Sustainability In The Meetings IndustryJanuary 16, 2024

Taking Bold Strides Toward A Greener Future By
January 16, 2024

Sustainability In The Meetings Industry

Taking Bold Strides Toward A Greener Future
The roof on the Oregon Convention Center has a 2 MW solar array, which powers about 25% of the building’s needs, and water bottle filling stations, as seen above. Photo Courtesy of Nancy Reimer / Oregon County Convention Center

The roof on the Oregon Convention Center has a 2 MW solar array, which powers about 25% of the building’s needs, and water bottle filling stations, as seen above. Photo Courtesy of Nancy Reimer / Oregon County Convention Center

What do Portland, Oregon, Pittsburgh, Seattle and San Francisco have in common? In addition to being great cities for multiple reasons, they’re also cities with LEED Platinum Certified convention centers — a serious draw for any group that places the highest levels of sustainability among its meeting goals.

Those goals have been years in the making and yet another 30-plus centers nationwide have achieved LEED Gold or LEED Silver certification. In a world still bickering over climate change, U.S. convention centers have made giant steps in reducing meetings’ carbon footprint.

Turns out that’s important to the events community, and so in ways both small and large, it is taking bold strides toward sustainability.

“Sustainability is becoming a major focus within the global meetings industry and is increasingly a decision-making factor in planning and sourcing events,” said Amy Wilkinson, CMP, DES, director of global events and corporate partnerships at the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening (SLAS).

“Planners are being asked to evaluate not only their role as organizers, but each cog in the planning wheel. We’re looking beyond single-use plastic water bottles to evaluating how waste is created and managed, what the emission factor of the menu is and how much carbon is produced from traveling to each event.”

Event professionals have been given a great task to change how they do things. And sustainability is a group effort and part of the conversation with every event service partner.

“Planners are not only asked to produce statistics on their impact but also reduce their impact — both at the same time — and then report their impact and reduction efforts to key stakeholders and decision-makers. Event attendees are being asked to consider sustainable events and some are even being asked to report back their footprint for each event. Think of this like a CO2 budget in addition to a travel-expense budget.”

Wilkinson said SLAS has begun educating exhibitors on how to build booths for reuse and ship in one crated shipment rather than multiple skids wrapped in pallet wrap. They also ask exhibitors to bring items that aren’t single-use and that are made with recyclable or compostable material, and to consider items that are donatable post-event.

“We work closely with our general services contractor to ensure we’re also using items that can be recycled or re-used and we try to not produce materials that will end up in the landfill. This applies to things like signage, structure builds and carpet. It’s hard because there aren’t good alternatives to many substrates, so we ask ourselves if we really need each piece of signage,” she added.

In terms of catering, the goal is to keep choices to those with a smaller carbon footprint and resource use. “Keeping beef off the menu is one option with a significant impact. We’ll also request that water is not pre-poured and single-use water bottles aren’t made available, and we ask our venues at the time of sourcing if they have refillable water stations available.”

Venues also want to reduce energy as much as possible. To help with that goal, SLAS will request that escalators are powered only at needed times and that lighting and heating/air-conditioning is reduced during setup and breakdown.

Naturally, attendees also have a critical role to play in reducing an event’s carbon footprint. “We remind them to bring their refillable water and coffee vessels and to take public transportation as much as possible. When it’s not possible, we remind them to ride share and do small things such as use a digital key instead of a plastic key and to consider having their towels laundered by the hotel less frequently. Every little bit counts,” Wilkinson noted, “and it starts with being aware and being willing.”

SLAS is an organization for which sustainability factors into venue choice. It’s a factor in choosing their event venues across the globe and they have had great response in expressing this in their RFP.

“We look at public transportation to/from the venue and airport and whether the venue uses renewable energy. Waste programs are also important, including composting. We’re clear about our expectations from the start,” Wilkinson said.

In general, Wilkinson believes European cities are ahead of U.S. cities and venues when it comes to green meetings. Most recently, they worked with the cities of Barcelona, Spain, and Basel, Switzerland, to develop green procedures. They are also working on a major event in Boston in February and Honeycomb Strategies, a sustainability consulting group, which is helping them make a significant positive impact toward sustainability.

Travel, Wilkinson noted, remains a huge challenge. “Most of the emissions come from travel and that’s hard to tackle; the reality is events require people to travel to gather. Sponsorship is another area of both challenge and opportunity. We love our sponsors and want to support their ROI objectives, yet many times it’s through the use of unsustainable substrates such as window decals.”

To planners wanting increased sustainability at their meetings, Wilkinson said the first step is to hire a sustainability consultant. “They’re experts in this space and can point out areas where we can make better decisions. In addition, they’re an objective third-party advocating for the environment rather than any given profit stakeholder, which is critical. We work with Honeycomb Strategies to great success,” she said.

In addition, she said it’s important to look at F&B. Project Drawdown recently published that reducing food waste is the top high-impact action we can take. Planners must be a role model, lead by example and ask partners to help from the start. “It’s not all up to you as the organizer; I bet you’ll find all of your partners are willing,” she said.

ASAE is focused on sustainability as well. Amanda Clark, CMP, director, meeting operations and engagement, said sustainability remains a focus in the meetings industry, noting that venues, hotels and convention centers continue to “up their game” because the market demands it. For ASAE, reducing waste at all levels is a priority.

“We request detailed information from venues regarding their practices when it comes to energy efficiency, recycling, composting and other sustainable practices,” Clark said. “Decisions are intentionally made to avoid disposables or, if that’s not possible, we request that disposables be biodegradable, compostable or recyclable. Making sustainability stations readily available and making signage abundantly clear helps attendees practice sustainability.”

