Environmental Connections

By: Al Rickard

The forces of nature and some interesting creatures are helping to green up destinations and meeting venues.

Some might say the meetings industry is going to the birds (and the bees, and the worms). It might even be blowing in the wind.

What's more, there's evidence to prove it.

As the sustainable meetings movement charges forward despite economic challenges, the immutable forces of nature, along with a variety of critters, are all helping to green up destinations, convention centers, hotels, and meeting venues.

For example, the ExCeL Exhibition & Conference Centre in London has an extensive green program that includes the United Kingdom's only commercial wormery. The wormery holds 300,000 Dendrobaena veneta and Eisenia fetida worms, which eat at least twice their body weight each day.

Meeting Professionals Hold Green Power

Meeting planners are in a powerful position to influence sustainability programs in destinations and meeting venues.

Even when the hospitality community of a city understands the importance of implementing green initiatives, its voice can only go so far with city decision makers. When the recommendation comes directly from planners, it carries much more weight.

Brent Foerster, vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Milwaukee, explains, "I would like to see planners make green meetings an even bigger issue. When they go to talk to convention centers, hotels, caterers, transportation companies, and other suppliers, they have to keep saying, ‘Here is where we need to go' and explain why. This will influence them to get there."

Jason Fulvi, CDME, executive director of convention sales for VisitPittsburgh, echoed this, adding, "Planners can not only influence companies but also local governments. They are the ones who need to approve money to make things happen."

Jack Sammis, president of IMN Solutions, the association, foundation, and meetings management company that founded and manages the Convene Green Alliance, talks to hundreds of association CEOs and meeting professional clients each year.

"The economic power that associations hold in the meetings arena is incredible," he says. "Our clients alone book $100 million of hotel revenue each year. Multiply that across the entire industry, and you can see that meeting professionals are poised to drive green meetings if they make them a priority. The hospitality industry will respond to their demands."

"Earthworms are the ultimate recycling machine," the Centre's website reports. "All types of food waste can naturally be recycled into productive, nutrient-rich soil. Food waste is collected from the kitchens and preparation areas and delivered to the wormery. Here it is processed through a mascherator into a pulp, which is fed to the worms. The pulping makes the food easily consumable for the worms, removing the need for rotting to break it down. The worms digest the waste and convert it into rich worm cast."

The Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, North Carolina, which opened in October 2009 as the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold-certified hotel in greater Charlotte, has introduced honeybees to its green, vegetated roof.

Currently planted with 18,000 sedum plants to enhance building insulation and also housing a chef's garden that provides organic herbs for the hotel, the green roof of the hotel recently welcomed two new beehives, which will generate honey for hotel culinary use.

The hives house up to 60,000 honeybees. Bees are essential to the area's plant and pollination ecosystem, and 70 pounds of all-natural, chemical-free raw honey are expected to be generated by each hive annually, depending on foraging schedules, weather, and nectar flow.

"Honeybees love herbs, and we're hoping they will especially enjoy the fresh lavender growing within our rooftop garden," explains Jon Farace, executive chef for The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte.

"Because honey is considered the flavor of the land, it is likely that the bees' rooftop habitat and pollination of our herb garden will lend a wonderful, unique flavor to their honey."
Beaver Hollow, a secluded, state-of-the-art conference center in western New York, employs bats and purple martins that live in birdhouses situated throughout the forest surrounding the property to eat mosquitoes and other pesky bugs. Nearby farms provide abundant locally grown produce for meals through the farm-to-table movement. Beaver Hollow also runs extensive composting, recycling, and energy-saving programs and is actively pursuing ways to create, capture, and utilize energy to minimize its footprint and emphasize sustainability.

The property is located on a lake, where groups have been known to hold meetings in kayaks. Other outdoor meeting spaces including settings by a koi pond, around a bonfire, and in large wooden gazebos overhanging the lake. Even indoor meeting rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows to bring the outdoors in.

"We're doing a healthy thing for attendees by offering opportunities to meet outdoors surrounded by the elements," says Beaver Hollow Vice President of Sales Kathy Egan. "You can have a meeting with a side of wellness."

Here Comes the Sun (and the Wind)

The Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Association (ACCVA) has focused its green efforts on energy savings. The 13,500 photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof of the Atlantic City Convention Center generate 28 percent of the electricity used by the center. In 2009, the 2.7 million kilowatt hours of energy produced was equal to saving 2,245 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Next up for ACCVA is installing a 250-foot-tall wind turbine with 60-foot blades adjacent to the convention center. The turbine is expected to generate one megawatt of energy per year, covering another 20 percent of the center's electricity needs.

On the opposite coast, the Los Angeles Convention Center uses solar panels that generate up to 10 percent of the center's electricity needs and is working toward LEED certification for existing buildings. One of the center's goals is to become a zero-waste facility, with 100 percent diversion of recyclable goods.
In Toronto, Canada, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre has been a pioneer in striving for zero-waste events. MTCC reports that it currently diverts 78 percent of all waste generated into recycling programs.

"It is truly amazing to see the type of creative initiatives that destinations and properties are implementing," says Tracey Messina, executive director of the Convene Green Alliance, which brings together more than 600 association and hospitality industry members to promote positive change in environmental practices. "That's what we need to drive the green industry forward and make meetings more sustainable."

