Environmental awareness has evolved from a well-intentioned notion to public and private policies and standards. However, before insurance and financial meetings professionals can even think about incorporating sustainability practices into their events, they must be prepared to measure and prove a return on the “green” investment.
In February of 2012, green meetings became formally institutionalized when the Convention Industry Council (CIC) issued its APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards. Long anticipated, the program was initiated in 2008 and included input from the Green Meetings Industry Council (GMIC), the United States Environmental Protection Agency and a reported 300 planners, as well as suppliers, facilities and environmentalists. The standards address nine key segments: Audio-Visual; Communication & Marketing Materials; Destinations; Exhibits; Food & Beverage; Meeting Venue; Onsite Office; Transportation; Accommodations. The ninth and final standard on sustainable accommodations was just published in April (www.conventionindustry.org/standardspractices/apexastm).
“The APEX/ASTM standards require planners and suppliers to approach event sustainability with a holistic, end-to-end approach,” says Lawrence Leonard, director, APEX Standards, CIC. “The standards encourage planners to start with a sustainability policy and sustainability goals for the event and to work methodically from there. The standards want sustainability to be integrated into the fabric of the meeting or event, not sprinkled on here or there.”
The GMIC, in conjunction with iCompli, a division of BPA Worldwide, a global third-party assurance provider, has announced an APEX/ASTM certification program to further proliferate green meetings. “Certification drives adoption of industry standards,” says Tamara Kennedy-Hill, CMP, executive director of the GMIC. “We saw a real need in the industry for a certification program that industry participants could achieve and be recognized for their sustainability performance.”
The standards may clarify what constitutes “green,” but for insurance and financial services company planners, making their meetings more sustainable can be problematic. The standards — and green meetings in general — are more immediately applicable to larger conventions, whose economies of scale and a destination’s environmental policies make sustainability more easily attainable. In addition, corporate meeting planners are under more intensive Return on Investment (ROI) pressure than larger conventions, which can have a wider range of priorities.
Measuring sustainability and how it coincides with cost savings and cost benefits remains a challenge for insurance and financial planners. According to the “2012 Economic Impact Study” conducted by Financial and Insurance Conference Planners (FICP), “although a majority of respondents reported that environmentally conscious meeting practices play a somewhat important role in their meetings or events planning, only 30 percent indicated that ‘Going Green’ has had an impact on their meetings and events.” The study estimated that on average, insurance and financial companies planned 95 events for the survey year (2011).
It is uncertain how planners defined impact — the survey covered an array of economic issues — and this was the first time the green question has been surveyed, so tracking the rate of green awareness growth is not possible.
However, when it comes to green meetings, most consider the 30 percent number as typical — and even at the high end — for planner professionals involved in green practices. Amanda Gourgue, CMP, who founded Lee, NH-based Meeting Revolution, a meeting consultant firm specializing in green meetings, says, “That is where the industry is overall, about 20–30 percent. Planners of all sized meetings are interested in green meetings, they are just unsure of how to make it happen,” says Gourgue, who titles herself as Chief Meeting Revolutionist. “Planners have to be more comfortable stepping outside of the box.”
For many planners, it is no longer a choice whether or not to go green. Many organizations — both in the private and public sectors of the economy — have implemented Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) mission statements, a trend expected to accelerate. And all divisions within a company are expected to comply. In addition to an event’s ROI, its carbon footprint and other sustainability metrics are also undergoing heightened scrutiny. “Establishing priorities is the first step and many companies have taken that step, and planners have to get their events within those priorities,” says Kennedy-Hill. “The corporate culture now is including a CSR statement. Planners have to know what that policy means in terms of their events, even if those events are small in scale. Meetings are a reflection of their company and have to meet corporate expectations.”
According to Gourgue, planners should find out “what motivates their organizations and what are they hoping to gain from the green meeting. More companies are aware of CSR, so if the company has a recycling program, the meeting should implement one as well.”
If green is not part of a current corporate mission policy, planners should prepare for the likely occurrence it soon will be. “Most if not all of the Fortune 1000 companies have made some sort of commitment to environmentally sustainable practices,” says Amy Spatrisano, principal, Meet Green. “Those practices are mirrored by the financial community. Everyone is more conscious and more cautious about green practices. If planners can show their meetings are sustainable, or that they have reduced their carbon footprint by 20 percent, upper management will realize how it enhances the reputation of the firm. Sustainability must be driven by the planner.”
