20 Budget-Friendly Ways to Go Green

Most planners are fully in favor of greener meetings - as long as they're not more expensive. Who would say no to reducing their meeting's footprint and saving some money? 

There are plenty of ways to hold budget- and earth-friendly events. "I tell our clients that going green is either cost-neutral or a cost savings," says Nancy J. Zavada, CMP, left, of the sustainable-minded independent planning firm MeetGreen in Portland, Ore. 

Since 2008, MeetGreen has saved its clients some $6.8 million by using smart sustainability practices. "Our first strategy was to discontinue the use of individual water bottles, which saved $5 to $7 a bottle at most venues," Zavada says.

As the movement has caught on, costs for sustainability have steadily decreased 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 too much about it, as earth-saving practices already are firmly in place. In such facilities, there should be no extra cost to choose sustainability.

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

1. Toss the bottles. Nobody has to remember to recycle plastic bottles if they're not being offered at the meeting. Keep an eye on the extra charges for putting out water pitchers or water coolers, however. "We have been successful in negotiating this out, especially if we use large water coolers in the meeting rooms," says Zavada. "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. Try going paperless. Tossing the conference program and using event apps is a great way to cut costs. Put handouts, slides, abstracts and more online, and unplug the printer.

3. Watch who grabs the program. If you still feel the need to print the program, scan the badges of the attendees who request one, and compare that number with the amount of programs on hand to learn how many you really need. This might even show that you can go fully digital with the conference app. 

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, as in No. 3, above, have attendees scan their badges when they receive a bag, for an accurate count of demand. 

5. Swag not. When you attend a conference, how often is there a giveaway you really want to take home? If there's no registration bag, don't replace it with some other item, thus saving space in suitcases and landfills.

6. Go partly organic. Using organic ingredients for meals is less expensive than it used to be, but it still can be a cost. It doesn't need to be all or nothing, though. "We've been able to negotiate 30 percent organic into our contracts without raising costs," Zavada notes. 

7. Add more veggies. Many planners are going meatless for at least one meal during multiday conferences, as keeping the meat off the menu cuts costs. Take advantage of national trends, such as Meatless Monday.

8. Source locally. This move can be used for food as well as other meeting supplies. Getting them nearby cuts shipping costs and helps the bottom line. 

9. Be flexible with food. Having a good relationship with your venue's chef or your caterer helps your bottom line when an ingredient you wanted is unavailable. Add something local that fits the bill.

10. Seek out local speakers. Hiring speakers and entertainers who live near your destination or are in town at another event not only saves transportation dollars, it also cuts down on the event's carbon footprint.

11. Cut the emissions. If you are contracting with more than one hotel, use only properties within walking distance of the conference site to save on shuttle costs and the use of buses. Also find off-site venues a short stroll away so a majority of attendees can arrive on foot.

12. Find local logo printers. Logoed items can be ordered from companies in or near the meeting location, saving on shipping. 

13. Borrow locally. Recalls Zavada, "We needed folding easels for one event. Instead of buying and shipping them, we looked for an art school and used some of theirs. When the meeting returned the next year, we borrowed them all over again, and still do." 

14. Donate extras. Once an event is done, leftover items, office supplies and more can be donated to local schools and shelters to save shipping them back to the home office. Bonus: The donation doubles as a tax write-off. At the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, exhibition organizers give leftover supplies to its "reclaim room," and local teachers come in and shop the contents.

15. Minimize your entourage. You can hire locally as well as source that way. For instance, says Zavada, "If you travel with an A/V company, bring the lead technician and have him/her hire a local team to save on airfares and hotels."

16. Raid the closet. Many hotels have a hidden storage room full of leftover décor items. Search it out during the early planning stages to discover ready-made themes or colorful accent pieces just waiting to be reused.

17. Rethink the centerpiece. "I ask what type of decorations hotels have for centerpieces and buffet displays," says Zavada. "They traditionally have both that they reuse, saving the environment and money. My favorite centerpiece is a simple bowl of fruit, with the bowl supplied by the hotel or caterer. The fruit can be eaten by attendees, although it rarely is, and the remainder is donated to local shelters."

18. Use evergreen signage. Keep themed or dated materials to a minimum. One-time-use signs - those specific to a show and its venue - can be themed to the max. But any sign that could be brought to your event next year should have just your logo, so it can be used again. Zavada notes you also can ask to use the venue's electronic displays as directional signs during the event.

19. Order fewer, smarter signs. Do you really need the number of signs you've "always" ordered? Evaluate how many you actually use, and use a cardboard-based, recyclable substrate, which has become more cost-effective, instead of foam core. 

20. Seek sponsors. If your event allows for it, get sponsors to underwrite your sustainable initiatives. Sponsors love to be seen as good corporate citizens.