Five Green-Conference Trailblazers

Meeting Planning

They help save the environment, satisfy clients’ demands and bring long-term financial benefits. So it’s not surprising that sustainable practices are increasingly being incorporated at meetings and events.

More and more businesses are employing methods including recycling, energy conservation and water reduction to help conserve natural resources. Efforts are being implemented partly in response to the demands of clients; meeting planners are urged by their own customers to find hotels, conference centers and other venues that emphasize sustainability. This, in turn, has prompted meeting venues to put more resources into creating and expanding green programs and practices.

Many companies are finding that going green can be financially lucrative, too. Amanda Ulbrich, the director of operations for the Green Meetings Industry Council, says that fiscal motivation can lead to widespread changes. “I think that cost savings is often the gateway justification for making changes, but it isn’t the only reason, and we’re increasingly seeing venues really going beyond just the cost savings to implement changes to their whole operation, including lots of social company changes,” she says.

Here, we spotlight five companies, in no particular order, that are pushing the sustainability envelope at conferences and events, with dramatic results for the environment and bottom line. Not content to rest on their laurels, these trailblazers are embracing the green movement in new and exciting ways, from employing eco-ambassadors to installing pebble gardens to supporting local street farms. Our list represents a mix of corporations, associations and, not surprisingly, green companies walking the walk. All have displayed a commitment to bold ideas and a desire to continually improve, and are an inspiration for those looking to introduce above-and-beyond green initiatives. So get out your recycled pad of paper and take note.

1. Opportunity Green

Attendees recycle boxes at the 2011 Opportunity Green Business Conference at Los Angeles Center Studios.

What it does: Opportunity Green, founded in 2007, is a multipurpose media, event and consulting platform that promotes innovative products, technologies and companies. The firm’s flagship event, the Opportunity Green Business Conference, is held annually in Los Angeles and connects hundreds of forward-thinking professionals and executive decision-makers from around the globe. “Our goal is to be a thought leader in the events industry,” says Karen Solomon, the company’s cofounder and CEO. “From a sustainability perspective, this means reducing our environmental footprint in both a meaningful and transparent manner.” To achieve this goal, the company implemented a sustainability program in 2009 that constantly strives to discover waste-to-value opportunities for its conferences in several areas, including venue operations, participant transportation, energy, water and waste management, catering and stakeholder engagement.

Turning green: At its 2010 event, Opportunity Green installed about 40 resource-recovery stations at the conference site to facilitate four types of sorting: paper, bottles, cans and plastic; compost; liquids (to avoid wet paper); and landfill. More than 100 eco-ambassadors helped educate attendees during this conference, resulting in a 96.3 percent landfill-diversion rate. The host, Los Angeles Center Studios, put in place several measures to increase energy efficiency, such as installing variable-frequency drive tower vans, doing a boiler retrofit and adding lighting controls in the office area. The result: a 68 percent reduction in fuel consumption and a 32 percent reduction in electricity consumption, compared with the company’s 2005 conference.

In the (energy-efficient) spotlight: The 2012 Opportunity Green Business Conference, held Nov. 8–9 at Los Angeles Center Studios, attracted around 850 professionals from several countries, including the United States, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, Israel and Korea. Opportunity Green was able to exceed many of its major green goals. Transportation emissions per participant were reduced by 11 percent, partly by presenting attendees with several green transportation and ride-sharing options, including Zimride, an on-demand ride-sharing social network providing community-powered, sustainable transportation. Carbon-dioxide emissions from power consumption and attendees’ travel were offset by 100 percent by utilizing the services of NativeEnergy, a leading provider of carbon offsets, renewable-energy credits and carbon accounting software. Also, many attendees used Green Car Service, an eco-friendly fleet consisting of hybrid cars and vehicles that operate with an alternative fuel source.

Paper consumption at the conference was reduced by 26 percent per participant, partly through use of thinner paper and an electronic version of the conference program. The online attendee dashboard, with conference programs and the Opportunity Green attendee network, was powered by Sponsumo, a conference-management software program developed by Opportunity Green and run by cofounder Mike Flynn. Also, the material-diversion rate was 91 percent, 6 percent higher than in 2011. Approximately 1,560 pounds of organic material (including fruits, vegetables and paper cups) were composted, 1,200 pounds of paper were recycled, and 350 pounds of other items (such as cans, bottles and plastics) were recycled.  

