Here's a title you don't run into everyday at a hotel: 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 we're willing to bet she won't be the last.

As social responsibility becomes more ingrained both in hotel chains and the companies that use them for meetings, hotels are increasingly focusing on philanthropic efforts and partnerships. Just about every major hotel chain has a list of charities to which they contribute, and many hotels within the chains go a step further, adding in 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 hotel and our primary concern is taking care of our guests. So what we do always 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 to be successful and there's a real connection between the environment at large and the community in which we live.”

Being a Good Neighbor

When Licata started her job in 1995, “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.”

Licata was also 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,” says Licata. “Hotels are always changing things and what do we do with [the discards]? They can become trash, we can sell them, or we can donate them.” Take guest room wastebaskets scheduled to be replaced, for example. “We can pay the costs of having them hauled away to sit in a landfill or we can donate them to people who need them,” notes Licata. 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 usable for consumers but no longer appropriate for the hotel. Even leftover foam core signage from hotel conferences is donated to art students.

Baby Steps

Donating goods is, 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. Inter-Continental, for example, supports UNICEF, Kimpton donates to Dress for Success, and Starwood is one of many hotel chains that partners with Habitat for Humanity. There are all manner of special programs that allow hotels to funnel monies to various charities or encourage hotel employees to donate time and/or money to socially responsible programs.

But do such efforts influence planners when it comes to site selection? Sometimes it does. For instance, social responsibility is important for groups that work with Nancy J. Wilson, CMP, president of Meeting Strategies Worldwide, a meeting-planning company based in Portland, Ore., that specializes in helping companies to develop socially responsible and green meetings. “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.”

Wilson notes that on site inspections, one question she always asks is where the leftover food goes. “Five years ago, hotels were surprised at that question; these days, they can all answer it,” she says, adding that the answer can be the deciding factor when choosing between two otherwise comparable hotels.

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.”

She also notes that planners don't necessarily need to be concerned with everything all at once. “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 that planners can do is look for hotels whose social responsibility efforts are aligned with their company's. For instance, if your company has a particular interest in helping young people with disabilities, check out the Marriott Foundation for People with Disabilities, which has placed roughly 9,000 young people with thousands of employers in seven metropolitan areas since 1990. Or those concerned with economic opportunities for women and minorities might be interested in Loews Hotels' 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 company's radar, be aware of Fairmont Hotels Adopt-A-Shelter program, in which each hotel in the chain donates gently used furniture, dishes, flatware, and more to local women's shelters.

Community service is another great way to partner up with hotels. At the San Francisco Hilton, Licata has helped to arrange “beach clean-ups, park clean-ups, sending attendees to shelters to serve meals, and more.” These efforts echo those of the hotel employees, who volunteer their time for such efforts as monthly visits to a women's shelter.

About a year ago, Omni Hotels of California debuted its “Groups for Giving” charity package at the Omni San Diego, Omni Los Angeles, and Omni San Francisco Hotel. Meeting attendees spend a day working on a local Habitat for Humanity project, leaving with a hard-hat souvenir and a lasting memory. The program came about following a meeting-planner fam trip to the Omni San Diego in 2004, when the attendees had very positive experiences participating in a similar program.

For Jennifer Cunningham, director of sales and marketing at Circus Circus in Reno, Nev., choosing which charities to partner with is a challenge. “There have been times when we've received a hundred requests a month for support,” she says. Her solution is to focus on “what impacts our employees and what we can do to help make their local community better for them.” To that end, many Circus Circus programs focus on literacy and education, such as 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. And this spring, with support from parent company MGM Mirage, the hotel paid to completely remodel two local school libraries.

Typically, the monies for hotel social responsibility programs come from hotel profits, matching funds from the parent company, or 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.”

Foreign Affairs

Of course, it's not just American hotels that work to help out their local communities. The international chain Accor, which has 4,000 hotels in 90 countries, has worked since 2003 with an international community development organization, called Plan, that focuses on children. Started in France and England, the hotel program was set up so that both customers and employees could sponsor individual children, either individually or in partnership with others. Today, more than 1,100 children are sponsored by Accor hotels. In addition, Accor participates in worldwide projects such as supporting tsunami survivors in Indonesia, nutrition training in Zambia, and building a school in Cambodia.

In Thailand, the Pan Pacific Bangkok started a classic win-win program a dozen years ago that's still going strong today and has expanded to many countries worldwide. Targeting high school girls at risk for exploitation in the country's pervasive sex tourism trade, the hotel partnered with UNICEF to create the Youth Career Initiative. Together, they provide young women training at the hotel in technical areas such as housekeeping, laundry, engineering, and food and beverage, as well as instruction in English and life skills such as computers, service etiquette, and personal finance. Upon completion, the women are qualified to work in the city's best hotels. Nearly two dozen hotels have joined in Bangkok and Manila, and the program has been expanded worldwide to help young women and men in such countries as Brazil, Poland, and Ethiopia, among others.

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

How to Make a Difference

Theoretically, one of the easiest ways planners can work with a hotel to make a difference is by ensuring that any of the group's leftover food is immediately donated, rather than discarded. In reality, there are some hotels that will make this more complicated than it needs to be, says Meeting Strategies Worldwide's Nancy J. Wilson, CMP. “We get pushback all the time from hotels that want to tell us we can't donate food,” she says. “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 liability 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 leftovers really can't be donated, including certain food that has been left outside of a temperature-controlled setting.

If your meeting hotel doesn't have a program already in place, contact America's Second Harvest (www.secondharvest.org), a nationwide network of more than 200 member food banks and food-rescue organizations for help in making appropriate arrangements.

For more information on donating food or other ways that organizations can make a positive difference during meetings, check out the Professional Convention Management Association's Network for the Needy, a program that promotes volunteerism within the meetings and hospitality industry throughout the U.S. and Canada at www.pcma.org/source/community/network/.