Here's a hotel title you don't run into every day: community projects manager. That's the position that Jo Licata holds at the San Francisco Hilton. With overall responsibility for the hotel's charitable and community efforts, she's held this position for the past 13 years and, to the best of her knowledge, she was the first — and might still be the only — person at an individual hotel to be so titled. But she likely won't be the last.

As social responsibility becomes more ingrained both in hotel chains and the associations that use them, hotels are increasingly focusing on philanthropic efforts and partnerships. Just about every major hotel chain has a list of charities to which it contributes, and many hotels within the chains add local charities to the mix. For obvious reasons, there's an emphasis on organizations that are well known nationally and unlikely to be “offensive” to any customer or group.

“Let's be honest about this,” says Licata. “We're a business. Our primary concern is taking care of our guests. So what we do has to be in line with our business needs as well as just doing the right thing. People talk about the ‘triple bottom line’: the profits and the employees and the environment. We have to be mindful of all three elements; there's a real connection between the environment at large and the community in which we live.”

Like a Good Neighbor

When Licata started in her position, “the mandate was to be a good neighbor,” she says. “At the time senior management felt that with our location within the city, it was in our best interest to help promote the economic viability of our neighborhood. I'm very proud of this hotel because we stepped in to create a position for community outreach at a time when nobody else was doing it.”

As part of that community, Licata was instrumental in starting the San Francisco Hotel Non-Profit Collaborative, a group of about 15 hotel partners and others who meet monthly with the goal of lessening the amount of discarded hotel items that end up in a landfill. Instead they donate to a variety of charities. “We work with nonprofits, recycling groups, school districts, and others who need what we have,” says Licata. The efforts can be both large and small. “What would we do with all the wastebaskets when we change them out in all our guest rooms?” she asks. “We can pay the costs of having them hauled away so they can sit in a landfill, or we can donate them to people who need them.” Likewise the some 2,000 coffee makers the hotel recently replaced, as well as office equipment, suitcases that are never claimed, clothing left behind, linens that are no longer usable. Even leftover foam core signage from hotel conferences is donated to art students.

Baby Steps

Donations of goods are, of course, only a part of what hotel companies are doing these days. Check out any hotel chain Web site and it's clear that social responsibility is a priority. Intercontinental, for example, supports UNICEF, Kimpton donates to Dress for Success, and Starwood is one of many hotels that partners with Habitat for Humanity. Press releases are put out regularly about special programs that allow hotel proceeds to funnel to various charities or encourage hotel employees to donate time and/or money. Is it a little self-serving? Sure. But the better question might be whether such efforts make a difference to meeting groups.

“To some groups, it doesn't make a difference,” says Nancy J. Wilson, CMP, president of Meeting Strategies Worldwide, a meeting planning company based in Portland, Ore., that works with associations and corporations on “green” meetings. For groups that work with her, though, philanthropy often is important. “There's an obvious crossover between being interested in the environment and caring about corporate responsibility,” she says. “Donating items not only keeps things out of landfills, but aids the community, whether it's via homeless shelters, women's shelters, school programs, or other avenues.”

Five years ago, hotels were surprised when Wilson asked where the leftover food went; these days, they all have an answer, she says. “The answers to questions like that can play a significant role in the decision if we're deciding between two comparable hotels. In fact, for some groups, it is the decision.”

Another common question: Where do the leftover toiletry amenities go? “The wrong answer is that they're disposed of,” she says. “There is no one right answer. It can be that they're sent to Marines in Iraq or donated to a women's shelter or distributed throughout the community in some other way.”

Wilson also notes that “people can get stuck when they feel that they have to think about it all — it can be overwhelming. This year, ask about the food donation program; next year, look into the amenities. We don't need to take on the world all at once. Every small step is helpful.”

