Sustainable SuccessMarch 4, 2020

Going Green is the Way to Go for Meetings By
March 4, 2020

Sustainable Success

Going Green is the Way to Go for Meetings

Metallic water bottlesHere’s a tip: Provide water in pitchers and ask attendees to bring refillable bottles or thermos containers. A five-day conference with 2,500 attendees can use as many as 90,000 bottles. Credit:

Sustainability is becoming a routine part of the planning process for conventions and conferences, and there are several reasons for the trend:

• It’s getting easier to plan eco-friendly meetings because more convention centers, meeting venues and hotels are implementing their own practices.

• Sustainability is becoming more cost-efficient, especially for basic practices that don’t require long-term planning.

• Sustainable meetings are increasingly important to maintain and grow association attendance and memberships, especially among millennials, who care deeply about the environment.

• In addition, planners who don’t embrace environmentally friendly meetings will lag behind their peers and miss an opportunity to burnish their professional and organizational brands. As a result, more planners are turning to sustainability. Most commonly, planners are taking the basic step of choosing convention centers and hotels with sustainable practices.

Ask About Practices

According to Amy Ledoux, CAE, CMP, chief learning & meetings officer for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, planners should ask venues and properties about their sustainable practices. “Most hotels and convention centers will have a document outlining their practices from an operations standpoint as well as what practices they employ during meetings and events,” Ledoux says. “Many facilities also have a person dedicated to sustainability who can provide details specific to your event.”

Ledoux adds, “It would be a rare case that a venue would not already have, or be willing to implement, sustainable practices. If they don’t already have practices, then the stakeholders may need to help pay for certain sustainable products or processes to meet requests.”

Planners should also determine whether facilities and hotels under consideration have LEED certification. “It’s the most recognized global standard for high-performance buildings that are efficient, cost-effective, and better for occupants and the environment,” Ledoux says.

Start with RFPs

Many planners go further than exercising a preference for environmentally friendly convention facilities and incorporate sustainability requirements into RFPs. According to Nancy Zavada, CMP, president of MeetGreen, a sustainable conference management agency, “Absolutely, start with the RFP and vet the list of potential vendors based on their sustainability practices among other factors. As with anything else, everything is negotiable. The event organizer decides on their priorities and negotiates the full package.”

Charlotte Grant, marketing and communications manager for the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) and planner of its annual Partnership Meeting, agrees that planners should include sustainability in RFPs. “We challenge our suppliers early on during the RFP/selection process to make strong commitments on sustainable practices,” Grant says. “The RFP contains a list of non-negotiable requirements, such as usage of non-disposable glassware and silverware, and low-meat F&B options. We then work with vendors to have them add additional commitments.”

Grant adds that sustainability commitments must be part of the WCF’s final contracts. “Lack of commitments and practices are definitely a deal-breaker criteria for us when selecting a hospitality partner,” Grant says. “For my team, it is especially important to ensure that our events reflect our values and do not negatively impact the environment.”

Communicate Expectations

Elisa Perodin, CMP, CEM, senior vice president of association events, strategic events, meetings & incentives for MCI USA, a provider of strategic meeting, convention and expo solutions, also communicates sustainability expectations early in the planning process. “Make it a priority and major determining factor when selecting venues and suppliers,” Perodin says. “Integrate sustainability commitments and concessions into contracts.”

She adds, “Require suppliers to sign a sustainability Code of Conduct agreement as well, which identities in writing the minimum expectations for the purchases suppliers make on behalf of your company or clients.”

Grant suggests that planners treat negotiating sustainability needs the same as bargaining other meeting requirements. “Our approach is to come with practical requirements and set these forth during the contracting process when we have leverage to generate change,” Grant says. “Also, indicate the importance of this request as part of the selection process. If they don’t have any sustainable practices in place, ask what they will do to put them in place.”

Grant urges planners who don’t negotiate sustainable meeting elements to do so. “Only by raising our collective expectations as planners will we have real impact on the industry, so I think we should always come from a position of high expectations,” Grant says.

More planners are helping their associations to meet sustainably as they realize that even relatively small- and mid-size conventions can have an impact. MeetGreen estimates that a five-day conference with 2,500 attendees uses at least 60,000 plates, 87,500 napkins, 75,000 cups and 90,000 cans or bottles.

