Going green, and the fundamental retooling it often requires, has never been wholly synonymous with saving some green. So meeting planners might be forgiven if, in the current economic climate, they put their dreams of eco-responsibility on hold.
But they shouldn't.
"The first thing I hear from planners when they approach us is their belief that going green will cost more," says Tamara Kennedy-Hill, executive director of the Chicago-based Green Meeting Industry Council. "Yet in practice, it can be very cost effective."
Whether through reducing printed materials, choosing walkable cities or working with chefs to craft less expensive, seasonal menus, there are plenty of ways to go green, or at least greener, even on a tight budget.
Shawna McKinley, project manager for Portland, Ore.-based planning company MeetGreen, says an increasing number of her clients are looking to make meetings more eco-friendly specifically in order to save money. "There is a growing sense that it can be economical," she says. "Some sustainable meeting measures save, some cost more and many are cost-neutral. Overall, you have to see how you can balance the bottom line."
The key, according to Kennedy-Hill, is to document the return on investment of green practices. "We're not an industry that is good about tracking costs. But once we do start tracking and see the savings, we can reinvest," she says.
What follows are just some of the myriad meeting components that can be made greener without busting (and sometimes even boosting) the budget.
Ask for changes. When Krista Rakovan, director of conferences and events for the Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society of the United States, brought the Animal Care Expo 2009 to Bally's Las Vegas, one eco-friendly initiative was achieved by asking the casino-hotel to avoid using plastic cups for group functions. In response, the property purchased biodegradable, corn-based plastic cups for the group and even ventured to make the switch permanent. According to Eric Weisberg, director of catering and conference services at the hotel, soon after the event, parent company Harrah's Entertainment Inc. began the process of replacing plastic cups with biodegradable cups at all of its Las Vegas properties. "We've also looked into using smaller cups for coffee breaks, which would save on water consumption as well," Weisberg says.
Planners can ask hotels for other green items or actions, notes Rakovan, such as on-site recycling, serving food-and-beverage in bulk where possible and eliminating bottled drinks. All it takes is a little planning. "I simply ask our convention services manager if it's possible to provide something biodegradable and/or compostable, rather than plastic," she says. "Nothing complicated."
Hotels are becoming more amenable to such requests. This past May, for example, when the British Columbia Recycling Council held its annual conference at the Canadian province's Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the group requested that the property refrain from turning on guest room air conditioners prior to arrival, and that the staff deliver newspapers to guest rooms only upon request. Not surprisingly, the hotel was happy to comply with these labor- and cost-saving measures.
Other properties are initiating their own green programs. The Sheraton Seattle, for example, recently began offering sustainably grown food at meetings. "We're seeing more and more planners requesting information on our green efforts," says Scott Marshall, director of engineering and chairperson of the hotel's Green Team, "and many clients are thrilled to see our passion and dedication to this initiative." (For pointers on other green measures to request, see "Wish List for Hotels and Venues," a sidebar to the companion article, "Profiles in Sustainability.")
Food and beverage
Look for substitutes. Cost savings in the F&B realm can be significant, particularly for large-scale meetings. For example, Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft implemented a sustainable meeting program 18 months ago, one aspect of which entailed replacing individual plastic water bottles with water coolers.
Microsoft senior event marketing manager Gina Broel, who heads the company's corporate events team for meetings ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 people, says the water strategy saved about $50,000 for one recent event alone, and about $500,000 in total since the program began.
Similarly, "Instead of individual packets, make condiments available in bowls or dispensers," says Lisa Burton, CMP, vice president of the Atlanta-based planning firm Meeting Expectations.
Take the local. Another way to save is to work with chefs to create menus. According to Kim Boriin, senior event marketing specialist at New York City-based Guardian Investor Services LLC and education director for the Chicago-based Financial and Insurance Conference Planners association, local and seasonal foods tend to be less expensive. Vegetarian items are cheaper as well, so consider serving vegetarian meals one-third of the time. "It gives the culinary team a new way to be creative," Boriin notes. "The choice to serve vegetarian meals lightens the carbon footprint, since animal proteins take an appreciably larger amount of energy to produce." Of course, using local goods also helps the environment by limiting transportation of food items.
If need be, start small. An option for groups just beginning to tread a greener path is to implement sustainable practices on a modest scale. For example, serving organic food at an event is the greener choice, but it's likely to be expensive. Kennedy-Hill suggests thinking about percentages: "You might be able to make 20 percent of the food and beverage organic at a cost-neutral price. Chefs and hotels often are willing to work with you." Or, the money saved from other green initiatives could go toward buying organic. Ask caterers for their suggestions in this realm.
Be creative. Dominic Phillips, founder of San Francisco-based Dominic Phillips Event Marketing, which specializes in producing zero-waste events, offers other tips for greening F&B without accumulating extra costs, such as asking attendees at a wine-tasting event to use only one glass for all wine varieties (and rinse it at the tasting station between vintages) and let crackers serve as food transfers, as a replacement for small plates.
"There are two things we can no longer say about sustainability: We don't know enough, and it's too expensive," asserts Phillips. "There are some beautiful tableware products out there made of materials such as bamboo, sugar cane and compressed palm leaves. They are more expensive at the moment, just as products made of recycled materials were five years ago. But give it a couple of years -- the public is moving the industry in the right direction, and soon those products will be affordable."
5 Keys to Attendee Buy-In
How can you get attendees on board with sustainable initiatives? Following is some advice from experts.
1. Define the host's business objectives. "Every group is different," notes Shawna McKinley, project manager for Portland, Ore.-based MeetGreen. "Some have more ecological goals, while others have more social or economic objectives."
