Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Newspapers in Hotels - A Service to Reconsider

Nothing is more pleasing and gratifying to the interested and the inquisitive than to open the hotel door in the morning and almost step on a thick stack of paper with pretty colored pictures on, staring right at you and begging to be picked up. You pick it up and give it the traditional shake, holding it with both hands very impressed with the hotel service and how much they care for your morning needs, not quite reading anything yet. Of course, who will? The pictures these days are too colorful and just either a tad too revealing or personal; something that wouldn't have made past the editor's desk a few decades ago. Suddenly, you realize that the gentleman next to you, in the elevator, is taking almost as much interest in the picture as you are. That's when you avoid embarrasement and divert your attention to the headlines pretending to read and flipping pages. That's when the news thirsty individual in you awakes and starts to look for something interesting that you don't already know about or haven't read online yesterday. Time to toss the paper in the trash can outside the elevator door, and that's exactly how most of these newspapers end up. Simply put, no one has the patience to wait until the next day to get their news. It already got wired on their computers and palm-pilots as it happend, yesterday. Newspaper is just an old habit like morning coffee, only it doesn't have the same kick anymore.

Life is too Short
So what's the life of a newspaper these days? I would say less than a few minutes. Gone are the days when a newspaper was picked up even at the midnight or the next day to keep up with the world around. I remember reading newspapers from other countries in the libraries where they showed up a week late because that's how long it took them to be shipped. Gone are those days indeed. These days newspaper gestate longer than the time between they are picked up by hotel guests and tossed out of the bags.

Environmental Impact
That said, isn't it obvious that the hotels are now wasting money delivering an almost outdated commodity to its esteemed guests. Are they draining their resources? I am convinced that they are. But then this is considered a measure of service. Other hotels do it so should us, thinks the person in charge of guest satisfaction in the hotel. Not only will this save the hotel some money it will also save huge amounts of paper and wood and of course the energy that is used to print and distribute tons of it around the world. Yes, tons. Consider this, as per the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell there are about 10,000 hotels of US origin in a certain segment. And this does not count the Waldorf Astorias, Intercontinentals, Tajs, and Oberois of the world. Even without these the number of rooms we are talking about is approximately 3,000,000 (3 million). With 70% average occupancy this is about 2.1 million rooms occupied every day around the world. Long story short there's about 440 million lbs of paper every year that is wasted. This is a huge environmental impact.

Redefine Service
It is time that the hotel industry realizes that 440 million lbs is a substantial impact in the number of trees felled and takes steps to save paper and trees. They can still maintain the same 'sense of service' by modifying the process a little bit.
  • Instead of pushing newspapers to guests, the guests should be asked at the time of check-in if they'd like to get a newspaper delivered in the morning.
  • Another possible way is to have the papers stacked at a common area where the patrons can pick them up from.
I am very optimistic about the savings that just these two workarounds will help achive without disturbing any of the returns in guest satisfaction.
On March 24, 2007, one of Canada's leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, reported that the growth of free dailies is dropping in Canada. One of the leading papers in Toronto has seen as much as 11.7% drop in its weekday readership.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Carbon Footprint

Imagine a world where your daily commute to work is just an elevator ride or a bike ride or a small walk on tree-lined avenue away. Sadly, this is a dream especially if your work address is in a urban setting or repute and might anywhere across the world. Not only is it financially exhausting to travel to work for both the employer and the employees, it is sadly bad for productivity and the mental well being of the commuters. To alleviate the problem there has been very high developmental activity in the segment of remote collaboration tools like video conferencing, PC accessibility and connectivity, etc. But that has still left us with a lot to be desired. Moreover, there are times when remote collaboration just doesn't cut it nice and clear. There's nothing as of yet to match the magic of human touch and face-to-face interactions. If that doesn't make you feel bad let me burden you with the harm that these commuters have done to the environment bellowing CO2 in the enviroment. One third of the CO2 emmissions are from the transportation sector alone in the United States.

Does that mean that as professionals, work-from-home is not going to give us the 100% we desire at work and the commute is going to get us all baked to ashes? Actually, in short that is the sad reality we are faced with today. As a civilization we are at the cross roads where we have to now start balancing the needs of civilization with the needs of the environment. Sadly enough you may not be able to leave this decision to your children as it may be too late by then.

Car Pool
One of the practices that I have been most impressed with so far is Car-Pooling. This is probably the best model of environmental optimization to date. Personal benefits like saving on fuel costs, lower wear and tear and hence maintenance, improved longevity, less stressful commute, etc. have driven people to share rides. The overall benefit to the environment is huge at it not only saves on fuel but also reduces congestion. Until a few years ago I used to share rides with my co-workers where the 3-4 of us would drive to work in one car. The other benefit that I derived out of it was that of better time management. Sharing rides made me more disciplined and organized as I had to rearrange my work style to fit with others and I think so did the others. During a six month period in which I kept a track of the miles I drove for work I saved around 250 miles every month, which is about 10 gallons of gasoline and hence about 5000 lbs of CO2 emissions (as per the chart on the right for an OK car). This is what I meant by a good model of optimization; I engaged in an activity that was not only beneficial for me (local/personal optimization) but also to the environment (global optimization).

During the last 2-3 years, however, that situation has changed dramaticallly for me. The nature of my work now take me almost every week of the year to a place that is a few hours flight hop away, at least. I fly out to whereever my client is and return to my home to be, well, at home. While, on one hand it is a good thing that I am sharing a flight with others, on the other it is bad because this is a far cry from the ideal world that I have in mind. As a side note, I have come to realize over discussions with a lot of frequent flyers that they would all prefer to have their own airplanes if they could afford and knew how to fly, which in itself is a disturbing trend.

