Green meetings are growing fast, with some companies cruising straight to eco-consciousness and others taking smaller steps. But, surely and steadily, planners and hoteliers are moving toward the same goal—sustainability.
When it comes to, George Gay wrote the book. Or at least the RFP. As CEO of First Affirmative Financial Network, in Colorado Springs, Colo., a network of financial advisers who practice socially responsible investing, Gay plans the annual SRI in the Rockies Conference, a model of social responsibility (and not only with regard to the environment).
The first conference, in 1990, was “45 people at a Colorado dude ranch,” he remembers. By 2007, attendance hit 663, selling out the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.
Gay's request for proposal includes extensive questions regarding a hotel's sustainability efforts, such as whether or not the property has evaluated its carbon footprint, is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified, uses locally grown and/or organic food, and donates unused food. Further, Gay requires hotels to complete the Best Practices Survey developed by Ceres, a public interest group made up of investors and environmental organizations, as part of its Green Hotel Initiative. Hotels that fail to address the RFP's sustainability questions or to complete the GHI survey are simply out of the running for the six-day conference.
Ask the Questions
But you don't have to hold yourself to George Gay's standards — yet!
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the changes your company would have to make to create a truly sustainable workplace and genuinely “green” meetings. So consider the Convention Industry Council's green meeting definition: “A meeting or event that incorporates environmental considerations to minimize its negative impact on the environment.” That's an entry point for anybody.
And whatever you do now — even simply asking questions of hotels — contributes to the momentum that will move green meetings to the mainstream. As Gay says, “If no demands are put on the system, the system doesn't change.”
Of course, for many meeting planners, the demands must be made not just of suppliers but of internal meeting sponsors. And without executive-level support, let alone mandates, asking sponsors to build carbon offsets into budgets can be a tough sell.
It's Not Fluff
When Jennifer Dela-Cruz, CMP, makes her green pitch to internal clients, she has $50 million behind her. That's the amount of money the Toronto-based bank, RBC, which operates in 38 countries, has pledged to the cause of water conservation. “This is not fluff,” she tells them. “The company is making a large investment. You should support it.” In addition to the pledge, referred to as the RBC Blue Water Project, the bank has developed an environmental blueprint for the company's entire operations.
Meanwhile, Dela-Cruz, senior meeting planner, event production, helped to draft the company's blueprint for green meetings. It's not yet official policy; however, meeting and event sponsors are “strongly urged” to follow its guidelines. And Dela-Cruz always hopes that these clients see her pitch to go green as, well, an offer they can't refuse.
“As planners, we are trying to push the cause,” she says. “It can be a challenge. In some cases you're saving money, but in many areas you need to invest money.” For example, RBC's green meetings blueprint suggests buying carbon offsets to balance the greenhouse gas emissions from a meeting's use of air travel and hotel stays. (See sidebar, page 26.)
“So we suggest ways to save money elsewhere in a program or reallocate money,” says Dela-Cruz. Rather than an elaborate gift that attendees then have to carry home, for example, a sponsor could give them the gift of knowing they are helping the environment.
Audiovisual is usually a very large cost, she points out. “If there are multiple breakouts, I talk to the speakers and ask if they can bring their own laptops, rather than having us rent laptops. Sometimes we can use the main meeting room as a breakout room, saving rental of another room and additional AV.
“And I'll also sometimes find savings in food and beverage,” she continues. “I'll underguarantee or eliminate items in the buffet and ask if we can cut our per-person cost. Sometimes the answer is yes.”
However, she adds, “if a client doesn't feel like skimping anywhere, they'll pay up.”
Another of her green suggestions: “Meeting sponsors can create a meeting Web page, and at the end of each day, post the presentations of the day there instead of creating handouts or manuals.”
So far, RBC is not requiring that meeting hotels have green policies in place; however, they must be able to accommodate RBC's requests.
Off the Radar
Of course, not everyone has a company with the environmental focus of RBC. Says one planner at an insurance company in the northeast U.S., “It's an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary, process. From the million things we all have to do on a daily basis, it's not something that has bubbled up to the surface yet, unfortunately.”
Another meeting manager, based in the western U.S., is even more blunt: “With the economy the way it is, the last thing my company thinks about is going green.” Says another: “It's not even close to being on our radar screen.”
Then there are those like Kelly Riche, CMP, senior meeting planner, incentives and conferences, for Mutual of Omaha. The company has long been involved with wildlife education and environmental awareness through its sponsorship of the “Wild Kingdom” television series. At the home office, there are paper-recycling shredders on every floor and the company is undergoing an “energy audit” to identify opportunities to lessen its impact on the environment.
However, green meetings initiatives haven't yet been discussed, says Riche, whose department handles 200 to 400 meetings per year. “If they are turned back in, we reuse plastic name-badge holders, and we are considering using a ‘greener’ type of name-badge holder,” she says. “So we are doing things here and there, but there are no overall guidelines. The awareness is there. But the execution will take time.”
A survey of Financial & Insurance Meetings readers showed that 42 percent are creating or have created green meetings guidelines, while 72 percent said that they personally consider environmental issues in meeting planning.
