The Green Meetings Evolution
The meeting and convention industry has made some eco-friendly strides in recent years, including establishing the recently released APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards. Despite this progress, the green meetings arena is still a confusing place to be. The long-awaited standards intend to clearly define what a green meeting is and create more consistency across the industry, but planners of green events must contend with a wide array of venue and hotel-related environmental standards and certification programs. “I think everyone all over the world is confused about which standard should take precedence over the other and how to incorporate all of them if you don’t want to take favorites,” says Jamie Nack, owner of Three Squares Inc., an environmental consulting firm that produces green meetings.
Before planners become immersed in all the different standards and certifications, they need to start by looking at their own organizations, says Nancy Zavada, principal of MeetGreen, a sustainability consulting firm. Examining your environmental mission, establishing a sustainability policy and creating a green meetings checklist is the best place to begin your sustainability journey, she advises.
“Different organizations have different things that are important to them, so ask what’s really vital to your organization,” says Zavada. “Every organization or event should have a list of things that are very vital to them that they won’t waver from, so when you talk to the venue or do an RFP, these are your requirements.”
If coming up with your own checklist intimidates you, do some research and look for existing standards or guidelines to use as a template, advises Brittin Witzenburg, sustainability coordinator of the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.
“Use some standards or references that already exist. There’s no point in totally re-inventing the wheel,” says Witzenburg. “APEX isn’t the only standard or checklist, so in many ways, a lot of it is upon the planners to educate themselves on what’s out there and what they feel or their organizations feel is most important.”
Start small by picking four or five green practices that matter most to you and stick with them, even if a venue or hotel has its own environmental policies in place that differ from yours. A good provider will be willing to work with you and do whatever they can to help you achieve your goals, says Lindsay Arell, sustainable program director at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.
“If a hotel or venue is saying, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ it’s great that they’re making the effort and educating clients, but if there’s something missing from those practices that you’d like to have or have experienced in other venues, you need to ask for that,” says Arell. “Communicate and collaborate.”
When you have environmental priorities in place, you can begin to seek out green providers. How do you know if a venue, hotel or vendor is really green and not just “greenwashing,” or pretending to be green to benefit their bottom lines? This is where third-party environmental certification programs can serve as helpful guideposts. It’s essential to do your homework, be discerning and ask a lot of strategic questions, but certification programs can help guide you toward the right green partnerships, says Nack.
“You can look for certifications as a way to cue you in to the point that at least the management on the hotel or venue side has recognized that this is important to them,” says Nack. “It’s a good indicator that there’s some buy-in from management there, but you might want to dig a little bit deeper to find out if the practices are in line with the certification or with what you’re looking for in terms of a venue partner.”
When choosing a green venue, it doesn’t hurt to look for facilities that have pulled out the big guns: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Created by the U.S. Green Building Council, this internationally recognized benchmark has been earned by approximately 20 convention centers and more than 100 hotels in the U.S., according to the USGBC.
Although LEED certification shouldn’t be a planner’s sole criteria for selecting a venue, it does demonstrate that a property or facility has made a serious investment and commitment to sustainability, says Matt Pizzuti, director of marketing for the Oregon Convention Center.
“It’s easy to say you’re green, but any facility that has a commitment to greening—a true dollars-on-the-table commitment—is going to be LEED certified,” says Pizzuti. “That is a benchmark that we see as a baseline for the venue side.”
Besides LEED, you can also look for SMG-managed convention facilities participating in SMG Green IMPACT, SMG Worldwide’s new corporate-wide greening program designed to help SMG-managed facilities initiate or further their greening best practices in the areas of waste, energy, water and air quality. Modeled after the APEX/ASTM standard and designed to complement LEED, the voluntary program was launched late last year with the intent to create consistency and uniformity across SMG’s 225 facilities in North America, including 68 convention centers, according to Arell, sustainability director and brainchild of SMG Green IMPACT.
“One of the areas of focus will be making sure all facilities are measuring the same thing and have the same best practices in place, so if an SMG facility says it has recycling, there’s a consistent way it will approach and track it,” says Arell. “So when planners go into an SMG facility and recognize the SMG Green IMPACT program, they will have an understanding of how comprehensive that sustainability program really is.”
