As a buzzword, sustainability is less punchy than green. But on the plus side, it actually means something. “What does it mean to be ‘green’? The answer is, there is no answer,” said Harry Lewis, attorney advisor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, during a panel discussion onat the recent Financial & Insurance Conference Planners Annual Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz. “So we should use the word sustainability because sustainability has a meaning. It means, ‘carrying on the business of life in a way that preserves the ecosystem for future generations.’”
The business of meeting planners' lives is to bring together hundreds of thousands of attendees every year to learn and network — and to use the planet's natural resources while creating tons of waste.
But don't stop reading yet. It can be easier than you imagine to make a big difference. “Small steps matter,” said Regina Baraban, editor of FIM and moderator of the session. “When thinking about greening your meetings, don't be discouraged by the volume of information out there. Think about your first steps.”
That's how Kelly Porter, CMP, manager, meeting and conference management, Manulife Financial in Waterloo, Ontario, is approaching the issue. Porter was tapped to launch her company's effort to lessen the environmental impact of meetings. “We do about 250 meetings a year, with a total of more than 20,000 attendees. Think about the impact of just eliminating water bottles for that many people,” she said.
Of course, Porter expects complaints about the water, so she'll be trying a tip she recently heard about for water stations: Make them appealing by using glass containers and adding sliced fruit. Then you can call it “spa water” or “gourmet water.”
Porter said the greening of Manulife's meetings also will be evident in site selection. The meeting team will add questions to its RFPs to find out what hotels and resorts are doing to move toward sustainability. “We will incorporate their answers into our decision-making,” she said. The EPA's Lewis said his agency has created rules for its meeting planners when buying conference center or meeting hotel space. Bids must include answers to 14 questions about environmental performance, and those answers are considered in site selection. The next step, he explained, is to get specific. What, for example, are satisfactory answers to questions about recycling and water conservation programs at meeting properties? Keep up with the EPA's progress on that front at www.epa.gov/oppt/greenmeetings. (And see the 14 questions you could add to your RFPs on page 12.)
One hotel company with solid answers to environmental questions is Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. During the panel discussion, Michelle White, the lodging company's director of environmental affairs, identified the hotel business as a prime candidate for sustainability efforts: “We are the house that never sleeps,” she said. “The lights are always on.”
Fairmont's EcoMeet Planning Guide — www.fairmont.com/environment — is available to help meeting planners assess sustainability efforts. “There is a changing business environment,” White said. “Requests for environmental information as part of the RFP process are huge and growing.” Make no mistake, she noted, “If you hold a green meeting, you are not compromising the luxury experience for your attendees.” On the contrary, promote your efforts and let them feel great about themselves and their company.
Kelly Porter, CMP, is point person for Manulife Financial's push to reduce the environmental impact of its meetings.
Here are her ideas for getting going:
Ask your meeting hotel not to put out paper napkins or plastic stirrers at coffee breaks.
Have cocktail napkins available at bars, but ask bartenders not to automatically give one to each person.
Put recycling bins in meeting rooms.
Provide a drop-off spot for name tags so that they can be reused.
Don't put dates on signage so that some of it can be reused.
Ask speakers to provide e-versions of their presentations instead of handouts.
Don't pre-pour water at meals.
Reduce packaging of room gifts.
Consider the extent and type of your décor. Look for reusable or recyclable materials.
Eliminate paper flowing between you and your meeting hotel by using electronic versions of forms such as BEOs.
Use white boards instead of flip charts in breakout sessions.
Put conferencematerials on a conference Web site (created at your corporate intranet) and eliminate some or all mailings.
Require signups for meals to reduce the waste that comes from.
“Most of these ideas are cost neutral or even represent a cost-savings,” Porter notes, and won't negatively affect the attendee experience. But, she advises, “let attendees know why you are making changes and what the benefits are. Promote it so that they feel good about it.”