Sustainable MeetingsMarch 1, 2017

A Joint Effort Between Planners and Suppliers Reaches a Deeper Shade of Green By
March 1, 2017

Sustainable Meetings

A Joint Effort Between Planners and Suppliers Reaches a Deeper Shade of Green
Table settings in the Marine Mammal Hall for the Site Classic event hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Credit: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Table settings in the Marine Mammal Hall for the Site Classic event hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Credit: © Monterey Bay Aquarium

Running environmentally responsible meetings is an ongoing challenge for planners who take that responsibility seriously. It seems there are always ways to reach a “deeper shade of green,” whether that means adding new eco-friendly practices at a particular meeting or expanding the practices to more of one’s events. The effort is always easier when a planner can partner with suppliers who also take sustainability seriously, or even better, a city or region known for its green practices.

A stellar example in this regard is Monterey County, California, where the first-ever Sustainable Hospitality Symposium was held on February 23. Local public officials, public policy experts, hospitality and tourism professionals, hospitality developers and contractors, and hospitality educators all gathered at the InterContinental The Clement Monterey with the goal of shaping “the future of the Monterey Bay region as the leading sustainable hospitality, eco-tourism and eco-recreation region in the country,” according to Shyam Kamath, dean of the College of Business at California State University, Monterey Bay.

“(When the distance…is manageable) use a pedometer for a walking challenge instead of having shuttles.
— Nancy Zavada, CMP

While Monterey County may not yet be the official leader in sustainable hospitality, it is certainly among the leaders, and as such has been an ideal partner for San Jose, California-based Maxim Integrated. The integrated circuits manufacturer is among Silicon Valley’s greenest companies. To give one example, its LEED Gold-certified headquarters campus obtains approximately 80–90 percent of its electricity from an onsite Bloom Energy System, whose low-carbon units convert clean natural gas into electricity with no emissions other than water, explains Tim Warren, corporate director of environmental health and safety.

Pilar Gutierrez, the company’s senior manager, corporate events and trade shows, does her part to ensure the green initiative extends to events. In Monterey County, she has worked with several facilities that support her efforts, including the Monterey Marriott, The Portola Hotel & Spa, Folktale Winery & Vineyards, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Gutierrez describes some of the green virtues of these venues, beginning with the Monterey Marriott: “One-fourth of Monterey Marriott’s energy comes from clean windmill power. They recycle office paper, plastic and glass, and use only post-consumer paper. Their property is Energy Star-certified, and they have water-saving showerheads in all guest rooms,” she says. “They provide reusable, thermal lunch boxes. Their light switches in offices and storage rooms have motion sensors and timed light switches.”

The Folktale Winery, she notes, “supports local businesses,” is organically farmed and “uses natural cleaning products throughout their facilities.” Both are important to her, as she tries to keep her “groups and attendees healthy and away from as many chemicals as possible.”

As for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Gutierrez points out that it “diverts approximately 90+ percent of their waste to be recycled and/or composted. They source their food within 30 miles of the aquarium to reduce their carbon footprint. And their chef’s food program is sustainable, organic and sourced locally.”

Green Meetings Are Found Everywhere

Indeed, keeping meetings green is greatly facilitated with the right supplier partners, such as the venues in Monterey. But sustainability-minded properties are not just found in cities and regions with a reputation for that value.

In Las Vegas, a city known primarily for lavish entertainment, MGM Resorts International is strongly committed to environmental responsibility with its Green Advantage program. The comprehensive sustainability platform integrates environmentally responsible practices that effectively lower the carbon footprint of the company’s hotel operations and hosted events. Green Advantage focuses on energy and water conservation, green building (CityCenter venues have received multiple Gold LEED Awards), maintaining sustainable supply chains, and recycling and water conservation.

“They do all recycling back of house,” observes Karen Zunkowski, director of global event marketing for ivanti, a South Jordan, Utah-based IT solutions company. “Many of the hotels that we’ve been using over the last 10 years have been MGM properties, where they have a pretty high standard” for sustainability.

