You’ve probably heard of the Travelife certification scheme run by Abta. But what does a Travelife award mean? Ian Taylor joined a Travelife audit to find out
Travelife has been around since 2007. Most people in the UK trade know the name.
But did you know that for a hotel to be certified requires an audit of everything from environmental management and business and labour policies to community integration, child protection and animal welfare?
It’s not easy to earn an award – self-assessment plays no part – and it became a whole lot harder last year with the introduction of the Travelife Gold checklist with 163 criteria.
Travel Weekly joined an audit of the White Palace Hotel in Rethymnon, Crete, just one of 700 audits in the past 12 months, to see what Travelife involves.
08:35 Travelife auditor Sotiris Milonas (pictured) sits with White Palace general manager Ioannis Youlakis to explain the audit process.
"Transparency is number one," he says. "I ask questions, compile evidence, take pictures. We find areas which don’t comply and need improvement. If I find non-compliance, you have time to fix it." He tells Ioannis: "We’ll start with the paper work."
Sotiris has been carrying out Travelife audits for four years. Clearly no pushover, he combines firmness with charm. When he says something needs changing, there is no debate, but he offers plenty of help.
He has just two pieces of equipment – a smart phone and a water flow gauge.
Sotiris does not follow the Travelife checklist – “"f I did I would need 20 hours"– but he refers to it continually, asking several questions then saying "So that is yes to question..." and reeling off checklist numbers.
He starts with the paper work, checking the hotel layout and identifying five main pools and four kitchens.
"This is to allocate my time," he says, then asks: "Do you have a spa? Jacuzzis? Outsourced shops? Water sports?" An external supplier provides these so health and safety checks are carried out by TUI.
"How many employees do you have? Is there public access to the beach?"
He goes through the hotel’s licences – for everything from fire safety to sun beds – noting: "e love bureaucracy in Greece."
Ioannis complains: "We need 100 licences and behind each is a tree of obligations." Sotiris counters: "A hotel may have sustainable principles, but if it doesn’t comply with legislation it’s not enough."
He moves on to the hotel’s policy statements on the environment, child protection, purchasing etc. "Have you communicated your policies to suppliers?" he asks. "We send an email." "Can you show me?"
As soon as he sees evidence, Sotiris moves on. But this time he says: "I’m not happy. You’ve communicated, but only that you want local products. I’ll give guidance on how this could be done.
"How do you produce hot water?" he asks. Told that 40% is solar and the remainder oil-heated, he says: "How do you measure that? Explain the monitoring tool. Where do you get the water from?"
The White Palace supplements the municipal supply with water from a borehole. "Can I see the borehole licence?" He checks the licence and location 200kms away. "Is the borehole locked?" "Yes, and we have a dog."
Now he wants the water consumption records, including the volume per guest night. Ioannis says: "We correct the target every three months, like a budget." Sotiris notes a fall in consumption per guest between last May-June and this year.
He moves on to energy, saying: "We don’t ask them to reduce every year. We want to see they manage it." He checks the utility bills.
We move on to maintenance and Sotiris requests a list of coolants in use, explaining: "There are prohibited coolants." He notes that the hotel recently changed coolants "because of us".
Sotiris asks White Palace chief engineer Giorgos Kantaifakis if Travelife helps his job. "Everything is more organised," Giorgos replies.
11:00 We go outside and head for the roof. On the way Sotiris asks an office worker: "Do you have a contract? Can you show me a copy?"
When we examine the roof-top solar panels, Sotiris asks how often they are cleaned and suggests more insulation on the pipes.
Then we descend to check the boilers. Sotiris finds a small leak, and requests a photo when it’s fixed. He checks a chemical store and the system for returning chemical drums.
We move on to the swimming pools. At the first, Sotiris notes: "They use salt to kill the bacteria. How they backwash is important. I want to see it done efficiently. Some hotels do it twice a day when it’s not necessary."
At the main swimming pool, he says: "This is seawater. I’ll be happy if it’s well maintained." He checks the log book, noting: “There was an incident yesterday with a baby in the pool. They had to close it for eight hours."
He photographs everything. We descend below the pool where there are continuous filtration and automatic backwash systems.
Sotiris tells me: "In a lot of hotels you see an engineer with a bucket measuring chemicals." He spots a chlorine tank next to a grill over seawater and instructs the engineer to box in the tank.
We move on to check one of 28 air conditioning units. Then we visit a couple of rooms and a suite. Sotiris deploys his gauge on the taps. The flow is fierce.
Giorgos says there will be a problem on the upper floors if they lower the pressure. But Sotiris says: "You have to reduce the flow." He also wants the toilet flush reduced.
We move on to the gardens. Sotiris checks the irrigation system and asks to see the gardening equipment, then questions the head gardener about pay and overtime.
12:45 Back in the maintenance room, Sotiris explains: "If I see something wrong, I don’t need to see it 10 times."
He notes: "They have a good maintenance file for the kitchen. But they don’t report everything. I’ve asked they develop a maintenance log for the whole hotel."
The kitchens come next. Sotiris asks about cooking-oil recycling, checks an organic waste refrigerator and enters a kitchen chemical store.
He picks products at random to check they are in the log book, confirms the coolant in the cold stores, examines the daily food log, and asks about the ordering process and use of local products (30% of food is Cretan).
We enter a dry food store, check expiry dates and stock rotation. Ioannis explains they have double the normal amount of stock because of the bank crisis.
Sotiris checks the unused food log. He looks into a prepared food store and checks the dish washing machine before we take a look at the other kitchens.
