Can sustainable initiatives increase event registration, attendee satisfaction and stakeholder buy-in? Happy planners in the know certainly think so. They’re taking advantage of luxurious LEED-certified venues, custom menus with superior ingredients and options, huge savings on printing and marketing costs, and increased exhibitor-attendee interaction.
Giving your meeting a “green story” — a narrative that clearly communicates to attendees how your organization engages in responsible and sustainable policies, gives back to the community, and supports local initiatives and domestic producers — is a win-win, strengthening your brand image and attendee buy-in all in one go.
George Andreopoulos, vice president of AMP Associated Marketing Partners, Anna Gilmore Hall, executive director of the Hearing Loss Association of America, and Al Hutchinson, vice president of convention sales and marketing at the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau presented “Gaining by Greening: How to Communicate Your Sustainable Meeting Story for Maximum ROI” at the 2013 ASAE Annual Meeting. Here is a key takeaway from this learning lab: For-profit organizations are investing millions of dollars in social giveback and sustainability to ensure their audiences feel good about their brand. They do so because they know that how people feel about their organizations impacts the sale of their products and services.
Associations that embrace sustainable meetings have an opportunity to connect at a deeper level with their audience. To accomplish this, the most successful organizations get buy-in from senior stakeholders and integrate these initiatives within their overall marketing strategy.
To create green meetings that resonate with attendees, sustainability must be at the core of the planning process and policies, beginning with the very first discussions you have with your venue.
For Kate Hurst, director of events for the Washington, DC-based U.S. Green Building Council, this begins with the RFP. “For the annual show Greenbuild, because of its size, when we bargain with the city, we’re very clear in our expectations around sustainability with them before we will sign,” she says. “The expectations we have for the convention center are pretty comprehensive. We expect that they will commit to certain performance metrics around F&B sourcing and energy, water and cleaning product use. We’re still the only show I know that has mandatory green guidelines as part of the exhibitor contract covering how booths are designed, how they ship them, how booth staff travels and the way or amount of printed material they bring,” Hurst continues.
Carrie Abernathy, CMP, CEM, CSEP, director of education, training and events for Reston, Virginia-based Practice Greenhealth agrees that this work begins with RFPs and contracts, particularly in the case of vendors. “We obviously work with environmentally responsible vendors, and we put our vendors through an incredibly rigorous RFP process,” she explains. “We look at how they handle their waste to make sure that we’re using the greenest and most sustainable vendors in the space. Stetson convention services is our general decorating contractor. They don’t use harmful chemicals in carpets, and everything printed is soy ink and recycled paper.
“F&B is one of the most painful things that I go through,” she continues. “It’s one of the things that’s on the RFP, and we can’t sign a contract unless they’re willing to work with us, but I feel like I have to fight with the chef and the F&B team every time I do an event. I try to go out six months in advance just to start that conversation with the chef. You go to the chef, hand them your budget and be realistic. I give them past menus and offer suggestions, but sometimes their providers just aren’t willing to go to a higher-priced product to make sure it’s hormone-free, sustainable and local, and we have to go back and challenge them. We make sure that everything comes from no more than 100 miles away.”
Many organizations put out reports after the fact highlighting the effects of their sustainable initiatives, but like green meeting policies themselves, building attendee enthusiasm in your meeting’s green story must begin with the earliest communications. “We promote that we’re doing it in the first place in our registration materials and our organization website,” says Tony Pittman, CMP, program production coordinator of the Chicago-based Million Dollar Round Table.
While you can mention your upcoming green initiatives in promotional materials, incorporating it into the registration process ensures that attendees see your efforts and understand how integrated they are into the event. “Something we do that every conference should do is the carbon offset,” says Abernathy. “The attendees can go in and make a donation during registration. Even if people can’t expense it, many people feel so strongly that they give the $5 or $10 personally.”
Immediately before and during their event, Greenbuild offers attendees tips on how to “green your Greenbuild” through additional pages on the event websites, a “10 Things You Can Do to Green Your Greenbuild” pre-show email, and highlighted actions in the event’s mobile app suggesting ways to further green their experience. “We also build it into the website. We have public transit information and a link that allows them to report hotel issues. We have basic contract language we require hotels to commit to, and attendees will report to us if hotels are not recycling amenities, recyclables and towels. They’ll call and report on hotels if they aren’t following through,” says Hurst.
“We also have a display that talks about the sustainability program that we build into the look of the show,” she continues. “Every year it’s slightly different, and it highlights different pieces. One year we created a touch wall that highlighted different things like the booths and merchandise bags. Attendees could touch or feel what they were and connect to the product visually.”
For green meeting professionals, a post-show sustainability report is now the norm, incorporating the amount of emissions offset, electricity and water saved, waste diverted from landfills, pounds of materials recycled and pounds of items donated. “We’ve been doing reports since the beginning in 2002, and we keep them all online,” says Hurst. “We circulate the report in the hospitality industry and to the Green Meetings Industry Council, who sends it out to their membership. In 2012, we updated the format so it’s broken out into case studies that are easy to digest and replicate.”
One of the easiest ways to plan a green meeting without feeling like you’re dragging the venue along with you kicking and screaming is to start with a venue that not only agrees to work with you on sustainable practices, but already has them in place. In recent years, Practice Greenhealth’s main event, CleanMed, has taken place in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Phoenix and Denver, because these cities offered the most sustainable options to their planners.
For his 7,000–8,000-attendee annual meeting, Pittman is always in search of a North American location where the convention center already has its own sustainability programs. “Our meeting coming up in June is in Toronto, and they offer a program called ‘zero waste events.’ They say every trash item you produce is separated out and recycled, and at the end they tell you how much you recycled. They say on average 97 percent is reused or recycled. Any paper products they can recycle and a lot of the waste is food, which is composted or given to homeless shelters if that is appropriate.”
