Profiles in Sustainability

These associations demonstrate how large gatherings can be eco-friendly

How Cardboard Signage is Recycled

This YouTube video shows the process in action at the American institute of Architects' 2008 National Convention. Printing and recycling was provided by Boston-headquartered Champion Exposition Services ( 

1009 recycle iconMeeting planners have a big job on their hands when it comes to greening large conferences. Who handles it best? According to Tamara Kennedy-Hill, executive director of the Chicago-based Green Meetings Industry Council (, some of the greenest meetings currently held in North America are conducted by organizations such as the American Institute of Architects, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Canadian Medical Association.

What makes these groups exemplary? M&C spoke with the key planners for each of these associations' annual meetings (as well as of the GMIC's yearly sustainability conference) to find out specifically how they incorporate progressive, eco-friendly initiatives into their conferences and events. Their strategies will prove worthy of emulation by planners of all stripes.

American Institute of Architects
1009 AIA stationsThis prestigious 152-year-old organization held its 2009 National Convention from April 30 to May 2 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Chris Gribbs, AIA's managing director for conventions, supervises a team of four people who work full time on the mammoth show, which this year had more than 900 exhibitors and 22,400 registered attendees.

"Our national convention wasn't always green," says Gribbs. "But when we were in Las Vegas in 2005, the Green Meetings Industry Council came to look at us to see how we fared, and we got this ridiculously low score, something like 25 out of 300. As a result, we embraced an effort to change the way we do business going forward."

Since then, Gribbs and his team have worked diligently to transform the AIA National Convention into one of the country's greenest meetings.

One key gain has been in signage, which formerly was printed on traditional materials of foam board and vinyl, and now is done with cardboard. At first, Gribbs wasn't entirely happy with the composition and appearance of the new signs, but over time the quality has improved. "One thing that's cool," he notes, "is that we found a substrate of cardboard that has a white face," making it much more appealing to the eye.

Gribbs used to cover the rough edges of these signs with tape but later decided to keep them exposed, in order to better communicate the signs' more natural composition. At the close of the 2008 AIA National Convention, in Boston, Champion Exposition Services recycled all of the signs.

What's next? The biggest item on Gribbs' green wish list is achieving carbon neutrality for the convention. At the moment, attendees are encouraged to donate to groups that do carbon offsetting, but Gribbs does not track how many participate.

"Likewise, I haven't had great success thus far in soliciting offsets from our exhibitors," he says. "Though carbon offsetting can be expensive, I'd really like to accomplish this."

U.S. Green Building Council
1009 USGBCKimberly Lewis is the vice president and primary planner for the U.S. Green Building Council's annual Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, which last year drew some 28,000 attendees. The organization administers the United States' dominant green building certification system, LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design), which a growing number of hotels and convention centers are striving to achieve. Clearly, given its mission, Greenbuild must practice what the USGBC preaches.

This year's show will take place in Phoenix from Nov. 11–13. For Lewis, a critical element of her conference's greening effort is "getting a handle on the exhibit hall and how the booths are constructed." Last year's expo, held at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, featured some 800 booths, which are among the most environmentally taxing elements of a trade show. (For more information, download "An Inconvenient Booth," at

In an effort to get companies to exhibit in a more sustainable manner,
USGBC offers an exhibitors' award, judged on booth construction, energy efficiencies employed, environmentally responsible giveaways and more.

Exhibitors are given points for reusable booth features, as well as for fluorescent lighting and flooring that incorporates postconsumer content. Giveaways are judged on whether they contain recycled content and natural fibers, among other attributes.
In addition, exhibitors are encouraged to participate in a postshow donation and recycling program with local nonprofit partnerships, which have in the past included local schools, senior centers and job training agencies.

Points are awarded for donating leftover materials such as flooring, building and signage substrates, and office supplies. These points can then be used to claim a more desirable space on the show floor at the next year's conference.

Lewis also has been moving toward the inclusion of green contract language in exhibitor agreements. "In 2010, we will require certain baselines our exhibitors must meet," she says, "such as reducing printed materials by a certain percentage. If they can't, they will no longer be allowed to exhibit."

Canadian Medical Association
1009 CMAOne might not expect the annual meeting of the Ottawa, Ontario-based Canadian Medical Association to rate as one of the greenest gatherings, but it makes perfect sense to Sandra Wood, CMP, who plans the event. She notes that, as a health organization, greening aligns very well with the CMA's mission.

This year's event, held in mid-August in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, attracted 249 delegates who came for a business conclave, an awards presentation and various educational sessions. Such meetings are notoriously paper-driven, so one of Wood's proudest and biggest greening efforts has been in this realm.

"Cutting back on printing is a common greening measure, and we have done that," Wood says. "But we've chosen to go further and spend the money to put power access into our plenary session, so that anyone with a laptop can power up for the duration of the conference." The association also pays for Wi-Fi for all delegates.

These measures allow the CMA to e-mail and post on a conference website whatever information delegates will need, rather than, as Wood says, "running around and throwing lots of paper at them."

Cutting back on paper is not, however, exclusively a green initiative. "It also has to do with streamlining and being more efficient with our processes in general," says Wood. "There is a business benefit to our organization. It allows us to make last-minute changes to our documents and affords us wider distribution as well, since members not at the meeting can access them."

