“We have the second most wasteful industry (behind the construction industry),” said Lindsay Smith, the sustainability program administrator for the Colorado Convention Center. “Therefore, we can make a big impact with little change.”
Some of the baby steps meeting professionals can take towards sustainability include: converting to digital rather than paper-based communications for invitations, registration, handouts and surveys; replacing bottled water with water-filling stations and reusable cups; telling banquet staff not to pre-fill water glasses at banquets; using china, flatware and linens instead of disposable goods; recycling paper, glass and aluminum; recycling name badges; using plants for décor instead of cut flowers; using local vendors, products and services; and minimizing the need for shipping and transportation.
“There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit,” said Hadley B. Laughlin of Plan-it Friendly, a boutique economic and environmental consulting firm dedicated to aligning environmental strategy to business objectives. Prior to starting the firm, Laughlin was an event manager with Coca-Cola for six years, an active member on the company’s internal Green Task Force and a co-founder of the Atlanta Green Meetings Council. “A lot of Web sites have tips giving [planners] examples of the different shades of green, and you can figure out how green you want to be. But, ultimately you have to consider how you can make the business case to your clients for environmental initiatives like reducing waste through recycling programs, going paperless and/or things like that.”
For a 1,100-person meeting, Laughlin had the challenge of convincing a client to go with an eco-friendly giveaway item that cost three times as much as the branded items they usually purchased. “People are sick and tired of getting a notepad and thermal coffee mug,” Laughlin explained. “I came across this awesome device called Solio, which is a solar, hybrid charger for handheld devices. I said, ‘This is innovative technology. It will simplify [your associates’] lives, it fits their demographic and it fits with your planet initiative.’ She went for it, and it was a huge hit with the associates. The point of the meeting was to get them fired up for the new year and [the item] did intensify the push more than getting another pen.”
Implementing basic green initiatives also can save money. According to Meetings Strategies Worldwide and the Convention Industry Council’s “Green Meetings Report,” (pdf) collecting name badge holders for reuse at an event of 1,300 attendees can save the organizers approximately $975. If a bottle of water costs $3.50 and the average attendee drinks three per day, organizers could save more than $3,000 over the course of a three-day, 100-person event by using water fill stations and reusable mugs.
Shannon McCorison, manager of global events for ProLogis, said the company’s decision to eliminate paper promotional items at tradeshows required an initial investment, but now it’s saving them money. Instead of passing out folders and videos, representatives hand out branded USB memory sticks loaded with promotional materials. “People love receiving those memory sticks and most everyone needs one,” she said. “We’re spending between $5 and $10 more on each USB than on a logo item, but it’s less expensive than what it would cost to print what’s on [it], and we’re getting them a lot more information.” The memory stick is not only reusable, it also makes it easier for potential clients to share ProLogis information with others.
McCorison said many vendors and companies think green and sustainable elements are too costly to implement. “But that’s not really the case. Sometimes [planners] have to roll up their sleeves, find solutions and push vendors to be creative.” For ProLogis’ annual company picnic, McCorison wanted to minimize the amount of waste created. In order to accomplish that, she needed to make sure all disposable products were biodegradable or could be recycled, that food waste could be composted, and that adequate direction could be given on-site to help attendees and their families comply.
“It was a real challenge getting everyone on board,” McCorison said. “One vendor [said], ‘I think you’re going to find biodegradable corn cups are too expensive.’ So we had to do research ourselves and show them it could be affordable.” In the initial planning stages, the venue told her using a compost-removal company would be cost-prohibitive. “The composting company charged us $200 for composting removal, which is cheaper than what it would cost for an equal amount of waste disposal,” McCorison said.
Although the picnic had 340 attendees, they produced less than one bag of trash — everything else was recycled, composted or donated. When the venue saw how much money ProLogis saved composting versus traditional waste management, they began researching how they could make composting a permanent part of their operations.
In some cases, it’s the vendor who introduces meeting planners to sustainable solutions. Debra Barger, the dean of regional and continuing education for California State University-Chico, said sustainability is a campus-wide value that extends to their special event facilities. “Conferencing in and of itself has a pretty big carbon footprint so we [ask], ‘How can we mitigate that impact?’ We look at everything, including our relationship with local hotels and their level of greenness.” Barger said the college encourages conference clients to buy local and organic because it’s better for the environment and “proves the economic viability of an older, more economically challenged part of the state. We’re looking at a triple bottom line: We’re benefiting people, the environment and the economy of Northeast California.”
