A Greener Texas

By: Linda C. Chandler

Texas' reputation as a big-time oil producer and gas guzzler doesn't apply to its meetings venues, which have gotten eco-savvy from the carpet on the floor to the solar panels on the roof.

Texas? Green?

Protecting the environment may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Texas. After all, the state has all that oil and natural gas, gas-guzzling pickup trucks to consume it, and miles of roads to drive them on. But today, the hot topics in Texas energy are wind and solar power—and Texas meeting cities are serious about green energy. Houston, Dallas, and Austin are on the Environmental Protection Agency's Green Power Partnership list of top 10 municipal purchasers of green power, and the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is number 11 on the list. Houston, Dallas, and DFW International purchase wind energy, and Austin uses biogas as well as wind. When Popular Science compiled its list of America's 50 greenest cities, Austin, Fort Worth, and Amarillo made the cut.

Associations may be more likely to meet in Texas because of its central location, convention-center capacities, modern facilities, cultural attractions, and lower labor costs than for the state's reputation for green meetings. But Texas convention cities and facilities have become proactive partners with meeting planners who have prioritized greening their conferences and tradeshows.

Kelly Peacy, CAE, vice president of meetings and events for the Professional Convention Management Association, was responsible for the 2010 PCMA annual meeting in Dallas in January and a smaller meeting in Austin last year. "I didn't understand the true depth of resources and how much money Texas cities are spending to become green," she says. "I was surprised, but it was a pleasant surprise."

The decision to go green trickles down to all areas of the convention-planning process, right down to the flooring.

Because Peacy's members are also meeting planners, she says she believes part of PCMA's job is to "get information to members, demonstrate how to plan for greener meetings, and show them what is available and how it can be implemented." But not all association audiences drive the organization's green initiatives. "Sometimes the initiatives are top down," says Wanda Skrzypczak, a Chicago-area independent meeting planner whose company, Meetings by Design, worked on a meeting for the American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration in Austin (ASHHRA) in 2008. "If members can see something saves money as well as the environment, they can become more accepting of changes for the sake of the environment. You need to educate them about the dollar amounts or percentages."

For instance, Skrzypczak says, using the Austin CVB housing bureau's online service eliminated printed housing forms and saved money on staff time in 2008. ASHHRA is also making the preconference brochure for its 2010 conference online only to save half of the line item's printing costs.

When planners speak of green initiatives and saving money, sometimes it's difficult to tell the cart from the horse. "We made a financial decision to eliminate bottled water and handouts," says Judy Neathery, meeting planner for the Texas Society of Certified Public Accountants. "In our case, the green element was a byproduct of cost savings. Many times the green way is also the cost-efficient way."

Meeting Green Standards

The U.S. Green Building Council and the Green Building Certification Institute recognize both new and existing construction for meeting standards of energy efficiency, sustainability, and environmentally friendly design. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which the two organizations help administer, covers all types of buildings, including hotels, attractions, and offsite event venues, and Texas has a growing LEED presence. Houston's Discovery Green, a 12-acre park space that fronts its convention center, has a LEED gold certification for its environmentally friendly buildings and design, and Dallas' Omni Convention Center Hotel, scheduled to open in 2012, has been designed to meet LEED standards.

Though no major convention center in Texas currently claims a LEED award, Austin and Dallas already have registered projects in progress for their convention centers, and both cities are members of Convene Green Alliance, an organization in Arlington, Virginia, that focuses on green meetings. Fort Worth is also a member, and it's working with a LEED specialist to develop a plan to take its first steps toward certification.

"The city of Fort Worth and the Fort Worth CVB value the importance of green meetings," says John Cychol, vice president of meeting sales, Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau and chair of PCMA's Green Meetings Task Force. "As a member of the Convene Green Alliance, Fort Worth's commitment to green programs and offerings will continue to enhance Fort Worth's reputation as one of the nation's top meeting destinations."

The George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston is "powered 100 percent by green energy," says Art Zehnder, director of sales. The center purchases its power from a wind-energy provider, and last year it became part of a solar pilot project, installing 270 solar panels on the south roof of the convention center to test how to best use and maintain solar energy. Similarly, the Dallas Convention Center heats its water with solar panels installed on its roof, and the Austin Convention Center uses the power generated from an array of panels on the northwest side of the atrium to supplement energy drawn from the grid.

