by Sarah J.F. Braley | October 01, 2014
Most planners are fully in favor of greener meetings -- as long as they're not more expensive. In fact, 74 percent of the 161 respondents to an M&C poll on the topic said they rarely or never implement green meeting elements that require additional cost. (See full survey results at
But there are plenty of ways to hold greener events on the cheap. "I tell our clients that going green is either cost-neutral or a cost savings," says Nancy J. Zavada, CMP, of the independent planning firm MeetGreen in Portland, Ore.

Since 2008, MeetGreen has saved its clients some $5.3 million in the course of going green, by implementing smart sustainability practices. "We saved money right from the start," Zavada says. "Our first strategy was to discontinue the use of individual water bottles, which saved $3 to $5 a bottle at most venues."

In the past 10 years or so as the movement has caught on, costs for sustainability have been steadily decreasing as venues have implemented robust waste-management programs, installed solar panels and more. Planners who choose LEED-certified hotels and facilities can go green without having to think about waste streams, recycling or extra costs, as earth-saving practices already are firmly in place.

"Selecting a hotel or center that takes sustainability seriously means your event benefits and hopefully saves money doing so," says Cara Unterkofler, director of sustainable event programs for the Greenview planning firm, based in Washington, D.C. "For example, at the Dallas Convention Center [as of spring 2014] landfill waste is charged to organizers, while recycling is handled at no charge. You are encouraged to save money thanks to your venue's smart practices."

Following are 20 specific ways to go green without any added cost.

1. Be water-wise. Many hotels and convention centers now won't even offer water bottles unless the meeting host demands them. But some planners are being charged for water pitchers and water coolers. "We have been successful in negotiating this out, especially if we use large water coolers in the meeting rooms," says Zavada. "But planners should definitely be aware that this new green 'revenue stream' is on the uptick. Make sure to address it during negotiations so there are no surprises." (This, of course, is good advice for all sustainable elements in your contract.)

2. Don't print the program. "Going all-the-way paperless with an online app is a great way to save," says Kate Hurst, director of Greenbuild conference and events for the U.S. Green Building Council, which administers the LEED program. The Greenbuild International Conference and Expo brought more than 23,000 attendees to Philadelphia last year and achieved a 66 percent waste diversion rate for the event. "There's even a number of free apps you can use" to offer online programs, Hurst adds. "For one of our smaller meetings we used one that everybody loved, called Yapp."

3. Count the paper lovers. At a recent meeting of the Specialty Foods Association, attendees were asked to scan their badges in order to receive the program, allowing the organization to track how many people needed the paper version. Organizers discovered they had printed twice as many as they needed, as attendees were using the conference app and didn't need the book.

4. Bag the conference bag. Many meetings have eliminated bags altogether with great success. If you're not sure your group is ready to give them up, conduct a similar experiment to that described in No. 3, above. Have attendees scan their badges when they receive a bag, for an accurate count of demand.

5. Go swag-free. When there's no registration bag, planners shouldn't feel the need to replace it with some other giveaway, says Zavada. "It's as if planners feel guilty for giving away any extra swag nowadays."

6. Go partly organic. Aiming for 100 percent organic ingredients will be expensive, but it doesn't need to be all or nothing. "We've been able to negotiate 30 percent organic into our contracts without raising costs," says Zavada.

7. Add more veggies. "Another way to save is to go heavier on vegetables, perhaps even to serve an all-vegetarian meal at lunch, such as beggars pockets with lentils," Zavada suggests. "Go meet with the chefs early; they will work with you, and it always saves money."

8. Source locally. Liz Neumark, chief executive officer of Great Performances, the exclusive caterer for several New York City venues, has been a proponent of sustainable food for years, even going so far as to buy a six-acre farm in upstate New York in 2006 to grow her own ingredients. Great Performances has partnered with hotel-management company Delaware North to create CPS Events at Manhattan's iconic Plaza Hotel, from which a concept for meals has grown, called the 100-Mile Menu, based on ingredients grown within that distance.

9. Highlight a meal. If organic and/or local food items prove to be cost-prohibitive, Neumark suggests picking a special meal or a dish to raise awareness, such as organic hors d'oeuvres, a specialty salad or a sustainable entrée choice.

"Take away barriers; it doesn't have to be all or nothing," Neumark says. "With every item that has a sustainable pedigree, we put something in front of people that will resonate. We are planting seeds."

10. Allow for changes.
 "Being flexible with your menu can help with the cost," notes Greenbuild's Kate Hurst. "Maybe something happened with a vegetable that you had planned to use, but the venue has something else that's local and available. That's the kind of conversation we have all the time."