Trine Oestergaard Stafford has been the Manager Director at House of Fisher for the past seven years. In this interview, she shares the initiatives taken by the company to build a sustainable and relevant business for customers, the company, and the environment, as well as the connection between sustainability and guest experience at large.
Tell us about House of Fisher
House of Fisher is a serviced apartment provider covering the Thames Valley, a region to the southeast of London, where we have nine properties across seven towns. The business is about 25 years old and owned by a parent company that is a local builder. Back in the starting days, there were new apartments being built that couldn’t be sold due to the recession, and that’s how House of Fisher came about – as a short-term accommodation option using these units that were sitting empty. It turned out to be good business, so the company grew and today the parent company builds purpose-built blocks that are managed by the brand. Now, the units and blocks we operate are much bigger, and we have gone from serviced apartments to aparthotels which boast some public areas and shared facilities, with the last couple of developments also featuring gyms for our customers. With that said, it is still very much a hospitality business, it is an alternative accommodation model to a hotel. We offer anything from studios to three-bedroom units, serving single travelers, families traveling or relocating, and anything in between. The units are self-contained and fully furnished with equipment such as a fridge, freezer, dishwasher, washing machine, and so on. There are no F&B offerings, but we have a 24-hour reception desk and round-the-clock maintenance staff available in case of emergencies.
What kickstarted House of Fisher on your path towards sustainability?
We use the ReviewPro platform to gather feedback from our guests in the form of post-stay surveys, and the information obtained from there has guided us through many improvements in our offering, so we decided to use it for getting information on our guests’ sustainability views: what is important to them and whether they were aware of what we offered. This is a massive issue and a focus point for all of us in the industry and after the pandemic we strongly felt the need to know where we sit. To that effect, we have gone to an accreditation provider to lay out a plan of what we were already doing and where we needed to improve, followed the steps proposed, and some small changes have already been made. For example, we offer recycling facilities but noticed that guests were not taking us up on it, so we went straight to the source with surveys and found out that guests were not clear on where the bins were located, allowing us to put measures in place to correct this immediately.
Our sustainability plan is laid out on our website, and we strive to work on one action point per month and chip away at what we call our green journey. Many of the initiatives we had already put in place, such as replacing all light bulbs with LED light, were going unnoticed by the guests in the same way as the recycling bins. So we have intensified marketing efforts behind the website and got better at communicating all of our programs and initiatives to the guests. We added QR codes in the apartments that led straight to the website so guests could find out more, and also introduced new material in the rooms that encouraged guests to turn off the lights, wash full loads, and other small but helpful green tips– all in recycled paper, naturally. The company is also looking into green energy, namely solar panels, and how we can increase the supply from these cleaner sources, especially with the current energy crisis we’re living through.
Contrary to what some may think, going green unfortunately doesn’t happen overnight, especially when dealing with older buildings. Other challenges include supplier issues, with limited local options for items such as chemicals and linen suppliers in the area, as well as switching to more energy-efficient appliances – which can only be done once the current ones reach the end of their useful lives, also as a matter of sustainability and to avoid overconsumption.
How does sustainability play a part in your operational decisions? What’s the connection between sustainability and guest experience?
It’s safe to say that sustainability matters on different fronts. One of the things we learned from the surveys was the importance of sustainability for our guests. Due to the location our properties are present in, which is outside of London, a majority of our guests are coming for work purposes. For many of them, the choice of accommodation ultimately comes down to more immediate and practical reasons, such as price or location, but we found that a significant portion of guests does care about sustainable practices.
We have also found that being ahead in our sustainability journey puts us in an advantageous position against possible competitors, as increasingly guests may pick options that are further down in the sustainability road when given the choice. We also noticed that when companies are sourcing accommodation for their employees on business trips, previously one of the questions used to be about health and safety protocols, especially for American companies, but now the questions gravitate towards sustainability practices and the need to be seen as someone who chooses sustainable alternatives.
What are some trade-offs between sustainability and guest experience?
When building new developments and starting from scratch, it is easier to build in processes and even use materials that are more environmentally friendly. With older buildings, there are huge costs to consider for converting existing structures. However, I feel that, ultimately, the guests are the most important thing to us, and therefore we will always practically and logically do things that make sense for them. Ultimately, for us, the guest experience must not suffer as the guest, their stay, and their comfort are what matters most.
Personally, I like to visit a lovely eco-friendly hotel in Copenhagen called Axel by Guldsmeden Hotels, and they have these towels that are made in Bolivia using native weaving methods, very local and sustainable, but they are not exactly comfortable. This is a great concept, but I still feel like sustainability should be associated with a good guest experience and the value for money should still be there. For that reason, we must be careful and pick which sustainability initiatives make the most sense for the business, all while not hurting the guest’s experience and expectations. We have explored ways to incentivize guest engagement by awarding them with a tree that would be planted in their name as a reward for filling out a survey, which worked very well, and also linked survey replies with food donations. These are ways to work with the guest towards sustainability.
What are some obstacles you expect to encounter on your green journey?
When you’re used to recycling at home, you would expect to be able to continue that behavior when traveling abroad. You may even get annoyed when you see plastic being wasted and other small things like that. It’s one of the reasons I dislike single-use toiletries at hotels, which is something we’ve been trying to change at our apartments. The same goes for bottled water, a standard amenity to have at hotels and one that is very much single use. There are many ways to reduce packaging waste, and specifically for water, we wanted to use aluminum cans, however there aren’t many suppliers that can provide that, and it is a challenge to get everyone on the same page in terms of better and viable solutions.
Bigger hotel chains may have the leverage to campaign and push harder for certain products or services to be available at scale, but a smaller provider won’t have the same power. The same goes for services providers: maybe your hotel is not in an area where recycling is a big priority, and as a small player, it may be challenging to change that reality on your own. I think a lot of it depends on location and available infrastructure, both from private and governmental initiatives.
What do you expect to see in the future?
As a whole, I do believe the trend is to move towards less wastage and more recycling, decreasing the dependency on potentially harmful materials such as plastic and favoring items such as aluminum. Sustainable, green energy sources are also very important, from the environmental point of view but also as a way to decrease dependency on legacy sources that are more costly. Additionally, I expect more commitment from the general community with initiatives such as covering roof spaces with green plants, inducing a better environment for insects, and planting more trees wherever possible. It’s important to advance solutions that are useful for the environment and have an acceptable cost of maintenance and adoption, while still looking and feeling pleasant from a customer’s perspective.
The best point of balance would be to have something that is beautiful to look at while still being functional and environmentally meaningful.