Greening Your GatheringsMay 1, 2018

Planners Share Their Steps to Leaving a Smaller Carbon Footprint By
May 1, 2018

Greening Your Gatherings

Planners Share Their Steps to Leaving a Smaller Carbon Footprint


As concern about climate change and environmental degradation continues to grow, people expect entities they care about to take a leadership role in protecting the planet and reflecting their values. That’s a big reason “green” has become such a buzzword in the meetings industry.

We asked professionals with experience planning environmentally friendly meetings to highlight the best ways to lower the carbon emissions and other detrimental impacts of an event. These tips apply to associations that are just starting their sustainability efforts as well as those looking to do more to help the planet. Many of their suggestions have saved their organizations money in addition to making their events more eco-conscious.

Although some of these steps require more advanced planning, there are many easy things planners can do to make significant changes at their next meeting. Any positive change for the environment, no matter how small it seems, is an important step in keeping our planet clean and livable.

“In the end, the problem is conventions do have a heavy footprint,” acknowledges Anna Keller, director of convention services for the American Public Health Association (APHA). “All you can do is try to make it a smaller footprint.”

Venue Selection

Choosing the right venue is integral to lowering the environmental impact of meetings. Convention halls take a tremendous amount of energy and water to operate, and they often generate a high volume of waste. That’s why finding a place that’s actively looking to reduce its footprint makes such a difference.

In addition, “ensuring (the venue has) the knowledge and infrastructure to accommodate your requirements makes your job easier from the start,” says Nancy J. Zavada, president of MeetGreen, a sustainable conference management agency. “Key vendors also serve as ‘green team’ members offering innovative solutions to environmental challenges, so enrolling them in the process is vital.”

Securing an eco-friendly venue begins with your RFP, says Kimberly Smith, director of conference and events for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “I feel like I have to say that because your partners have to understand what you’re trying achieve. In my RFP I make it clear that I’m looking for facilities that already know about sustainability and already have some practices in place. If I go to a LEED-certified facility I’m guaranteed they know how to make sustainable events happen. Otherwise we’d be paying to teach them.”

Nan Cluss, association manager for the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA), says she only sends her RFP to conference facilities that are LEED certified or list their sustainable features on their website. “Find out before you sign on the dotted line what their standard practices are and what they’re willing to negotiate,” she advises.

The venues hosting upcoming PNCWA annual conferences get all or a significant amount of their power from renewable sources, such as wind or solar. They have systems in place to save water and lower the amount of waste generated at the facility.

Ask your suppliers how they can help you achieve the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle. If you can figure out ways to reduce your consumption, recycle your waste and rethink waste, it’s going to make your conference more sustainable but it’s also going to save you money.”
— Kimberly Smith

In addition to finding a sustainably minded convention center, make sure any accommodations you’re using have sustainability features in place. “We ask all of our hotels about green policies such as whether they have towel reuse programs and whether there are rebates involved for reusing towels,” says Keller. Hotels can be built to LEED standards, or they can apply for green certification through a program such as Green Globe, EarthCheck or the Sustainable Tourism Eco-Certification Program (STEP).

Food and Beverage

Related to venue selection is looking for a site that offers a range of eco-friendly food options and green practices around food service and waste reduction. “Healthy, local food has become a major trend,” says Zavada. This is partially because of people’s concern about the environment, and partially due to their interest in eating healthier. “Sustainable seafood, featuring local farms and low food miles all play a role.”

Charlotte Grant, marketing and communications manager for the World Cocoa Foundation, says her membership organization took steps to green the food service at their most recent annual partnership meeting in Washington, DC. “There was no disposable cutlery or glasses. Everything was served on actual plates. All the condiments were served in bulk, not in small packets that you had to discard. We incorporated local and sustainable food on the menu. We had no bottled water at the event.”

Keller asks all of her convention facilities to avoid using Styrofoam altogether and substitute metal flatware for plastic whenever possible. She requests that boxed lunches be delivered sans box. Not only does that allow participants to get exactly they want (and think they’ll eat), they don’t have to throw away those bulky single-serving boxes.

