative partnerships relating to sustainability in order to achieve their carbon reduction goals. Today, 18% of energy used by Radisson Hotels worldwide is renewable and 25 hotels operate on 100% renewable energy. Thanks to a partnership with E.On, the Radisson Blu Hotel, Frankfurt has the first large scale hydrogen combined heat and power installation. Thanks to this installation, 30% of energy of this 430+ room hotel is generated fully emission free. This installation was the first of its kind in Europe on that scale.
Another partner called Solarus has installed hybrid solar panels on the roof of Park Inn by Radisson Foreshore in the Cape Town CBD. These panels produce electricity as well as heat and hot water – covering 30% of the hotel’s hot water requirement.
Sustainability is all about the future, and
Inge says that the increased focus on safety – as individuals and as a wider society – is perhaps the biggest lesson learned from the last 18 months.
“During the pandemic, sustainability has not gone away and in the past few months, it has come back in full force,” she says. “And that's simply because people realise that there's no vaccine against climate change.”
“Being a responsible company, we do everything in our power to go to climate neutrality by 2050, and we take our employees and our clients on that journey. I think Sustainability is an economic and social imperative. Sustainability is a necessity if we want to keep our planet a livable place for