by Sarah J.F. Braley | October 01, 2013

Not so long ago, getting a hotel to divulge details about its sustainability practices (if there were any to begin with) was a tall order. Planners who wanted to hold green meetings had to do a lot of legwork to make sure bottles actually would be recycled and leftover food went to the right place. Today, however, hotels have gotten into the green game with a vengeance, seeking out certifications and following rigid standards to cut their environmental footprints and get the attention of green-minded planners.

Better yet, several certification programs now do the job of verifying properties' claims regarding conservation efforts. The newest challenge for planners: understanding what the various designations really mean and the extent to which they should influence site selection.

"While certifications are important, what I feel is more important is whether the hotel has integrated sustainability into their culture," says Amy Spatrisano of the Portland, Ore.-based MeetGreen planning firm (she and her business partner, Nancy Zavada, CMP, founded the Green Meetings Industry Council; "For example, do the bellman, front desk, banquet staff, housekeeping, restaurant staff, and sales and marketing teams know the hotel's commitment to sustainability? What does each department do toward that end?"

Spatrisano adds that certifications aren't designed to be a guarantee that sustainable practices will occur at your meeting. But a thumbs-up from one of the following entities is a great way to start the search for a facility whose sustainability objectives match those of environmentally conscious meeting hosts.

At present, three primary entities are building databases of green hotels: Green Key, Green Seal and the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) designations. Properties pay to participate in these programs, showing a certain level of commitment from the outset, and many hotels have earned more than one certification.

 Green Key
Developed in Canada, this cer­tification program for hotels is growing steadily in the Lower 48. Both Hyatt Hotels Corp. and Carlson Rezidor Americas (including the Radisson and Park Plaza brands) have partnered with Green Key for their North American properties. "Their reputation in Canada is outstanding," says Brenda Schultz, director of responsible business for Carlson, who evaluated several options before going with Green Key as the company's standard.

To earn a Green Key, a hotel's sustainability representative answers 160 questions in a self-audit, in return receiving a rating from one to five keys, along with an action plan for getting to the next level. The questionnaire assesses five main operational areas (corporate environmental management, housekeeping, F&B operations, conference and meeting facilities, and engineering) and nine sustainable practices (energy conservation, water conservation, solid-waste management, hazardous-waste management, indoor air quality, community outreach, building infrastructure, land use and environmental management).

Green Key randomly audits 20 percent of the hotels in its portfolio each year, and hotels must undergo recertification every two years.

Just 55 of the more than 3,000 hotels in the program have reached the five-star level, including the Hyatt Regency in Bellevue, Wash.; Fairmont Washington, D.C., Georgetown; and, in Las Vegas, the Aria Resort & Casino, Mandalay Bay and Bellagio.

Green Key also has a meetings program, developed with the MPI Foundation Canada. Starting with a hotel's key rating, the property is then evaluated in six meetings-related areas: core (carbon, energy, waste, water and air-quality practices), communications (information and training), activities (purchasing, auditing and community outreach), people, exhibitions and audiovisual. So far, a total of 77 properties have completed this assessment, with only six receiving the five-key rating for meetings. The four in the United States are in Las Vegas: the Aria Resort & Casino, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay and MGM Grand Las Vegas. Also, two hotels in Canada have five-key ratings for meetings -- the Solara Resort & Spa in Canmore, Alberta, and the Westin Ottawa.