When Patricia Griffin first formed the Green Hotels Association in 1993, many of those she initially contacted made the mistake of inferring that “green” referred to a family name. She says “green” just wasn’t common terminology then.

Today it’s doubtful anyone would make that mistake. “It’s been a massive change,” Griffin says of the past few years.

Take a quick look around the local market and it’s not hard to see that environmentally friendly choices and behaviors once considered fads or trends now are bona fide lifestyle choices. The next time you’re shopping, note all the eco-friendly products on the shelves, many of which only entered the mass market in the past few years.

“The issue is clearly out there,” says Kirby Payne, president of Newport, R.I.-based HVS Hotel Management and past chairman of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. “At every industry conference I attend, there’s at least one panel on green practices, sometimes more.”

What does it all mean for waterpark resort operators? Put simply, understanding the green movement and adopting eco-conscious practices is becoming more and more essential if a property is to remain competitive. Being green also is becoming an expectation among travelers. And eco-friendliness can become a powerful marketing tool. Those trends aren’t likely to change any time soon, especially as more operators and consumers begin to equate green products with more green in their wallets.

Since the economic crisis began, Griffin says her organization has seen a significant increase in membership. “Last fall, we were through the roof with new members,” she notes.

The fact is, while the altruistic reasons for going green are obvious, when business is involved, it ultimately comes down to money. And spending a few extra dollars to adopt energy-efficient technologies, products and practices now can substantially reduce operational costs in the long run.

“Hotels and indoor waterparks have no choice [but to look toward sustainable options],” says Jeff Coy, a principal of JLC Hospitality Consulting in Cave Creek, Ariz, who specializes in waterpark resort consulting. “The economics of running a small business will demand it.”

Several leading operators agree. Since launching its Project Green Wolf earlier this year, Madison, Wis.-based Great Wolf Resorts already has begun seeing the green payoff.

“We experienced a return on investment with things such as high-efficiency light bulbs and low-flow bathroom fixtures in a mere matter of months,” says Steve Shattuck, corporate director of communications at Great Wolf Resorts.

The story is similar at Wisconsin Dells, Wis.-based Kalahari Resorts, which also has a substantial green program. “Our goal is to save anywhere between 25- and 30 percent of our energy expenses by the end of 2009,” says COO Josef Hass of the company’s electricity, gas, water and sewer costs.

The road to green

Great Wolf Resorts, Kalahari Resorts and others fully embrace the environmental movement now, but collectively convincing hoteliers to go green has not happened overnight.

Griffin helped pioneer the movement starting in the early 1990s. One of the earliest efforts was the in-room linen wash request cards, and Griffin says smaller boutique hotels were the first to embrace the idea. “[From there,] it followed a natural progression,” she notes. “It’s easier for [smaller operations] to ‘change on a dime.’”

In 2005, the University of Maryland University College Inn & Conference Center opened another door. By achieving the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, it became the first hotel to be formally recognized for its eco-friendly operation.

Since then, more large-scale operations — such as Hyatt and Radisson — have come on board, and today a number of properties are built on a business model of sustainability. One example is the Kw’o:kw’e:hala eco-vacation retreat in Othello, British Columbia, Canada.

Businesses such as Kw’o:kw’e:hala would not exist without customers, and hotel guests themselves have become another major factor in the growth of hospitality’s green movement.

It appears the same consumers whose homes include energy-saving light bulbs and pantries full of organic foods, are seeking equal commitment to Mother Earth when they’re away.

While it’s clear that green options must be convenient if they are to be widely adopted, many Americans already have embraced sustainability in a big way. In a 2007 survey by the Swiss multinational business services cooperative KPMG, 60 percent of the consumers polled said they’d be willing pay more for environmentally friendly products, and 56 percent said they make special efforts to patronize retailers with “green” reputations.

“In the past few years, interest in eco-friendly travel has definitely grown,” says Elizabeth Sanberg, co-founder GoGreenTravelGreen.com, a Website for eco-conscious travelers. “I think this is a reflection of consumers as a whole being more aware of their environmental impact … and of how the environment affects their health, and this inspires them to take action.”

Shatttuck agrees. “Within the past two years, demand for ‘green’ products and services has changed from novelty to necessity,” he says. “Through [guest satisfaction] surveys, we discovered that guests overwhelmingly were in support of green initiatives.”

The waterpark resort market may be particularly receptive to green travel. According to Sanberg, the movement has gained significant support among younger generations and families. “Families are particularly interested in green travel, and not just because of the environmental impact, she notes. “Parents are extremely conscious of how the environment affects their children’s health.”

But families aren’t the only ones. The management at Kalahari reports that visiting groups are expressing more interest in green practices. Hass says several organizations inquiring about conference business have asked about eco-friendly programs such as recycling.

All told, growing consumer interest and the economic climate and have made environmental responsibility a driving force in all segments of hospitality, and the movement is something worth considering. If you “practice what you preach,” you can have a positive impact on the planet, gain the appreciation of your guests and even save some money.