When the American Institute of Architects committed to greening all 140 of its meetings, including one of the largest association conventions in the country, it set off a wave of compliance among all its vendors, venues, and exhibitors, including a contractor that went on to develop an eco-friendly product that is now the standard for all its clients.

The Canadian Medical Association has also left its mark. The association's dedication to green meetings has not only had an impact on the environment, but it has changed the way two hotels operate and led one venue to develop a composting program for a professional tennis tournament.

Call it the ripple effect: These associations are finding that their embrace of green meetings has an impact far beyond the meeting hall.

Sign of the Times

Green is not just a fad or lofty ideal for AIA — it's a way of life. One of the association's major initiatives is to promote the design and construction of sustainable buildings. By 2010, it hopes to see carbon emissions from new buildings reduced by half, and by 2030, the goal is to have all new buildings be carbon-neutral — including hotels and convention centers. “It helps when your association has sustainability as a goal,” says Tonya Horsley, manager, meetings and registration at AIA. The commitment carries over into other areas as well, including green meetings. “It all ties in together.”

While it may take some time for the green architecture initiative to take hold throughout the cities of the world, the green meetings initiative that began with a waste audit of the annual meeting three years ago is already paying off in the organization's meetings — and beyond. AIA has implemented about 80 percent of the audit report's recommendations, resulting in a 17-page “Green Meetings Guidelines” document Horsley developed to apply to the approximately 140 smaller, external meetings that AIA holds throughout the year. Then there's the 24,000-attendee annual meeting, an entity of its own.

How do these initiatives move from the meeting to the larger world? Here's an example: One of the 100-plus items on AIA's green-meetings wish list for the massive annual meeting is to encourage vendors to use recyclable signs with soy-based ink, says Chris Gribbs, AIA's managing director, convention.

A few years ago, the show's general contractor, Champion Exposition Services, at the behest of AIA, suggested trying recyclable cardboard signs instead of the typical vinyl. The graphics were not as crisp on cardboard, but it was usable.

After that, Champion brought the idea to a local manufacturer, looking to improve on the product, making it easier to print graphics on it while keeping it recyclable. The result was the creation of a new product for Champion, Eco-Sign — a renewable and recyclable cardboard designed specifically for event signage. Thanks to AIA's green meetings initiatives, Champion's Eco-Sign material is now the exclusive backing for all of its more than 300 trade show clients.

AIA doesn't just ask its vendors to make changes; attendees are also asked to contribute, whether it's printing materials at home to bring to the meeting, carpooling or using public transportation, or signing up for a carbon-offset program. Exhibitors too are getting greener: The association used to have a “green pavilion” in the exhibit hall to showcase companies using sustainable products and services, but now they no longer have a pavilion because so many exhibitors have gone green.

Wasting Away?

Of course, the changes that ripple out to vendors begin at home, with AIA's meetings. Waste from the smaller meetings Horsley is in charge of has been drastically reduced — probably by at least 50 percent for most, with many meetings close to zero waste — since the green meetings initiative began. Considering that it takes about 17 trees to produce one ton of paper (according to AIA's green meetings guidelines) and that the average meeting attendee generates about 61 pounds of waste per meeting (according to a 2001 Environmental Protection Agency study), think about the tons of waste diverted and trees saved across 140 meetings. Add in all the internal meetings and AIA chapter meetings, where greening is also a priority, and the impact is even greater.

But it can be difficult to figure out how great that impact may be. One of the big issues that AIA and other associations are grappling with is how to measure the effect they are having — whether it's the amount of waste diverted, the environmental impact, the amount of money saved, the effect on brand/marketing, attendee satisfaction, educational outcomes, and so on. It can be expensive to hire a consultant to do it and time-consuming and difficult to do it in-house. Nonetheless, Horsley says AIA is working on it. “That's the next step for me right now, trying to see where we've made a difference.”

A Different Approach

For AIA's small meetings, Horsley can include a survey in every request for proposal with questions designed to evaluate the venues' green practices: Does it recycle? Does it compost? Does it have access to public transportation? Does it use sustainable caterers and food service? Does it use mugs instead of disposable cups? “We take their green practices into consideration when we are contracting,” Horsley says. They can also select venues that are closest to most delegates to cut down on the emission of travel-related greenhouses gases. (See sidebar at left.)

Gribbs doesn't have that same luxury when it comes to the annual convention. Conventions are booked 10 years out, so meeting staff must work with the destination as best they can, even if the site doesn't meet all AIA's green requirements. Secondly, there are only so many cities that can handle a 24,000-person meeting, so options are somewhat limited. Plus, since AIA requires dozens of hotels in its room block, it can't afford to select only the most environmentally conscious hotels. But still, the association does as much as it can to make sure that hotels, vendors, and convention centers are meeting its requirements.

For the 2008 meeting in Boston this spring, Gribbs' list was six pages long with more than 100 action items broken down into 11 categories: general; destination and venue selection; marketing and communication; exposition production; convention center facility; food and beverage; transportation; housing; office procedures; educational content; and miscellaneous. (See “Green Meetings Wish List” sidebar, above left, for details).

