by By Kaylee Hultgren | October 01, 2009

1009 PiggybankGoing green, and the fundamental retooling it often requires, has never been wholly synonymous with saving some green. So meeting planners might be forgiven if, in the current economic climate, they put their dreams of eco-responsibility on hold.

But they shouldn't.

"The first thing I hear from planners when they approach us is their belief that going green will cost more," says Tamara Kennedy-Hill, executive director of the Chicago-based Green Meeting Industry Council. "Yet in practice, it can be very cost effective."

Whether through reducing printed materials, choosing walkable cities or working with chefs to craft less expensive, seasonal menus, there are plenty of ways to go green, or at least greener, even on a tight budget.

Shawna McKinley, project manager for Portland, Ore.-based planning company MeetGreen, says an increasing number of her clients are looking to make meetings more eco-friendly specifically in order to save money. "There is a growing sense that it can be economical," she says. "Some sustainable meeting measures save, some cost more and many are cost-neutral. Overall, you have to see how you can balance the bottom line."

The key, according to Kennedy-Hill, is to document the return on investment of green practices. "We're not an industry that is good about tracking costs. But once we do start tracking and see the savings, we can reinvest," she says.

What follows are just some of the myriad meeting components that can be made greener without busting (and sometimes even boosting) the budget.


1009 GREEN corn cupsAsk for changes. When Krista Rakovan, director of conferences and events for the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, brought the Animal Care Expo 2009 to Bally's Las Vegas, one eco-friendly initiative was achieved by asking the casino-hotel to avoid using plastic cups for group functions. In response, the property purchased biodegradable, corn-based plastic cups for the group and even ventured to make the switch permanent. According to Eric Weisberg, director of catering and conference services at the hotel, soon after the event, parent company Harrah's Entertainment Inc. began the process of replacing plastic cups with biodegradable cups at all of its Las Vegas properties. "We've also looked into using smaller cups for coffee breaks, which would save on water consumption as well," Weisberg says.

Planners can ask hotels for other green items or actions, notes Rakovan, such as on-site recycling, serving food-and-beverage in bulk where possible and eliminating bottled drinks. All it takes is a little planning. "I simply ask our convention services manager if it's possible to provide something biodegradable and/or compostable, rather than plastic," she says. "Nothing complicated."

Hotels are becoming more amenable to such requests. This past May, for example, when the British Columbia Recycling Council held its annual conference at the Canadian province's Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the group requested that the property refrain from turning on guest room air conditioners prior to arrival, and that the staff deliver newspapers to guest rooms only upon request. Not surprisingly, the hotel was happy to comply with these labor- and cost-saving measures.

Other properties are initiating their own green programs. The Sheraton Seattle, for example, recently began offering sustainably grown food at meetings. "We're seeing more and more planners requesting information on our green efforts," says Scott Marshall, director of engineering and chairperson of the hotel's Green Team, "and many clients are thrilled to see our passion and dedication to this initiative." (For pointers on other green measures to request, see "Wish List for Hotels and Venues," a sidebar to the companion article, "Profiles in Sustainability.")

Food and beverage

Look for substitutes. Cost savings in the F&B realm can be significant, particularly for large-scale meetings. For example, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft im­plemented a sustainable meeting program 18 months ago, one aspect of which entailed replacing individual plastic water bottles with water coolers.

Microsoft senior event marketing manager Gina Broel, who heads the company's corporate events team for meetings ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 people, says the water strategy saved about $50,000 for one recent event alone, and about $500,000 in total since the program began.

Similarly, "Instead of individual packets, make condiments available in bowls or dispensers," says Lisa Burton, CMP, vice president of the Atlanta-based planning firm Meeting Expectations.

Take the local. Another way to save is to work with chefs to create menus. According to Kim Boriin, senior event marketing specialist at New York City-based Guardian Investor Services LLC and education director for the Chicago-based Financial and Insurance Conference Planners association, local and seasonal foods tend to be less expensive. Vegetarian items are cheaper as well, so consider serving vegetarian meals one-third of the time. "It gives the culinary team a new way to be creative," Boriin notes. "The choice to serve vegetarian meals lightens the carbon footprint, since animal proteins take an appreciably larger amount of energy to produce." Of course, using local goods also helps the environment by limiting transportation of food items.

1009 GREEN organic foodIf need be, start small. An option for groups just beginning to tread a greener path is to implement sustainable practices on a modest scale. For example, serving organic food at an event is the greener choice, but it's likely to be expensive. Kennedy-Hill suggests thinking about percentages: "You might be able to make 20 percent of the food and beverage organic at a cost-neutral price. Chefs and hotels often are willing to work with you." Or, the money saved from other green initiatives could go toward buying organic. Ask caterers for their suggestions in this realm.

Be creative. Dominic Phillips, founder of San Francisco-based Dominic Phillips Event Marketing, which specializes in producing zero-waste events, offers other tips for greening F&B without accumulating extra costs, such as asking attendees at a wine-tasting event to use only one glass for all wine varieties (and rinse it at the tasting station between vintages) and let crackers serve as food transfers, as a replacement for small plates.

"There are two things we can no longer say about sustainability: We don't know enough, and it's too expensive," asserts Phillips. "There are some beautiful tableware products out there made of materials such as bamboo, sugar cane and compressed palm leaves. They are more expensive at the moment, just as products made of recycled materials were five years ago. But give it a couple of years -- the public is moving the industry in the right direction, and soon those products will be affordable."