Is Your Meeting Really Green?September 1, 2015

Tech Companies Often Lead the Way in Eco-Responsible Practices By
September 1, 2015

Is Your Meeting Really Green?

Tech Companies Often Lead the Way in Eco-Responsible Practices


Corporate planners looking for exemplars in the area of green meetings may find quite a few in the technology sector. Many high-tech companies are ahead of the curve on sustainability, and when one wants to take the initiative to the next level, why not take a few tips from meetings that go far beyond recycling and eschewing bottled water? Oftentimes, these very eco-conscious events are not merely the brainchildren of individual meeting planners, but the products of companies whose core values include a respect for the environment.

One case in point is VMware, a cloud and visualization software company. Sustainability is “the way we do business,” states Eve Schmitt, senior manager of global sourcing for meetings and travel. “For instance, in 2007 we built our headquarters in Palo Alto, California, from the ground up, and recycling, reclamation, composting, etc. (at the building) was a major focus with our original CEO. Our tagline at one time was ‘Saving Energy, Saving People, Saving the Planet.’ ” That kind of corporate culture certainly supports a planner who wants to create the greenest events possible. “My focus within the organization has always been (sustainability) in our temporary environment that we hold meetings in, and it’s wonderful when you have that buy-in from the executive level.”

“Our tagline at one time was ‘Saving Energy, Saving People, Saving the Planet.’  My focus within the organization has always been (sustainability) in our temporary environment that we hold meetings in, and it’s wonderful when you have that buy-in from the executive level.” — Eve Schmitt

A Window on Your Brand

In the case of San Rafael, California-based Autodesk Inc., the company’s products have a connection to sustainability, lending even more support to the green meetings initiative. If the products themselves “promote” sustainability, then meetings and events, particularly customer-facing ones, should be a “window to your brand,” in the words of Laura Bell Way, senior manager, global customer events, field marketing, industry strategy and marketing. “Our software helps buildings be designed and managed in a way that is less taxing on the environment. So for us it’s an easy fit to drive for sustainability in our events.”

The high proportion of millennials in many high-tech firms, as well as the desire to attract young talent, also can drive a focus on sustainability. “I would say that younger employees coming into Oracle are to some degree quicker to recognize that we’re (adopting sustainable practices),” observes Paul Salinger, vice president, marketing at Redwood City, California-based Oracle. “And as Gen Y come into the industry, I think you’ll start to see more and more (efforts in sustainability) because it’s a value that aligns with the way they’re going to need to see the world. It’s becoming a bigger issue for them around climate change, diminishing resources and so on.”

Supplier Alignment

Of course, green meetings are not exclusively driven by the host company and its values; supplier partners must align with those values as well. To that end, a major component of the effort to optimize sustainability is to bring business, as much as possible, to eco-minded cities, convention centers, hotels, caterers and so forth. For Schmitt, one of the initial questions to ask when considering a site is, “Does the destination have a good sustainability structure in place?” That not only includes aspects of the meeting facilities, such as garbage diversion rates, and energy and water efficiency, but the layout of the city. “Is it a walkable location where we’re not going to be using a lot of transportation?” Schmitt asks.

This is a factor that is often overlooked by planners interested in sustainability, notes Nancy Zavada, principal of Portland, Oregon-based MeetGreen. “Look at your meeting neighborhood: Are the meeting venue and accommodations close to each other? Are there restaurants and shops close by, so attendees can walk or at least take mass transportation?” The more convenient it is to commute in these greener ways, the less tempted attendees will be to take cabs or rent cars.

When it comes to the sustainability of hotel partners, some aspects will be quite evident to the average guest, such as the presence of blue recycling bins in guest rooms, or cards in the bathrooms offering guests the opportunity to reuse their towels the next day without housekeeping washing the towels.

But then there are many “behind the scenes” sustainability efforts planners can inquire about, Schmitt notes. For example: “Is there an energy- and water-efficient washing machine used by the housekeepers? What are the cleaning chemicals that the housekeepers are using? Is the hotel involved in Clean the World (an organization that recycles and donates soap and shampoo used by the hospitality industry)? Does the hotel use solar or wind energy? Are they doing everything they can do to make sure they’re reducing the use of paper?”

Evaluating Hotels

Admittedly, trying to assess a hotel’s green status in such depth can be “overwhelming when you look at all the criteria involved,” Schmitt says. Thus, VMware deploys a short form at the RFP stage that includes questions about any credentials the property may have (e.g., LEED, Green Seal, state green lodging designations) that address numerous green features and practices. A very good sign is when a hotelier volunteers such information before a planner inquires, as that emphasizes their commitment to green meetings. “As a supplier, tell us even though we don’t ask, and if it’s your standard process, be proud of it,” says Schmitt.

Another good sign is an onsite sustainability officer. The Hilton San Francisco Union Square, where VMware regularly hosts events, employs such an individual, and “we engage with her quite a bit at the very beginning.”

There is also quite a bit of engagement with the catering department to optimize sustainability. It’s not merely a matter of using locally sourced, seasonal foods and avoiding bottled or canned beverages; many subtleties are involved. “We want nothing pre-poured,” says Schmitt. “And glass should be inverted, not facing up. When glasses are facing up, they have to wash them again regardless of whether or not they’re used, but if they are inverted, they don’t have to rewash them.”

And wherever possible, VMware tries to ensure that excess food can be donated, for example by opting for pre-wrapped foods instead of items exposed on a buffet that must be discarded if not consumed. In the same vein, the company looks to donate any non-digital signage used to local schools for art projects.