“I don’t use table linens in my meetings or dining spaces,” says Smith. That cuts down on the amount of laundry the facility has to do. However, it does mean she has to investigate whether the venue has high quality, unscarred stainless steel or wood tables before she signs a contract.

The food itself is as important from a sustainability perspective as what it’s served on. “Planners should talk with their caterers about providing as many plant-based options within their menus as possible because we know having a plant-based diet is easier on the environment than meat,” says Smith. Her 2017 conference had an all-vegetarian menu and it was a huge hit. “A lot of planners think it’s more expensive, and the caterer will try to get away with that, but it can be negotiated. Lettuce does not cost more than a steak.

“I look for caterers who can make purchases that are third-party verified as being ethical and sustainably produced,” she adds. Certifications to watch for include Rain Forest Alliance, organic and fair trade.

Cluss tries to only order locally made beer and wine for events. “We try to consider the carbon footprint of where those came from, but it’s also about supporting local as much as you can in your choices for both foods and beverage consumption.”

Food waste has a significant environmental impact, so Cluss takes multiple steps to minimize it. She’s kept metrics on her association’s conference long enough that she’s developed a good sense of how many people will actually attend meals as opposed to enjoying time out with colleagues or sponsors. As a result, she never orders enough food to serve every attendee. It’s a nerve-wracking proposition, she admits, but it saves the association money and reduces food waste. She always has a backup plan for how to help people who show up for meals and can’t be served, but she’s only had to turn people away twice.

She also works with venues to arrange for food donations whenever possible. “Different states have different laws, but we’re always working with partners who aren’t hindered by laws to make sure any food that can be taken to shelters or other places is,” she says.

“Savvy planners are looking for ways to minimize waste and (are) getting very creative,” says Zavada. Some associations offer “Clean Plate Club” buffets where guests get a prize for cleaning their plates at the end of the meal. “We have seen chef cook-offs using imperfect produce and kitchen cuttings to make meals in a celebrity chef format.”

Practices such as these are good for any single event, but they also have larger, positive repercussions for the industry. “I think the more conference organizers ask for water to be served in jugs and reusable glasses for green practices, the more it will be embedded in the usual way hotels and conference venues do business,” says Grant. “It can really start a virtuous cycle, where if conference venues are asked to use these practices they’ll start making it their standard practice.”

Go Digital to Eliminate Paper

Another major change that eliminates waste and improves the attendee experience is switching to a mobile app. Most can hold the conference schedule, sessions and room assignments, speaker information, facility maps, attendee lists and more. Any materials that can’t be loaded on the app can be put on the organization’s website.

There is a cost to developing the app, but it’s often offset by savings on printing costs. There also can be some bumps with attendee adoption. APHA moved to a policy where people had to opt in to receive the conference bag and printed “program at a glance” document. Many people still arrived expecting to find those things, and APHA ended up running out. Next year, Keller says, they’ll be prepared to avoid that situation, and hopefully more attendees will come ready to use the app.

“If you must print materials, use soy-based ink on post-consumer recycled paper and select a local printer,” says Smith. “Part of putting a conference in a city is showing local economic impact.” Patronizing local companies makes it easier to demonstrate that impact.

One place where it is difficult to eliminate paper altogether is name badges. Keller switched to all-paper badges so there’s no plastic holder to throw away afterward.

There are many other digital services that can lower an event’s environmental impact. APHA has shifted its marketing efforts to online platforms. “We started doing monthly emails to the attendees,” says Keller. “That way they get all the links to the event website and the videos. It’s a much better way of communicating with attendees anyway.

“About 80 percent of our attendees register online,” she adds. “We still have some that have to send checks and do it on paper, but the 80 percent goes up every year.”