Booking a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified venue, which meets nationally recognized benchmarks for green building and operations, makes incorporating sustainable practices easier for meeting planners and can increase excitement among attendees. “We prefer LEED-certified wherever possible,” says Abernathy. “Once they pass that, we know they’re at the highest standard of sustainability — nobody has a water bottle, everything is served on china, no plastic, no styrofoam. But, especially for conferences this spring, we’re really having a hard time getting into LEED-certified venues. It’s becoming more of a competitive space. People are really realizing that the green thing isn’t going away.”
“We would love to use LEED-certified hotels all the time,” Hurst agrees. “You at least know that the way that they were built and operate is in a sustainable manner, and that the things that are easy for an attendee to spot will be green. But in some cities they aren’t available or they aren’t the right fit for our meeting.”
We prefer LEED-certified wherever possible. Once they pass that, we know they’re at the highest standard of sustainability — nobody has a water bottle, everything is served on china, no plastic, no styrofoam. But, especially for conferences this spring, we’re really having a hard time getting into LEED-certified venues. It’s becoming more of a competitive space. People are really realizing that the green thing isn’t going away.” — Carrie Abernathy, CMP, CEM
As stock of LEED-certified venues is outpaced by demand, cities that make sustainability a priority allow planners to continue their policy mandates and meet sustainable benchmarks. “We were in Philadelphia last year, and they were committed to working with us on waste conversion. We haven’t gotten numbers back, but our goal was 75 percent waste diversion. Everyone was on board and supportive.” Since Greenbuild’s visit, Philadelphia has continued to follow the lead set by their event and further optimized their sustainable practices, landing them a spot on GreenBiz.com’s 2014 list of the top 10 U.S. cities for green meetings.
Though the ROI of these measures is becoming better understood, planners — and those who approve their budgets — have mixed feelings as to the cost of sustainable initiatives. According to Pittman, “Being green is not cheap. I like that a lot of other places are starting to do locally sourced menus. It’s good for community and environment, because they’re not transporting stuff all over the place. However, it is a little more expensive because of that. We noticed higher prices last year when we did our meeting in Philadelphia, and we’re noticing higher F&B this year. With the Fairmont (Eco-Meet) program, I’m sure that the greener it is, the more it’s going to cost you.”
But while Pittman finds that the more sustainable initiatives he implements, the higher the price tag, not all planners are seeing this relationship. “I haven’t come across a hotel that has additional costs around that,” says Hurst. “It would be really disappointing if that were the direction the industry was heading in. Having pitchers of water instead of bottles is less expensive for the hotel as well as the planet.
“We’ll pay higher dollar for local or organic food, and we’ve built that into the budget,” she continues, “but we communicate with F&B that we’re flexible with the menus and that if they have a certain vegetable and something happens with the crop and they have to get something else, we have no problem with last minute changes.”
Abernathy agrees that F&B is the hardest area to negotiate, but highlights a key tactic for justifying the cost: trimming elsewhere. “I think only the F&B is something we pay a premium for, but we do save a lot of money in the marketing and printing department by not sending flyers and printing brochures.”
Pittman has revamped both his event and membership sign-ups to reap sizable savings on paper, shipping and in-house processing time. “We are pretty much paperless here,” he says. “This is the first year that our membership application is only available online, but we’re weaning them away from paper. We used to have several big mailings every year. So far, they like it. It’s straightforward, easy to use and lowers response time. We used to have a whole department that basically from three to four months out of the year was just inputting. Now, with it being online, half their work is done already.”
No matter the goals — and even the outcomes — of sustainable and responsible meeting initiatives, their success is dependent on attendee buy-in and enthusiasm more than any other metric. It’s a crucial part of justifying ROI. In its meeting planning and evaluation process, Greenbuild focuses on six key objectives: moving toward a zero waste event, increasing stakeholder education and engagement, improving sustainable sourcing, improving performance tracking, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and positively impacting communities.
Remember that involving attendees in and educating them on what you’re doing is, in its own way, nearly as impactful as having a zero waste event. AC&F
San Francisco. “We had a great expo in 2012 in San Francisco,” says Kate Hurst of the U.S. Green Building Council. “It’s eco-heaven. In particular though, they have a lot of older hotels, and a lot of historic properties have taken the time to retrofit and implement sustainable operations.”
Toronto. In addition to zero waste events, “you can have all your electricity be green from dams or wind turbines,” says Tony Pittman of the Million Dollar Round Table. “At the end of the event, they give you a certificate that says how much energy you offset.”
Chicago. “We took our annual conference there twice, and the first year they bent over backwards to work with us on sustainable needs at the convention center,” says Hurst. “They implemented and kept a lot of practices.”
The Vancouver Convention Center. “They make it easy for us. I don’t have to fight to get sustainable, farm-fresh food, and everything is recyclable,” says Carrie Abernathy of Practice Greenhealth.
Hyatt Regency. Hyatt Regency partners with the Clean the World Foundation to recycle bar soaps from guest rooms. In six months, one participating hotel alone diverted 3,000 pounds of waste from landfills with the program, which aims to prevent the top two diseases that together claim the lives of 9,000 children under five years old every day.
Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. With Eco-Meet, the Fairmont staff examines four components — eco-service, eco-food, eco-accommodations and eco-programs — to make sure every step of your meeting is sustainable.
Omni Dallas Convention Center Hotel. “They’re really incredible. It’s gold LEED-certified, and they’re doing amazing things with farm-to-table food,” says Abernathy.
The Virginia Beach Convention Center. The nation’s first convention center to earn LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, the convention center has spearheaded green practices throughout the state. — GL