Smart Planning for Sustainable Meetings

By: Jeff Waddle

Even a modest association conference can consume a vast amount of energy and natural resources. But that also means minor adjustments—from eliminating bottled water to using locally sourced food—can lead to major savings in both environmental impact and expense. If you get your destinations and attendees on board, your next meeting can be a greener one.

It wasn't long ago that a green meeting typically meant little more than placing recycling bins for plastic water bottles and aluminum soda cans outside the tradeshow entrance. While recycling remains a core element in sustainable, or "green," meetings, many associations are finding additional ways to cut their meetings' carbon footprint and benefit the host community.

Convention bureaus, hotels, exposition facilities, and other vendors that service the convention industry have stepped up their sustainability efforts in recent years in response to customer demand. Most hotel chains now have some sort of green initiative like a linen- or towel-reuse program, and some even offer financial incentives for groups that agree to adopt sustainability practices like creating less trash, using less energy, and incorporating locally sourced foods into menus. Many convention centers are increasingly utilizing the latest technologies in energy usage, water conservation, and waste reduction.

Through their efforts, associations and their suppliers are finding that going green is not only the right thing to do, but it's also good for business. "It's just smart business because the fastest way to save money is to conserve energy and reduce waste," says Chris Wood, director of the Convene Green Alliance, a grassroots organization created in 2007 and acquired by ASAE in 2010 to provide more resources and greater focus on fostering greener meetings. "The convention center charges for what they have to haul away, so the more you can divert to a recycling facility, the better off you'll be."

Here are some of the ways association meetings are becoming greener, plus ideas on how your association can do it, too.

Venues As Partners

To get the sustainability conversation started with venues and host cities, "include environmental criteria in the RFP," says Robin Malpass, president of the Chicago chapter of the Green Meetings Industry Council. Malpass, principal of an independent meeting planning firm that bears her name, says site selection is key to a greener meeting because most of the work is done for you if you choose wisely. "Ask about their recycling program, energy and water conservation practices, and environmentally responsible purchasing practices. What are they already doing to ensure environmental sustainability that you do not have to institute?"

"We've come to expect that all venues are going to recycle and incorporate local products for food and beverage," says Renee Lewis, CMP, director of publishing and event services for the American Concrete Institute (ACI). Lewis says that while sustainability is an important goal, she has found not everything is possible, at least not yet. "Many of our members still like the hardcopy program, so I'm not sure that's ever really going away, but we do try to reduce the size at every convention," she says, adding that more members are now accessing the program on smartphones and iPads as ACI's member demographics trend younger.

"But it's baby steps in many ways and being flexible," Lewis says. "You can't give up; at least that's our philosophy. We usually try things for three conventions in a row so we can see if it catches on, and some things just don't, but you have to commit to doing it for more than one event."

For its 1,500-delegate annual conference in Cincinnati last October, ACI's community service project was a book and recycled-computer drive that benefited the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati. "Education is a big part of what we do, so literacy fits with our mission. We try to do a community service thing like this at each location and identify an organization that can use more than just books or cash donations," says Lewis. She says that the local CVB or convention center is a great resource for identifying nonprofit groups that are a good match for a group's social responsibility or legacy program.

"I always ask the venue what some of their other clients have done that is green, and that usually directs the conversation to what they can do for my event," says Ben Rabe, senior manager, event services, at association management firm SmithBucklin. "If they don't have an answer for you, you might want to consider going somewhere else."

Rabe says he has witnessed recycling rates increase dramatically in recent years as venues have improved their ability to track, measure, and report waste diversion. "The biggest thing I have found, when I ask about recycling specifically, is a lot of venues are using single stream, which means that all waste and recyclables are collected together and then sorted offsite," he says. "Ask the venue if it is willing to put signs on waste baskets that indicate, ‘contents of this container will be recycled offsite' so attendees know how recycling is done at your meeting venue."

One of Rabe's clients, the North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers, boosted its convention's total waste diversion rates from 28.2 tons to 83.7 tons in just two years by working with a convention center and its recycling partners, he says.

Get Attendees on Board

For another convention, Rabe says the association virtually eliminated the vast amount of food waste that its 600-booth tradeshow produced by simply communicating how it could be put to beneficial use. "People don't always like change, but there are absolutely things that meetings can do to subtly and painlessly influence attendee behavior," says Rabe. By coordinating with a local food bank to pick up food left behind at a large food show and promoting it to exhibitors, the association collected more than 58,000 pounds of food for soup kitchens and food pantries in Chicago. "Previously, any unclaimed food went to waste, and now they help feed the hungry, and exhibitors don't have to lug leftovers home."

Bridget Chisholm says that communication is key if you're seeking acceptance of a new green initiative at a meeting. President of independent meeting planning firm BCC Planning, Chisholm has managed the 1,000-delegate North American Association for Environmental Education conference for the past seven years, where she has successfully worked with chefs and local food producers in host cities to incorporate as much locally sourced food as possible. "If you explain with a little sign that you're supporting the local economy by serving cider that's sourced from ABC orchard down the road, they'll be OK with it," she says.

Chisholm says that it sometimes takes research and coordination with the convention bureau, caterers, and even the local farm extension office to identify the best options for local, seasonal menu items. "The convention center may say they source food locally, but planners need to educate themselves on what that really means. If you don't educate yourself about what's available [by season, locally] and you just leave it up to the convention center, you may be embarrassed at the time of the convention," she says.

