Guests are the lifeblood of the hotel industry, but they also present one of the biggest sustainability challenges. They expect the utmost convenience, even luxury, from their hotel stay, so it’s difficult to control their behavior.

While it’s hard to prevent a guest from taking a long shower or cranking up the heat, an array of energy-saving technologies, sustainable materials, and healthy furnishings are now available to help operators build more-efficient hotels without compromising their service standards. And hotel guests can relate to environmental programs such as recycling, linen reuse, and sustainable furnishings and textiles, says Jeanne Varney, a member of the lecture faculty at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y., and a principal at sustainability consultant Olive Hospitality Consulting. Some hotel operators are even marketing allergy-friendly rooms with higher indoor air quality and pricing them at a premium, she says.

Energy-saving technologies don’t yet resonate with guests, however, Varney says. “If you say, ‘We’ve got a cogeneration plant out back,’ it may not mean that much to the customer,” she says. But these technologies certainly resonate with owners and developers. “Ownership groups, no matter what, are going to be motivated toward energy savings. At the end of the day, they own the building, so it’s in their interest to have it running as efficiently as possible,” Varney says.

Several trends are driving hotel owners’ interest in sustainability. Developers are looking to stay ahead of growing state or municipal requirements for energy-efficiency measures and green building, Varney notes, and some of the large public owners see green building as part of their corporate responsibilities. In addition, many large corporations, organizations, and government agencies give preference to green hotels for their conventions and events, and these events can be a major driver of hotel bookings.

But one reason that green building hasn’t caught on more with owners is the high rate of building churn, says Pat Maher, a partner in the Annapolis, Md.–based consulting firm the Maher Group and a green guru for the American Hotel and Lodging Association. Many hotels are part of large portfolios owned by real estate investment trusts, insurance companies, or other owners that might sell their buildings before they see returns on investments in energy-efficiency strategies.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 451 hotels have earned Energy Star certification. As of press time, 96 hotels had achieved LEED certification and 618 were registered for LEED with the USGBC. To help entice owners to partner with their brands, at least three major hotel operators are offering straightforward pathways to LEED certification through the USGBC’s LEED volume certification program. Marriott has five of its brands certified; its first hotel built through the program is set to open this month. Starwood’s sustainability-focused Element brand, launched in 2008, became the first major hotel brand to mandate that all of its hotels pursue LEED certification.

“We made a commitment and a pledge up front to truly build the brand green from the ground up,” says Paige Francis, vice president of marketing for specialty select brands at Starwood, which has 27 properties with LEED certification among the nine brands in its portfolio. LEED volume certification allowed Element to create a road map for developers to easily meet LEED requirements, she says. “It helps us to streamline the process overall and also better support our owner and developer community.” The cost to build an Element hotel is slightly higher because of the LEED features, Francis says, but more-efficient operations provide a payback on that investment in two to three years. Starwood’s in-house architecture and construction team maintains a brand prototype, and works with developers to manage any nuances or changes to the architectural plans based on specific site footprints or local regulations.

Most Element hotels are managed by Starwood, but owned by developers. Element also serves as an eco-innovation lab for the rest of the company, Francis says. In particular, the Element Lexington branch in Massachusetts, which is owned by Starwood and was the first Element hotel to open, served as a test site for pilot programs in recycling and building-energy management.

Using sensors in the doors and motion sensors in each room, the hotel’s energy-management system controls guest-room lighting, heating and cooling, and outlet usage to reduce energy when rooms are unoccupied. The company conducted research to make sure that the system wouldn’t compromise the guest’s experience—outlets that might be used to power a laptop or phone charger are always left on, for instance. The system also tracks which rooms require more energy based on the season, allowing the hotel to check guests into the most-efficient rooms first. Element Lexington achieved electricity savings of more than 66,000 kilowatt-hours in the first month of the pilot program. Starwood has expanded the program to two other hotels to continue gathering data. Ultimately, the company hopes to use the system across multiple brands.