Partner Up

Another thing groups can do is look for hotels that are making efforts in areas in which the association is particularly interested or has its own affiliations. If your association has a particular interest in helping young people with disabilities, for example, check out the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities, which has placed more than 9,000 young people with over 1,500 employers in seven metropolitan areas since 1990. Or a group concerned with economic opportunities for women and minorities might be especially interested in learning about the Minority Business Enterprise Program, in which small minority- or women-owned businesses are encouraged to bid to become a Loews Hotel vendor. If domestic violence is on your group's radar, be aware that all Fairmont Hotels are part of the company's Adopt-A-Shelter program, in which each hotel donates used household items to local women's shelters.

Time is another invaluable commodity when it comes to helping local communities. At the San Francisco Hilton, Licata will help groups to do local community service if they desire. “I've helped arrange beach clean-ups, park clean-ups, sending attendees to shelters to serve meals, and more.” She also arranges for hotel employees to do community service. On example: “A group of our employees go to a women's shelter each month, prepare and serve the women dinner, and then spend time with them afterwards,” she says.

On the flip side, Licata, who reports to the director of sales, also helps meeting groups if they need temporary employees. “If they need bags stuffed, for example, I can put them together with an organization that has people who are looking for work. Everyone benefits — the meeting group gets their bags filled and people who need work are employed for a time.”

Omni Hotels of California actually offers a package designed for groups that want to help the local community. Last spring, it debuted its “Groups for Giving” charity package at the Omni San Diego, Omni Los Angeles, and Omni San Francisco Hotel. The package, which was created expressly for meeting groups and can be custom-designed, facilitates attendees spending a day working on an area Habitat for Humanity project, and provides hard hats with the Habitat and Omni logos, box lunches, and bottled water.

The program was a natural for the Omni, following a fam trip where meeting planners had very positive experiences participating in something similar when the Omni San Diego opened in 2004.

But for Jennifer Cunningham, director of sales and marketing at Circus Circus in Reno, choosing which programs to partner with is always a challenge. “There have been times when we've received a hundred requests a month for support,” she says. “There is so much need out there and there's never enough money to help everyone.” To help in the decision-making, Cunningham says the hotel focuses most on “what impacts our employees and what we can do to help make their local community better for them.”

To that end, many of her property's projects focus on literacy and education, which hits close to home for many of the casino hotel's employees who are parents. A sampling of projects includes monetary donations to the Children's Cabinet, the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, the After School Literacy Tutoring Program of the Washoe County Education Foundation, and the 4th Annual Future Artists Competition. This spring, the hotel, with support from parent company MGM Mirage, will completely remodel two local school libraries.

As with many hotel programs, the monies come from several different sources: from hotel profits, from matching funds from the parent company, and from employees themselves. “MGM Mirage has a program called the Voice Foundation,” says Cunningham, “which allows employees to contribute however much they designate each paycheck to any charity of their choice.”

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of charitable organizations that benefit, both directly and indirectly, from the dollars, time, and hard work of meeting attendees. “We're all taking a new look at how we do things,” says Wilson. “We're learning to take care of our own, and our planet, and each other.”

Food For Thought

Theoretically, one way an association can work with a hotel to make a difference is by ensuring that any of the group's leftover food is donated, rather than discarded. In reality, some hotels make this more complicated than it needs to be. “We get pushback all the time from hotels that tell us we can't donate food,” says Meeting Strategies Worldwide's Nancy J. Wilson, CMP. “Our response: Show us the law that says you can't. Of course, they can't because no such thing exists.”

Hotels often cite worries about liabiltiy issues, so be aware of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects good-faith donors from liability in the event that the product causes harm to the recipient. Of course, sometimes food really can't be donated, including food that has left a temperature-controlled setting. If your meeting hotel doesn't have a program already in place, contact America's Second Harvest (, a nationwide network of more than 200 member food banks and food-rescue organizations for help in making appropriate arrangements.

For more on how associations can make a difference through meetings, check out PCMA's Network for the Needy, which promotes volunteerism within the convention and hospitality industry in the U.S. and Canada:

Five Ways to Give Back
Putting Surplus Swag to Good Use