Hotels eager to satisfy the growing desire of business travelers for eco-friendly lodging are finding that their environmental ambitions have run headlong into the harsh realities of the recession.

According to a New York Times report, when the economy was thriving, developers were promoting environmental flourishes like roof gardens, floors of reclaimed wood and solar panels. But now, with reduced operating budgets, hotel owners are putting off the kind of sweeping projects that were common during the bull market and instead focusing on smaller environmental initiatives that don’t cost as much and may even save money.

The lodging industry is still working its way through a prolonged slump. Hotel occupancy rates have recovered a bit from the trough of 2009, especially at business hotels in big cities. But they remain depressed over all, and average occupancy for all domestic hotels in the second quarter was 60.7 percent, compared with the 69.3 percent the industry enjoyed in the third quarter of 2000, according to STR Global. This makes it extraordinarily difficult for hotels to pay for big-ticket green renovations, especially with a tight credit market.

Potential visitors are inquiring about several areas of environmental awareness, like recycling protocol, the use of eco-friendly housecleaning products and water conservation. Evaluating a hotel’s operational impact on the environment is difficult given the lack of an industry standard.

Lacking the capital to sink into big expensive, retrofits, hotels are turning to small-scale conservation programs that will satisfy corporate buyers. As a bonus, many of these programs also reduce their energy and water bills.

This includes practices such as training staff to switch off lights and televisions, encouraging guests to embrace less-frequent sheet and towel changes and installing lower-cost fixtures like water-conserving showerheads and compact fluorescent light bulbs. Low-flow faucets and toilets can bring an immediate savings of 10 to 20 percent, experts say.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts is among those exploring ways to save both money and resources. At its Element brand hotel in Lexington, Mass., energy- and water-efficient products like compact fluorescent light bulbs, Energy Star-rated appliances and low-flow plumbing fixtures in guest rooms save the company about $52,000 annually, according to Brian McGuinness, a senior vice president at Starwood.

Hotels have had to strike a balance, though. They need to simultaneously keep their green initiatives unobtrusive so that guests don’t feel inconvenienced, but make them visible enough to satisfy environmentally-conscious travelers.

Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, said research shows that even guests who say they are environmentally aware won’t pay more or accept inconvenience. If bottles of shampoo, conditioner or other items are replaced with wall dispensers, guests complain, he said. Jerome said the InterContinental is trying to focus on environmental steps that guests either won’t notice or won’t mind.

Marriott International is using unobtrusive green elements in a pair of new properties near Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. The properties, the SpringHill Suites Atlanta Airport Gateway and the Atlanta Airport Marriott Gateway, incorporate low-flow plumbing, water-conserving landscaping and energy-efficient lighting, with an emphasis on natural light.

Read this full report here.