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The Group Travel Leader Going on Faith Select Traveler

Going green in the bluegrass

Courtesy Boone Tavern

From the Greek Revival columns standing as straight as soldiers across its white facade to the spoon bread served beneath crystal chandeliers in its dining room, Boone Tavern in Berea, Ky., is as old-school Southern as sweet tea.

In addition to its traditional good looks and manner, Boone Tavern is a trendsetter. The 1909 hotel, one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in Kentucky, is also the greenest in the state and one of the greenest in the country.

Part of the purpose of an $11 million renovation completed two years ago was to attain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver status. Instead, said Gary McCormick, general manager, “we got gold.” At the time, Boone Tavern was among 21 LEED gold- or platinum-certified hotels.

Proud of the green rating, the hotel remains low key about the achievement. A banner announcing the recognition hangs between its pillars; guests can take a green tour given each day by staff to learn more about green features.

A genteel approach to being green
But Boone Tavern, being genteel, does not hound guests to reduce, reuse and recycle. It prefers the hotel staff and its systems to do the work.

At a lot of hotels, going green seems to be “what you as a guest can do to save me money,” said McCormick. In Boone Tavern’s case, “we don’t want to create any hardship for our guests.”

Some of the hotel’s green measures, like energy-efficient lighting, organic in-room coffee, petrochemical-free shampoos and soaps, and paints and carpets that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have become common in the marketplace.

Others are invisible but important to the guest experience: energy-efficient heating and cooling systems that reduce annual energy consumption by 17 percent; a state-of–the-art kitchen; better insulation and soundproofing; and increased ventilation.

Other green features are fun and fanciful: bicycles ready to be borrowed for spins around town; foods grown on nearby farms to cut down on fuel costs and ensure freshness; and original skylights, uncovered and put back to work in the Skylight Room, the only meeting space without windows.

Although it seems odd to find such a leader in environmental design in a town of 15,000, visitors quickly realize that Berea is no typical small town.

It is home to Berea College, a small, private liberal-arts college famous for its progressive mindset and manner. The college also happens to own Boone Tavern.

Older than the inn by 54 years, Berea College was the South’s first interracial and coeducational college, founded by abolitionists. It teaches its students the value of labor by requiring them each to work 10 hours on campus.

As it provides educational opportunities, particularly to students from Appalachia, the college also preserves the mountain region’s culture.

Among the school’s priorities is sustainability.  The greening of Boone Tavern, which has served as the college’s guesthouse since it was built, is among its environmental initiatives.

“Climate change education comes in many forms,” Berea college president Larry Shinn said when the hotel’s LEED certification was announced in 2010. “We teach it in the classroom, by our college’s commitment — and action — to reduce our carbon footprint and by our many building renovations. Why not, then, renovate a 100-year-old hotel to LEED Gold standards and educate every guest about the value of each of us leaving a smaller environmental footprint?”

Traditions have also been sustained
Even as it became one of the nation’s greenest hotels, Boone Tavern has held to tradition. It is one of the few hotels in the country where a metal key opens guest room doors.

In addition to being a street’s width away from Berea’s campus, guests meet a number of its students, who work at the hotel to meet their college work-study requirements. About half of the staff are students.

Favorite pieces of artwork and memorabilia have a home in the newly refurbished hotel. A former office at the end of the lobby has been turned into a tribute to the hotel’s many famous guests, who range from Robert Frost and Eleanor Roosevelt in the early 20th century to Maya Angelou and the Dalai Lama in more recent times.

Boone Tavern also remains a showplace for Berea arts and crafts, another distinctive aspect of the college and town. The college’s Berea College Crafts serves a dual purpose: Students learn woodworking, weaving and other skills that preserve Appalachian traditions.

The crafts they make not only furnish Boone Tavern but also are sold to provide income for student scholarships, for Berea College charges no tuition. Some of the local crafts are popular gifts for meeting attendees and guest speakers.

Before the renovation, almost everything in the hotel, from four-poster beds to milled woodwork, was made at the college. The same is true today.

With the exception of upholstered couches and chairs, “everything, down to the throws on the beds to the woven wastebaskets, was made by students,” said Donna Robertson, sales manager, who pointed out that it’s rare to find a $50 handmade trash can in a hotel room.

Berea residents like Katie Heckman appreciate the care given to preserving the hotel’s past. She is a client, frequently using the hotel for the volunteer recognition events and community functions she plans for St. Joseph Berea, a local hospital. The renovation, she said, “was attuned to the college and its crafts, but it also made the hotel contemporary and comfortable, and they kept things that are important to people who have gone there forever,” like herself. Heckman has been visiting the hotel since she was 4 years old for holiday meals and other events, and remembers the day when guest baths were “down the hall.”

Reconfiguration yields more rooms

Reconfiguring guest rooms was a major undertaking during the renovation. The two floors of guest rooms were gutted, which allowed the hotel to squeeze in five more guest rooms by making use of previously wasted space.

In addition to structural changes, the hotel’s decor was completely restyled. New furniture made by Berea College students, from beds to chests to tables, is mixed with older pieces refurbished from old guest rooms. Those solid wood pieces were also made by students, some back in the 1950s.

As a result, guest rooms vary in shape, size and furnishings. Each is equipped with individual-serving coffeemakers, flat-screen televisions and MP3 players; there is wireless access throughout the hotel. Like the public areas, guest rooms adhere to a color palette of blues and yellows, pert but professional; classic without being starchy.

Positive changes were also made for meeting-goers. At the hotel’s back entrance, a new porte cochere protects guests and meeting-goers from the elements as they are dropped off. Adjacent to the covered driveway, a brick patio with newly planted trees and shrubs can be used for casual gatherings.

Inside, the hotel’s largest meeting space, the 1,520-square-foot Coyle Gathering Room adjoins the 851-square-foot Skylight Room, which in turn adjoins the public 2,214-square-foot Bowling Dining Room, a flow that works well for meals and receptions.

All meeting spaces have been upgraded with built-in audiovisual screens. Outside of the Coyle and Skylight rooms, a parlor with a fireplace serves as a prefunction area. The 270-square-foot Robinson Room, with windows and a fireplace, adjoins the parlor.

Upstairs, on the second floor, the 483-square-foot Nutting Lounge is a parlor located between two guest rooms. Combined, the parlor and guest rooms can become an executive suite.

All of the changes are paying dividends, in terms of business. “We had more meetings in 2010 and more on the books in 2011,” said Robertson.

Spoonbread with every meal
Other traditions unchanged during the renovation were the hotel’s Southern food and hospitality.
Its signature dish, spoonbread, is served with every meal. A cousin of corn bread and polenta, spoonbread has the texture of a souffle. It accounts for the hotel’s appetite for eggs (Between 400 to 600 eggs are used there a day, according to McCormick).

Joan Hardman-Cobb, special programs coordinator for Encore, the program for Lifelong Learning at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., lives in the South herself, but was still taken with the welcome she and 32 students who spent three nights at Boone Tavern received. Hardman-Cobb had planned the study course on Appalachian literature; she has already given thought to how she can develop another course on a different topic to hold in Berea.

“Everyone at the hotel was so polite and helpful.When we arrived, every single person in our group got a call from the front desk to make sure their room was right,” said Hardman-Cobb. “We were just in heaven there. It is a nice property, anyway, and nicely renovated with all those little sitting rooms. In the little free time we had, you could get a book and sit in a corner in a squashy armchair. I wish all the hotels we stayed at were like Boone Tavern.”