By Tom Kessler
Green Right Now
Much as a forest fire clears the land and leaves behind essential nutrients to enrich a new generation of growth, the devastation of the travel and meetings industry caused by a global economic collapse has left a few seedlings. One of them is the nascent green meeting industry, which has more than gotten a foothold. In many respects, green meetings are fast becoming the only kind of meetings.
This new reality is driven in part by the needs of cash-strapped corporations and associations to trim costs and eliminate waste – an approach that’s central to the green meeting industry. And as large corporations increasingly measure the carbon footprints of all their activities – travel to meetings and conferences is getting more scrutiny.
But the green meeting industry suffers the same identity issues facing any adolescent. For one, the terms “green meeting” and “sustainable meeting” can have different meanings to different people. That’s why the industry is moving to release a new standard in the coming weeks – a set of requirements that will finally get everyone in the event-planning industry on the same page. At least, that is the hope.
That standard, and its underlying components, will be the key topic of discussion when the Green Meeting Industry Council holds its 2010 Sustainable Meetings Conference in Denver from Feb. 9-11. The council, formed in 2003, has seen a recent surge in membership, jumping from 135 members in 2008 to more than 500 members in 17 countries today.
“The number of planners and companies planning green meetings has been increasing every year for the last few years,” said Tamara Kennedy-Hill, executive director of the GMIC. “According to meeting industry surveys, about 51 percent of meeting planners – corporate and association – say that they’re planning or expect to plan a green meeting.
“So we’re seeing that the awareness is increasing but the actual practice of ‘what does that mean’ – the definition has been changing each year and creating confusion in the marketplace. People will say they are planning a green meeting and they’ll think that means just recycling or cutting back on bottled water usage – and those are elements – but the sophistication of what that really means as the integration into their events has really shifted, and that’s why there’s been such a push for standards.”
With support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the new standard is being drafted by the Convention Industry Council’s Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) and will be voted on by the venerable standards-setting agency ASTM International.
The standard will focus on nine sectors within the planning process:
- Audio/Visual and Production
- Communications and Marketing
- Food and Beverage
- Meeting Venue
- On-Site Offices
“It will be a way for planners to go through and get a strong checklist for facilities and comparing them to each other,” Kennedy-Hill said. “It’s really going to help define what it means to have a green meeting because there will be a benchmark comparison.”
And once the standard is finalized, it will fall to the non-profit Green Meeting Industry Council to help put them into practice. “What we’re focusing on is making sure that once these standards get launched, they’re getting used in the marketplace,” Kennedy-Hill said.
To that end, GMIC’s upcoming conference will not only cover the concepts outlined in the green meeting standard, it will implement them within the event. For example, to reduce paper for the event, the bios of the speakers are not listed in the program but rather uploaded to social media sites in advance. Denver was selected to host the event because its Colorado Convention Center has a lengthy list of green features and is located in a pedestrian-friendly area.
All of this activity comes amid a growing shift in the corporate environment, where meeting planners are now asking frequent questions about green practices.
Rob Bourestom, who manages the Addison Conference Centre and Addison Theatre Centre in Addison, Texas, said he’s seen requests for sustainable meeting practices increase significantly in the last year and a half. The center, which hosts about 650 events per year, has responded by seeking out more green vendors and caterers (especially those that offer local and organic choices); adding wi-fi so attendees can distribute documents electronically and adding energy-saving lighting and low-water plumbing fixtures.
“That’s really required to host someone like the U.S. Green Building Council,” he said, recalling a USGBC event at the North Texas facility just north of Dallas.
Addison’s conference center, like many newer styled meeting facilities, features large exterior windows to let in natural light, but with overhangs that block the heat from the mid-day sun. The adjoining theater has been adding LED stage lighting, which is vastly more energy efficient than the previous lights.
It’s not just city centers that have moved to attract the greener-thinking convocations. Major hotel chains are beginning to offer more options for meetings, such as washable linens in place of paper tablecloths, pitchers of water to replace the bottled variety and “back of the house” changes such as food waste recycling that lower the carbon footprint of events.
Marriott, among others, is facilitating greener gatherings by presenting planners with a menu of alternative actions so they craft an event within their own eco-comfort zone. “A lot of big companies have meeting planners that bid out conferences,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Hampton. “We’ve seen more and more of those meeting planners asking about our environmental initiatives.”
Kennedy-Hill says many corporations now have sustainability reporting requirements or they are part of carbon disclosure projects, so they have to track all their areas of impact. “And first they are looking internally, if they produce widgets or whatever they are looking to reduce their emissions, but then they also are looking at their business travel. They’re starting to look and measure and asking more questions about green hotels and business travel expectations because they’re going to have to put that into their own sustainability report.”
None of this would be happening if the economics didn’t work. But event planners are usually able to identify cost savings that make holding a green meeting a lower-cost or, at worst, a break-even proposition.
“For the most part it’s cost saving, especially for the planner side,” said Kennedy-Hill. “Different things you’re doing are costs savings. You’re looking at technology and innovation to enhance your event. There are trade-offs in some areas. You might spend a bit more on organic food choices, but you saved on your printing costs because you’re not having a big program and you saved on your mailing costs.”
Facilities see an upside as well, from not only the ability to attract groups looking to hold a green event, but also from energy savings. In Orlando, the Orange County Convention Center, the nation’s second largest, has rolled out a wide range of green initiatives. In one project , new low-wattage LED lights from Albeo Technologies replaced aging 400-watt metal halide fixtures that cut 325 watts of power per fixture. The combined energy and maintenance savings achieved a payback in less than one year, and the installation is estimated to eliminate more than 1,400,000 lbs of carbon over its life.
“This needs to be part of your business model,” said Kennedy-Hill. “Green meetings – sustainable meetings – should be an integration of looking at where can you minimize your impacts, how can you reduce overall and how does that save you money. It has to be connected. It doesn’t make sense to do something that’s going to put you out of business.”
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