by Tom Isler | August 01, 2006

If Julie Rawson doesn’t do everything within her power to make her meetings green, she’s in trouble. The Barre, Mass.-based executive coordinator of the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association says her members tend to get “belligerent about that type of stuff.”

Rawson tries to be as accommodating as possible. “People want to do everything in an earth-friendly way,” she explains. Her members are always on the lookout to make sure “we walk our talk,” she says.

Such strides can be expensive, however. While more green options are becoming available, not all of them are affordable. Add small staffs and a lack of knowledge of environmentally sound practices, and very quickly green meetings can seem dauntingly elusive.

Still, planners who manage to practice what their associations preach are finding that some green practices are worth the extra money they might cost, other measures are easy and cost-free to implement, and a few even save associations money.

Site selection

For Pam Nicholls, training and conferences manager for the Washington D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance, limiting the negative environmental impact of meetings begins with site selection -- and that means more than choosing a hotel with a great recycling program. “We have to have an urban location rather than a suburban location,” she says. Her reasons? Attendees have mass-transit options to get to and around the city, and, once there, they often can walk to restaurants and entertainment venues, eliminating the need for rental cars or buses.

Becky Campbell-HoweWhile planners agree that booking green-certified hotels or convention centers would be ideal, the scarcity of such properties and the sheer size of some meetings makes it nearly impossible to do so, says Becky Campbell-Howe, right, director of operations for the Boulder, Colo.-based American Solar Energy Society.

To win the business of the Design Futures Council, which organizes the annual Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design, a hotel must “at least offer the basics,” says Susan Boling, managing director of the Norcross, Ga.-based association. Those basics include not changing sheets and towels every day, using energy-saving light bulbs and water-conserving devices such as low-flow toilets or efficient shower heads, and having some kind of recycling program.

Other measures require a little time and elbow grease but don’t hurt the budget -- and might help hotels or convention centers save money.

Nicholls, for example, will instruct hotel employees (and her attendees) to make sure they turn down the air conditioners during the day or, in the winter, open up window blinds in order for natural daylight to help heat the room.

Rebecca Mebane, director of conferences and meetings for the National Recycling Coalition, based in Washington, D.C., will help hotels set up an effective recycling program if they do not already have one in place.

Though Mebane prefers to use her meeting dollars to support environmentally conscious businesses and cities, she says sometimes going somewhere else actually can do the most good. For her, “the question is: Do we only go to cities that have recycling, or is it a good thing to go to other cities where we can show them how recycling programs work?”