The 2012 conference not only racked up plenty of impressive numbers; it also vividly illustrated Opportunity Green’s increasingly innovative approach in a myriad of ways. World-renowned Gensler Architects curated inviting lounge spaces and a main stage featuring textiles from Maharam and Designtex, manufactured under the ISO 14001 (which sets the criteria for an environmental-management system) and LEED framework for green buildings. LEED is a ratings system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings, homes and neighborhoods.

Green furniture solutions enhanced several networking lounges such as the “Pebble Garden” with locally made eco-pebble-shaped seating from EIS Studio. The seating was set against a sculptural backdrop made by local artist Lauri Burrier using perforated metal panels from her husband’s office renovation and reclaimed wood.

Programs by Domtar were created using recycled paper and printed with soy ink and gift pages repurposed from discarded billboards. Locally sourced, organic meals were served on fallen pressed palm-leaf plates, compostable dinnerware and recycled yogurt cups. Guests filled their Vapur anti-bottle at the Everpure hydration stations, generating zero waste. Veriflora-certified, sustainably grown and harvested sustainable flowers and succulents were used in centerpieces. Distinctive stage-area lighting featured a chandelier crafted by artist Aaron Kramer from reused water jugs.

Moving forward: Solomon regards the 2012 conference as a significant turning point. “It was important for us to showcase that events could offer sophisticated design aesthetics and be sustainable without losing style,” she says.

So what is in store for the 2013 conference, set for Nov. 10–11 at Los Angeles Center Studios? “We have some very exciting plans, but they’re a secret. I can’t say anything about them yet,” Solomon says.

2. Green Meetings Industry Council (GMIC)

Kites were made from recycled materials at
GMIC’s 2012 Sustainable Meetings at Hilton
Montreal Bonaventure

What it does: The GMIC, founded in 2003, champions the implementation of sustainability practices and provides advocacy, education, resources, industry research and recognition of industry leadership.

GMIC launched its Sustainable Meetings Conference in 2007 to help meeting professionals enhance their gatherings with integrated sustainable solutions that benefit all stakeholders. The first conference attracted 75 attendees; today, the conferences draw about 250–300 people from all over the world, including Europe, Canada, the United States, South America and Asia. “The focus has changed quite a bit, considering sustainability and adoption in the marketplace has changed so much in the last 10 years,” Ulbrich says. “GMIC is always working to make our conference the most sustainable possible both environmentally and socially by hiring and sourcing locally.”

Turning green: Some of the green practices implemented at Sustainable Meetings Conferences include printing conference materials on at least 50 percent post-consumer-waste recycled paper and sourcing supplies from a green preferred supplier list. Also, rather than having a printed schedule, all conference staff use a mobile app and LCD screens to post information about sessions and upcoming conference events.

In the (energy-efficient) spotlight: The 2012 Sustainable Meetings Conference, held April 22–25 at Hilton Montreal Bonaventure, drew 241 people. It received high marks for green practices, which included a 91 percent water-diversion rate and the redirection of 668 pounds of food and waste from landfill to a local compost facility. Also, to offset 150 metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, carbon credits were purchased via the CarbonNeutral Company to support the Fredericton Landfill Gas Project in New Brunswick, Canada, which reduces greenhouse-gas emissions.

The conference earned a BNQ 9700-253 score of 343, the highest achieved thus far by a multiday international conference. BNQ 9700-253 is an internationally recognized responsible event-management standard created by the Bureau de Normalisation du Quebec. The meeting also achieved APEX level 1, the highest possible level on a scalecreated by the Convention Industry Council’s (CIC) Accepted Practices Exchange panel to measure how well green standards are met.GMIC organizers followed the guidelines of ISO 20121, which specifies the requirements for an Event Sustainability Management System. “Though we didn’t hit every mark, we came very close and were pleased with what we did achieve through our supply chain,” Ulbrich says. 

Moving forward: This year, GMIC, in partnership with Twirl Management, will launch an eight-month course about sustainable-event planning, featuring a wide range of experienced professionals. The course will culminate at GMIC’s 2014 meeting April 14–17 at the Hilton Union Square in San Francisco, where students will work with Ulbrich and suppliers as members of a green team that makes sure sustainability goals are met. The students will be recognized during a general session, receive a certificate in sustainable-event planning and host a roundtable discussion about initiatives at the conference.

