Shawna Mckinley became executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council in October 2006, about the time the topic ofbecame the hot button of the industry. And once the media attention on green issues inevitably begins to wane, McKinley will still be at her post, continuing to educate meeting professionals and suppliers on how to achieve more sustainable meetings. We caught her between speaking engagements — her next one will take her all the way to Taiwan — to find out what we can expect from her in a time when planners and suppliers are seeking more guidance than ever from the organization that she helped to found.
What sparked your interest in environmental issues and green meetings?
During college, I worked as an event planner on Vancouver Island and was involved with putting on festivals and events for the community, and I enjoyed working in that sector. When I left university, I had an opportunity to work with the Oceans Blue Foundation. It was involved in providing education around environmentally responsible tourism, and one project that I worked on was the BlueGreen Meetings initiative, which was the first online tool for environmental best practices for meetings and events.
I was involved with the formation of the [Green Meeting Industry] Council and helped to put together its first business plan in 2003. I just continued on, first as a, and now on the staff, and have seen the organization evolve to really respond to what the industry is looking for as far as sustainability.
Since becoming executive director last fall, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
That would be the production of our first white paper on green meetings, which was released in March. We had our annual conference in Portland, Ore., in February, and rather than have a closing keynote presenter, we decided to make it a working session with the delegates. We had about 90 meeting professionals from around North America and some from Europe, and we sat them down in a room and had a facilitated session where they were asked to identify what they felt were the highest-priority needs for the industry in terms of sustainability. Many, many ideas came forward, and we began to prioritize them. The outcome of that session went into the production of that white paper.
The report, The Future is Green, identifies what the GMIC will accomplish in the next 12 months, and at the end of that document is a list of our goals and plans as well as industry best practices and recommendations.
What is the biggest challenge you face in this role?
Resources. It's become a challenge to keep up with the interest and the number of inquiries for presentations, articles, interviews. It's wonderful — don't get me wrong — but we're a very small organization, and we're largely volunteer-based. So we're learning to develop the response systems we need very quickly to meet the demand for the work that we do. I'm always looking for new partners to support us financially and with their time, and that is a very energy-intensive process. But it's a great problem to have.
Offsetting carbon emissions is such a hot topic right now. What other aspects of greening meetings are top of mind for planners?
That is definitely the No. 1 issue right now. Probably one of the most common questions is, “How can I offset or neutralize my emissions for conferencing?” One of the things that we encourage people to consider is that a carbon offset is really a Plan B. We always tell people to keep in mind that an offset is a way to help mitigate emissions that you can't avoid or reduce.
The other thing that is a hot topic right now is the question of locally grown organics for food and beverage providers. It can be a challenge for a planner to choose between organic products that might have to be transported in from quite a ways away or getting something local. Local obviously does not have the transport footprint associated with it, but it also doesn't have the organic aspects. We tell planners to weigh the impact of each scenario. It might mean that they select the organic product that has to be trucked in from a greater distance and then offset the emissions associated with that. There's a lot of critical problem solving involved, and very rarely is there a cut-and-dried answer about the best environmental choice.
Another hot topic is certification. Meeting planners come to us and say, “I want a green hotel, but there is a diversity of eco-labels and certifications for hotels out there. Which one do I choose?” We always tell planners that it's a situation of buyer beware. Each certification or eco label or green hotel association has its own set of environmental criteria, and planners need to look into what those criteria are to determine what actual green service they are getting.
One goal of the GMIC is for green meetings to have zero net environmental effect by 2020. What still needs to be done to get us there?
Until recently, it was a struggle to get people to even consider sustainability as relevant to their meetings. Now we have people coming to us and asking informed questions, and they are interested in actually doing something.
The risk in this level of interest in green meetings is that it could become a fad. I think that, realistically, the media attention to this topic will go away eventually. So the key challenge is preparing professionals in the industry to lay the foundation for a long-term commitment to sustainability. That will ultimately allow us to get to that goal, which is to have zero net environmental effect for our meetings, and to have brown meetings become a thing of the past and green meetings become a mainstream practice.
What is the single most important thing a meeting professional can do to make meetings more sustainable?
Start with a statement of your environmental expectation for your meeting — whether that is a vision statement or a policy statement. The biggest difference you can make is articulating that policy in writing, because then it can provide you with a tool to go forth and do many other things to develop your practices. You can use it as a statement when you approach vendors to determine what their practices are, as well.
One thing planners we work with say is, “I'm green as an individual, it's important to me to recycle, and I purchase local organics, but when I try to do this within my organization, I feel as if it falls on deaf ears.” These planners have a real challenge with the prevailing culture in their organizations when it comes to environmental practice. But often articulating what your environmental commitment is in writing is the first step to overcoming that challenge.
What is one misconception about green meetings that corporate execs or meeting planners have?
The perception that greening meetings is a hassle and that it takes more time and is going to involve a big financial investment.
The reality is, that is not the case. We have growing anecdotal evidence that there are many cost-saving opportunities associated with greening meetings.
What are the greatest changes you have seen as far as meeting venues and hotels?
Across the United States, more and more conference venues — if they are renovating, if they're undertaking new builds, or if they are expanding their centers — are looking at Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System certification for their facilities. We have the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, which is a platinum-certified LEED building, and centers in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, and Phoenix all being built with LEED certification in mind.
It's very exciting that they are seeing not only cost advantages, in terms of the increased efficiency that green buildings can give them, but also advantages in terms of a marketing niche. One good example of that is the Toronto Convention Center, which — since the PCMA conference in January — has become quite enthusiastic about promoting its green achievements as a center.
What do you see the council doing next?
We're at this point where we have a wonderful opportunity to capture a baseline of data about what our environmental performance is as an industry and then to track the difference that we're making through our green practices. I think the industry — because it is so broad and affects so many sectors — can make a huge difference in things such as reducing our climate change impact and ensuring that we're paying attention to the health of our water supply and to our consumption of energy.
I'd like to look at the research that we're doing to capture the environmental difference that we're making, but also at the business benefits of going green so that we can say yes, green meetings are avoiding costs; yes, they are saving money; yes, they are providing opportunity for growth in your business or providing you with the ability to access niche markets. I really want to provide tangible evidence of those things. Right now, we can provide only anecdotal and case study evidence.
The second thing that's a priority is standardization. Right now we have the Convention Industry Council's minimal practices, which provide a good starting point for people who want a checklist of how to get started with greening their meetings. But when we talk about someone holding a green meeting, there is no definitive standard about what that means and what it entails.
I also would like to develop an educational package — a module if you will — that can go out to people who are enrolled in hospitality management schools and meeting-planning courses throughout North America and provide some of the research that these people need. That way, when they come out of these universities, they are already considering sustainability as something they should integrate into their meeting processes. That to me is so important — basically looking at the next generation of planners.