It’s one thing to “talk the talk” about eco-friendly practices in golf course management. Marriott Golf has gone a step further and met its self-imposed deadline for proving that it can “walk the walk” as well.
Completing an ambitious initiative launched in early 2007, Marriott Golf achieved Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary certification for all 34 golf courses on its 25 North American and Caribbean properties by the end of 2008. Only four of Marriott’s golf facilities were certified when the company set the goal.
“We had been looking for a program to demonstrate the environmental principals that we were already practicing,” says Robert Waller, Marriott Golf’s Senior Director of Grounds. “The Audubon brand was the most recognizable, and it was specifically tailored to golf.”
The comprehensive nature of the Audubon program appealed to Marriott as well, Waller adds, by helping golf courses protect the environment and preserve the natural heritage of the game of golf. The program requires a golf facility to demonstrate environmental stewardship in six areas: environmental planning; wildlife and habitat management; chemical use reduction and safety; water conservation; water quality management; and outreach and education.
Audubon gives golf courses that seek to pursue certification a Site Assessment and Environmental Planning Form that provides starting guidelines for how to protect wildlife habitats and natural resources. Each Marriott property then developed an environmental plan for its particular needs. “We made a proposal to Audubon, and they tweaked it for us,” Waller explains.
Marriott Golf personnel also shared resources among themselves. Each property set up an advisory committee to streamline the certification process by exchanging ideas and best practices.
“Building that team was a key component at each facility,” says Waller, who served on all of the advisory committees. “More ideas were generated [together] than you ever could have done individually.”
Other advisory board members included property members, residents who lived near the facilities and county extension agents. The company also created a mentoring program to expedite the initiative, which generally takes one to three years to complete.
“As people completed the process, they would help properties that were still [seeking certification],” Waller explains.
Marriott Golf had no trouble, Waller adds, convincing management personnel at any of its properties that becoming certified would be a worthwhile pursuit.
“Once we explained the program and what was involved, we quickly had total buy-in from superintendents and management,” he notes. “Some properties completed [certification] in six months.”
While personnel at all of the properties “hit the ground running,” he adds, those with the most active advisory boards were the first to achieve certification.
Properties took a variety of routes to qualify. Specific initiatives included: development of water conservation plans; conversion of formerly managed turf into wildlife habitats; construction of nesting boxes for indigenous birds; and the creation of butterfly gardens. “Each superintendent who manages a course is now an environmental expert in that location,” Waller reports.
As Marriott Golf pursued its goal, Kevin Fletcher, Audubon International’s Executive Director, issued a statement to express the organization’s elation with “the level of commitment Marriott is showing by mandating Audubon certification across its portfolio of golf courses.”
“This program directly enables golf courses to protect the environment by improving the quality of land, water and air, along with conserving natural resources and protecting wildlife habitats,” Fletcher added.
More Than a ‘Feel-Good’ Initiative
The company-wide adoption of environmentally sound practices at its courses is in step with other practices employed by Marriott Golf’s parent, Marriott International. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded its 2008 Sustained Excellence Award to Marriott, and the EPA has also placed the ENERGY STAR label on more than 20 Marriott hotels.
Marriott Golf’s pursuit of across-the-board Audubon certification, therefore, was more than “just a feel-good” initiative, Waller stresses. Rather, it represents an extension of a company-wide commitment to eco-friendly operations.
At the same time, it’s yielding tangible benefits for Marriott Golf. “It’s proven to be a cost-containment measure, and it’s an excellent educational program for our superintendents.” Waller says. “It gives them a different lens to look through as they make decisions on the golf course.”
The certification initiative has also given Marriott Golf a way to measure and track environmental impact at its properties. And the best management practices are already having a positive effect on the bottom line.
Golf course maintenance costs have decreased with the addition of more natural areas on the properties, Waller explains, and man-hours, along with irrigation, chemical, fertilizer and electricity costs, have decreased. All told, properties are saving about $20,000 a year as a direct result of certification.
“It’s all from reduced expenses,” says Waller. “You’re saving natural resources, you’re saving electricity, and you’re saving water.”
The only “downside” of the cooperative sanctuary program, he adds, were delays encountered as Marriott Golf raced to achieve its goal of 100% compliance by year-end. Because interest in the Audubon program has grown so quickly and more and more properties are now trying to achieve certification, it sometimes took four to six weeks to get needed responses.
With certification of its 18th property, Marriott Golf became the worldwide leader in the number of Audubon-certified properties managed by a single entity, and subsequent certifications added to that leadership.
But now that it’s achieved its full domestic goal, the company has no intention of slowing down. In 2009, Waller says, Marriott Golf plans to extend its participation in the Audubon initiative to its international properties.
“This is an environmental program and a cost-containment program all rolled into one,” he says.