Although under intensive ROI pressure — especially compared to other meeting planners — insurance and financial services planners should not let that consideration impede greening an event. If implemented correctly, with an eye towards detailed measurement and attendee participation, green can be more plus than pitfall. “Typically, going green saves costs,” says Jack Phillips, founder and chairman, the ROI Institute. “Using less lighting or electricity or any type of energy consumption will enhance the ROI. If the environmental policies don’t save money, then the planner has to wonder what the benefit will be.”
When analyzing each event component, planners must consider both its ROI and green potential — less waste, energy conservation — while also ensuring the new option will not hinder event objectives. “A green or preferably sustainable meeting can often save an organizer money especially if well-planned,” says Kennedy-Hill. “Determine a cost/benefit tracking grid and ROI time line. Planners should select low-hanging fruit solutions in your baseline year to reinvest cost savings towards other priority preferences.”
One of the lowest hanging fruits is the ubiquitous bottled water. The solution is water stations, often adding fruits and other infusions, creating homemade, flavored water. “Instead of using those ugly brown water containers, facilities now use clear urns, making the option more appealing,” says Spatrisano.
Other low-hanging fruit, i.e., meeting components that can be easily modified to be more environmentally and economically friendly, include: reusable signage or energy-efficient electronic signage; marketing and educational materials made available online for mobile devices, eliminating paper.
Even for materials where online substitutes do not apply, current economic trends have made the “green” option more cost-effective. Goods made with sustainable products often carried an extra — albeit nominal in most cases — cost, but now the green option is more cost-competitive. “Up until a few years ago, people wanted to use more sustainable products but it wasn’t always cost-effective,” says Spatrisano. “Products that have plastic content, which is petroleum-based, have increased in price. This has made the compostable products more attractive price-wise.”
For transportation, Spatrisano says, “pick venues close to the airport, or where public transportation is more accessible. If you can arrange for large numbers of attendees to arrive at the same time and arrange a shuttle, that is another method. There are logistics that have to be figured out, but it is very doable, and venues will often provide suggestions and assistance.”
Whatever is being done — regardless of the size of the meeting — planners should measure and track for both cost savings and greenness, even if the scope or impact of sustainable practices is minimal. An initial step, for example, might be eliminating the printed brochure by bringing it online, which is both green and cost-effective, but planners must note the green advantage and the cost of this change. “The point is to track it, so you can create a benchmark for comparison,” says Kennedy-Hill. “The next event, planners can look at things like reusable lanyards, or the life cycle of signage. The sustainable equation shouldn’t deter but enhance smart business practices. If you can reduce it by 10 percent one year, but the next year the same materials are reused, that reduction of consumables can save 25 percent, as an example. The size of an event will not make a difference if these metrics are tracked.”
The metrics being tracked are not just how much is saved, but how green or sustainable the event was. A meeting’s carbon footprint, the amount of waste being reduced, recycled or re-used (known as the three Rs of sustainability) are all exponents of a broader ROI assessment and increasingly mandated in CSR statements. Green calculators — computer programs that determine sustainability — are available from many sources, including Meet Green, which has introduced a new proprietary Carbon Counter for “hybrid” meetings (both face-to-face and virtual sessions). “The more efficient you are in measuring sustainability, the more you will save,” says Spatrisano. “Planners have to show their events are both economically feasible and environmentally sound.”
The cumulative effect results in a provable pattern of increased sustainability and lower costs for a planner’s events. “The planner and management should agree on achievable, long-time goals,” says Kennedy-Hill. “By beginning to track smaller items for smaller events, the specific costs and cost savings will become clearer. If planners focus on outcomes, they achieve events that are increasingly more sustainable. It means documenting and putting out to stakeholders that documentation.”
Making meeting components sustainable while also enhancing their ROI may begin with the planner, but the reality is that a green meeting can truly only be as green as its setting. “If you select a property that already has strong environmental programs or preferably a third-party certification, then most of your work is done,” says Kennedy-Hill. “Most hotel chains have internal programs that are part of their basic operating structure that support energy efficiency, waste management and other environmental factors. Ask if the property has a green team; they may be more willing to work on innovative solutions with you.”