Sustainability Leadership

For its part, ASAE vigorously practices sustainability at its conventions and encourages other associations to do the same. According to Ledoux, “From an organization perspective, we discuss and practice sustainable tactics with our partners. If we make it a priority, the partners we are working with will as well,” she says. “I think this is impactful because we are leading by example, and hopefully those practices implemented with partners will remain in place for many other groups as well.”

Create a Policy

According to MeetGreen, associations of every size should have sustainability policies. “Draft an event sustainability policy to ensure that green practices are incorporated into all meetings,” according to MeetGreen’s website. “This process should be finalized and communicated to all stakeholders.”

Once the policy is completed, MeetGreen advises, planners should take the following steps for each meeting:

• Confirm event-specific priorities and measurement targets. This could be a first action step for the sustainable event team.

• Establish areas of responsibility for staff and vendors and determine how to communicate this information to all stakeholders.

• Communicate opportunities and impacts. Include strategies to implement before, during and after the meeting, including attendee outreach and education.

Policies Vary

Sustainability policies among associations range from basic to comprehensive. For example, the American Public Health Association (APHA), has a sustainable policy which states, “APHA is committed to reducing the environmental impact of the annual meeting and finding ways to be eco-friendlier and responsible, and help minimize the meeting’s impact on the environment. Each year we implement more green initiatives, hoping to make our meetings more eco-friendly than the year before.” In addition, APHA looks for conference venues that are energy-efficient, use renewable power, diverts waste from landfills and avoids non-compostable materials such as plastics.

Another organization, the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), posts advice for attendees on its website on “Ways to be greener while attending the GBTA Convention.”

The site’s advice includes, “Recycle your paper, plastic and glass in the receptacles in each meeting room/pre-function area. Take public transportation to and from the convention center.”

ACF-2020-03-Issue-Feat4-Sustainable-Events2-860x418ASAE uses biodegradable badge holders and paper for badges. They also use organization branding on tote bags, not event branding, which allows them to reuse leftover bags. 

Some associations, including the The Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA), also push to improve sustainability efforts for each convention. The PNCWA eliminated its registration brochure for the group’s conference in Boise, Idaho, which attracted 971 attendees. The move saved an estimated 39,000 sheets of paper, the equivalent of nearly two trees, MeetGreen estimates.

The Boise Centre (BC), which actively promotes sustainability, hosted the PNCWA conference and partnered with the organization to create a sustainable meeting.

For example: Meals were served with reusable cutlery, dishes and linen napkins. Water was provided in reusable bottles with a glass or compostable cup. Plastic straws were not available, preventing an estimated 1,000 feet of plastic from polluting the environment. Some meals included foods that were locally grown, organic, sustainably harvested or ethically produced. Unserved food was donated to the Boise Rescue Mission. An attendee cleanup activity along the banks of the Boise River resulted in removing the equivalent of nine large bags of trash. All sustainable practices were communicated to attendees before the conference via email and onsite via the BC’s electronic signage.

Begin With the Basics

As stated, planners experienced with sustainable meetings suggest beginners start with choosing LEED-certified convention centers, venues and hotels because they already have sustainable programs and may be more likely to help implement meeting-specific practices. When possible, send RFPs only to LEED-certified convention centers and conference facilities.

Eco-friendly facilities are getting easier to find as they discover that sustainability gives a competitive edge in booking meetings. Whether a venue is LEED-certified or not, check their sustainable features online to determine which match the meeting’s requirements and which may be negotiable.

Ask vendors and suppliers about their policies for recycling, energy reduction and consumption, material reuse and donations of leftover food and materials. “Most venues have arrangements with local charities and can usually facilitate the pick up or delivery of unused food,” Ledoux says.

Finally, determine upfront which sustainable efforts could add to the budget.

Costly? Not Really

Planners need not spend big bucks to implement basic sustainability efforts. Zavada says there are several relatively easy and inexpensive practices that are environmentally impactful as long as planners follow the “Three Rs” — recycle, reuse, reduce.