Even during the recession, green initiatives marched forward. Some practices, such as printing and shipping fewer bulky convention programs, have saved money, while others, such as buying recyclable registration bags, organically grown food and flowers, and biodegradable lanyards, eating utensils, notepads, and pens, can cost more money.

"Our association believes these things are important, and we hold our meetings to a high green standard," says Windy Christner, CMP, senior director, meetings and expositions, for the American Pharmacists Association (APA). "But going green can be expensive, and we have to be budget conscious." She says that eventually the cost of many of these green products will even out.

"Follow-through is important," she adds. "We want to get a report back afterward on the impact we had so we can report back to the board and members. The more we are shown the impact, the easier it is to justify the cost."

That works both ways: Association members can be a driving force behind destinations' green initiatives. For example, Portland, Oregon, is widely known as one the greenest cities in America and even has a Platinum rating from the League of American Bicyclists for its bike-friendly roads and trails.

But Michael Smith, vice president of convention sales for Travel Portland, tells this story: "The Portland City Council was talking to a major fraternal organization a few years ago, thanking them for bringing their business to the city, and one of the leaders spoke to them sternly about the green issue and the need for more initiatives." Smith noted that this got the attention of the mayor and helped him understand the importance of green initiatives. (See sidebar on previous page for more on how meeting planners can influence destinations' sustainability efforts.)

Go Green in LA

Los Angeles, the site of the 2010 ASAE & The Center Annual Meeting & Expo, has been ranked the second-greenest city in the United States by the Brookings Institution for its low greenhouse gas emissions, mandated conservation practices, easy access to nature and outdoor recreation, and extensive open space.

To support Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's aggressive "Green LA" initiative, the Los Angeles CVB is working with Green Seal to develop an LA Green Lodging Program using the nonprofit's GS-33 Environmental Leadership Standard for Lodging Properties. One of the host hotels for the 2010 Annual Meeting & Expo, the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites, was the first to achieve this designation, although all 11 host hotels are deeply involved in sustainability strategies. Such strategies—some of them invisible to customers, others involving visitors directly—focus on water and energy conservation, philanthropic or food donations, renewable energy use, waste and carbon-emission reduction, and recycling.

The 54-acre Los Angeles Convention Center has long been a frontrunner in the green-building arena. Currently working toward LEED-EB certification, it is the largest solar energy-generating convention center in North America. Among its many upgrades are new low-emission steam boilers, chemical-free water treatment, an innovative white "cool roof" that reflects the sun's heat, high-efficiency lighting and air conditioning, and extensive recycling and reuse programs. Twenty percent of the facility runs on environmentally friendly renewable-energy resources, such as hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, biomass, and wind energy.

Social Responsibility

Sustainable meetings and destinations aren't just about "green," energy savings, or recycling. Community-service programs held in conjunction with a meeting are another sustainability effort growing more common all the time.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau facilitated many association-sponsored community work projects to help city residents recover. Other destinations offer similar programs. The key to success is making it easy to participate.

"If a CVB can make it easy for associations to do social responsibility projects, that is good," says APA's Christner. "With all the other meeting preparation going on, the less amount of legwork we have to do the better."

The Professional Convention Management Association sponsors a "Hospitality Helping Hands" program every year in connection with its annual meeting. For the 2010 conference, the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau worked with PCMA to help set up its program to benefit the North Texas Food Bank, which distributes food to the less fortunate. Approximately 95 people attended the project, and PCMA presented the organization with a check for $5,500. Fifty additional volunteers helped with beautification projects at Family Gateway, an organization that provides transitional housing and care to families experiencing homelessness. Volunteers completed painting, cleaning, and landscaping projects and presented the organization with a check for $5,000.

"We have seen a growing trend in the last two years of planners seeking to integrate a service project into their meetings," says Chris Gahl, associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association. "We work hard to help planners put these projects in place through a new company called Project Vol-IN-Teer. They help match associations to local service organizations."

Indianapolis also has a food rescue program in its expanding Indiana Convention Center called "Second Helpings," which transports unused food to the Second Helping kitchen for a chef-training program for those struggling to find jobs. The food is then served at homeless shelters around the city.

Nashville has an "[email protected]" program that makes it easy for associations to design a custom service project at their conventions.

Susan Schwint, director of convention and visitor services for Visit Charlotte, often directs large groups to Hands-On Charlotte, an organization that helps match up associations with local nonprofit organizations that need help. The CVB will also help associations develop customized programs or continue programs that have worked well in other cities. For example, next year the National Association of Fleet Administrators is coming to the city. The group has a tradition of helping to build homes through Habitat for Humanity, which Schwint will help them do in Charlotte as well.

"More and more associations are getting into social responsibility and green programs," she says. "No one asked about these opportunities five years ago."
In another type of social responsibility program, the Southhampton Fairmont in Bermuda will donate 10 percent of its clients' master bill to a local Bermudian charity chosen by the organization holding the meeting.

It's clear that across the industry, meeting professionals and hospitality industry executives are actively growing the sustainability and social responsibility movement. 

Al Rickard, CAE, is president of Association Vision, Chantilly, Virginia, a communications company specializing in public relations and publishing. Email: [email protected]