Zunkowski plans the company’s Interchange conference, convening about 1,000 participants, as well as an annual sales kickoff for about 650 attendees. Like many planners, she considers a hotel’s level of “greenness” important, though not necessarily a deciding factor in site sourcing. “It’s definitely one of the considerations that’s part of our checklist as we’re doing venue searches,” she says. “I usually ask about their sustainability practices, but some have it somewhat buried in their website or conference materials. Others are very proud of their status and what they’re doing, and so they’re a little more obvious.”

Showcasing Sustainable Practices

In October, the Green Meeting Industry Council (an initiative of the Convention Industry Council) presented the results of a new research project, “Sustainable Meeting and Event Practices: The State of the Industry,” at IMEX America. Among the survey results, meeting professionals indicated their preference that their suppliers communicate sustainable practices at the RFP stage without being asked about them.

“One of the interesting things about the research was that there is a difference between planners and suppliers when it comes to communication on sustainable practices,” notes Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, MBA, director, sustainability, for the GMIC. “Planners want the information provided up front, while suppliers are waiting to be asked for the information. It’s a great opportunity for suppliers to deliver more than what is expected in a proposal by showcasing sustainable practices before being asked for them.”

Many suppliers will have no shortage of practices to describe to potential clients. According to the study, suppliers engage in more sustainable practices than their customers.

As far as which practices are most important to planners, the study listed the top 10 most requested as:

  • Sorting recyclables.
  • Donating leftover food to charitable organizations.
  • Diverting food waste from waste stream.
  • Linen and towel reuse programs.
  • Using water glasses and filling stations (in lieu of bottled water).
  • Offering vegetarian menu and allergy-friendly menus.
  • Sourcing local food
  • Using event apps (to reduce paper usage).
  • Requesting energy-efficient lighting.
  • Planning give-back programs for the local community.

Gutierrez cites several other practices that are important to her: “I like having the option to forgo daily room cleanings to save on wasting so much water on laundry, especially if the hotel uses chlorinated bleach, which is toxic for human health and the environment,” she says. “I also appreciate hotels that offer points instead of having your room cleaned.” Gutierrez, who uses Energy Star properties when possible, also prefers hotels that use solar power and those with programs for saving water (e.g., in the showers and toilets).

All of these qualities and practices are familiar to most experienced planners, and a variety of certifications and standards serve to indicate when a facility is performing well in these areas and others, when it is constructed in a sustainable manner, and when, and to what degree, a hosted event is environmentally responsible.

Education to Erase Confusion

The variety has apparently created some “confusion” among GMIC survey participants, who expressed that in their responses. McIlwraith feels education is needed to help relieve the confusion. “And we need to make the education about the standards easy to access and understand,” she says. Nancy Zavada, CMP, president and founder of MeetGreen, concurs, adding that “I don’t think there are too many certifications because they all basically (assess) something different. For example, LEED really helps because you know how the building was built, while Green Globe and Green Seal are for venue and hotel operations: what cleaning products they’re using, what kind of light bulbs. They might have built a recycling center, but are they using it? ISO 20121 is an event standard that deals mostly with systems management, while the APEX/ASTM (environmentally sustainable meetings) standards are more of a checklist.”

While the APEX standards are theoretically quite useful, Zavada observes that “they haven’t gotten really popular. They’re pretty rigorous, and planners are still looking for top 10 or top 15 (green practices), something less rigorous.”

Anecdotally, neither has she seen much traction among planners for MPI’s Sustainable Meeting Professional Certificate (SMPC), obtained after a three-hour course, the successful completion of which “will indicate that the holder is capable of planning an event compliant with ISO 20121 and APEX/ASTM standards and is able to meet the criteria for GRI reporting,” according to MPI.

While Zavada does not discourage planners from obtaining an SMPC or becoming versed in these standards, she does offer a more practicable route. “Planners can adopt their own sustainable events policy so they know what they’re going to ask for every single time, and they can use any one of those frameworks to start with,” she suggests. “They can pick the top 10 things and then next year add another, and so on.”