3. Oracle

The 2011 Oracle OpenWorld, held at Moscone Center in San Francisco, eliminated bottled water.

What it does: Oracle’s roots extend back to 1977, when Software Development Laboratories (SDL) was incorporated in Santa Clara, Calif., by Larry Ellison, Bob Miner and Ed Oates. Oracle offers an optimized and fully integrated group of business hardware and software systems. The company’s sustainability history dates back to 2007, when it began viewing green practices as a natural extension of operating a business. Since then, Oracle has embedded sustainability in its business processes, associated IT systems and meetings.

The company organizes several conferences each year, including Oracle OpenWorld, which attracts around 50,000 to 60,000 attendees from 117 countries. “When we started our sustainability program at conferences, we were doing the basic stuff, such as eliminating bottled water, starting to take recycling seriously and cutting back on printed-paper materials,” says Paul Salinger, the company’s vice president of marketing. “We quickly began integrating sustainable practices into every aspect of the conference, formed a green team with our internal stakeholders and our supply chain, and began identifying and measuring key performance indicators so that we could set baselines, track progress and work toward continuous improvement.”

Turning green: An Oracle group called MeetGreen audits and writes reports about the company’s conferences and works with consultants to find ways of improving sustainability practices at events. MeetGreen uses a 100-point scale to measure key performance indicators at events, and Oracle has improved from 34 in 2007 to 90 in 2012.

The annual conference has made steady progress in becoming greener. At Oracle OpenWorld, from 2008 to 2011 onsite paper use dropped 112 tons to six tons; 857 metric tons of waste was diverted from the landfill through event recycling, composting and donation programs; and 69,711 water bottles were eliminated. Also, from 2009 to 2012, food miles fell from 12,337 to 5,252 and sign reuse improved from 37 to 71 percent. The 2008 Oracle OpenWorld conference won a 2012 silver prize in the Green Meetings Award program, a joint effort of IMEX and the Green Meetings Industry Council that annually recognizes outstanding achievements and sustainable best practices by meeting organizers during the previous year.

In the (energy-efficient) spotlight: The 2012 Oracle OpenWorld conference was held at the LEED Gold Moscone Center in San Francisco Sept. 30–Oct. 4, 2012, and drew 51,968 people from 123 countries. During the conference, 60,000 pounds of waste was diverted from landfill and shuttle-fuel use dropped by 1,432 gallons from the previous year, reducing emissions by approximately 15 metric tons. After the event, 17 organizations received donations of usable event materials, including office supplies, furnishings, bags and art materials.

Moving forward: Salinger says that in the immediate future, Oracle will be focusing on three major sustainability objectives: “Our overall goals are to become the first truly zero-waste major conference, to work to further reduce our overall carbon footprint by mitigating carbon through better practices and offsetting where necessary and feasible, and to look for more ways to incorporate social aspects into the conference with legacy projects that have longer positive impacts within the communities where our conferences take place.”

4. U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)

Floor buzz at the 2012 Greenbuild International Conference & Expo, San Francisco

What it does: The U.S. Green Building Council, created in 1993, is a diverse group of builders and environmentalists, corporations and nonprofits, teachers and students, and lawmakers and citizens who aim to build a sustainable environment within the next generation. It is one of eight national councils that helped found the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC). The USGBC has 77 chapters, 13,000 member organizations and 196,000 LEED professionals. USGBC’s Greenbuild International Conference & Expo, which began in 2002, now is the world’s largest conference dedicated to green building, with 24,000 to 30,000 people coming from all U.S. states and more than 90 other countries. The event includes three days of educational sessions, renowned speakers, networking events and a vast exhibition floor with thousands of booths.

The organization started implementing sustainable practices at its first conference and since then has attempted to reduce the environmental impact each year by moving toward a zero-waste event, increasing stakeholder education and engagement, improving sustainable sourcing, boosting performance tracking, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and positively impacting communities. The organization has garnered four first-place Green Meetings Awards—more than any other business or organization—since the awards program began in 2003.