Often, the culture of a destination determines how green a venue tends to be. A rule of thumb may be that if the convention center is green or if the state has a green certification program in place, the smaller meeting venues will likely follow suit. “Certain geographic regions have better infrastructure to support sustainable meetings,” adds Kennedy-Hill. “Most venues receive tax incentives or have other internal benefits for operating green.”
“It is not as difficult as it used to be to find green meeting hotels and conference centers, but it is often dependent on the region of the nation,” agrees Spatrisano. “It may be an overall generalization, but the more south you go, the more difficult it can be to find those facilities that have recycling, energy efficiencies, water conservation practices. Up and down the West Coast, they are readily available, also on the East Coast, the Northeast, and it is growing in the Midwest. States and destinations have made a commitment. That starts a culture, and facilities — not just the convention centers but the smaller meeting venues — follow the example.”
Spatrisano adds that for meetings overseas, especially in Europe, “they have green policies much more in hand; solid practices in place.”
Planners have to be vigilant and detail-oriented from the start of the site selection process. “Green initiatives should be in the RFPs and part of the early stages of an event,” says Spatrisano. “If the facilities don’t have the practices in place, enroll your own suppliers, or work with the decision-makers, the chef, the operation managers — people not necessarily part of sales, although salespeople will make sure you connect — and they will help you make the meeting green. Even if the facility itself doesn’t have those practices as a standard for all meetings, things can be done for specific meetings.”
“The most important job a planner can do is ask for green practices in writing in their RFP and put that in their contract and use as a factor in the decision process,” says Kennedy-Hill. “I am so often hearing from suppliers that they are doing all these green things and no one is asking. And then I hear from planners that they can’t find suppliers doing green meetings.”
Planners should start by asking the venues about their sustainability initiatives,” says Leonard. “Show the venue the sustainability policy and goals for your event, and ask them how you can work together to accomplish them. Ask up front if the facility charges event organizers for certain sustainability activities.”
Not only do the new APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards provide guidelines for how this RFP process should unfold, but venues also can provide metrics that will show how green the meeting was. “Some venues are now showing how much waste was recycled, how much energy was saved, what the carbon footprint of the specific meeting was,” says Gourgue. “Venues can supply metrics on how green the meeting will be, and once the planner realizes they also save money, these metrics can be part of an event’s ROI.”
The most crucial factor influencing ROI determination is attendee satisfaction. Planners not only must find ways to translate specific sustainability practices into measurable figures, but make sure those practices do not upset the attendee experience. “If green becomes an irritant to attendees, if it impedes the learning or whatever the goal of the meeting, then the planner has to wonder what the benefit will be,” warns Phillips.
One good basic step is to avoid unpleasant surprises. “Communications should begin with the website, where people register, and even with any apps included in the meeting,” says Gourgue. “If something is different, you don’t want to surprise attendees, especially if there is some sacrifice, or an appearance of sacrifice, required.”
Attendees do not want to feel they are “being nagged” into going green, so planners, when communicating the value of the green meeting to the attendees, should showcase a range of positive attributes. “At the buffet table, you can put little signs that say this was local food, grown or produced less than 500 miles (away) and how that reduces the carbon footprint of the event,” recommends Gourgue. “That way attendees also get a feeling of experiencing the local cuisine of a destination. Planners have to educate attendees about sustainability throughout the meeting, but in way that creates a unifying feeling among the attendees.”
If the practices are part of new CSR policies of the organization, that also encourages attendees to share a “green-team” ethos. “People are recycling in their offices and in their home, their children are doing it at school,” says Gourgue. “It’s really just bringing those same behaviors practiced at home to a meeting environment.”
With attendee satisfaction questionnaires and similar surveys a necessary step in corporate meeting follow-up, planners must also include queries about a meeting’s green practices as part of the communication process. “Measuring the benefit of the reputation or image, of being green is more difficult,” says Phillips. “There are a lot of variables, but a positive image is important to an organization, and there is a lot of attention being given to environmental issues and CSR. If the attendees feel they are part of that by attending a meeting, that is a positive. If you can quantify the feedback from the attendees, how they feel about the green meeting, then there might be some justifiable ROI benefit.” I&FMM