2. Consider attendees' objectives. "Tune in to their needs," says McKinley. For example, the National Recycling Coalition's green program naturally focuses on recyclables and diverting waste, while the Humane Society of the United States makes vegan food and beverage top priority.
3. Market your efforts. "Put details about the green initiative in your welcome letter, mention it during the conference. Promote it everywhere you can," advises Tamara Kennedy-Hill, executive director of the Green Meetings Industry Council.
4. Get attendees involved. Krista Rakovan, director of conferences and events for the Humane Society, distributes Green Hotel Initiative Guest Request Cards prior to check-in. The cards allow attendees to indicate preferences for practices such as linen reuse and energy conservation.
5. Engage attendees on-site. At OpenWorld 2009, the annual conference of business software giant Oracle, a "pedal power" station allowed guests to recharge their personal gadgets; about 15 minutes of pedaling generated enough energy to power a cell phone for five hours.
Look close to home. When it comes to beautifying an event, be sure to check where those floral arrangements are coming from. "Some florists will fly flowers in from overseas, which makes them more expensive and adds to your event's carbon footprint," says Jamie Nack, president of Santa Monica, Calif.-based environmental consulting firm Three Squares Inc. "Try to work with local shops, or use bamboo as a centerpiece." After the event, Nack suggests, "raffle off the plants to guests or give them to staff."
Try edible. Planners could forgo flowers entirely. Swissôtel Chicago's director of catering, Budi Tanzil, recommends using edible centerpieces. "They're fun, and they provide a treat for attendees," he says. "Try bowls of colorful fruits and candies, or cookie bouquets."
Dominic Phillips likes to adorn tables with baskets filled with fruit or flatbread. He also creates centerpieces using old medicine bottles or pails to hold green décor, and he suggests scouring a local farmer's market or even local parks for all-natural embellishments. "Leaves and bark often are beautiful additions," he notes.
Seek donations. "Always ask vendors if they can donate sustainable products," says Krista Rakovan of The Humane Society. She stocks goodie bags -- totes made of organic cotton -- with biodegradable products obtained from suppliers, such as clipboards (used frequently in animal shelters) made of recycled plastic, and biodegradable pens.
Find sympathetic sponsors. Seek sponsorships from companies looking to promote their green practices. Dominic Phillips worked with San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric to supply alternative energy sources at "SF Chefs. Food. Wine.," a culinary event that took place in San Francisco this past August. PG&E wanted to be associated with the event and covered the energy costs.
Pass it along. Donating leftover food to homeless shelters and involving community organizations such as Habitat for Humanity are two ways to dispose of waste in less costly yet environmentally friendly ways. For example, at last year's Democratic National Convention in Denver, for which Jamie Nack served as director of sustainability and greening operations, the wooden writing desks used by press during the event were picked up by a local Habitat for Humanity. "There was no cost involved," notes Nack, "and the wood was used to build homes for the homeless."
Save to use again. Recycling can be cost-neutral for planners if venues already have a program in place. You can also implement your own recycling measures, as Microsoft's Gina Broel has done. "We ask attendees to turn in their badge holders, which can be reused," he says. "We also reuse signage for future events by printing generic logos on them."
Get the facts. Convention centers and hotels can provide valuable information to planners about a group's carbon footprint. For example, convention centers can track an event's total waste by weighing how much is headed to the landfill and how much is being recycled. Similarly, hotels can monitor a group's energy output and attendee participation in linen reuse programs.
Put it in writing. Per a suggestion from MeetGreen, the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association requires convention centers to measure the group's total waste prior to receiving the final 10 percent of money owed. "We put in our contract that we're not going to pay the full amount until we see how we did," says the UUA's meeting planner, Janiece Sneegas, who adds that obtaining such information allows her to gauge how the program fared in comparison to years prior.
Kim Boriin advises planners to draft an "environmental addendum" to their contracts, asking that vendors contribute toward the group's sustainable objectives as much as they can. Similarly, asking the right questions at the request for proposal stage will reveal a venue's capabilities. Boriin himself includes 13 questions to this effect, which address topics such as linen and towel reuse, energy efficiency and water conservation.
Walk, don't ride. Depending on the destination, it might be possible to save big in this category. For example, earlier this year, the UUA held its annual conference in Salt Lake City, taking advantage of a compact heart of town that's very conducive to walking (in fact, more than 6,400 hotel rooms can be found a short stroll from the Salt Palace Convention Center). The association wound up saving about $80,000 over the year before by not having to shuttle attendees around town.
Along the same lines, planners of 2008's Oracle Open World, a 43,000-person event set every year at San Francisco's Moscone Center, specifically outlined walking routes for attendees that helped limit the frequency of shuttle trips, for a savings of $60,000.
If you can't eliminate the use of motor vehicles, do the next best thing. At the 2008 DNC, General Motors was responsible for providing transportation, so Nack's event team requested that the automaker provide the greenest cars possible. Consequently, the majority of vehicles used at the convention were hybrid and high-efficiency models.
Put it online. Immediate cost savings can result from limiting marketing materials and communications to electronic methods. In addition to e-mailing press releases and attendee preparation materials, the use of social networking sites such as Facebook allows planners to promote their events without accumulating paper waste. This year, the UUA saved $8,710 from just this practice alone. Another way to reduce, suggests Meeting Expectation's Lisa Burton, is by replacing a separate attendee notebook with a few pages within the group's program guide.
Sustainability experts agree that greening meetings is a process. "We are asking planners to think through a green lens throughout each stage," Kennedy-Hill points out. "You may not be able to do everything at every event, but if you set things up ahead of time and report back to attendees, the greater your chances are for success."