Q&A: Julie Cheetham, founding member and managing director at Weeva

by: Felicity Cousins | January 5, 2024

Weeva’s sustainability technology platform was developed for the hospitality industry to manage and report on its data as a way of future proofing the sector. Julie Cheetham, founding member and managing director at Weeva spoke to Sustainable Hotel News about how the platform works with both independent and chain hotels, how AI is used, goals for 2030 and beyond, and how collaboration with other global organisations such as WTTC, GSTC and The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance are key to supporting any success in sustainability across the sector.

Why is it so important for hotels to be able to manage sustainability data today?

JC: I think we are really good as businesses in measuring lots of things, but sustainability and the relating components haven’t been something we have been good at measuring in our industry in particular. It’s really important, especially with regulations that are imminent, that we get data and make decisions based on facts and accurate baselines and trend analytics, rather than just on experience and intuition, because we wouldn’t really do that in any other part of our business. With the regulations, it’s not only important to make decisions, but it’s becoming required in terms of disclosures.

People are going to have to be transparent about the social side – does Weeva collect data from all the UN’s SDGs?

JC: Yes we do. We look at 360 degrees of your business –  a good old fashioned balanced score card approach. Commercial indicators, environmental and conservation and socio-cultural indicators – so we are collecting metrics across all different parts of your business and making sure it is balanced and as effective as possible across all of those aspects.

How does Weeva work?

JC: Weeva is a SaaS product [Software as a Service] so you log on to our platform and create a profile for your hotel and then it is very much developed to be intuitive self service. There is a great sustainability team with Weeva to help you too. You start by learning what you could measure, whether they are environmental – energy waste, water, embodied carbon, pollution, biodiversity or social. Internal – it might be ethical labour, health and safety, learning and development, and diversity. External – community impacts, how do we measure those KPIs? Or cultural heritage preservation and cultural celebration. Commercial – supply chain analytics, guest satisfaction reviews, occupancies, RevPar.

You can decide what is important for your business and you can select the parameters that resonate with you and if you require them for your reporting (if you are doing more formalised ESG reporting). Then Weeva takes you on a journey to say for this information this is where you would find it, or go and speak to your procurement team, and feed it into the system directly or bulk upload it – it’s a step-by-step process that you need to manage.

How long would that process take and who is doing that on the hotel side?

JC: It depends on the size and the maturity of the business, so we have a lot more independent hotels using Weeva than chains. The large ones tend to have a sustainability officer or someone who has sustainability in their job title and they are doing it through an operations manager or administrative person.

We see hotels looking at their energy metrics (so all the different sources of energy such as grid electricity, gas or petrol or diesel), then water and waste. They normally start with those three and they are putting data in manually. So one afternoon a month one human has to go and get all of that information. 

All of your energy consumption you can find with finance or the procurement department because they are paying for those different sources of energy and the will have the quantum, as well as the currency value. Maintenance can give you the water readings if you are not using smart meters. 

Waste is a bit more difficult. If you are not already separating your waste you need to set up a proper system for waste management and then either your maintenance team or kitchen teams, or whoever your third party supplier is, can generally tell you the quantum of that waste.

It is not an overwhelming amount of work but it’s not easy – you can’t just switch on Weeva and we do the work for you. It’s like Couch25K – you have to get up and do the running, but when you do it step-by-step it’s really not all that onerous. 

Does all the data collected align with reporting frameworks such as CSRD?

JC: It depends on the framework. Because the CSRD is new we haven’t yet fully aligned all of our reporting to CSRD requirements, but typically what happens is that we have raw data and that is expressed in terms of global best practise outcomes. So for example, litres per sqm or litres per guest room night or KWhrs of carbon expressed per guest, or Kg of carbon expressed.  These are all very broadly accepted ways of managing the data and reporting the data.

So depending on what the RFP is looking for, generally your Weeva reports will suffice. If they are specific disclosure requirements in terms of alignment with CSRD then we will generally work with the client and get their investor relations team, or whoever is doing their disclosures, to give us a list of exactly what they would like disclosed and we build that template for them and then they can download that template every month with the relevant data.

Is this so Weeva is effective globally as per different requirement of each region?

JC: Yes and also for the different certifications. For example, if you are a Preferred by Nature member then you select that template because many of our users have different certifications recognised by the GSTC. We need to keep it almost like a lego set where there is raw data and the methodology used for the analytics is current best practice, but then you can pull those blocks into a format that works for you.

Do you think that there are too many certifications?

JC: I do. I also think we tend to over complicate them, and think they are key measures of success and we need to really keep it simple and focus on those because we are overwhelming everybody. Having said that, I think that if there is a certification and in order to achieve it you need a third party audit then I think those are really valid. And if you are going to go for one make sure it is GSTC-recognised and audited by a third party. 

We work with a number of certification organisations but I’m keen to see us take a credibility approach rather than certification. So where we get to a world where there is a widget on your website, which constantly runs and shows ‘this is your tonnes of carbon emitted’ or ‘GHG emitted’ or ‘this is how many Kg of carbon per guest bed night’, ‘this is how much waste we generated’, ‘this is how many people we have helped’ by doing the exact following measurable things. That is a far more interesting conversation to me than saying ‘I’ve got green sticker’.  

What would you say to someone who is panicking about where to start with data collection and reporting?

