Any time that people gather, there’s an increased potential that strong connections, new ideas and lasting memories will be created. The unfortunate side effects often can be excess waste and taxed re-sources, but the meeting and events industry has seen the concept of going green transform from a trendy buzzword to a meaningful effort that’s embraced by many planners, suppliers and attendees alike. Be-yond minimizing the environmental impact of meet-ings and events, reducing, reusing and recycling can generate financial savings and enhance the image of companies and organizations that take the initiative.
The Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Green Meetings Industry Council’s (GMIC) membership consists of meeting and event professionals from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who are passionate about making the programs they host more sustainable. The chapter’s efforts include lunch-and-learn sessions about green strategies, networking and best practice sharing and support in earning a Sustainable Event Professional Certificate, for example.
“One of the things that I love about sustainability is that people love to learn from each other,” says member Jennifer Anderson. “They want to share and talk about what’s worked and what’s been hard.” In addition to keeping event professionals current with new strategies and topics in green practices, she says there are many leadership opportunities to shape the recently formed chapter’s direction.
Anderson is also a principal and co-founder of Sustrana, a sustainability management solutions company based in Devon that helps companies and organizations understand what social, environmental and economic impact their operations have in order to develop sustainability strategies. Sustrana’s client list covers a range of industries, but typically meeting and event activities are something that they have in common. “Obviously some businesses have a greater focus on events than others, but almost all businesses that we work with have some sort of events,” Anderson says. “It’s a great opportunity [for enhancing sustainability], and it’s kind of low-hanging fruit in some ways. It’s something that doesn’t take a tremendous amount of effort and there’s great benefit. For organizations that are in the business of hospitality and events, it’s an opportunity to enhance a brand and have a competitive advantage.”
She points out that those organizations aiming for greater sustainability can focus their efforts in one of several areas that typically deliver big results, including landfill diversion, local and sustainable food offerings, providing app-based communications in lieu of paper materials and selecting venues and destinations that support sustainable practices.
Since most businesses focus on return on investment (ROI), it can sometimes be difficult for changes toward more environmentally responsible processes to be approved. Sustrana helps its clients build a comprehensive business case for adopting sustainable strategies by including not only hard costs and returns, but also the effects that these actions have on an organization’s image. “There is a piece of that ROI equation that’s about marketing. It’s about branding, it’s about employees, it’s about perception and that is very difficult to put a number on,” Anderson says. “People are starting to realize that there’s this intangible value on how people expect a company to behave. Meeting that expectation has a value, but how do you determine what that value is?”
Teaching a Lesson
Consumers are more likely to respond positively to sus-tainable efforts if they seem to be part of an organization’s culture. David Cranage, associate professor of marketing at Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management, works with students to research what sustainable practices in the hospitality industry are most effective, both in practice and perception. He says that consumers can be put off by “gre-enwashing,” when a company focuses more on touting its sustainable practices than it does on implementing them. He pointed out that the linen and towel reuse programs broadly adopted by hotels represent a big opportunity for reduced water, detergent, energy and labor costs, but that framing it to the consumer this way won’t necessarily encourage their participation in the program. “People look at that nowadays and say, ‘They’re not doing that to save the world; they’re doing it to save themselves money,’” Cranage says. “We’ve found that you can actually hurt yourself by bragging about doing something that you don’t have to do.”
In many cases consumer buy-in is as important as man-agement support. In another study that aimed to reduce food waste and compost hauls in the university’s student-run Café Laura, reduced portion sizes are the focus. “We live in a world of super sizing, so people expect food on their plate to take home with them and think more is better,” Cranage says. “In reality, most people who take food home either don’t eat it because they forget about it, leave it in their car or even at the table.”
Working with university dieticians, a less expensive, nutritionally balanced portion was designed and introduced alongside the typical Café Laura portion. To encourage people to pick the smaller portion, a free second serving is included if the guest is still hungry after finish-ing their first plate. “We don’t want people to feel taken advantage of by giving them the smaller portion,” Cranage says. “We want to see into their psyche to see what works best for the customer.”
Changing Pittsburgh’s Perception
Transforming public perception of Pittsburgh from a smoky, industrial city into a cutting-edge modern destination has been successful in part due to efforts in the meetings and events industry to make its practices more sustainable. A walkable downtown with free city center public transporta-tion reduces the need for additional transportation during events, and its hotel options include the boutique Fairmont Pittsburgh, whose operations, sourcing and construction earned it Gold Certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by the United States Green Building Council.
Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center (DLCC) opened in 2003 as the first and largest Gold LEED-certified convention center in the world, with over 95 percent of the demolition waste from the city’s previous convention center being recycled into fill material for the new building. Strong results in landfill diversion, water conservation, natural ventilation, reduced electricity use and a number of other operations resulted in an update to Platinum LEED certification (existing new building) in 2012. DLCC General Manager Tim Muldoon says each level of his staff is passionate about following sustainable practices. “Not only were we built green, but we are working green every day,” he says.