Turning green: “We incorporate new sustainability goals and programs each year so that we can maintain forward progress on our core sustainability objectives,” says Kate Hurst, USGBC’s director of Greenbuild conferences and events. In 2009, USGBC collaborated with the Phoenix Convention Center to implement front-of-house composting for the first time and in 2010, it introduced sustainability requirements for conference exhibitors. The following year, Greenbuild International Conference & Expo eliminated shuttle buses and encouraged walking downtown while sourcing 90 percent of its food from local purveyors. 

In the (energy-efficient) spotlight: The 2012 conference was held Nov. 14–16 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center and attracted 24,660 attendees. “In 2012, we focused on improving waste-management strategies and achieved an 86 percent water-diversion rate, breaking records at the convention center,” Hurst says. USGBC prioritized sustainable procurement and reuse, sourcing 74 percent regional, 58 percent local and 62 percent organic food. The organization also supported the USGBC chapter host committee in encouraging 40 different Bay Area businesses to join the San Francisco Green Business Program and supported two local legacy projects, the Tenderloin Vertical Garden and Portrero Hill Texas Street Farm.

Moving forward: For its 2013 conference, scheduled for Nov. 20–22 at the LEED Gold Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia, USGBC is striving to eliminate the creation of any vinyl products, so it has refined its inventory records of all event materials to improve rates of reuse. It is also working to source non-vinyl, recyclable badges; use fewer disposable products; improve exhibitor engagement; and help its host venue implement a new comprehensive waste-management system, including, for the first time, composting.

5. International AIDS Society (IAS)

A woman recycles materials at the 2013 AIDS International Conference in Kuala Lumpur.

What it does: The International AIDS Society was founded in 1988 and is now the world’s leading independent association of HIV professionals. The International AIDS Conference began in 1995 and has become increasingly sustainable ever since, winning the 2011 Green Meetings Award for large meetings. Receiving the award, Jelena Milovic, manager of congress and exhibition for IAS, said, “It is all the more significant to consider that the very groups that our association works with globally in the fight against AIDS and HIV, where the victims are most often from developing nations, are the people who can benefit so much when organizations choose to adopt socially responsible practices.”

Since winning the award, IAS has maintained a very high level of sustainability at its conferences. “Our [large annual] conferences prove that the size of a conference is not an obstacle for implementing social and environmental responsibility practices,” says Sian Bowen, the organization’s senior manager of communications.

Turning green: The 2010 AIDS International Conference, which earned IAS the 2011 Green Meetings Award, donated $30,000 (76 percent of the participants contributed) to environmental organizations to offset carbon-dioxide emissions resulting from travel. Compared with the 2008 conference, the 2010 conference saved $15,000 by not printing out programs; $18,000 by not printing general-information booklets; $20,000 and seven tons of paper by printing abstract books only upon order; $500,000 by not providing shuttle buses; and $50,000 by not buying bottled water for delegates.

In the (energy-efficient) spotlight: The 2012 AIDS International Conference, held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., July 22–27, 2012, attracted more than 20,000 participants. The conference followed the society’s social responsibility policy, which is based on the four R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle and raise awareness. The convention center collaborated with IAS by encouraging recycling at specially placed bins. It also used a team of volunteers to help in the planning and execution of green initiatives and employed sophisticated energy and water-saving measures to reduce the carbon footprint. Sustainable materials were incorporated when possible and the center primarily used local suppliers. Attendees were encouraged to ride public transportation, bicycles or a shuttle bus to get to the venue.

To offset carbon-dioxide emissions, attendees contributed $12,200 and the IAS donated $13,715. This money was then donated to three environmental organizations: Township Patterns, DC Greenworks and Myclimate. More than 13,000 items—including messenger bags, stationery supplies and conference materials—were donated to local charities for reuse. All leftover, untouched food was donated to DC Central Kitchen, a local charity that delivers food to the homeless throughout the D.C. area.

Moving forward: The society’s environmental efforts continued at the 2013 conference at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) June 30–July 3 and will again be implemented at the 2014 gathering at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre in Australia July 20–25, Bowen says. “Each location presents its own challenges, yet with the right collaborative efforts, we overcome these issues,” she adds. “If a nonprofit organization can achieve this, then surely all conferences can work toward being more environmentally and socially aware.”