The Hilton San Francisco Union Square not only supports VMware in these efforts, but also continually refines its own eco-conscious features. Last September, for example, the hotel installed Hydration Stations that provide access to high-quality water from the pristine snowmelt in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Stations were installed in each of the three towers of the hotel as well as the health club, and water bottles were removed from all standard guest rooms. Each hydration station has a small counter in the upper right corner, indicating how many plastic bottles are eliminated from landfill.

Planner Guidance

While circumstances sometimes do not allow for a certain sustainable practice to be implemented, it’s important that the planner at least make the effort by raising the issue with the supplier. For large corporations with many meeting planners, conveying that importance is an initiative unto itself. With assistance from MeetGreen, Autodesk is in the process of improving the sustainability of its small to mid-sized meetings, of which there are approximately 500 annually, and it is essential that all planners know what practices they should try to implement.

“We offer our planners a very simple program of questions to ask when they’re planning an event, and we leave it in their hands so they’re able to realize some effective sustainability practices even for small events,” Bell Way explains.

“Some of our key questions are:

  • Were alternative transportation methods encouraged?
  • Was recycling of event materials requested of the venue?
  • Were individual plastic water bottles eliminated from this event?
  • Were name badges and table tags collected and recycled?
  • Was the caterer asked to design menus that included local, organic and sustainable choices?”

“So we’re not asking, did you succeed in these things? But did you bring up the question, was the venue asked? Because that empowers the planner to embrace sustainability and raises awareness of the requirements.”

Autodesk ran a “summer camp” with monthly sessions that covered such questions for audiences of 20–30 stakeholders, and the sessions were recorded and made accessible on the company’s global intranet site.

Tracking Results

Apart from companywide participation, another aspect of a mature green meetings program is the tracking and reporting of the results. Oracle developed that aspect through a partnership with MeetGreen, which began just after Oracle OpenWorld 2007. “Before we engaged with MeetGreen we were doing what I would consider the basics, the low-hanging fruit,” Salinger says. “We started looking at reducing paper and recycling to some degree, and worked with Moscone Center on waste management methodologies. We were also looking at ways we could do signage more sustainably with reusable materials.”

The partnership with MeetGreen not only expanded these practices, but also led to the establishment of key performance indicators. “We started to think about how we could make bigger impacts each year and improve our score against their MeetGreen calculator year over year, and really engage our supply chain.”

The advantage of measurement is that it allows quantitative answers to questions such as, “How green is your meeting?” and “How green do you want your meeting to be?” The MeetGreen Calculator scores events against 10 sectors of the supply chain, including destination selection, meeting venue, accommodations, transportation, AV, F&B, exhibition production, communications and marketing, onsite office and offsets. It also quantifies the success of specific practices related to air quality, waste management, water conservation, energy efficiency and environmental purchases.

“In 2007 we were at 34 on the scale of 100 on the calculator, but we quickly shot up into the 60–65 percent score,” Salinger says. “We’ve kind of plateaued at around 90 for the last couple of years, and we’re at the point when we really are looking with a fine-tooth comb for the areas where we can improve in order to get above 90.”

The performance data is reported to all stakeholders, including management and stockholders, and posted on the Oracle OpenWorld site and “I generally try to disseminate it across the industry, so the Green Meetings Industry Council gets a copy, and they typically post it on their website,” Salinger notes. “We think there are two aspects to that: 1. We want to be as transparent as possible so that other people can learn from what we’re doing; and 2. We want to create a community of best practices here in San Francisco. As a big company, we can leverage those best practices across our supply chain and across the venues and hotels that we use, and that allows other people coming in behind us to take advantage of (the results).”

Standards and Certifications

The calculator reflects criteria from both the APEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards and the ISO 20121 standards. “APEX is really just a checklist for your meetings, while ISO is focused more on how you measure and track sustainability and report to your stakeholders. They complement each other very well,” Zavada explains. “We’re seeing much more interest from meeting group clients in the ISO standards right now, while APEX/ASTM are being more readily adopted by facilities, convention centers and cities. There are 10 sectors, and a hotel would only have to comply with one or two of those sectors to get certification. If a meeting planner or an event is going to do it, they would have to comply with all of them, and the CIC is not certifying meeting planners in that yet. And it’s awfully rigorous for a planner to pull off. We have some clients that are incredibly green, more on the association side, yet they haven’t gotten to APEX/ASTM Level 1 yet.”

Part of the reason more suppliers are getting APEX/ASTM certification is that more meeting planners are integrating the standards into their RFP process. “If we know we’re looking at a venue that’s already certified against the APEX standards, it makes it that much easier for us,” Salinger says. “We went to Moscone Center and asked them to go through that certification process, and it’s starting to have kind of a snowball effect as you’re starting to see more and more venues now getting certified at least at Level 1.”

Similarly, Autodesk’s standard RFP asks whether a hotel has completed the APEX/ASTM Level 1 survey and references the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative, a methodology for measuring and communicating a hotel’s carbon emissions. “In many cases we may not get that information back from the hotels, but we feel that by referencing the standards and starting the conversation that we guide our procurement process toward hotels and venues that are more aware and plugged into the measurement standards,” Bell Way says. Hotels that show a sufficient degree of sustainable features and practices get designated as Autodesk Green within the company’s SMMP. “So when our planners are viewing the hotels in the system they’ll see that additional recognition and can make that choice.”

Room for Improvement

Making the choice to “go green” with meetings and events is a key first step that generally leads to some positive results, but there always seems to be room to become greener. Even companies that hold exemplary green meetings continue to refine that sustainability, whether it’s Oracle moving into the 90s on the MeetGreen Calculator or Autodesk extending the green initiative into their small meetings. Schmitt characterizes the initiative as a “journey” over many years, one that is eased by partnering with the right suppliers.

Fortunately, the final destination need not be reached for the effort to bear fruit; much benefit to the environment is accrued along the way. C&IT

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