She suggested planners start by requesting traditional service ware rather than disposables and plastics, presenting condiments in bulk rather than individual packaging and avoiding single-use plastic.

What makes promoting and practicing sustainability easier for planners and their organizations is a venue as invested in the goals as they are. The country’s LEED certified convention centers certainly help in that regard. Case in point: Oregon Convention Center (OCC) in Portland, OR. Not surprising, the convention center perspective is much the same as that of planners.

Nancy Reimer, OCC’s sustainability coordinator, said the meetings industry continues to have a strong focus on eco-friendly practices, and planners and attendees want to reduce their environmental footprint and impact the communities in which they meet in positive ways.

As more cities and regions set goals related to climate change, there’s an increasing focus on minimizing impacts of events through waste reduction, energy and water conservation and sustainable, efficient transportation. From the sustainability point of view, planners should do their best to reduce, in total, the need for transportation. With that in mind, venues should be cherrypicked for their proximity to public transport.

The LEED Platinum Oregon Convention Center has long championed sustainable event practices and building operations. “Our roof has a 2 MW solar array that powers roughly 25% of the building’s energy needs. We participate in Pacific Power’s Blue Sky renewable energy program and NW Natural’s Smart Energy program to offset 100% of our utilities,” Reimer noted. “Our award-winning rain garden filters particulates from water that’s collected from 5.5 acres of OCC’s roof and loading dock before water discharges into the Willamette River, a key part of our salmon-safe building certification.”

The building features low-flow water fixtures and water-bottle-refill stations. Additionally, OCC has implemented a waste diversion policy as a part of event contracts, which prevents waste, requires events to recycle materials and provides an avenue for community donation of usable materials. “More recently,” she continued, “we’ve implemented PATH water bottles and piloted reusable containers in our concessions to reduce single-use plastics. We also prioritize sustainability in food through composting, food donation, sustainable and local purchasing and food waste prevention.”

One of the biggest challenges, Reimer said, is staying ahead of the curve and continuing to evolve. From materials to constantly advancing technology, they have to be ready for what’s next. Part of that is ensuring they’re flexible, adaptive and open to new ideas. They’re continually training staff, collaborating with their community and looking for ways they can inspire and innovate.

Like others, Reimer said finding the right partners and collaborating with attendees and venues are critical to the process. Among the steps she suggested groups consider: turning off lights and escalators when not needed; using reusable or digital signage; encouraging refillable water bottles and choosing durable dishware for all F&B needs.

All of these steps and practices benefit organizations, planners and attendees, as well as the venue. “Sustainability is key to how we book business here at the Oregon Convention Center,” Reimer said. “Our trained staff and sustainable practices make it easy for guests to reduce, reuse and recycle. We commonly hear from groups that sustainability is important to them and was a crucial part of picking OCC for their meeting or event.”

Reimer added her voice to those who counsel starting conversations about sustainability goals at the start of the planning process. “From the very beginning, we communicate with our clients about sustainability and work with them to find creative solutions to challenges. This might mean doing things differently or trying something completely new. When those conversations start early, there’s time to consider purchases for your event, create a donation plan for leftover items and develop a communication strategy to ensure sustainability goals can be shared and celebrated.”

Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wisconsin, is a LEED Gold facility and the ideal meeting place for Sustain Dane, the city and county’s sustainability organization, which recently held its annual Summit, its largest meeting of the year at Monona Terrace.

“While planning for our annual Summit, we make sustainable choices whenever possible,” said Sustain Dane, Executive Director Claire Oleksiak. “This included highlighting the amazing vegan food options (we’ve done a Mediterranean dish and an enchilada meal), using reusable/washable water cups and dishes and using a walkable location for downtown hotel attendees. The center is also right on a bus route and has BCycle electric bike stations nearby. Also, the building is LEED certified and they donate excess food.”

In keeping with best practices, Sustain Dane’s sustainability goals were clear from the start of the planning process. “We’ve built a strong relationship with Monona Terrace, they know our sustainability values,” Oleksiak said. “We worked with them early on to enhance our vegan meal option and add a vegan dessert this year. Other options may come up later in the planning process, and the staff was always receptive to our different ideas. They accommodated our requests and helped us put on a large but sustainable gathering.”

F&B is a good place for planners to start if they want a greener meeting. Oleksiak suggested planners try to be plant-based whenever possible, or at least limit meats, and use “real” dishes and silverware if possible.

Sustain Dane takes a broader approach in its efforts to choose venues that value sustainability. “We look at this from the lens of holistic sustainability, which we define as including a healthy environment, a just economy, and equity and social wellbeing,” said Oleksiak. “We recognize that everyone will be at a different spot in their sustainability journey, but the progress and goals have more importance. We try to offer our support with venues that wish to accelerate and act upon their sustainability goals.”

Among the challenges, Oleksiak noted, is the fact that oftentimes options are not clearly listed or provided. “It takes additional conversations to ask for the options and confirm they work. We’d love to see more venues highlight their sustainability ‘package’ upfront to help consumers make that choice easily.”

To other planners and associations trying to embrace sustainability, Oleksiak suggested offering the sustainable elements of a meeting as a package upfront. “Provide the options for people to consider who are already looking to embrace it and for those who may not have considered it yet,” she said.

Sustainable meetings are no longer a trend; they’re a reality across the country and the industry. For some planners, organizations and venues, they’re not an option but a mandate. While challenges remain, there are also some amazingly easy steps to take to make meetings greener and healthier for all.

As Clark said, “Every small step is a step in the right direction.” | AC&F |

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