Although choosing hotels that are LEED-certified is a great way to reduce the environmental impact of your meeting, LEED can be cost-prohibitive. “For hotels, it’s a different ballgame because LEED is a big investment, so if you’re a chain and you have 600 hotels, making them LEED certified is a daunting proposition,” says Pizzuti. “So I can understand why they’ve gone to a Green Seal certification, which is also a third-party, vetted program for hotels, but it’s a far less costly program than LEED.
Besides Green Seal, keep an eye out for third-party environmental certification through Green Key Global, Green Globe and Energy Star, as well as ISO 14001 certification, an internationally recognized standard for quality and environmental management. Many larger hotel brands have also developed their own internal greening and energy conservation programs, including Hilton Worldwide, Marriott International, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, Omni Hotels and Resorts, and Gaylord Hotels and Convention Centers.
“It’s important to realize not every hotel is going to adopt the same certification program or strive to meet consistent standards because there are so many options out there,” says Wendy Scott, national account manager of Experient, which provides green site selection services for events. “However, as time goes on, certain programs such as LEED and Green Seal have emerged as leaders and you become able to discern different certifications faster. Internal programs implemented within different hotel brands also offer some very solid private standards, which should also be taken into high consideration.”
But whether a venue or hotel has its own progressive programs, LEED or any other third-party certification, what matters most is that the provider is willing to work with planners to help achieve sustainable objectives.
“It’s a collaborative effort between a venue and a supplier and meeting planner,” says Witzenburg. “Here at the OCC, [sustainable practices are] just part of what we do in our standard operating procedures, so we don’t necessarily have an explicit checklist of sorts. There are clients that come in who maybe have their own ideas, but in many cases the things that they come in with aren’t necessarily going above and beyond anything that just comes naturally for us. [Planning a green meeting] works best when everyone is working on the same page together and customizing what needs to happen.”
Another way to make the green provider selection process easier is by choosing destinations in states with green tourism and lodging programs. Virginia Green, for example, is a comprehensive statewide program run through a partnership among the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Virginia Tourism Corporation, and Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association.
Designed to reduce the environmental impact of the tourism industry and raise environmental awareness, the six-year-old program now has more than 1,100 participants in its suppliers network, including convention and conference centers, restaurants, hotels, suppliers and certified Virginia Green events.
Tom Griffin, Virginia Green consultant, says in order to be involved in the free program, which includes a listing in its online database and meetings guide, participants must follow a set of core requirements and be able to prove they are making strides in recycling and energy and water conservation. For example, to be a Virginia Green-certified convention or conference center, a venue must follow set guidelines for recycling, minimizing disposable food service products, water efficiency, energy conservation and have the ability to support green meetings and events.
“Picking a destination in a state with a green program makes it easier for the planner doing a green event and saves them a lot of work,” says Griffin. “With Virginia, all you have to do is look for the green logo. Plus, you can certify your event as Virginia Green certified, which can be listed in our green events calendar.”
State green lodging programs are another resource for finding hotels that have made a commitment to conserving energy and resources. And although the number keeps growing, there are a myriad of states with green lodging programs, including California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, many of which offer certification programs. Although some critics may raise eyebrows at lodging programs that allow hotels to self-certify and audit their environmental performance to obtain and maintain certification, any environmental program is a good step in the right direction, says Scott.
“[These programs] play an important role in our work and often serve as a benchmark for our site selection process,” says Scott. “When we remember that very few programs even existed five years ago, the presence of statewide programs is a sign of the great interest and valuable outcomes a program such as these have for the economy and society.”
Until all the players and stakeholders in the green meetings industry are able to come together, follow more uniform standards and generate greater consistency across its many segments, it will be up to you to do your homework as you compare and contrast the various green programs and certifications permeating the industry. Although the APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards may make the navigation process a whole lot easier, planners should arm themselves with information, ask a lot of questions and, most importantly, stick to your guns about what matters to you and your organization. Whether you choose to only do business with the greenest of green or work to educate less informed providers and push them in a greener direction, remember that it is the meeting planner who has the most power to keep moving this industry forward in a more environmentally friendly and hopefully more consistent direction.