Kim Boriin has a suggestion for them: Be relentless. Boriin, CMP, seniorspecialist at Guardian Investor Services LLC, New York, has focused attention on the topic in his position as board member and vice president of education for Financial & Insurance Conference Planners. “My credo and my suggestion to planners is to say it, say it again, say it again, put it in your RFP, put it in your , put it in your pre-con discussion, meet with the GM, push the envelope. That's what we've been doing with Guardian meetings for the past 18 months.”
Take steps even before corporate policies are in place, he urges. “Don't wait! It just comes down to deciding the level of commitment your team is going to make to raise the issue with your meeting partners. There are very few things that cost more. You can have a conversation with the chef to create a seasonal, local menu. You can request linen reuse. You can request water pitchers and glasses, which is a cost savings over bottled water. And don't have the banquet staff pre-pour drinks. Also, many cities now do transfers with hybrid cars.”
Hotels Make Strides
Hotels have made changes at both the local and chain level to reduce their environmental impact. But there's a way to go, notes Krystala Kalil, who is managing her fifth SRI in the Rockies as conference coordinator. “It's become a bottom-line issue. Hotels can save a lot of money,” she says. “Now you see them changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs, using smart on/off switches in guest rooms and rest rooms. There is much more awareness of electricity use. So we're definitely moving forward. But there is huge room for improvement. Energy wastage in the hotel business is unbelievable.”
Not that she and Gay aren't sympathetic to the binds many hotels find themselves in. Take the 2007 program at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya outside of Albuquerque. Gay and Kalil were impressed by the hotel's sustainability efforts and also attracted by the fact that it is a Native American-owned property. SRI in the Rockies is always held at locations that offer a unique experience, something extra, and at Tamaya, it was the Native American connection that infused the entire resort. But in one environmental area, it fell short. “Even though Tamaya is interested in recycling, there is no viable program in Albuquerque, so their hands are tied,” Kalil explains.
Another problem arises with five-star resorts. “One big issue is the rating system,” Gay notes. “In order to remain a five-star resort, they are going to wash your sheets every day and deliver newspapers to your room. So until rating standards incorporate green practices, some hotels will say, ‘We can't.’”
Michael Ciapciak, senior man-ager, ratings and inspections, at Mobil Travel Guide Inc., says the guide “is developing Green Standards that give credit to those properties that are taking a proactive stance with these issues. We have seen the challenges hotels face with trying to become ‘green’ while maintaining a sense of luxury.”
Meanwhile, some high-end hotels are way ahead of the curve: The Fairmont Whistler, for example, site of this November's SRI in the Rockies, has recycling bins in all guest rooms. “In Canada, you ask about recycling and they say, ‘Of course.’ In the U.S., you get excuses,” Gay says. “In Whistler, the whole village has a sustainability plan.” And yet even Whistler is not a perfect environmental choice because it's a two-hour drive from the airport — too far to comply with conference guidelines. The solution: SRI in the Rockies will provide bus transfers for all 700-plus attendees, and the bus company will offset its carbon emissions.
Stick With It
When you're on site, Gay says, consider a saying he learned in the Army: “‘People do best what the boss checks.’ Well, hotels do best what the conference planner checks. Get on it at the beginning.” Don't wait to see if the recycling bins will appear, if housekeeping will leave your towel alone the next day, or if the banquet staff will remember not to pre-pour iced tea the next time. Chase them all down immediately.
And consider Gay's unique way of paying for some of the green efforts: sponsorships. The conference's recycling sponsor and its carbon-offsets sponsor are in the high-level category, with benefits including four minutes during a meal function to address the conference, one free registration, a display ad at the conference Web site, and signage (such as on recycling bins) at the event.
In Boriin's view, the key is to keep going. “Once you start doing these things, they become routine,” he says. “They become part of your standard pre-con discussion. And people get it — clients, guests, hosts. They see it and they appreciate it. The tide is quickly turning.”
Need a Checklist? Take Your Pick
How to Host a Green Event
Use it: for background on why you should reduce your eco-footprint, for green meetings suggestions, and to create a custom carbon emissions calculator
Unique idea: Track problems encountered by event staff regarding greening the event as well as feedback received from participants.
National Recycling Coalition's Green Meetings Policy
Use it: as a complete guide to green meetings, right through to questions to ask in evaluating the meeting's success on “green” terms. At NRC's Web site you can find links to help you determine the recycling capabilities of your meeting destination.
Unique idea: Do a prize drawing from recycled name badges.
10 Easy Tips
Find it: www.bluegreenmeetings.org
Use it: to jump-start your green meetings planning
Unique idea: Write an environmental statement for your meeting and share it with suppliers, speakers, and delegates. Sample: “Company X commits to minimizing the environmental impact of X Conference through …” Add your list of initiatives, small or large. Just seeing something in writing will encourage people to pitch in.
