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by Sarah J.F. Braley | October 01, 2012
Green or Groan? A Cautionary Tale

An M&C reader, who asked not to be named, recently ran a four-day conference for 850 people at a new facility that touted its green elements, including a rainwater system for flushing the toilets. "It sounds like a great idea -- until the toilets don't flush and they are controlled by a computer system that no one knows how to work," she says. "The lights also were controlled by computers, and they could not get the lights to quit going from high to low. Never assume that someone knows how to use all the new state-of-the-art technologies."

Here are some questions she wishes she had asked beforehand:

• Does someone on staff know how to fix the computer that controls the toilets, lights, etc.?

• Will that staff member be on-site during my entire conference?

• How often have you had issues with the new technology, and what types of issues have you
experienced?

• Is there a way to fix the problem manually or to override the computer system, and who knows how to do that?

• If the rainwater system goes down, is there a backup system for the bathrooms? If that doesn't work, how long would it take for someone to get to the facility to fix the problem?

The ultimate lesson: Don't just ask what green practices a facility has in place; ask how they are maintained.

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Little by little, meeting by meeting, eco-friendly practices have been put in place by planners for Symantec, the technology company that helps consumers and organizations secure and manage their information. Some use china instead of disposable dishes; others donate leftover food. Gradually, such efforts are becoming more standardized among the company's more than 150 annual meetings.

"I don't think we've done anything super out of the ordinary," says Karen Zunkowski, director of marketing events at the company's Lindon, Utah, office. "But we've noticed that our sustainability efforts have melded with our philanthropic efforts. When we do something greener, we also end up helping the community. Leaving the destination better than when we came has been our underlying goal."

Those results have encouraged Symantec to go ever greener. The planning team is now discussing composting and considering more eco-friendly transportation options. "We don't have a general policy," says Zunkowski. "It's been one of those unwritten, understood things for our group. We are now documenting an internal checklist so we can be more in compliance with the industry." The plan, for now, is to become continually greener, in manageable increments.

That's a smart approach, industry sources agree. Small initial steps are easy to implement, and from there efforts can be intensified. Following is a look at how to jump into the greening process at any point, from elementary efforts to world-class examples in sustainability.

A Hint of Green
Shawna McKinley
"Start with the low-hanging fruit, the easy wins," suggests Shawna McKinley, director of sustainability for MeetGreen, the independent planning firm whose principals, Amy Spatrisano, CMP, and Nancy Zavada, CMP, founded the Green Meetings Industry Council, an organization of suppliers and planners that hosts an annual conference offering education and best practices. These efforts can be informal, similar to Symantec's approach. "In 2007, we started hearing the green buzz," says David Hunt, vice president of global events for Symantec, whose team handles 50 to 60 events each year and is responsible for the company's most high-profile gatherings. "That's when we started wondering, what can we do? How can we minimize our footprint but still maintain a good experience for our attendees and make business sense?"

The company started with reducing water bottles, providing reusable ones alongside the expected plastic bottles. Within two years the bottled water was gone, and Symantec's planners now routinely work with their hotel partners to supply filtered water along with sustainable cups.

Notes McKinley, "These small efforts are going to save you money or are cost-neutral, and they don't cause any pain to attendees." Following are her suggestions for basic elements every meeting can -- and should -- implement.

• Provide water from coolers and pitchers.

• Provide recycling bins for cans and bottles.

• Post meeting materials online.

• Turn off lights in empty meeting rooms.

• Don't pre-plate or pre-pour F&B.

• Eliminate saucers for cups; use mugs instead.

• Collect and reuse name badges.

• Provide paper and pens in meeting rooms on request only.

• Change any one-time-use foamcore event signs to cardboard-based signs.

• Provide attendees with green travel tips before the event (see "Be Gentle, Travelers,").

• Provide a carbon-offset choice in the registration process.