But, it’s not an investment every client is willing to make. “Sometimes they say, ‘We’re not going to focus on buying organically,’ because of the price point,” Barger said. “As far as recycling and transportation — carpooling airport pick-ups and using shuttles that loop throughout the city — we find they’ve embraced some of those things because it was a cost savings for the participants.” The college also gives attendees the option of offsetting their carbon footprint by purchasing carbon offsets from the event’s Web site through a third-party vendor.
Holly Johnson, public relations consultant for Devil’s Thumb Ranch, an eco-friendly luxury property and meetings destination in Colorado that is ranked one of the top 20 green hotels in the world, has some misgivings about carbon offset programs. “It’s kind of like going to church on Sunday and being a white-collar criminal, if that’s your default [green] action,” she said. “I think that system needs some refinement. But for huge conventions, to purchase carbon offsets to pay back the energy you’re using to get to a place because you need to, that’s justified.”
When it comes to weeding out vendors with superficial green initiatives from the ones with a deep philosophical commitment to sustainability, Johnson recommends planners start with a list of green vendors from the local convention and visitors bureau and then start asking questions. “On a lot of state or county levels, there are green-certified processes,” Johnson said. “Find out if something exists in your community, because they have a whole checklist of things vendors need to comply with. Pay attention to where [vendors’] food comes from: Do they go local or go to a local distributor and not care where it comes from? Do they use compact fluorescent lighting and low water-flow toilets? If they don’t, do they have a commitment to do that in the future? On site visits, look for rooms that are overly air-conditioned or overly heated. Even altering the temperature two degrees can save hundreds off your energy bill every year, so that’s an easy red flag. If they’re doing a renovation, are they using a local contractor or bringing someone in? Three times the money goes back into the local economy when you use a local vendor than when you use a national chain.”
Whenever an event is booked into the Colorado Convention Center, Smith begins educating planners and introducing them to ways they can incorporate sustainable initiatives. “We give them green checklists when we meet,” Smith said. “When someone signs a contract, they get our sustainability statement of what we’re doing at the center. I meet with each one and see if this is something of interest and let them know some of the ways they can promote it to their attendees.”
The center is a good example of a facility with a deep philosophical commitment to sustainable initiatives. It has single-stream recycling for aluminum, glass, paper and plastics, so products don’t need to be separated out. Composting is part of the back-of-house operations. Transportation companies are discouraged from letting shuttles, taxis or freight trucks from idling. Rooms are heated and cooled to 72 degrees, which is the building’s most energy-efficient temperature. Lights, HVAC and escalators are only turned on during event hours. All the toilets have been replaced with low-flow fixtures, saving the center almost 1.7 million gallons in the past eight months. Banners and wooden pallets are sent to a local company to recycle into fertilizer and mulch that, in turn, is purchased to landscape the center’s grounds. And, a vast solar panel array is being installed on the roof to offset a portion of the 2.2 million-sq. ft. facility’s energy use.
Green meetings industry suppliers of every type are becoming more visible. Transportation companies such as Advantage Rent A Car and Elite Green Cars are offering eco-friendly fleets. Some vendors, like Valera Global, have joined the Chicago Climate Exchange, which asks its members to offset 100 percent of their carbon emissions. Companies like Moose Displays and Logistics are offering trade show displays, booths and banners created using recycled and eco-friendly materials. Farm-to-table restaurants and caterers with seasonal menus are becoming easier to find. Team building is getting a green makeover with help from companies such as Absolute Adventures. Do a quick Google search for “green corporate gifts,” and in .11 seconds, you will find 1.6 million pages.
Some companies are opting to reduce their carbon footprint and expenses by meeting virtually. Don Best, director of Unisfair, a virtual meeting production company said, “I’ve always felt being green is cost-effective. When I first started working here two years ago, clients were boasting that [meeting virtually] cost 50 to 80 percent of an actual event and saved the logistical headaches. Recently, we’ve been providing details on the carbon footprint reduction of having 2,000 people attending virtually versus flying to California to attend this event, and they’re proud of that and they’re starting to make noise about it.”
Teleconferencing, Webinars and Webcasts are other ways planners can bring attendees together without requiring them to travel. The Virtualis Convention & Learning Center, located in virtual world Second Life, provides a more interactive and immersive way for people to do business without leaving their desks. Corporate packages can provide custom avatars for attendees so they can log in and bypass the time-consuming technical aspects of the site.
Buildings can become green-certified. Planners can gain certification in green meeting planning strategies. But, no certification for green meetings exists… yet.
Smith is a member of the Green Meetings Industry Council, which will present its recommendations for a green meeting certification program in Kyoto, Japan, this fall. “Right now, someone can say, ‘I’m having a green meeting,’ but they’re only using recycled paper,” Smith said. “We’re working on having levels like silver, gold and platinum, but it will be a real certification that will be internationally recognized with the EPA. That should be in place next year.”