"It's really about efficiencies and having people understand that it's not about giving something up," says Amy Spatrisano, CMP, principal of Meet Green, a sustainability-focused meeting planning firm. "If you're eliminating bottled water [and going with reusable containers], for example, make sure you're communicating it ahead of time. If you can find a statistic about water or waste savings, that will help show it's the right thing to do." She says that she has seen evidence that delegates are more satisfied when they know they are being green, so she says to recognize people who are participating in green practices onsite with old-fashioned ribbons or buttons and communicating your green initiatives in general sessions and other larger group sessions at the event.

Start Small, Then Build

Spatrisano says that some groups hesitate to attempt incorporating more sustainability initiatives into their meetings because they're intimidated by the perceived complexity of it. "My advice is find something that's easy for you, because the more you do it, the more you find a rhythm for it and find what works," she says.

Sustainable initiatives are a true "win-win," in which the organization usually realizes cost savings while reducing the event's carbon footprint, Spatrisano says. "Start minimizing printing, ask the food and beverage supplier to provide 10 to 20 percent of the menu items locally sourced, or ask to use flatware and china service instead of disposable ware. Oftentimes it's just making the ask, even if you're not able to get it that time. Start asking every time and ask it in the RFP process, because it's much easier at the beginning of the planning than afterward. And, whatever you agree upon with your supplier, put it in writing as part of the contract."

Barbara Connell, CMP, CAE, chief operating officer for the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, says that associations should incorporate time in the event agenda to ask their attendees for ideas on sustainable practices. "Use about 10 to 15 minutes to garner ideas for that meeting and future events," she says. "It can be a great, fun exercise that groups embrace when they realize the impact of their meeting."

Brent Foerster, vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Milwaukee, says his city has seen sustainability become a more important part of the site-selection process. When his CVB is approached by meeting planners, "it used to be ‘Here's our RFP, how many hotel rooms do you have, and what are the rates?' Now, part of it is ‘Here are our sustainability questions, and what things have you done or are you doing? And as a community, we want have that list as long as possible and include it as part of our RFP.'"

Foerster says that Milwaukee's hospitality industry is active on numerous sustainability fronts, not only because it is beneficial from a marketing and environmental standpoint but also because it produces cost savings for the venues.

"There's a number of things environmentally [that meeting venues are] going to do because it's the right thing to do, but also it just helps their bottom line," he says. "If they can save energy and waste costs by recycling, a lot of them are moving forward with those practices for that reason alone. But, to a certain extent, meeting planners are driving some of this, so it's important for them to tell us what's important to them, what their goals and timelines are, so we can in turn work with our community to make sure they understand the importance of it and how we can take what we're doing to the next level."

"There are not really any extra steps," says Convene Green's Wood on planning a more sustainable meeting. "It's almost like looking at the meeting process with a filter, a different way of thinking and looking at the resources available to you. You still have to do a destination selection, so how are you going to evaluate the city? Are you going to find out if the hotels are within walking distance to the center so you can eliminate transportation costs or if the venue has recycling and composting programs?

"Even if you implement just one green practice at your meeting to get started, you can have a positive financial impact, you're going to benefit the planet, and it gives you leverage for PR and attendee engagement to add more things next year."

Sidebar: Convention Industry Council Set to Release New APEX Standards

After several years of development, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) plans to release nine Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) standards in 2012 for greening the meetings, conventions, and exhibitions industry.

Intended to create and enhance efficiencies throughout the industry by development and implementation of industry-wide accepted practices, the new APEX green meetings and events standards are divided into these core areas:

  • destination selection
  • audiovisual
  • accommodations
  • exhibits
  • food and beverage
  • meeting venue
  • onsite office
  • communications
  • transportation

"They will give you a quick and easy framework to look at where you can make decisions about green meetings," says Chris Wood, director of ASAE's Convene Green Alliance. He says that there are more green-meetings resources "becoming available every day." For more information on the CIC APEX standards, visit

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Sustainable Qualities for Host Cities

By Bridget Chisholm

While existing practices and infrastructure are important, planners can play a big role in making cities greener. Don't just walk away from a city if it doesn't have composting or it's not using the right cleaning products. See if you can help it become a greener city. Millions of people come together for conventions, and association meeting planners have an opportunity to change how cities function. Here are sustainable qualities to look for—or encourage—in potential meeting destinations:

  • Bids must be sent electronically.
  • Light-rail service from the airport to downtown or bus service operating on alternative-fuel or clean-fuel technology.
  • Pedestrian friendly.
  • Convention-center technology to help facilitate virtual attendance.
  • Non-petroleum-based cleaning products used at convention center or hotels.
  • Low-flow or double-flush toilets at convention center and hotels.
  • Linen- and towel-reuse programs.
  • Convention center, hotels, and caterers use local farmers' produce and product.
  • Leftover food sent to food bank.
  • If using compostable or biodegradable flatware, plates, or cups, hotels and convention centers compost them.
  • Extensive and inclusive recycling program (the city has recycling collection cans next to every trash can on the street).
  • Use of alternative energy for powering convention center, hotels, and city buildings.

Bridget Chisholm is president of BCC Planning in the Washington, DC, metro area and a member of ASAE's Convene Green Alliance. Email: [email protected]