The Planet Traveler Hostel: Toronto’s Green Option

 How a new hotelier is changing the way we think about hostels.


 

Tom Rand, the older brother of a university classmate of mine, had the most awesome party pad: a funked-out loft conversion (the first in Toronto), a fridge forever stocked with beer and an assembly of the coolest people lounging on his rooftop patio, dreaming up ways to change the world. Rand was at the helm.

The dude was the smartest guy any of us had ever met, and certainly the richest. He had a fierce enthusiasm for life; never just “fine,” he was always “awesome!” Awesome at partying, awesome at business, even awesome at predicting the future like when he started up the first large-scale voicemail system in 1991—before Bell did—grossing annual revenues of US$20-million-plus.

We’d lost touch over the years, but I’d heard from his posse that he was still, well, pretty awesome. He’d sold his business for gajillions to pursue a PhD in philosophy, and he was still a partier and entrepreneur, but something new was keeping him up at night: “the impending heat death of the planet,” and Rand was hell-bent on doing something about it.

Enter Captain Cleantech. Rand bought a derelict building in Toronto’s Kensington Market and converted it into what some are calling “North America’s greenest hotel,” which means more than just recycled toilet paper. Planet Traveler, a 114-bed boutique-style hostel, has lowered its carbon emissions from “business-as-usual” by 75 per cent. And get this: Rand says he’s going to make money from it.

There he goes again, using his financial and social capital to woo impressionable 20-somethings—this time, global backpackers—into his awesome pad to party and maybe even save the world.

You’re a venture capitalist, philosopher and environmentalist. Why the hotel business now?

Well, to be honest, I got into the hotel side by accident. My partner, Anthony Aarts, wanted to build this funky hotel in Toronto and needed a financial backer. Since he’s into hotels, and I’m not, I said I’d come on board if we made it interesting. To build the greenest hostel on the continent fit the bill.

Carbon keeps me up at night. Climate change is not a future threat. It’s not like some unsavoury character that might one day crash the fossil fuel party and ruin the good times. It’s already here—it’s in the kitchen, stealing beers and breaking furniture. So my entering the hotel biz was all about changing that biz.

 

Going green is often seen as an ethical decision, not a profitable one. How are you going to make money from this?

It’s not rocket science. We’ve lowered our carbon output by lowering the energy we buy, and we did that by installing a bunch of existing, low-risk technologies.

The amount we pay to cover the cost is less than the energy savings, so we’re making money from day one. It’s pretty simple stuff—geothermal heating and cooling, solar thermal for hot water, solar PV for electricity, drainwater heat recapture, efficient LED lighting and really good insulation. All we did was put it all in the same building.

But there’s still the question of profit.

Sure, but lowering costs increases profits—Econ 101. We’ll also get more people staying here. Young people get the carbon issue, and staying in a super-green, super-hip building is a plus for them. We showcase this stuff at the hostel—it’s front and centre to the experience. The solar panels form an awning on our rooftop patio, for example.

Is one green building really going to make a difference in what you call catastrophic climate change? 

What we’re doing, anyone can do on any size building, and be richer for it, not poorer. The Empire State Building is lowering its energy use by almost 40 per cent, and they’ve not done all they could.

So when our federal government claims carbon reductions—like Kyoto—will hurt our economy, it drives me nuts. I’ve proven with this building we could have met our Kyoto targets just by making our building stock more efficient. Since buildings account for 40 per cent of carbon emissions, a three-quarters cut—which I’ve demonstrated is profitable—would get us a 30 per cent reduction across the board. And we’d all be richer, not poorer.

You’ve written a book: Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit: 10 Clean Technologies to Save Our World. Rather than the regular doom and gloom, you’re offering a message of hope and future sustainability. What else is new with your take on green?

It’s new because we’ve never really had an adult conversation about this stuff. The book speaks to the general public on this central challenge of our times. It’s a book of possibility, designed to engage the general public on an issue that they may otherwise find boring.

There are great books written about climate change and technology, but those books generally preach to the choir, so to speak. Only those already in agreement read them. Mine is a Trojan horse, designed to be beautiful and engaging enough to sit on a coffee table, but substantive enough that people who flip through it might learn something. Like the guests at the hostel.