Venue Selection Questionnaire
Find it: www.bluegreenmeetings.org
Use it: to send to hotels before your RFP process
Unique idea: Limited to 8 questions that allow a planner to get a general idea of a property's efforts and attitude toward sustainability
Fairmont Eco-Meet Checklist
Find it: www.fairmont.com/environment
Use it: to get an overview of Fairmont's eco-initiatives and also as a guideline for evaluating other properties
Unique idea: Donate leftover meeting supplies such as paper and pens to a local school or shelter.
Vertigo: Plan to Meet Green
(A project of the Canadian chapters of Meeting Professionals International)
Find it: www.mpiweb.org
Use it: as a comprehensive guide to green meetings and an environmental policy primer. Included are numerous sample corporate environmental statements
Unique idea: Make giveaways edible or reusable.
Green Hotels Association Meeting Planner's Questionnaire
Find it: www.greenhotels.com
Use it: in concert with your RFPs, to gauge the extent of a hotel's sustainability efforts
Unique idea: Provides real specificity: The questionnaire asks if there is a recycling program, if there is a recycling program in which guests can participate, if the hotel will provide recycling bins in meeting rooms, and if the hotel will commit to seeing that the items collected are actually recycled!
Simple Steps to Green Meetings
Find it: www.meetingstrategiesworldwide.com
Use it: Attend this seminar, given by green meetings pioneers Nancy Wilson, CMP, and Amy Spatrisano, CMP. Get upcoming dates by e-mailing email@example.com.
Unique idea: Sessions include mock site inspection.
The Convention Industry Council Green Meetings Report
Find it: www.conventionindustry.org
Use it: to find minimum best practices for event organizers and suppliers
Unique idea: Save generic signs for reuse; use local talent and products.
Be a Green Traveler
Find it: www.greenhotels.com
Use it: to e-mail to attendees, giving them suggestions for things to do before they leave home and during their hotel stay
Unique idea: Pick up one piece of litter every day.
Offsets, Credits, Tags, Truth: Due Diligence in a New Realm
An increasingly popular way for corporations to demonstrate their environmental stewardship is through carbon offsets. Essentially, companies acknowledge their carbon footprint — the total tonnage of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere by their activities, including travel — and then buy “offsets” or “verified emission reductions” (VERs) to bring them to carbon “neutrality” or “balance.” One “offset” reduces one ton of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when your offset purchase price funds a project such as tree planting (trees absorb CO2).
But let's back up. Environ-mentalists would call offsets the third step. First, reduce emissions as much as possible. Second, get some or all of your electricity from renewable energy sources. Then consider offsets.
Sustainable Travel International estimates that offsetting the carbon emissions of an event can cost $250 to $2,000, depending on the event's size. Including offsets for attendee hotel stays and air travel adds $25 to $50 per person.
But questions arise. Who calculates your footprint? Who sells you the offsets? Who verifies that your money goes to a viable project? What about “double counting”? (That is, are you being sold the same offsets that someone else is buying?) Do your offsets meet the “additionality” test? (That is, are you buying emissions reductions that were going to happen anyway, even without your investment?)
The following organizations certify or vet carbon providers, offering a starting point for companies wanting to purchase offsets.
www.cleanair-coolplanet.org CA-CP commissioned the first report vetting 30 carbon- offset providers. Because the marketplace of offset providers has expanded since the research was done, CA-CP considers the specific vendor assessments in the report outdated. Still relevant and available, however, is CA-CP's comprehensive review methodology, which companies could use to assess their own potential vendors.
www.fightglobalwarming.org A Web site created by the Environmental Defense Fund. Recommends four providers selling offsets for $4 to $8 per ton of CO2
www.cdmgoldstandard.org The Gold Standard certification, developed by several international nonprofits, is given only to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects — in other words, those that seek to reduce emissions in the first place.
www.green-e.org certifies renewable energy credits. A word of warning: Some organizations consider RECs, which are most often used to buy wind power and “add it to the grid,” problematic. That's because of the challenge of meeting the “additionality” test — the test of whether this renewable energy would have been produced anyway, in the absence of the RECs.
www.ghgprotocol.org offers the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard, which helps companies prepare a GHG inventory that represents a true account of their emissions.
www.conservation.org Helps companies create sustainability plans
www.nativeenergy.com Offsets help build Native American-owned renewable energy projects.
www.drivinggreen.com Offsets support projects to reduce methane and nitrous oxide in agriculture.
www.atmosclear.org Offsets support collecting landfill gas from a facility outside Chicago and using it as fuel for generating electricity.
www.atmosfair.com Offsets support projects in developing countries.
www.carbonneutral.com Read the CarbonNeutral Protocol, an exhaustive guide to evaluating projects.
www.carbonfund.org You can choose your project.
www.terrapass.com Projects happen the same year you buy your offsets.
www.climatecare.org Read project case studies.
www.climatetrust.com Wide variety of projects
www.ebluehorizons.net Offshoot of The Conservation Fund; focus on reforestation
www.sustainabletravel.com In addition to earning certifications such as the CDM Gold Standard, projects meet internal standards for respecting local culture and generating positive side benefits for the community.