It starts with what Gribbs calls the “low-hanging fruit” — low- or no-cost steps that are easy to implement. Essentially, it involves simply asking attendees, vendors, and venue staff for their cooperation, he says. For example, ask the convention center to recycle; the exhibitors to use electronic communications instead of brochures; the hotels to clean linens only on request; and attendees to use public transportation, if available. (More than 2,500 weekly “T” passes were sold for the Boston convention.)

In all of its contracts, the association asks vendors to support AIA in meeting its green initiatives. “They sign off on that acknowledgement that yes, AIA wants to be green. So they are ready when we do come down the road and ask: ‘What can you do for us?’ They know their task is to support AIA's green initiative,” says Gribbs.

He knows AIA represents just one meeting of hundreds that venues handle each year, but he hopes that there's some learning along the way, and that AIA practices are carried forward.

Leaving a Legacy

Like the AIA planners, Sandra Wood, annual meeting manager at the Canadian Medical Association, has certainly left a mark at the hotels and venues where she's planned annual meetings the past two years.

This past August, CMA met in Montréal at Le Sheraton Centre, and Wood, an active member in the Green Meetings Industry Council, came prepared with a four-page list of action items that she wanted to see the hotel adopt for the 550-attendee annual meeting.

She soon realized that she was dealing with a hotel that had no green initiatives in place. “I was starting over again,” she says. The year before, she had been through a similar process with the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver.

In reality, the hotel actually did have some green practices in place that weren't being taken into account. For starters, it recycles, uses environmentally friendly cleaners and energy-efficient lights, and linens are changed only upon request. But, one big piece that was not in place was composting. So Wood soon helped with that.

She had heard through a colleague that the nearby Palais des Congrès convention center in Montréal had done composting for a meeting, so she contacted the center looking for information on what contractor it used.

Convention center officials were quite helpful. They agreed to Wood's request to do a conference call with her hotel and two off-site venues she was using. “They realized that it benefits all the venues and the city,” she says.

After the convention center officials explained the composing process they used, Wood encouraged the venues to devise a composting strategy for her meeting, but tried not to be too forceful. “I can't come in with a heavy hand and say, ‘Thou shalt do this.’ You get better results if you are reasonable.” And results are what she got. The venues agreed to compost for the meeting, but since they each had to hire a composting contractor, it cost CMA extra. Wood is not sure about how it has affected the budget as the meeting just ended, but she does know that she will budget for such contingencies in the future.

The aftermath is interesting. One of the off-site venues that participated, Le Stade Uniprix, decided to put the composting program in place for a major professional tennis tournament, the Rogers Cup, which attracted thousands of visitors. It was held in July, a month before the CMA meeting.

As for the hotel, it met nearly three-quarters of Wood's requirements, including composting. For one evening social event, staff said they had only one bag for the landfill. Overall, they estimated that about half of the waste that would have otherwise gone to the dump was composted. Beyond that, the hotel now has a green team in place, spearheaded by Lisa Dalla Riva, the convention services manager who worked with CMA, and Didier Luneau, director of food and beverage, who oversaw the composting efforts.

From New to Norm

“It was the first time we ever had a request like that, so it was a new concept for us,” says Luneau. Its experience with CMA provided the hotel with the blueprint, processes, and resources necessary to put on a green meeting for any client that wishes it, says Luneau.

“We are not afraid of the question any more, because we know that we can do it,” says Dalla Riva. In fact, the hotel recently included green initiatives in its rate cards sent out to clients. Not all of the things that CMA asked for have been adopted as a standard. The hotel doesn't have the wherewithal to make composting a standard procedure, but it can and will, if requested by a client. However, several green ideas from Wood have become the norm at the hotel, such as providing water coolers instead of bottles (unless requested), placing pads and paper in a pile at the back of the meeting room instead of at each seat, and not using saucers for coffee cups. “Those small details can make a huge difference,” says Luneau. “Because of our experience with CMA, we now are able to replicate these practices with other clients.”

CMA provided the launching pad for a new environment committee at the hotel, which meets once a month to develop green initiatives and help train employees on them. “There was a momentum created by this meeting, and we definitely want to grow with that,” he says.

Scoring a Green Medal

Ottawa-based CMA had a similar affect the year before when it met at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver. It was the first year that Wood had full support from CMA association leaders to go green with the event. She came to the meeting with a wish list of 18 items such as asking guests if they wanted newspapers delivered to their rooms instead of having them delivered automatically, providing local cuisine, and shutting off the lights after the turn-down service, to name a few.

The hotel staff at the Westin snapped into action, creating an environment committee exclusively for CMA. “I didn't ask them to [create] a committee,” says Wood. “The CSM [convention services manager] recognized that she was going to need the support of other departments within the hotel to make it happen.” The green team at Westin helped CMA meet the majority of the items on its wish list, including composting, which the city already offered as part of waste pickup. “I expected push back because I was asking a lot, but I was very pleasantly surprised with the fact that the CSM was so enthusiastic and the hotel responded the way they did,” says Wood.

