How Embassy Suites Mag Mile's Living Walls are Growing
The Chicago hotel's green atrium is just the beginning.
The 455-room Embassy Suites by Hilton Chicago Downtown Magnificent Mile turned over a new leaf in 2017 when it launched Sky Garden in its atrium. The eye-catching walls of greenery create a major aesthetic impression as well as supply herbs for culinary operations at the hotel. The 750-square foot Sky Garden is open to the public and accessible 365 days a year.
Hotel GM Konstantine Drosos struck upon the idea for the Sky Garden in 2016, when he attended a GM conference. “One of the speakers was a science teacher from the Bronx who started a charity called the Green Bronx Machine,” Drosos says. “What led him to do it was many of his students had never eaten a real vegetable; they were surrounded by fast food.” And what inspired Drosos was that the program utilized urban gardens. He saw an opportunity to install such a concept in the hotel’s atrium.
The area where the Sky Garden is now in the atrium previously was decorated with fake bamboo. Drosos wanted to replace it with green, living walls both for atmosphere and a direct-to-fork concept. They worked with the downtown Chicago office of a Calgary-based group called DIRTT (Do it Right This Time) Environmental Solutions, which installed the Sky Garden.
The herb collection features an extensive variety with more than 1,000 pots of plants decorating the atrium and rotating on a seasonal basis. Currently, the herbs featured in the Sky Garden include mint, oregano, basil, sage, and rosemary, providing a fragrant bouquet of different herbal scents.
The herbs are incorporated into the hotel’s complimentary evening reception and cooked-to-order breakfast, two of the three brand pillars of Embassy Suites (the third being all-suite accommodations). For breakfast, fresh herbs are used in the preparation of omelets, herb potatoes, and herb-accented fruit on the buffet. At the evening reception, the culinary team serves a rotating agua fresca every night.
Moving On Up
“It’s really taken off since then, and we’re doing a part two on our 18th floor, which is a nonresidential floor,” says Drosos. “We’re partnering with a group called Sagegreenlife that’s going to do plants that are able to live year-round, so we can continually harvest them. That will give us the ability to use specialty herbs in mass in all our culinary operations. Right now, the herbs we have last three or four weeks, and we constantly have to replace them. Sagegreenlife has technology that will keep them there year-round. Right now our herbs are more of an inspiration, used in all our menus—banquet and catering, our gastropub, our bar, and our café. But before the end of the year, we’ll be able to grow herbs in mass.”
At first, the team had to manually irrigate the of its current atrium setup. “That really doesn’t work well, so we had to build an irrigation system to go in there,” Drosos explains. “We’re evolving the concept and working with Sagegreenlife, they have a proprietary concept that keeps it alive year-round without much maintenance other than the pruning of the herbs.”
The Garden Difference
The return on the hotel’s investment isn’t from harvesting the herbs—at least not right now with just the Sky Garden, before expanding upstairs—but the benefits are significant. “We’re not saving on food costs,” Drosos says. “The return really is that you’re able to differentiate yourself in the market and have a unique setting, that as far as we’re aware, no other hotel in Chicago has.”
“There are so many hotels in the area, that social media and marketing-wise we’ve gotten a lot of influencers, bloggers, and guests posting about our walls and our herbs, green cocktails, and made-to-order breakfast,” notes Nidhi Sunderam, complex marketing manager, and Drosos says the atrium has become a unique setting for events.
“Being able to sell that space for meetings and catering is a direct return,” he says. “But indirectly, the return is that when guests, groups, and business travelers come in, they think, ‘Wow, I don’t see this anywhere else. This is what I want to be around.’ It’s nice to sit and have greenery around you when there’s very little greenery in the city outside.”
Director of Sales and Marketing Dan Techman says, “When we get RFPs from groups, which they send out to multiple hotels, nowadays there’s always something in there asking what you’re doing from a sustainability and environmental perspective. Everybody has kind of the same answers: ‘We’re recycling. We have towel replacement programs.’ Everybody’s doing the same thing. For us, it’s truly a differentiator to say we have this living wall that creates a refreshing and peaceful environment but also using ingredients from it in our culinary presentations.”
The Sky Garden is also a point of excitement for the culinary staff.
“With Sagegreenlife, we’ll have a lot more variety of stuff we can feature,” Drosos says. “There are certain herbs that grow well (in the atrium Sky Garden) but others that are harder to grow. With Sagegreenlife, we can expand on more things. It’s not just culinary—our beverage team has had fun with it and created specialty cocktails around the herbs.”