Catalina Alemany is Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility at Riu Hotels & Resorts, the third largest hotel chain in Spain, which was awarded in 2013 by the Tourism Sustainability Institute (ISTur) for promoting the improvement and well-being of the communities where they are based. In this interview, Catalina outlines the company’s strategy and discusses the challenges of the hotel brand’s various sustainability initiatives.
- The main challenges Catalina Alemany faces as CSR Manager;
- How sustainability is leading to business growth;
- How Riu Hotels & Resorts involve suppliers and staff in their sustainability initiatives;
- How the hotel chain measures the ROI of their sustainability initiatives;
- Sustainability priorities and trends in the hospitality industry;
- The secret to successful implementation of sustainability in hotels.
Catalina, do you remember when you first heard about sustainability linked to tourism? And your initial thoughts?
I remember it perfectly, and my first thought was: “I want to work on this!”
I had developed my entire career in the field of human resources and NGO management, so sustainability was a perfect fit for my professional future.
Nowadays it seems that it has become fashionable to talk about Responsible Tourism. But it isn’t all just talk – things are actually changing in this industry. For more than ten years, the tourism industry has been transforming itself, moving into the direction of sustainability. More and more decisions are based on achieving not just economic gains but also environmental and social ones.
When you joined RIU Hotels & Resorts as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) manager, which were the main sustainability challenges you had to tackle?
We are a family business and, as such, were not used to understanding CSR as a cross-cutting strategy, rather as a series of philanthropic actions linked to family experiences. Therefore, the main challenge has been to change the corporate culture: moving from philanthropy to CSR. This includes trying to raise awareness among all people involved in making decisions about how they affect the destination, the local community and the natural environment.
We have incorporated sustainability criteria into factors linked to profitability, customer satisfaction and team leadership.
Now having worked at RIU Hotels & Resorts for more than 5 years, which are the key lessons or insights for you, regarding sustainability and tourism?
There are many lessons learned during this process. The most important have to do with people and their unlimited ability to surprise us.
In our industry, all achievements are reached through people and they are always the key. We have been able to create enthusiasm through the projects, to sensitize our people with regard to the social needs of destinations. And, of course, we have allocated resources to train and raise awareness among our team.
Within a few years, we have managed to form a “club of sustainability champions” in our hotels, who are leading the way towards more sustainable operations.
With sustainability now a key factor for tourism competitiveness and reputation, how does RIU Hotels & Resorts account for sustainability aspects in its corporate strategy? E.g. are those part of senior management KPIs?
Sustainability is helping us in our strategy to grow and improve, without doubt, and with our commitments with the local community. In fact, we are changing our initial approach when we arrive at a new destination. From now on, the CSR Department will be part of the site development team to determine the needs of the local population and the possible impacts of our activity on the natural environment.
The CSR Department takes its orders directly from top management. Decisions are made at the highest level and with the support of the brand/property owners. This is always an advantage. There is no better example of how important sustainability is for us.
How do you encourage your suppliers and staff to contribute to and support your sustainability performance?
With regard to the involvement of suppliers, there is much to be done and improved, although we already have some examples of fruitful collaboration with suppliers on sustainability.
In Cape Verde, for example, we are improving waste management and offer fair trade products through initiatives from our suppliers.
In relation to staff, we put a lot of effort every year into sharing with them the achievements and future challenges of the company. Thanks to their proposals we are improving our management every day, involving them as key protagonists.
How do you measure the success and/or ROI of your sustainability initiatives?
For the time being, we have begun to improve the systems and tools that support our reporting of sustainability.
Previously we primarily worked with economic indicators. Now we have an environmental and human resources database, so we are developing new records for social projects.
From now on, we will be able to measure impacts better and make decisions based on this information. That said, it is still too early to talk about evaluating the return on investment in community well-being. This will take time.
Reflecting on your experience in the hospitality industry, where do you see the main priorities for hoteliers in terms of sustainability? Which are the trends?
The real challenge is to achieve positive impact.
We have for too long focused on actions aimed at reducing the negative impacts generated by our activity. This isn’t bad at all, but not enough.
The time has come to issue new signals, to show that the hotel sector is willing to do things differently. To not only focus on the profitability of our business. Sustainability is already leading to competitive advantage and will be key to the economic development of tourism in the future.
Some gurus of sustainable tourism point out that innovation linked to our management and our facilities will make us more competitive, more cost-efficient and more environmentally sustainable.
In your view, what is the key to success of sustainability initiatives in hotels?
I insist: people!
The best capital that RIU Hotels & Resort has is, without any doubt, our team.
When someone asks me how many people work at the RIU CSR Department, to assess the weight of the department within the organizational structure of the company, I always answer: 27,000. We do not have a department with many people, but we have a lot of people involved with a department. The key is to decentralize sustainability management.
Believe me, this is a responsibility shared among all, and it is led, of course, by managers who believe in it, but we all have to carry out the goals we propose in our daily duties and activities, as part of the RIU family.
Thank you, Catalina.
This interview was facilitated by Travelife for Hotels and Accommodations, the sustainability management scheme used by RIU Hotels & Resorts to measure sustainability performance. See all interviews powered by Travelife here.
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