Houston has also invested in what Zehnder calls "greening the Brown"—extensive indoor energy conservation changes, including a UV-protective roof membrane, lighting choices, new boilers and cooling towers, and water conservation achieved through green landscaping and low-flow plumbing fixtures. Texas' other convention centers practice similar conservation measures, deploying comprehensive recycling programs and using green cleaning supplies.

Striving for Sustainability

San Antonio's convention, sports, and entertainment facilities, including the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, share a sustainability initiative called "Mission Verde" ("Mission Green"). "But it's not about being environmentally friendly because it's new or neat," says Ronnie Price, assistant executive director of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. "In lights, air conditioning, and escalators, we have energy-conservation practices everywhere. We invested more than $100,000 in recycling stations last year. We are green behind the scenes as part of our city's policies, not just for planners when meetings are here."

One significant effort in San Antonio is its preservation of historic buildings. Reuse and redevelopment are evident in many of the city's favorite attractions and offsite venues. Sunset Station is an events facility housed in what was originally a train depot built in 1902. The Pearl Brewery has been adapted to accommodate restaurants, shops, office space, and more, and the castle-like Lone Star Brewery building now houses the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Sustainability efforts extend to transportation. Houston and Dallas offer more efficient and green transportation to meeting-goers as well as the local commuting population. Houston's METRORail and Dallas' DART rail system have convention-center stops. Pedicabs, hybrid buses, and Segway tours offer unusual options for meeting planners and attendees to explore convention cities. San Antonio touts its riverboats as alternative transportation and in recent years has doubled the length of its famous River Walk, so taking a stroll is a pleasant substitute for catching a shuttle bus.

Contractor Assistance

The decision to go green trickles down to all areas of the convention-planning process, right down to the flooring. Acceptance of new materials has fueled the demand for aisle carpet that contains recycled materials and padding that is 100 percent recycled, as well as signage on corrugated cardboard rather than foam core. Jason Miller, national sales manager for Irving, Texas-based The Expo Group, notes that printing direct to the substrate saves 50 to 75 percent of the waste that used to be associated with sign production.

Demand for green alternatives to disposable plastic and paper goods has grown: Clear cups may be made of corn products, cutlery from potato starch, and plates from sugarcane fiber, bamboo, or palm leaf. Napkins and coffee cups are made of recycled paper.

Centerplate, the food and beverage provider for the Dallas Convention Center, has the client volume nationwide to drive suppliers to create greener options. "The real challenge is meeting the demand while still making food service aesthetically pleasing," says James Rice, director of catering at the Dallas center.

Sometimes planners must compromise to be practical, says PCMA's Peacy. She once furnished coffee cups of recycled material but not lids because they were available only in regular plastic. She discovered attendees wanted lids, plastic or not, and could not safely maneuver without them.

Even more challenging from the food and beverage perspective is local sourcing. The practice saves the environment by reducing the carbon footprint of shipping. Thanks to Texas' moderate climate and long growing season, many fruits and vegetables are readily available.

Sourcing locally for sustainability often depends on the size and length of the conference, says Rice. "You may have great local bakeries and other food vendors, but it is still difficult to support a 20,000-attendee, three-day conference from the local farmer's market. It takes a lot of planning, and we have to rely on our suppliers to help think local."

Some Texas hotels and resorts are planting vegetable and herb gardens onsite for use in their kitchens. All the major convention centers are invested in composting and recycling programs. Many have partnerships for sharing unserved foods with food banks or shelters. Some share leftovers with local zoos. Some use their own compost on their landscaping.

Whether it comes down to dollars and cents or just common sense about the environment, Texas cities, convention centers, and hotels are trying to make a difference for conference planners. Skrzypczak suggests working closely with your general contractor to see what is available and how the contractor can help the association and its exhibitors reduce their footprint.

And that's not as hard as it used to be. "Prices for greener materials have come down," says The Expo Group's Miller. "It's easier to be green now. You may still pay a couple of dollars more for green options, but it's much more cost effective than before." 

Linda C. Chandler is a freelance writer and editor based in Tyler, Texas. Email: [email protected]

Linda C. Chandler