A Challenge for Planners

Most leaders of the five businesses were very optimistic that green practices will increasingly be implemented at conferences, and all of them emphasized the importance of doing so.

“It is imperative for every organization to incorporate sustainability into all aspects of their operations, including their meetings and events,” Hurst says. “There are basic sustainable practices that all planners can start to implement today to save their organizations money and keep them in line with expected corporate social responsibility.”

By embracing new and innovative green initiatives, these conference leaders have laid down the gauntlet for others. Says Hurst: “Sustainable planning is an essential skill set for planners in the 21st century.”

Basic Steps

The Green Meetings Industry Council recommends the following measures for planning, managing and evaluating the sustainability aspects of conferences and other events.

  • Step one: Create a plan. Identify sustainability objectives, including how objectives will be achieved and what key performance indicators will be used to track the plan’s success. Identify specific activities that will be studied, metrics for tracking, desired outcomes for each objective and who is responsible for the results.
  • Step two: Engage internal stakeholders in supporting your plan. Establish or create a sustainable meeting policy that reflects the internal values of the company or organization to ensure it is supported by event efforts.
  • Step three: Engage vendors in supporting your plan. Ask if they will provide supplies at discounts or cost-neutral pricing. Stipulate in the RFP process and contracts that vendors report back to you with the data needed to track your performance.
  • Step four: Track your performance. Ensure that your reports are accurate and sufficiently detailed so that they will provide the information you need in the future during the site-selection process.
  • Step five: Be sure to pause, breathe and share the success of your action plan with attendees, vendors, media and the industry. The more that results are quantified in human-scale terms (such as the amount of money saved, number of trees spared and amount of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere), the more engaged everyone will be when establishing a plan the following year.
  • Step six: Be innovative and have fun! This step may not be on the environmental management action plan, but it is important for meeting professionals to enjoy what they are doing. Be creative by including features such as a yoga break, human-powered energy stations and networking events that have purpose. Remember to allow some outdoor or nonscheduled activity time. Attendees will appreciate efforts to take care of their own sustainability needs.

Going Green

Besides the companies and organizations being spotlighted, many other businesses have been going the extra mile to implement green practices. Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Acme, Mich., is considered a green leader among its peers due to its environmental policy, eco-friendly corporate culture and environmental stewardship. Grand Traverse has in-room recycling for paper and plastic in all guest rooms; supports local companies by using bio-friendly room cleaners from EcoLab and biodegradable plastic waste bags from Grand Traverse Industries; and features energy-efficient light bulbs in guest rooms.

Team San Jose, an innovative partnership that unifies the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau, hotels, arts, labor and venues, has adopted many eco-friendly practices, products and services. A recipient of the International Economic Development Council’s 2009 Sustainable and Green Development Award, Team San Jose has helped develop a 15-year citywide Green Vision composed of 10 aggressive goals, including retrofitting 50 million sq. ft. of buildings and creating 25,000 clean tech jobs.

Lied Lodge & Conference Center in Nebraska City, Neb., received the International Association of Conference Centers’ (IACC) highest (platinum-level) certification in 2012 due to its adherence to 55 environmental tenets in the areas of water conservation, recycling programs, sustainable food sources and air quality. Only 13 other conference centers in the world received platinum-level certification last year.

Green Practices Survey

In June 2012, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the results of a survey of 35,000 U.S. businesses, “Green Technologies and Practices.” Below are key findings, based on business practices in August 2011.

  • The most common green practices were the improvement of energy efficiency, by 57 percent of businesses, followed by creating fewer waste materials (55 percent).
  • The least common green practice was generation of electricity, heat or fuel from renewable sources primarily for use within the workplace (2 percent).
  • There was little variation by geographical region in the percentage of businesses using at least one green practice. The range was from 72 percent in the South to 77 percent in the West. The largest geographical difference was in the percentage of businesses using technologies and practices to reduce or eliminate creation of waste materials, ranging from 48 percent in the South to 61 percent in the West.
  • The informational and educational industries had the most companies with at least one green practice (84 percent and 81 percent, respectively). The mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industry had the fewest, at 49 percent.
  • Public administration (24 percent) and utilities (18 percent) had the highest portion of businesses using practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by employing methods other than renewable energy generation and energy efficiency.