“Choose a meeting venue that is close to accommodations, shopping, mass transit, restaurants and nightlife to cut down on taxis, shuttles and rental cars,” Zavada says. “Reduce first before recycling. For example, do you really need a conference bag and handouts?”

Have attendees use the recycling program and containers for food, beverage and meeting material waste that many convention centers provide. “It is important to know what the venue practices are and make attendees aware of them,” Ledoux says.

Other suggestions include using reusable and recyclable cutlery and glasses and providing condiments in bulk to avoid discarding small plastic packets. “We ban single-use plastics and individual condiment packaging and ensure our venue can provide reusable glassware and silverware,” Grant says.

Another option is having the venue or caterer use biodegradable products for plates, cutlery and glasses. According to Ledoux, “The variety and quality of these products have made them more readily available and at a lower cost.”

Still another option is to reuse or recycle meeting signage to reduce waste, and create décor and theme materials using sustainable and recyclable materials. For example, the stage backdrop at the WCF’s Partnership Meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil was printed on a material that was donated to an association of women entrepreneurs in the country who make handbags with recycled textiles.


Ledoux says ASAE takes several measures to recycle at its convention. “We worked with a sign vendor back in the early ’90s to create a sign with a large plastic pocket for the insert,” she says. “This was done so signs could then be reused at future meetings. We also worked with our general contractor to create elements for our meetings like mobile registration carts, that we can use at all major meetings to brand with meeting-specific graphics.”

Ledoux adds, “For tote bags, we moved from event branding to organization branding on the bags so we could use any leftover bags at other meetings and not have to donate or throw them away. Also, you can keep things green by buying biodegradable badge holders and paper, as well as recycling badge holders by placing collection bins and reusing those holders for another meeting.”

Planners can also email badges for proofing and printing onsite to reduce carbon emissions due to postal delivery of badges. Ledoux also suggests using apps and websites instead of paper to provide registration and housing information and distribute meeting programs.

According to Grant, “We can fight waste by limiting or eliminating paper and unsustainable goodies distribution. We ask our partners to avoid distributing paper documents and unsustainable goodies, and propose alternatives such as featuring their brochures in the event app.”

Food and Beverage

It’s getting easier for planners to use eco-friendly foods, drinks and dinnerware because more people want to eat healthfully and sustainably. Tips include using caterers who have thorough knowledge of local third parties that can provide sustainable food, providing vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options, serving smaller portions, and offering foods that were produced locally using environmentally sound and humane practices. Also, provide water in pitchers and ask attendees to bring refillable bottles and thermos containers.


Vehicle use, especially for large conventions, consumes huge amounts of fuel and generates carbon emissions. To curb those emissions, eliminate some transportation options after attendees arrive. Urge them to share taxis and carpool. “Instead of providing transportation for attendees, some organizations are encouraging them to utilize public transportation,” Ledoux says. “The use of pedicabs to and from events is a trend I have seen but is mostly applicable for smaller groups.”

Ledoux adds that many transportation companies, like venues, have their own sustainability practices regarding transportation. “Some have limited idling time for vehicles, use group routes so fewer buses are needed, and run buses on clean fuel.”

Planners should also ask about sustainable airline policies. “Some airlines have instituted an option for attendees to indicate if they want to pay to help make their trip carbon neutral,” Ledoux says. “This often costs less than $10 depending on the trip distance.”

Many association efforts depend at least partly on attendees to help implement eco-friendly initiatives. That’s why it’s important to educate attendees about actions they can take to make meetings more sustainable. Zavada says, “Educate your participants so they know what is being done on their behalf. They will be excited to participate if they are involved and proud of the organization and their commitment.”

Attendees will also appreciate knowing how suppliers contribute to meeting sustainability. “Be sure to promote the steps your suppliers are taking on your behalf to use sustainability practices,” Perodin says.

Sustainability Abroad

Planners should be flexible about their sustainability expectations when meeting in foreign countries. According to Grant, “Some nations are more advanced than others on sustainable practices, so I would recommend being demanding, but realistic, and remain aware of local constraints and customs.”

Whether meeting domestically or abroad, more planners are seeking sustainable meeting solutions. It’s now possible for planners to ensure all their conventions and conferences have at least some eco-friendly practices. | AC&F |

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