DALLAS. Green is inn. But the jury’s still out. Those were among hotelier sentiments at the first-ever Green Hospitality Conference on March 14, an event designed to combat rising energy costs and address mounting environmental and worker-health issues.

Those concerns, coupled with the 500,000 guestrooms in the U.S. development pipeline, make green-design practices more crucial than ever, says Glen Hasek, publisher of Green Lodging News. “We’re here because of the need to network on a national level to shore up best practices,” he says.

The industry’s newly green leanings are evident in a slew of planned hotel projects seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, the widespread adoption of new energy technology and the growing use of local products and carbon-offset programs, Hasek says. But they’re tempered by a shortage of environmentally visionary hoteliers, the absence of a green-hotel rating system and lack of a green hotel association to serve as an effective industry voice, he adds.

Hasek says the hospitality industry “needs to do a better job of convincing developers that green hotels are profitable.” One obstacle is the U.S development model focusing on first-costs more than long-term holds, say conference panelists, who were queried about green costs by developers. Estimated per-project premiums varied, ranging from 8% to nearly nothing. Notes Michael Pace, director of environmental programs at San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels, “The question is: How green is green? How far do you want to go?”

Developer payback on green hotels ranges from two to four years, making it manageable in the framework of a developer’s five-year-hold model, says Nicholas Lakas, director of Element Hotels, owned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts. What’s more, environmental properties attract a more favorable cap rate of about a half point, he says. Wen Chang, owner of American Canyon, Calif. -based Gaia Hotels, say U.S. hotels needn’t ever spend more than 5% more to achieve LEED. They may soon be tested. The U.S. will start pushing LEED construction more vigorously, starting with a pilot program in Washington, D.C., panelists say.

The earlier a LEED-targeted construction team — consisting of a property owner, architect, engineer, contractor and facilities manager — is assembled, the less LEED costs, Chang says. “Everyone has to be on the same page from the beginning.”

Energy and water-use policies are the easiest to implement. For example, if a hotel changes out 100 of its commodes from 1.6-gallon flush to 1.1-gallon flush, they’ll see a payback of 4% a year after all expenses, says Philip Schrieber, a sales executive with Plumbing America/Kohler, which markets plumbing to hotels.

Attendance of 175 at the Dallas Hilton Anatole event more than doubled what was anticipated, say conference organizers Lodging Hospitality magazine and green-product marketer Pineapple Hospitality. Gary Dietz, publisher of Lodging Hospitality, notes the conference was “groundbreaking” because it was the first to focus solely on green hospitality.

Presenters pointed to several new high-profile green hotel projects. Among them were the MGM Mirage’s $7 billion, 18 million sq. ft. City Center under construction in Las Vegas. It would be the largest new construction LEED project in the U.S. to earn LEED, while Vail Resorts’ proposed $1 billion multi-use resort village, Ever Vail, would be the largest LEED-certified resort in North America. The recently opened, solar-powered Gaia Napa Valley is considered the first fully environmentally sustainable hotel in the country.

Hotel companies such as Fairmont, Kimpton, Saunders Hotel Group, Starwood and Xanterra have committed to operating environmentally sustainable hotels whenever feasible, say conference organizers. Panelist Gerry Link, general manager of the Hilton Vancouver in Washington, says Hilton’s decision to build LEED netted the equivalent of $2.5 million in media coverage.

Green building is apparently heating up elsewhere. The U.S. Green Building Council’s first Greenbuild Conference in 2002 was attended by only a few hundred. The 2006 conference in Denver drew an estimated 14,000.