Wood keeps a wish list of other green initiatives that she tries to implement where possible. "I know there are things on my list that hotels and convention centers can't do," she says. "But, by asking, I am introducing them to new concepts and ways of doing things, which hopefully they can adopt in the future." (For examples, see "Wish List for Hotels and Venues".)

Indeed, notes Wood, a key to greening, for both planner and supplier, is to keep an open mind and maintain a willingness to question assumptions. "It does take time, and it requires paying attention to things that you have done automatically for many years," she says.

At this year's meeting, Wood did away with delegate bags entirely. "We've never done that before, but we asked our attendees last year if we could get rid of pens and bags, and 70 percent said yes."

This points toward a helpful green adage: "When in doubt, reduce," Wood advises. "I may not have time to research whether or not a bag is produced sustainably, but if I can do without it, why produce it? There can be issues with reusing and recyling, but if you reduce consumption in the first place, there is no flaw in that."

Green Meetings Industry Council
If any association has to walk the talk with its annual meeting, it's the Green Meetings Industry Council. That's why GMIC hires MeetGreen, a Portland, Ore.-based producer of green conferences and events, to plan its Annual Sustainable Meetings Conference, last held Feb. 24–26 in Pittsburgh at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. (The 2010 show will be held Feb. 9–11 at Denver's Colorado Conference Center.)

Mary Peters, the MeetGreen project manager who plans GMIC's conference, acknowledges that the bar is set high. "You can't get anything past our attendees," she says. "They really look at everything with a magnifying glass."

This provides Peters with an opportunity to undertake initiatives other associations might not attempt, such as making the main daily meal (lunch) vegetarian.

"We do get some negative feedback, like, 'I want meat and potatoes!' " says Peters. But for the most part, attendees seem to welcome the change. Peters notes, "I've had people tell me, 'I can't believe you did a conference that didn't have chicken -- thank you!' "

GMIC also tries to use local and seasonal foods wherever possible. This is sometimes more of a challenge for GMIC than other associations, simply because its conference is in the dead of winter. "But that just goes to show that if we can accomplish this in February in Pittsburgh, anyone should be able to," says Peters.

Conference chefs also enjoy vegetarian meals because they get to be more creative. Last year, one lunch featured eggplant Wellington; another was mushroom ravioli, made with locally grown mushrooms.

Beyond being green, vegetarian meals can save money. Quite simply, says Peters, "mushrooms and eggplant are cheaper. If we had served beef Wellington, the meal could have cost $28 to $40 a plate, vs. $25 for the eggplant."

Another eco-concious cost-cutter: The keynote speaker for this year's event in Pittsburgh appeared via videoconference, thus eliminating expenses for transportation and accommodations. Audience response to this was mostly positive. In fact, Peters received feedback expressing admiration for GMIC for practicing what it preaches. "It was a good way for us to incorporate something sustainable into the meeting while also proving you can save money at the same time," she notes.

Incorporating videoconferencing in a physical show -- apart from being a green measure -- actually can be a boon to a meeting's programming, Peters adds, by allowing speakers who might not have been able to physically attend the conference to address the group.

GMIC also selects its conference site based on whether the convention center, host hotels and catering companies are willing to sign a sustainability clause as part of the contract.


Wish List for Hotels and Venues

Whenever Sandra Wood, CMP, begins planning a new event, she turns to her green wish list. For Wood, manager for the annual meeting of the Canadian Medical Association, it's just what it sounds like: a long list of eco-conscious measures that she presents to hotels and meeting venues.

The list is broken down into several categories, from guest room services to F&B. While some of the items already are close to becoming standard operating procedure, others are still out of the question for many properties. Still, Wood maintains, it's smart to ask. "Whether or not you can accomplish everything," she notes, "rest assured that by asking the question you are sending a message and helping to create demand for these practices."

Planners must be patient and work closely with the hotel or venue, especially the convention services manager. "Don't let the responsibility of delivering a green event fall upon the shoulders of the CSM alone," Wood says. "You will need to help them, provide them with sources for green products and simply share your general knowledge and experience with them."

Following are excerpts from Wood's wish list.

Guest Rooms

  • Front desk staff will ask guests at check-in whether or not they want newspaper delivery.
  • Housekeeping will not turn on the radio or leave lights on after turndown service.
  • Sample signatures of persons authorized to approve charges for the master account
  • An updated reservation list

Meeting Space

  • Throughout the meeting space, provide clearly labeled and easily located recycling bins for paper, plastics, metals and glass.
  • Offer free parking or a parking discount to hybrid vehicles.
  • Coat check station will use reusable plastic coat check tickets instead of disposable paper tickets.
  • Presenters will use whiteboards instead of flipcharts. Or, if flipcharts are needed, use paper pads sourced from post-consumer content.


  • Uneaten food will be given to hotel staff and/or donated to a local food bank. Leftovers not suitable for use will be composted.
  • Frying oil will be recycled or used for biodiesel to fuel the hotel's lawn-service equipment.
  • If the hotel or restaurant uses local produce, indicate the origin of these ingredients on the menu so attendees will know that their food has been sourced locally.
  • For water service during a plated meal, use pitchers and allow attendees to refill their own glasses if desired.

CSR/Carbon Offsetting

  • The hotel will donate unneeded furniture, linens, towels and other supplies to suitable charities.
  • The hotel will purchase green power or carbon offsetting.