Full Green Ahead
When Michelle Horton took the job as meetings manager of the Ecological Society of America six years ago, she had no experience planning green meetings in her 20 years as a planner. She’d never asked convention centers to supply condiments in bulk rather than individual packaging. She’d never focused her site selection on cities with mass public transportation. She’d never heard of carbon offsets, soy-based inks or biodegradable badge holders.
She wasn’t alone. At the time, few planners were asking about the recycling programs at convention centers or the use of recycled paper for printing. They weren’t replacing printed programs with USB devices. Moreover, convention and visitors bureaus and hotels didn’t list green meeting programs on their websites. Key green meeting industry groups were just getting started, and only a few of the more environmentally minded cities on the West Coast had infrastructure in place to handle green events.
A lot has changed. Planners like Horton now find it much easier to organize events with green practices in mind. “In the beginning, several cities didn’t even have recycling in place, and that was a big issue,” Horton says. “Now there are many more cities involved in the green process.” Hotels have linen and towel conservation programs, convention centers have LED lighting, and new technologies that reduce waste and travel are flooding the market.
“There was an initial groundswell of green that I would mark around six years ago,” says Michael Luehrs, sustainability services manager at MCI Group, who was living and working in Portland, Ore., at the time. “A lot of it I can trace to ‘[An] Inconvenient Truth,’” he says, referring to the 2006 documentary film about Vice President Al Gore’s national campaign to educate people about global warming. “It opened up a lot of discussion and awareness.”
Early adopters such as Horton embraced the movement, recognizing the advantage of going green in terms of branding, marketing and impact on the environment. But many people in the industry resisted due to political sensitivities, higher costs, and the uncertainty of how organization and board members would react.
That’s starting to change, and it’s changing within the faith-based community, too. “I always disconnect this from politics and connect it to biblical principles,” says Dr. Matthew Sleeth, an author, speaker and executive director of Blessed Earth, a nonprofit that works with churches and organizations to promote measurable environmental change and spiritual growth. Sleeth says the Bible mandates people to care for the earth and God’s creation: “It’s the first job we were given—to protect the garden. So much of [the Bible] is about how to take care of the land. If we ignore complete sections of the Bible, we diminish God.”
Although there’s a growing desire to produce more sustainable events, the process can be confusing and, for some planners, intimidating. They want to know what they’re getting into and how much it’s going to cost. They’re being inundated with more resources and information, leaving them with more questions: Is there a difference between a green meeting and a sustainable one? What guidelines are best? And where do I start? We talked to some industry experts about these questions and more, and while they don’t pretend to have all the answers, they can at least point you in the right direction.
What is a green meeting?
The best answer is that there is no single definition, though the industry is moving closer to one. In 2009, the Convention Industry Council published a draft of its Accepted Practices Exchange, or APEX, green meetings standards, welcoming comment and feedback from industry professionals. Planners have been waiting since mid-2010 for the release of the official standards, which are being developed in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, Green Meeting Industry Council and ASTM International.
At the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Conference in February, a small panel explained why the standards are taking so long to be finalized. A group of industry professionals voted on the standards in January with a 90 percent approval rating. However, any negative comments have to be addressed and sent back for another vote.
For now, the most widely accepted definition for a green meeting is listed on the CIC site: “A green meeting or event incorporates environmental considerations to minimize its negative impact on the environment.” It also makes an important distinction between green meetings and sustainable meetings—green is just one component of a sustainable meeting. Sustainable meetings address social, environmental and economic concerns.
That’s an important distinction, Luehrs says. When asked what a sustainable meeting is, he answers, “I don’t think it exists yet, but we are in the place where we are innovating interesting practices.” He continues, “It’s one that doesn’t really leave an impact other than the positive impact on the local community in which it’s held and on the participants so they come away with more knowledge and with powerful business networks.”
Are green meetings practices being embraced?
“We are mandated by our members as well as our board to make our meetings as green as we can,” says Horton with ESA. As an environmental organization, those expectations come with the territory. But most industry professionals agree that sustainability is becoming more important to more planners every year.
“Today, most people raise their hands when asked if they’re doing something at their events to be more green,” says Amy Spatrisano, principal at MeetGreen, a planning and consulting firm. “But talking to people about doing it because it’s the good thing to do for the environment isn’t the seller. Talking about how cost-effective it is—that’s really when people start paying more attention.”