For the past three years APHA has produced a live, web-streamed version of its annual meeting. Thirteen sessions are broadcast live, including all of the general sessions. Registrants can watch the videos live or on demand. CE credit was available to people who complete an evaluation form afterward. It’s a great service for members, Keller says, but it also means people can gain valuable information without having to drive or fly to the event.


Transportation is one of the biggest carbon generators at any event. While there’s not much associations can do to eliminate travel (other than offering video versions of events), they can eliminate some transportation once people arrive. APHA has eliminated most of the shuttles for its annual meeting.

“That gets rid of a lot of carbon emissions and congestion. It’s saved us a great deal of money. It can cost $50,000 to $150,000 depending on the city.”
— Anna Keller

“Sometimes it’s a little bit of a stretch because some people end up in a hotel that’s about a mile away and they don’t see it as walkable,” Keller says. “There’s an on-call shuttle service for people who have mobility issues.”

Placing conferences in cities with good public transportation or hotels that are within walking distance of the convention center can help reduce the need for shuttles. That’s not always possible in the cities where Cluss holds her conferences, so attendees are encouraged to carpool from the hotel. “We did biodiesel buses for our transportation for our tours this year,” she says.

Reuse When Possible

Reusing items from event to event is a great way to decrease a meeting’s environmental impact. “We used electronic signage as much as possible,” says Grant. “When it wasn’t possible, we reused existing signage or used material that can be recycled.”

“You have to balance out your branding of the event with what can be reduced and go digital,” says Cluss. “Some signs are going to be different because you have new sponsors, but a few years back, any signs that could be used year after year we stopped making specific to that particular conference.”

Look to your decorator or general services contractor to see if they can design other materials that are reusable. “One thing we did to be a little more green was to come up with a registration booth design that we could use for two years,” says Keller. It consists of a fabric piece that stretches over a metal frame. When the metal structure is taken down, the fabric can be folded and used again.

In addition, any carpeting that’s put down in the event facility is made with a high percentage of recycled material. APHA’s vendor reuses it whenever possible.

“We set up a recycling center inside the exhibit hall where people could leave any giveaways they didn’t want to take back with them,” Keller says. Those items were made available to people who did have a use for them.

Get Member and Partner Buy-in

Your actions have an enormous impact on the environmental footprint of your event. But to really boost your reach, you need help from attendees.

“We did a whole marketing campaign of green tweets,” says Keller, which included tips such as bringing a refillable water bottle.

APHA also shared ways exhibitors could decrease their carbon footprint, such as not bringing as many printed handouts or giveaway items. Smith encourages exhibitors to use biodegradable shipping and packing materials.

Both Keller and Smith recommend looking for AV vendors that use equipment such as LED lights and staging solutions that are reusable and recyclable, or practices such as shutting down projectors when not in use so they don’t continue to draw energy. Again, Keller tries to work with local vendors whenever possible so she doesn’t have to fly people in for the event.

First Steps Toward Greener Meetings

If your association hasn’t taken any steps to lower the environmental impact of your meetings, Zavada says it’s important to start simply. “The first step should be developing a sustainable event policy to share with all your key stakeholders, venues and vendors. Let them know what is important to your association and what sustainable initiatives you are requiring. Starting out, this doesn’t have to be an extensive list, but could include five to seven key initiatives which align with your association’s mission and values.” For instance, ask venues, suppliers and partners about their processes for recycling, water-wise menu planning, food donations or signage reuse.

As you implement sustainability measures, don’t hesitate to educate members about what you’re doing. “We had a really wonderful volunteer committee that worked with us on some special events, and one of the things they did was put together some fact sheets about what we were doing to green our annual meeting,” says Keller. One discussed the eco-friendly features at the Georgia World Congress Center, the LEED-certified building where the meeting was held. Another described the measures APHA was taking to become a more environmentally conscious organization.

“Whenever we do something we don’t talk about it enough, so people aren’t really aware of it,” Keller says. That education is part of the effort to remind people about the importance of protecting the environment and what everyone can do to take part. AC&F

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