McIlwraith adds that planners already have the skillset to green their meetings, an initiative grounded in logistical thinking. “Fortunately, at its core, sustainability in the meetings industry is about making better choices and being more efficient,” she says. “The skills we use on a daily basis to produce events are the same ones we need to make them more sustainable. It’s just changing our focus a bit to consider the next steps, such as what happens to materials and waste after our events, and how we can intentionally design logistics to improve our environmental and social impact.”


One simple practice that can be added to most meetings is the charitable donation of reusable materials from the event. “We donate any leftover materials to local facilities, especially in Las Vegas where we host our Interchange user conference,” Zunkowski relates. “We work with an organization called The Teacher Exchange that (accepts)our signs, banners, leftover pens, folders, pads etc. They gather those things into a warehouse where local teachers can come and shop for materials for their classrooms.”

Food donation should be part of the event as well, and that can be coordinated through the host venue. “I think that’s a great one to institute,” says Zavada. “Make sure that the venue is donating food to a local food bank. I know there is misinformation regarding liability and health codes, but the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act holds you not liable for (the unwholesome condition of) any kinds of food donations made through a food bank,” except in cases of gross negligence. And if a venue is not already working with a food bank and begins doing so at the planner’s request, “you’re leaving a legacy behind in setting up those relationships,” she says.

In addition, McIlwraith suggests asking event technology providers to donate or recycle their batteries. It’s yet another simple green practice that is often overlooked.

Locally Sourced F&B

Here is a case where a culinary trend and a sustainability trend dovetail. Attendees increasingly want meals prepared with ingredients indigenous to the destination, and the use of such ingredients is ultimately better for the environment than using those shipped from far away. “Local, seasonal and sometimes organic food — all of those are sustainability initiatives, and they have gone mainstream,” Zavada observes.

And insofar as these kinds of ingredients are in the mainstream, many convention center and hotel chefs are focused on showcasing them. McIlwraith suggests that planners “be flexible and allow the chef to make decisions that meet your budget and sustainability goals.” Organic foods, for example, may entail costs that do not align with the F&B budget.

Gutierrez notes that some of her green initiatives have actually resulted in cost savings by an overall 15 percent in the last few years. These include ordering less food to minimize waste; ordering food in smaller amounts and “a la cart” items instead of huge buffets; offering attendees to-go boxes for lunch if they need it; ordering food that can carry over for a couple days; and opting for whole fruit, which can easily be eaten a day or two later, instead of an elaborate break with perishable baked goods.


Clearly, using public transportation is greener than shuttles and rental cars, and planners can always encourage the use of the greener option when it is reasonably convenient for attendees. For ivanti’s sales kickoff in Salt Lake City, Zunkowski did just that regarding attendees’ short commute from the airport. “There is a light rail system that goes directly from the airport to downtown,” she notes. “Because it’s our sales kickoff and it’s an internal meeting, (the greener transportation mode) is a little easier to ‘enforce’: We’re not going to reimburse you for a rental car so find another way to get to the event.”

Walking, the greenest transportation mode of all, nicely coincides with the wellness trend. When the distance to an offsite venue is manageable for all attendees on foot and time allows, “use a pedometer for a walking challenge instead of having shuttles,” Zavada suggests.

Measurement and Reporting

Tracking one’s progress on the green front is essential for both improving processes and reporting them to one’s stakeholders. Zavada, whose company assists all clients in this regard, notes that savings can be quantified economically (e.g., dollars saved by avoiding bottled water) or environmentally (e.g., reduction in the amount of waste).

“We always tell planners to put the report in terms that are easy for people to understand or visualize: How many trees did you save, how many elephants worth of waste did you save, how many Olympic swimming pools of water, etc.,” she says.

Such results, which can be aggregated over one meeting or many throughout the year, can and should be prominently communicated. Options include digital signage at the event, internal and external newsletters, and as part of presentations on company matters. “Brief your official spokesperson on sustainability achievements,” McIlwraith advises. It’s worth touting, and can inspire attendees and other companies to follow suit in saving the planet. C&IT

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