Imagine that you’ve just stumbled down to a hotel’s dining area in the morning, groggy and desperate for caffeine. You might have a presentation to give for work, or maybe you’re herding your extended family. You may even be on a relaxing weekend getaway.

Chances are, you’re not considering what happens to the food in the breakfast buffet once you leave the hotel.

Chances are, that food will be thrown away.

Food waste has tremendous economic, social, and environmental consequences, but it is preventable. New research on behalf of Champions 12.3 builds a robust business case for hotels to reduce this inefficiency. The first-of-its kind analysis of 42 hotels in 15 countries found that nearly every company achieved a positive return when investing in food waste-reduction programs, with the average site seeing a 600 percent return on investment.

But this financial opportunity is often overlooked by managers and business leaders. The associated costs of food loss and waste may be buried in operational budgets, accepted as the cost of doing business, or considered not worth the investment needed to achieve reductions. In our analysis, however, the average site invested less than one percent of food sales and got seven times that amount in return. Ninety-five percent of sites fully recouped their investment within two years.

Case studies prove the point: the MGM Gold Strike Resort and Casino in Robinsonville, Mississippi (USA), prioritized waste-reduction on its all-you-can-eat buffet, slashing waste by more than 80 percent and decreasing food costs more than 5 percent in the first year alone. Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit – a medium-sized, five-star hotel in Bangkok, Thailand – was able to achieve a 50 percent reduction in food waste by value in just 15 weeks, saving an estimated $60,000 per year.

Reducing food waste in hotels isn’t rocket science. It’s a matter of rethinking past practices, embracing new approaches and implementing relatively simple solutions. Here are three steps that hotels can take now to reduce food waste and increase profits.

  1. Measure. The first step to reducing food waste is to start measuring food waste. By consistently tracking waste, a site can identify how much and where food goes to waste. This helps managers prioritize hot spots to tackle and monitor progress over time.

    The Hotel of the Past sees food waste as a fact of life, and does nothing to measure or reduce it. It ignores the evidence that over 70 percent of waste in the hospitality sector is created before the food hits the consumer’s plate, and takes no action to reduce this inefficiency.

    The Hotel of the Future measures its kitchen food waste to see where it can improve its operations. It recognizes that food waste measurement is a small investment that can lead to significant financial returns. In our analysis, the average site invested less than one percent of food sales, and saw the cost of its food waste decline by over 60 percent.

  2. Engage Staff. In order for any food waste-reduction program to be successful, management must work to catalyze a culture shift among employees. A food waste-reduction program will fall short of its potential if the staff haven’t bought in to the idea.

    The Hotel of the Past blames employees for wasting food. If it starts to measure its food waste, its staff may not track it accurately out of fear of punishment from managers.

    The Hotel of the Future recognizes that over 90 percent of staff want to take action to reduce food waste, and it harvests this interest. Managers at the Hotel of the Future embed the importance of waste reduction and tactics to achieve it into their standard training and operating procedures. Guidance from leadership may come in the form of daily staff meetings, casual conversations, formal training, or even peer learning opportunities. Staff are rewarded for accurately and consistently tracking waste.

  3. Rethink the buffet. Buffets are one of the largest sources of food waste in hotels. Worse, buffets tend to waste lots of high-value foods like meats. Relatively simple solutions go a long way to reduce this waste.

    The Hotel of the Past keeps food fully stocked until the last minute of service. Imagine the amount of bacon, sausage, and eggs that get thrown away at the end of breakfast! This hotel does nothing to adjust for leftovers, and assumes that business as usual is best practice.

    The Hotel of the Future shifts certain items to à la carte cooking near the end of meal times to reduce waste without negatively impacting customer experience. It safely repurposes leftovers into other items like “doggie bags” for guests who arrive after service hours, or incorporates them into other dishes. It makes customers aware of its efforts to reduce food waste and why, encouraging them by example not to waste.

These three steps are just some of the actions that industry leaders are implementing. Hotels should identify what’s right for their context, and The Business Case for Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Hotels provides further details.

More and more hotels are getting creative about food waste, and seeing outstanding financial returns as a result. Last year, a wider analysis of over 1,200 business sites and 700 companies found that the median site reaped $14 in returns for every $1 invested. Even if only for economic reasons, forward-thinking business leaders need to consider reducing food loss and waste. The financial returns can’t be ignored.