Steve Faulstick, general manager of the Doubletree Hotel Portland and member of the GMIC board, says the change he’s seen in recent years has been outstanding. “Worldwide awareness has improved by leaps and bounds,” he says. “It is now more inclusive of all aspects of the industry.”
The facts are too hard for some planners to ignore. The EPA named the meetings and conventions industry the second-most wasteful industry in the country following building and construction. Go to an average conference and take a look around. From unused printed programs and packing materials to leftover food, there is plenty of wastefulness.
Dr. Janiece Sneegas, director of General Assembly and conference services for the Unitarian Universalist Association, has been planning meetings for 15 years. Since 2004, she’s been committed to implementing sustainable initiatives within the association. She says it’s getting easier to plan green events, but it still takes quite a bit of work on the part of the planner. “Even though some cities may be able to say we don’t have the infrastructure, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a green meeting there,” said Sneegas during a panel discussion at the GMIC conference in Portland. “There are two ways to make it easier on destinations,” she says. “One, let them know this is an important part of your process. And two, it needs to be in your contract. From composting to purchasing offsets…anything you want to measure or you need their participation in, ask them to help with that. Put it in writing.”
MCI’s Luehrs sees potential for substantial growth in sustainable meetings because, as he puts it, “a lot of people are well-intentioned but they haven’t felt the pressure to get to that point.” There’s still not enough incentive to go green, and he acknowledges that with all the advice, tips and resources out there, planners can feel overwhelmed. He advises they start somewhere. “Maybe what’s needed is to take a deep breath and take little steps to get the ball rolling to gain that comfort and confidence to move forward.”
Who’s leading the movement?
A lot of people are involved in the green meetings movement, and they come from all sides of the industry. They are planners, suppliers, hotel professionals, destination representatives and activists. They’re people like Sneegas and Sleeth. Many of them have been involved in the process from the start; others joined later.
“In each of these different groups, you have amazing leadership and people who are pushing ahead and trying to innovate for all the right reasons,” Luehrs says. “You have individual hotels and a number of different venues around the world who are taking this on as a passionate pursuit of sorts.” These venues include the Doubletree Hotel Portland, which has served as a pioneer in sustainability for almost a decade. “We’ve worked very closely with the CVB to get all major venues on the sustainable path,” Faulstick says. “As a destination, we’ve earned a great reputation for green meetings, and it was a very strategic plan for us to get there.”
Portland served as an early model in the nation’s green movement, and Faulstick, former board president of Travel Portland, recognized the trend early. “We saw a lot of it around us in Portland,” he says. When he joined the Doubletree in 2004, Faulstick helped usher the property into adopting green initiatives. It was the first property in Oregon to achieve Green Seal certification and it’s an Energy Star facility. Other venues making their green mark include the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, a LEED Gold facility, and the Raleigh Convention Center in North Carolina, a LEED Silver facility. Another is the Virginia Beach Convention Center, the first center to receive LEED Gold certification for existing buildings. Low-flow toilets, energy-efficient glass and an extensive recycling program are a few of the 6-year-old building’s features.
The best part of operating a green convention center, says VBCC General Manager Courtney Dyer, is that he’s helping to create green meetings even if planners aren’t asking for it. “We’ve come up with a list for meeting planners but I have to realize their mission is to have a successful meeting, so we try and make it as easy for them as possible. We do much of it in the background so they don’t have to worry about it,” he says. (Read more about green convention centers in “Eco Venues,” page 58.)
There is a fervent group of planners rethinking the way they plan events. “The GMIC is where they seem to gather,” says Luehrs. Between that organization, the EPA and the CIC, standards are forming and innovation is growing. Questions still remain regarding green meetings, but as more planners join in, they’ll bring along those on the fringe. “We have a vision of what we hope will happen, and it’s that nobody will talk about green events or sustainability because it’s just a matter of what people expect,” Luehrs says.
“There is a movement, and it’s because people went and looked in their Bibles,” Sleeth says. When he started talking and writing about the subject six or seven years ago, he was one of the few. “If you talked about the environment, it wasn’t connected to the Bible. People of faith can get off track and derailed, and the Bible brings us back… Everything we do as a group—whether it’s coal miners, airline people or churches—we can all be better stewards.”