But let's not digress from the topic. The gist is that now, as a flyer, I am contributing even more to the emissions of CO2 than what I used to as a solo driver. And this is my new carbon footprint - larger than ever and growing fast. As globalizations is spreading and opportunities are beign generated far and wide across the world flying to work is becoming a trend. Flying, in the recent years, has penetrated to the segments of society that it had for years wanted as clients but just couldn't afford to give a cheap ride to. New low cost carriers in countries like India and Malaysia are a testimony to this. And the future looks a little unbelievable. In a little more concrete terms 27,000 airplanes are scheduled to enter service in the next 10 years.

Proposed Model
So, what can I do about it? Well, there are several ways out of it. From the imprudent, which is to change the nature of my job, to the pragmatic which is to reduce flying if I can. The latter is now starting to catch attention of responsible employers and employees. It is time we get a little innovative and come up with synergistic pricing models for the services provided by the travelling consultants like me.

So, how can this be done. It won't be a bad start if instead of coming back to my home every weekend, I am allowed to come back every alternate week. Big deal, do it! Actually, it is. The question now becomes - who'll pay for my stay over in Gotham, United
States where the hotel prices are through the roof and food and entertainment is far more expensive than Smallville. Questions like these are not new anymore. People like me raise them almost every day and discuss it and, that's it. It's a good fodder for discussion in bar and has recently become what whether used be. Yes, you read it right - you know, everyone talks about how bad the weather is but can't do anything about it. That's how conversations are usually bootstrapped. But here's some good news. We are now in a position where we can do something about our own Carbon Footprints - indvidually as well as collectively. So, the few models that I have either come across and/or have been thinking of lately are:
  1. Client agrees and pays for my stay over in Gotham. This can be a little burden for the client because they'll have to foot my bills over the weekend.

  2. Client agrees for and contributes to environmental sustaining and building efforts in order to engage me. What does this mean? It can be as simle a thing as planting a tree for every 10 roundtrips that I make to my clients office in Gotham or replacing one lightbulb with an energy saving long-life incandescent bulbs for each of my roundtrip. Turns out that this is the easiest and cheapest thing to do since it'll cost the client about $10 to do so per week.

  3. Other option for the client is to match my travelling expenses in contributions and committments towards investment into alternative energy sources like Photo Voltaic (Solar).

  4. For a certain number of miles travelled by their consultants the clients should sponsor a rooftop garden and foliage at one of their facilities.
There are very many other ways that I as a traveling consultant should be able to make my clients feel responsible and contribute to lowering my carbon footprint. Overall, the theme I am suggesting is to start sharing the responsibility of protecting and sustaining our enviroment. It is time now that this effort moves beyond just the individual level to the organization level in the industry, where companies negotiate their services/products and its pricing treating our natural environment as much as a partner in the play as others. It is the responsibility of people who travel and organizations that sustain themselves on the model of providing services which include frequent flyers to start charging their client and contributing that revenue to saving the environment by planting trees and reducing travel as much as possible.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Solar Panel Shortage - Good or Bad?

For the last few weeks I have had mixed emotion about the current trends in the solar market. I have been trying to buy some solar panels only to be informed that currently there is a shortage in US market and the backlog of orders is huge. To make the situation a little more shaky if you are not in for a large order you may have a little more trouble.

Who's the Culprit?
So here's what's going on - Germany, Italy, UK, and Japan have become very large consumers of solar panels lately. The production is still geared to meet the demands of yesterday and it will take time for the manufacturers to ramp up their production.

On one hand this is a good sign but for some this is bad. As an enthusiast and proponent of solar energy it gives me immense satisfaction. An increase in demand so much so that it has caused a shortage in the market is a good sign of the technology adoption and affordability, albeit subsidized. But as a potential consumer myself, I can only wait for so much before realizing that this upswing in demand will cause the manufacturers to increase their capacity, not only to match the current market but also for future, which may lower the prices due to competition later. If this is a temporary spike in demand in Germany and Japan, then the time is not far away when the surge of demand will stablize but not the inventory of panels. The manufactures will then give rebates to cut down their inventories. So, I should wait and watch.

Now, the questions is why do I think that this is a temporary surge in demand. Well, the answer to that is very easy. German and Japanese governments are providing huge subsidies to solar buyers at the moment, which they are unlikely to continue for long. In Germany the subsidies are as much as half (1/2) a Euro per kWh currently with promises of 0.99 Euros per kWh for feeding electricity back to the grid for next 20 years, around 2002. In addition, there are interest free loans that now have as many has 10,000 applicants backlogged. Is this all realistic to sustain, specially for a country that now has almost negative growth rate of economy.

Am I losing it?
For a consumer, in short, yes. As a serious buyer in the United States all set to invest in solar energy, I am indeed losing. But as I mentioned before, the loss is to a market which is a bit skewed at the moment. Not to mention that the current shortage has also overheated the market - prices for panels are higher than they should be what they were a year or two ago.

For an investor this is probably the best time to invest in these companies. This trend is here to stay for a while. After this shortage is over the demand will pick-up in different states of the US that currently allow consumers to sell power back to the utility companies.

For an entrepreneur, this is again, probably one of the most conducive environments to get into the business of solar panel production.