by Brendan M. Lynch | March 01, 2007

illustration“Goodness is the only investment that never fails,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, his ode to nature and self-reliance. It seems that, both personally and professionally, many meeting planners seem to get what Thoreau was talking about back in 1854.

For instance, at an education session on producing “green” events at the recent annual meeting of the Professional Convention Management Association in Toronto, a standing-room-only group of planners was asked what compelled them to attend a workshop on reducing waste and being better environmental stewards. Were they attending due to their organizations’ mission? Three hands were raised.

Who was there because their organizations’ competitors were going green, and they wanted to keep pace? Five or six hands went up.

Which planners were in the room because they felt personal passion for protecting the environment? Nearly everyone in attendance suddenly raised their hands in unison. There was astonished laughter as planners in the room realized their shared desire to bring about change for the better with their professional lives.

Indeed, organizers of the estimated 1.2 million meetings, conventions and exhibitions held each year are in an ideal position to invest in “goodness” as primary decision makers in the hospitality and travel industry. And imagine the social, philanthropic and environmental impact of planners who together pour some $107 billion into the U.S. economy each year. (Figures are from M&C’s 2006 Meetings Market Report).

“Planners don’t understand exactly how powerful their dollars are, or how hyper-competitive the meetings and conventions industry is, or how much hotels, suppliers and destinations are competing for their business,” says Jason Ortiz, director of strategic initiatives for the Washington, D.C.-based Informed Meetings Exchange. “Planners do, in fact, have a lot of power and leverage. If your dollars are sent to companies you’re happy with, those that behave responsibly, then those companies are more likely to continue that behavior.”

Aside from the power of planners’ spending, there’s a viral quality to their efforts: By shaping the experience of the estimated 136.5 million people who attend a meeting or convention each year, planners can raise awareness of poverty and hunger, inspire more volunteerism or motivate people to demand environmental responsibility on a mass scale.

This ethical-minded approach to planning can be incorporated into all aspects of an event, so that the decisions a meeting planner makes are in line with his or her desire to do good.

Worthy destinations

Where and when planners decide to hold an event influences economies and the consciousness of participants. Besides eyeing the dollar value of a destination and gauging which location would prove most attractive to attendees, planners can choose to place their meetings in destinations that are in dire need of business or are environmentally responsible.

For instance, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005, groups such as the National Association of Realtors and the Air & Waste Management Association have booked major events in New Orleans and affected areas of the Gulf Coast, intentionally giving vital support to these devastated communities. Additionally, New Orleans and its battered environs offer groups a meaningful platform for volunteerism.

“Every client is seeing opportunities related to their field or expertise, or things that have a real need,” says Stephen J. Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Maritz had their meeting and committed to relandscaping a city park. The American Library Association has been refurbishing libraries. A lot of associations and corporations are realizing they have great opportunities for branding and community participation that are very good for their organizations.” (A listing of volunteer needs in New Orleans is available at

Other destinations might appeal to planners because of their reputation as environmental stewards. Pittsburgh and Portland, Ore., for example, have the only two U.S. convention centers that are LEED-certified (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) by the U.S. Green Building Council, the most stringent environmental certification offered. Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center is the world’s largest green building, using skylights, glass walls and natural ventilation to provide light and heat, and with a water-reclamation system that reduces potable water use by 60 percent. Other features, such as sensors that determine levels of occupancy per time of day, allow the facility to allocate energy in smarter ways.

For its part, Portland “has always had a green reputation,” notes Michael Smith, vice president of sales with the Portland Oregon Visitors Association. “The city has done garbage recycling, green roofs, you name it. Our green approach, to be honest, started out as a marketing strategy, but it has turned into a passion. It’s hard not to get personally involved once you learn what’s at stake.”

Indeed, the POVA itself practices what it promotes. The bureau’s printed materials are made with recycled paper and soy-based ink; its website is partially powered by renewable energy, and it has established a “green team” that meets once a month to optimize the bureau’s environmental efforts.

SustainLane, an organization based in San Francisco that sets sustainability benchmarks for city governments, provides an online ranking of green cities at