He says: "I’ve seen the processes. I just want to see if there is non-compliance." In a smaller kitchen he notes: "They have students working."
At 13.45pm we take a break.
14:30 We resume with housekeeping. A team of about 30 clean the 263 rooms, working in pairs.
Sotiris asks about their training in the use of chemicals and whether there is guidance on how many times they flush the toilet. He explains: "If you flush twice that is more than 4,000 litres a day."
"Once,” says Evaggelia, executive housekeeper at the White Palace, adding: "I have a five-year-old child. I tell them sustainability is about the future of our children."
The hotel’s housekeepers no longer use buckets of water to mop floors. Instead, they use a moistened microfiber cloth wrapped around a special mop head.
Sotiris has checked the handling of rubbish from rooms when we passed a housekeeping trolley.
"What would you do if you found a child alone in a room crying?" he asks. "Do you have a procedure?" "Yes, we have this one," says Evaggelia, showing him.
He examines a housekeeping store cupboard and cleaning chemicals. "I want better labelling on the bottles," he says, before adding: "This is a good system to control the chemicals."
We move to the HR department where Sotiris asks for a list of employees. He finds two 16-year-olds and asks to see their contracts.
He tells me: "16 year olds are not allowed to work more than six hours a day and not at night." He confirms they are on 30 hours a week and finish work at 15:30.
Sotiris asks to see the records of start and finish times. These are only available at the end of the month so he asks they be submitted later. He checks the contracts and payments of a number of staff picked at random.
Finally he says: "I’m confident with the department. Employees are paid through the bank so it’s transparent."
He asks about complaint and disciplinary procedures. "Can staff join a union?" "Yes." He requests that written confirmation be added to the staff handbook.
In the hotel reception Sotiris asks receptionist Dimitris about local buses and excursions. Then he says: "What if I’m with a girl of 16 who is not my daughter and I want a room?" Dimitris says: "I would ask my manager what to do."
Guest relations manager Adriana Vougioukalaki explains: "We are not allowed to offer excursions except one. The tour operators offer them. We can only provide guests with tips."
However, the hotel takes children on tours of the gardens, explaining the many local trees and herbs.
And it does offer excursions to the nearby El Greco organic farm and vineyard run by owner Grecotel.
As we walk back to the manager’s office, White Palace green coordinator Stelios Charitakis tells me: "Travelife is an amazing tool. It covers almost everything. That is why it needs a lot of work.
"But from this process we started doing things we didn’t do before, following processes we didn’t have. It’s a tool from which we can gain a lot."
We check the hotel shop and its ‘Green Corner’ where there is information on Crete’s 'We do local' campaign.
There is also a list of the hotel’s 2014 recycling figures, a Travelife leaflet explaining sustainable travel and the hotel’s commitments in English and Greek, and a list of 10 'Best ways to save water'.
Sotiris has disappeared to talk briefly in private with a member of staff.
18:00 It’s the wrap-up meeting. Sotiris says: "It has been a very open audit. I’m confident to write my report.
"Some things you will have time to fix – I just need photos showing they have been fixed. For others, I need to see a plan.
"There are some issues with water. You need to reduce the flow in the taps and toilets. I want you to have targets for [reducing] water use, not just electricity.
"You need to increase the recycling bins, it is something guests understand, and it would be good to develop a Travelife training kit.
"For the employees you have good information, but I want staff to read it. Staff could not tell me what the commitment was from the top.
"The rest will appear in the report from Travelife. You are one step away from the Gold Award, so let’s put in the effort to maintain it then start preparing for the next audit [in two years].
"Next time I can focus on what you have done. It will be much faster."
Afterwards, Sotiris tells me: "There are some gaps. The philosophy is there, but I want them to improve. Most of the issues are environmental and can be corrected. But what they have with local food is unique.
"They recycle everything. Plastic and paper goes to the municipality. Everything else – batteries, cooking oil, soap, glass, coffee, electrical equipment, scrap metal, documented down to the type of scrap, goes to contractors."
He adds: "I would expect all Travelife hotels to do this, not just recycle paper and plastic." Would he expect non-Travelife hotels do it. "No," he says firmly.
Sotiris explains: "I’ve only done one audit where a hotel was 100% compliant, but to not be 100% is not a failure. Sustainability is not easy.
"We want to give motivation to hotels to continue. The Travelife philosophy is to support hotels to do it themselves. It’s a process to put the train on the rails."
Travelife was founded in 2007 by the Federation of Tour Operators. It’s now part of Abta.
The Travelife Gold Award was launched 2014. Hotels are required to meet 163 criteria under 13 headings including environmental management, business policies, labour and human rights, and community integration. More than half the criteria relate to environmental management.
Travelife audited 700 hotels in the 12 months to June. A typical audit can save a hotel €2,000 on top of savings on utility bills etc.
Two years’ Travelife membership plus an audit costs a medium-large hotel €1,400.
Audits are required every two years. They only take place when a hotel is open. Following an audit, a hotel must submit evidence requested within four to six weeks.
Travelife employs 40 auditors and a team of six (soon to seven) at Abta head office.
The White Palace, Rehythmnon, Crete
A Grecotel property, formerly the El Greco, it opened in 1975. The name changed in 2013 following a renovation.
The White Palace was certified for a Travelife Award 2013-15 under the previous system.
It has 263 rooms for 750 guests and up to 230 staff.
White Palace customers over the season (April-October) are approximately 25-30% German, 25% Russian, 15% UK plus French, Belgian, Dutch. All are TUI clients, except from Russia.
40% stay on half board and 60% premium plus (all-inclusive with waiter service and a la carte restaurants).
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