JC: Don’t panic – just start. Get a basic Excel spreadsheet. It doesn’t have to be Weeva. Just start by understanding all the sources of energy you use in your hotel or restaurant, and on a monthly basis look at your bills and start to understand the quantum. There are free carbon calculators online where if you understand the quantum of your energy sources then you can understand your carbon footprint.

When you are feeling comfortable with that look at how you are treating your teams and check everyone has a valid contract. Ask are we paying a living wage, what are we doing about DEI? Go through things one by one. Until you actually see your data for six months or a full year you really don’t know what you are doing.

If you are a medium to large sized business then there is really no excuse. Every morning your GM is looking at your occupancy and your RevPar so why is she not also looking at your very important other performance indicators.

Do you think there is enough awareness and buy-in from everyone in a hotel to make that data collection job easier?

JC: In independent hotels it depends on the owners and the operators and how passionate they are, but generally we have found the independent hotels are doing a really good job on sustainability. It becomes part of your job description – if you are in accounting then every month you put the data into a tool like Weeva. If you are in HR then start tracking quantifiably and numerically the work we are doing with our local host communities.

For the larger hotel groups they are under compliance pressure now. What we see is that there may be a reluctance because of it’s not yet pre-competitive so it’s something which you might not want to disclose fully. You do need a professional person within your organisation to take charge and make sure it’s part of your standard operating procedure and standard monthly reporting and get it properly audited. So it is a bit of work, but just like you need to do with your financials, you also need to do it with other indicators.

You’ve recently partnered with the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, which has some superb resources on its website. Is there anywhere else you would suggest looking for initial help starting out?

JC: The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance is a fantastic alliance of the larger hotel groups and so those tools are really great – like the HCMI calculator.  It’s assumptions based but it works really well for those larger groups. So if you are a medium to larger size even independent hotel certainly there is fantastic support there.

If you are a smaller independent hotel to medium sized, I would say look at some of the great resources on the WTTC website – look at Hotel Basics which is how you get started, and then look at the GSTC website. There are fantastic free resources available in places like the certifying bodies that don’t require you to be a member.

Also following some of the really great sustainable tourism experts and practitioners on forums like LinkedIn – Vicky Smith from Earth Changers, and Xavier Font from Surrey University, and Professor Willy Legrand, as they are often sharing open source tools and information.

Who is verifying Weeva data?

JC: We support you with education, with goal setting and tools and policies and training materials but at its simplest form Weeva is an impact accounting system. So just like if you are using Xero, if you put rubbish in then you will get rubbish out, until an auditor comes along. So we don’t audit the data but what we can do is use our system to check where the data is looking funny. The Weeva system uses AI and machine learning to identify data that is an outlier, or an obvious duplication, or that doesn’t make sense in terms of your regular trends and it will flag that with our sustainability teams. They will then reach out to property to ask for access to the data to do some investigations. It’s quite difficult to fudge that system but if you are dedicated to fraud then you can! 

So if there was a pipe leaking somewhere then Weeva could flag this up?

JC: Exactly. The new version of Weeva AI – launching in March this year – will do that. It will prompt the user if it sees issues in the trend analytics on the system. (Weeva is trialling the beta version of this and this was announced last year at Phocuswright). For now we are doing that with our sustainability team, so they will work with properties to say would you like to go through your data, to help them understand their own data.

What’s happening with your partnership with the Alliance? 

JC: The real push over the next year with the Alliance is to harmonise the metrics across the industry between the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance, the GSTC, WTTC and all of the incredible corporates in the private sector, which are doing great work like Travalyst and Expedia and Exodus and the Travel Corporation. There are far more inclusive conversations going on now, which is really heartening, around what is a sensible way to articulate this, to pull this together and to report on it. We are very fragmented as an industry when it comes to sustainability reporting.

Where will Weeva be in 2030? Will it all be AI?

JC: By 2030 we want to make global goals like our biodiversity targets and that we have managed to see a proper downward trend on GHG emissions globally, but we need all industries to come together, not just tourism.

For Weeva we see more AI coming into our product to make it easier. We want Weeva AI to be a sustainability officer in your pocket so the smarter we can get the more we can help. The more we can integrate into smart devices and existing systems the easier we can make it for everyone.

I would like us to be a global movement across the sector where we have everybody doing much better than they were before, and Weeva is a household name, available in many different languages, and everyone is getting into the movement with us.

At the moment everyone is using the hotel version of Weeva and we are introducing new metrics to compensate or allow for other players within the sector, but I’d love to have very specific versions for each of the verticals (bespoke products available for tour operators, restaurants and airlines).

And how are you going to stay ahead of your competitors?

JC: I want us to be the most accessible, the most accurate and the best, but I also feel like it’s such an urgent imperative that it’s better to work together than to compete. We’ve had a few conversations with BeCause already to see how we can work together with our data ingestion and with their certification alliance, so I think it’s about looking for how you can work smarter together, rather than competing with one another.

So there is room for more?

JC: Absolutely, and really staying on top of technology that is the key to see what it is unlocking next. We have to be on that road and keep it moving really fast and our CTO James Lever is based in the UK and has done a lot of work with airlines and OTAs, and he is tasked sitting in the right rooms where the most interesting conversations are happening and the most innovative technology is being showcased, so that we can stay ahead and make it the best it can possibly be.

Sustainability is an ever evolving journey – all the time methodology is getting better, data is more accurate, and new regulations are coming in, so it’s about being as transparent as you possibly can, and setting stretch targets for yourself. 

You can measure, but you need to improve. I’d love to see people using their data to really make those changes.