If you're looking for an eco-friendly hotel for business travel or vacation, put the Element chain at the top of your list.
I recently was offered the chance to spend three nights at the Element Times Square West in New York City in exchange for providing my unvarnished feedback on the hotel's environmental attributes. Many hotels "talk the talk" when it comes to being green; did Element actually "walk the walk?" Here's what I found out.
The Element chain is relatively new; though it's part of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts family, there are only 10 Elements in the U.S. and a few abroad (though more are on the drawing board). The upside is that you can earn Starwood points if you stay there. The downside is that you won't yet be able to find an Element everywhere you travel.
Fortunately, one place where you can find it is in Manhattan - Times Square, to be exact. In an effort to make my trip as "eco" as possible, I traveled there by bus rather than plane from Washington, D.C. where I live, to 7th Avenue and 34th Street, right across from Macy's original department store. I was then able to walk about 10 minutes to get to the Element (on 8th Ave. and 39th). The train into New York's Penn Station would have also put me within walking distance. And if I'd driven? It would have taken me around four hours, the same amount of time as the bus. But if I'd driven an electric car, I could have charged it at the charging station right across the street from the Element's entrance.
From the Element, I could get anywhere - either on foot, via the subway or by pedaling one of the bicycles the hotel makes available for free to patrons. I actually walked just about everywhere I went, covering almost 10 miles total during my three-day visit. On one afternoon, I headed uptown, through Times Square, all the way to Central Park. On another day, I walked over to the High Line , a magnificent elevated walk way that runs from the edge of Times Square to the art district in Chelsea. When I wanted to go to a club down in Greenwich Village, it was easy to hop on the nearby subway. From an environmental point of view, transportation couldn't have been more accessible or efficient.
The hotel itself was mostly a treat. The check-in staff couldn't have been more friendly, and the lobby was bright and airy, with urns of filtered water and baskets of apples set out for people to grab coming or going. Monday through Thursday, guests are invited to a complimentary wine tasting. A knowledgeable concierge is on hand to help book theater tickets or provide maps.
Russell Porter, the hotel's Director of Sales, gave me a tour to help point out the Element's various green features. All the walls, he said, are painted with Benjamin Moore Natura Zero VOC paint throughout. That means no nasty fumes contributing to indoor air pollution. The building is in the process of becoming LEED certified, a designation awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council for "leadership in energy and environmental design." Compact fluorescent and LED bulbs provide lighting throughout. Furniture is made from soy-based fabric. Needless to say, there's no smoking anywhere in the building. In fact, smokers are supposed to smoke 25 feet away from the building when they go outside. All the wall signs are green, a subtle reminder of the goal to minimize the building's impact on nature.
One thing I got a kick out of was the fitness center. In addition to various free weights, treadmills, and weight machines, it includes a stationary bicycle that will re-charge a cell phone battery as the pedals revolve. I'd love to see bikes like that at my fitness center!
One thing that gave me a headache - literally - was the "natural fragrance" being dispersed in the hotel lobby. I am somewhat chemically sensitive, and much prefer to be in a space that is fragrance-free. I believe the fragrance in the Element was intended to smell like green tea; whatever it was, I contracted a splitting headache within minutes of entering the lobby. Fortunately, my room did not emit that smell. I imagine it would be much more difficult for someone who is highly chemically sensitive.
I had an incredible view from my room, which was on the 37th floor of the hotel. Looking out windows that opened for fresh air, I could see the Empire State Building in one direction and the Hudson River in another. I'm used to staring at dark, narrow alleys when I stay in New York, so that fabulous vista was a real pleasure.
The room itself seemed to be the standard size for a New York hotel room - there was just enough space for the king-sized bed, a narrow desk and chair, and a flat screen tv. Evidently, the Element caters to people who might stay long enough to want to cook or keep a lot of food available, as each room is also equipped with a refrigerator/freezer, cooktop, dishwasher and kitchen sink, along with a coffee pot. The appliances are all energy-efficient, ENERGY STAR models, and the sink faucet conserves water. Several bins make it easy to recycle paper and trash.
The liquid soap was a Seventh Generation, non-toxic product. But the dishwasher was using a pod of powder that seemed decidedly less eco-friendly to me. It would be easy to switch to the Seventh Gen dishwasher cleanser.
The hotel provided a basket of coffee pouches and tea bags, too. They could easily be organic, but they weren't.
The eco-friendliness continued into the bathroom. The toilet was a dual-flush, water-saving model, and the low-flow sink faucet and shower head conserve H2O as well. I appreciated the fact that liquid soap and shampoo in the shower were dispensed by bulk containers rather than those annoying individual plastic bottles so many hotels ply to their guests. The Element does provide small bars of soap for the bathroom sink, but collects them, sanitizes them and donates them to charity rather than toss them after a guest leaves. Element encourages guests to reuse their towels rather than get fresh towels every day, an energy- and water-saving measure that many hotels worldwide have adopted.
One issue I had with the bathroom was that the mirror was a bit hard to reach when I was trying to put on make-up - and there were no other mirrors that were both easily accessible and well-enough lit to do the job. I would have appreciated having access to a bright make-up mirror somewhere in the room or the bathroom.
Though there is no restaurant per se in the Element, the hotel provides a hearty, free continental breakfast each morning, including juice, coffee, tea, locally sourced fruit, yogurt, granola, bagels, bread for toast or peanut butter sandwiches, pastries, muffins, and breakfast burritos consisting of eggs and cheese with or without turkey sausage. Though the plates and bowls are disposable, the Element composts them, along with its food waste. It's a bit of a mob scene, with people pouring in in their PJ's or work-out clothes as well as their suits and heels to grab a bite before heading out for the day. On the other hand, everyone was pretty friendly, and I enjoyed the chance to say hello to the visitors from England, France, Italy, Germany and many other countries the Element attracts.
Overall, I'd definitely stay in the Element again. I've come to expect that most hotels are using energy-efficient light bulbs and encouraging guests to re-use their towels, but Element's focus on non-toxic building materials, easy in-room recycling, use of recycled fabrics for furniture and emphasis on locally sourced food for its breakfast bar put it a step above its competitors.
That said, I hope they tone down the use of that fragrance in the lobby - it's overpowering and really not necessary. I'd love to see organic teas and coffees in the room and at the breakfast bar, another mirror in the bathroom, and more chairs in the dining area to accommodate more people at breakfast.
It also occurs to me that, in keeping with their environmental theme, the hotel could prepare a "green attractions" guide to make available to guests to help people get out and see some of the eco-sites in New York City: the High Line, the Zoo at Central Park, the Botanic Gardens, etc.
Those quibbles aside, the Element is setting a terrific example for other hotels aiming to be "green."
FULL DISCLOSURE: I was not paid to review the Element hotel in New York, but I did receive free accommodations for the three nights I was there. As I hope you can tell, that benefit did not influence my review of the hotel.