The environmentally friendly legacy that Wood and CMA left behind is the committee, which the Westin kept in place for future groups. One of those future groups is the International Olympic Committee, which named the Westin Bayshore the official home of the IOC for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. “I think the IOC comes with a number of green requirements, so [hotel staff] realized that the changes that I was asking for would benefit them in the long term,” says Wood.

Wood is pleased with the help she has received from suppliers and the successes they helped CMA achieve in greening its meetings. But just as exciting, perhaps, is the green footprint CMA has left in both Montréal and Vancouver. “I'm thrilled because part of greening is about leaving legacies wherever you go. I'd like to think that we have done that.”

AIA's Green Meetings Wish List … A Sampling

  • Print fewer promotional materials and use recycled paper for those you do print.
  • When providing copies of documents, print on both sides of the paper.
  • Make sure printed documents are on recycled paper and printed with soy-based ink.
  • Post exhibitor kits electronically via a Web site or ship them on CD-ROM.
  • Include green tips and guidelines for the exhibitors in the exhibitor service manual.
  • Solicit and expand green sponsorship opportunities offered to exhibitors.
  • Print name badges on recycled paper and recycle name badge holders.
  • Encourage exhibitors to avoid bringing large quantities of collateral and fewer samples, and send information upon request.
  • Minimize packaging materials by shipping displays in reusable, recyclable crates and containers and using biodegradable shipping and packing materials.
  • Eliminate paper handouts at education sessions. Post materials and resources online only and encourage use of free Wi-Fi throughout the building.
  • Recycle and reuse all contractor-supplied materials and furnishings, including wall systems, counters, bins, platforms, trusses, gallery partitions, aisle carpet, stanchions, and tables.
  • When possible, work with caterers and hotel staff who are familiar with planning environmentally-friendly meetings.
  • Ask your supplier to buy local, in-season produce to avoid costly transportation of goods.
  • Provide bulk condiments, beverages, and other food service items instead of individually wrapped packages, when possible.
  • Avoid use of coffee stirrers, straws, and paper doilies.
  • Ask attendees to pre-order meals to save food waste.
  • Secure as many hotel rooms as possible within walking distance of the venue/convention center and public transit.
  • Donate excess food to community service organizations; compost perishables not donated.
  • Offer fair trade, organic coffee.
  • Provide reusable coffee mugs rather than disposable cups.
  • Sort and recycle all nonfood waste — paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum, metals, carpet, food waste, and grease.
  • If you have enough lead time, select destinations closest to the majority of your attendees to minimize air travel.
  • Look for a destination with an airport that can most efficiently offer the most direct flights for attendees, reducing air travel.
  • Promote the use of public and mass transportation in advance and offer transit passes via registration process.
  • For regional or drive-to meetings, encourage carpooling.
  • Encourage attendees to turn off lights and air conditioners in their hotel rooms when leaving.
  • Survey and identify hotel green programs and amenities.
  • Encourage full participation in green initiatives by all vendors, hoteliers, convention center staff, and service providers.
  • Use local talent, products, and services when possible.
  • Expand use of renewable/recyclable materials for signage and print with water-based inks.
  • Establish general contractor sustainability guidelines and monitor post-event reporting.

Big Meeting, Big Effect

The 2009 American Institute of Architects convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco “will probably be the largest green meeting we've ever done here,” says Kathleen Hennesey, recycling manager at Moscone. SMG, which runs the Moscone, is piloting a zero-food-waste initiative, where all food-related waste is recycled, composted, or donated to local organizations. Overall, Moscone diverts about 60 percent of waste from the landfill for a typical event, says Hennesey. How much is diverted depends on the commitment of the client to work with vendors, exhibitors, and attendees to reduce waste and use sustainable materials because, ultimately, if the materials that exhibitors and vendors bring into the facility aren't recyclable, they'll wind up in the waste stream. With AIA, that commitment is strong, she says. “They have been exceedingly proactive in planning a green meeting from its inception,” says Hennesey. “We should surpass a diversion rate of 60 percent on AIA.”

Considering one person generates 61 pounds per 4-day meeting on average, that's more than 900,000 pounds of waste diverted — from one meeting.

The Carbon Conundrum

One big part of greening meetings is looking at its carbon footprint — that is, how much carbon emissions all its component parts generate. There are many services that measure a meeting's carbon footprint, such as Carbonfund.org, and offset it with tree-planting programs and other remedies to mitigate greenhouse gases. What meeting planners need to know about a meeting's carbon footprint is that about 90 percent of the carbon emissions from a typical meeting comes from attendee and exhibitor travel, according to Eric Carlson at Silver Spring, Md.-based Carbonfund.org.

For all the greening Sandra Wood, annual meeting manager, Canadian Medical Association, tries to do on site, it represents perhaps 10 percent to 20 percent of the overall carbon footprint. The rest is travel, so if you don't have the money to do carbon offsets, you need to think about limiting travel whenever possible.

That means selecting cities close to most delegates or destinations that have the most direct flights, says Carlson. You can also hold meetings close to airports or within walking distance of hotel rooms to minimize travel costs. The other option is to replace some smaller meetings with virtual meetings.

More On/Meetingsnet.com

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