To accomplish this, it’s imperative to have the partnership of the meeting and event planners who host their events at the center, the exhibitors who showcase there and the visitors in attendance. “You have to educate people first and make them understand what you’re doing,” Muldoon says. The center created a comprehensive website, g1 (greenfirst), as a resource with tailored best practices for each user group, and it also delivers reports to its clients at the end of each program showing the specific impact that they contributed to conservation efforts.
Muldoon estimates that about 20 percent of the DLCC’s clients seek out the center because of its green practices, but the majority doesn’t consider it in their initial planning. “The first time they come we provide the education, and throughout their four or five days here they capture recommendations of things they can very easily carry to their next meeting,” he says. “We hope that they’ll come back some time in their rotation and be in a better planning position to capture even more conservation and waste reduction practices.”
Philadelphia’s Green Expansion
Christopher Gribbs, managing director of conventions for The American Institute of Architects (AIA) in Washington, D.C., is excited to once again include Philadelphia in the rotation for the organization’s annual convention, which will be hosted there in May 2016. A 2011 expansion to the city’s Pennsylvania Convention Center increased capacity by nearly 60 percent, large enough to accommodate AIA’s convention attendees, which had outgrown the old space. Gribbs based his decision on more than just size, however. AIA developed its own Green Meeting Guidelines, published in 2007, as a way to strengthen the organization’s overall commitment to sustainability, which is driven by its members’ awareness and expectation.
“As a meeting planner, I kind of have it easy,” Gribbs says. “I have all of these people on my side pushing us to go further and make it more green. That’s why I think we’re sort of ahead of the game.” Small, yet consistent and planned steps transformed AIA into the environmentally conscious meeting consumer it is today. When the guidelines were first published, mobile technology was still emerging, so when focusing on reducing waste, first steps were to begin printing brochures on recycled paper with soy- or vegetable-based inks. In following years, he experimented with email and the Internet to market the convention. As technology advanced, Gribbs began cutting his print runs in half year after year until finally all printed marketing was eliminated. “I still have marketing dollars, and I still spend the same amount or more, but I just use sustainable vehicles now,” he says. “Every year we’re making these little increments of improvement.”
Gribbs applies this paced approach in other areas of sustainability, often pushing his vendors to progress their practices, as well. He says AIA’s partnership with its general service contractor has resulted in so many sustainable practice innovations that the U.S. Green Building Council was inspired to hire the same company. “Because we’re pushing [our vendors] and talking about our sustainability goals, they want to deliver what we’re looking for. Then they’ll do it for everyone,” Gribbs says.
When planning future conventions, Gribbs says, “Sustainability is a major criterion for us when selecting cities and venues that we go to. It made sense to come to a city like Philadelphia because they made the wise choice to build their Convention Center downtown.” Philadelphia was ranked as a Top Ten U.S. City for Green Meetings by Greenbiz.com, and the 2011 expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center opened with LEED Gold certification.
Gribbs notes that public transportation is convenient for those traveling to and around the city—he can take the train from Washington to Philadelphia and be there in time for lunch. AIA’s Philadelphia Chapter is headquartered just across the street from the Convention Center, and his members are excited about exploring nearby attractions like the lively and historic Reading Terminal Market, attached to the Convention Center, which gathers dozens of local merchants offering fresh produce, meats and seafood, homemade baked goods and other specialties.
Farm Fresh: Good for You and the Environment
The Lackawaxen Farm Company (LFC) delivers a similar collection of farm-fresh foods to restaurant, hotel, retail and individual customers in a more modern venue—the Internet. Spearheaded by The Anthill Farm in Honesdale, which has been operating as a family-run vegetable and beef farm since 2007, LFC delivers fresh vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy and other goods gathered from area farms that use organic practices. Customers can place an order online that will be delivered to them fresh each week. “It’s trying to retrain people to think about how they can shop locally by using the Internet, which might seem counterintuitive,” says Monique Milleson. She lives and works at Anthill Farm with her husband and owner of LFC, Sky Ballentine, and their two daughters, and she also runs The Anthill Farm Kitchen, which offers farm-to-table catering to local meetings and events.
She uses fresh ingredients from her farm and LFC’s partners to create seasonal meals. “I try to inform people about what’s going to be available based on the date of their event, and as it gets closer we can readjust based on the harvest schedule,” Milleson says. One of her favorite recipes this time of year is her chicken broth-based spring greens soup. “I go out and forage whatever greens I can get ahold of,” she says. “Usually that means I get the first nettles that come up, dandelion greens, spinach, kale or ramps.” In the kitchen, she wilts the greens and purees them into a bright green, nourishing soup.
In addition to using as many pesticide-free, non-genetically modified and traditionally raised foods as she can, she also composts all of her food waste, uses reusable linens, china and silverware, and serves any leftovers at a market café she runs each week. “I’ve noticed that a lot of people come to me because they like my mission before they’ve even tried my food,” Milleson says. Her clients include local nonprofit organizations, to whom she often donates her time at no cost, and individuals who want to host special events that reflect their ethics and food preferences.
“It feels good to feel like you’ve found a niche in your community and that you’re giving back to some of the organizations that you benefit from as well,” says Milleson. “I know I’m not going to get the highest profit market, but I’m really happy that I can work with people in that way.”