Go Green or Go Home

Meeting Planning

It’s fair to say the green movement has transformed the meetings industry more swiftly and fundamentally than any before it. Consider that just 10 years ago, LEED wasn’t on anybody’s radar, composting was considered something only hippies did and “farm to table” was…huh? Today, the meetings and events industry embraces these and other measures, to the point where it’s practically passe to say you’re “green.” After all, who isn’t?

The challenge now isn’t so much embracing sustainability as it is staying committed to the cause. That’s why we’re celebrating those who were among the first on the green scene and who haven’t given up since; those who are quick to participate in the latest and greatest ways to embrace sustainability; and those who are dreaming ever-bigger to push for environmental change.

Where will we be 10 years from now? Thanks to the work of these industry pioneers, we can only imagine it will be somewhere very exciting indeed.

LEED Trailblazers

At this point, most every planner has heard the acronym LEED, and many have planned events at venues that are Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certified. The increasing ubiquity of this designation is, of course, a very good thing. Even after all this time, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) standard remains the most reputable in the business, thanks to its third-party verification and rigorous benchmarks. But what exactly do these now-common letters stand for and what does it take to earn them? We spoke with one of the first and one of the highest-level convention centers to get the inside scoop.

Virginia Beach Convention Center is a Model

Virginia Beach Convention Center

Virginia Beach Convention Center

The very first convention center in the nation to earn LEED Gold status in the “existing building” category was the Virginia Beach Convention Center. The venue nabbed this coveted status back in 2010, following more than two years of enhancements.

To ensure everything was up to snuff, the center’s assistant general manager of business passed an exhaustive test to become a LEED Accredited Professional (LEED AP) in 2008. The following year, convention center and city of Virginia Beach staff went to work to address a host of details, from the more obvious (energy usage, recycling and composting measures) to the nitty-gritty, including what type of vacuum cleaners, air filters and copier paper the venue used.  

To step up its game for LEED, the center increased its use of recycling stations; initiated a compost system; recommissioned its heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system; and amplified public outreach on sustainability. While contractors were used for a few technical aspects (such as HVAC and some indoor air-quality monitoring and storm water management), Sustainability Coordinator Kimberlee Dobbins says 75 percent of the work was done by convention center and city staff. As such, staff members can “walk the talk because they were part of the process.”

In January 2010, extensive documentation was submitted to the USGBC, including spec sheets on equipment, inspection sheets, photos and site maps, as well as proof that, for instance, copier paper contained recycled content and plumbing fixtures were low-flow. In April, the center learned it was approved at the Gold level.

According to Dobbins, the laborious process was more than worth it. While she says going LEED required a “substantial financial investment,” the venue’s efficient measures allowed it to reduce costs by more than $400,000 in the first two years. “Now, five years later, we still haven’t had to upgrade any major systems,” she says. Plus, going green gave the property an “innovation point” and assurance that a meeting at this venue is leading-edge green.

Eugene is Living the Green

University of Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Oregon

University of Oregon's Matthew Knight Arena, Eugene, Oregon

It’s probably no surprise that a college town in Oregon is one of the greenest cities in the world. Fueling the green legacy, Eugene has two college campuses that live and teach sustainability.

Lane Community College has two campuses, including a downtown site that is LEED Platinum certified. It uses about half the energy of a typical building its size and 35 percent less water. A green roof helps shed rainwater runoff, reducing the size of storm water systems while filtering out the impurities in the water (which is collected and stored for flushing toilets and irrigating landscaped areas). Geothermal wells are used as the primary heating and cooling source, greatly reducing the mechanical heating and cooling loads, along with energy costs. Triple-glazed windows with solar resistant coating provide superior insulation, and reflect much of the sun’s direct rays.

University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena is LEED Gold certified, featuring recycled and regional materials in the construction, water efficiency measures (including a 30 percent reduction overall in building water use and a 50 percent reduction in water used for landscaping), and optimized building energy performance. The arena is also near public transportation and offers bike-friendly enhancements.

Bardessono Mixes Green and Luxury

Bardessono, Yountville, California

Bardessono, Yountville, California

In Napa, California, amid the famed wine country, there are many haute hotel options. But only one—Bardessono—in Yountville has LEED Platinum designation, the highest offered by the USGBC. In fact, it’s one of only three hotels in the entire country with this status. (The others are the Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Hotel Skyler in Syracuse, New York.)

According to Jim Treadway, Bardessono’s general manager, it took four years to earn the designation in 2010; there were three years of construction, which was done with the certification in mind, plus one year of operation.

How did the hotel get to the Platinum level? By enacting not only all baseline measures, but above-and-beyond initiatives as well. Wood used throughout the property, for instance, was milled from salvaged trees. Linens and cleaning supplies are all organic. The restaurant, Lucy, sources ingredients from an onsite garden (which, incidentally, groups can tour). And more than half the property’s energy comes from solar panels on the roof that provide 200 kilowatts of clean energy.

Then there are the less sexy, but no less important, technical details, such as using overhangs, sensors, motor-controlled venetian blinds and extensive windows to moderate ventilation; and relying on low-volatile organic compounds in glues, adhesives, finishes, paints, carpets and fabrics to improve indoor air quality. Both measures ensure the hotel has a minimal energy footprint.

Treadway estimates that the cost of going LEED Platinum as a new build versus having no certification at all, was $80,000–$90,000 per guest room for a total of more than $5 million. “Demonstrating to the world that luxury and sustainability are not mutually exclusive,” he says. “When properly developed, a hotel can be very luxurious and very green at the same time.”

Another LEED-certified West Coast property is the Portola Hotel & Spa in Monterey, which is a key player in the green movement in Central California. In addition to its LEED Silver certification, Portola Hotel received the 2011 Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, has been a winner in the state’s Waste Reduction Awards Program for 18 straight years and is a participant in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, which promotes harvesting in ways that don’t harm the environment. Imagine a gala for 900 attendees with zero waste. Portola Hotel knows how to deliver when it comes to green events.

In Las Vegas, Vdara Hotel & Spa is LEED Gold certified. Nearly half of its meeting space has natural light, and all public restrooms are equipped with low-flow water fixtures, non-aerosol air fresheners and Green Seal-certified soap. Vdara takes extra measures to implement sustainable practices with F&B, including composting food waste or converting it to pig feed, and using china and glassware for indoor meals. Smart Meetings is impressed that Vdara repurposes linens that are not up to standards, cutting them up for polishing cloths or kitchen towels.

It’s important to remember that earning green cred is no easy feat. From the piles of paperwork that must be pored through to the often significant upfront financial investment that’s required, it takes diligence to get the stamp of approval from a leading sustainability organization such as LEED.

ASTM/APEX: New Kid in Town

While LEED and other designations have long served as a reliable barometer for sustainability, the meetings industry lacked its own reputable internal gauge for going green. That changed last year, when the Convention Industry Council’s Accepted Practices Exchange (APEX) and ASTM International, in collaboration with the Green Meeting Industry Council, released the ASTM/APEX standards for sustainable meetings.

ASTM/APEX assesses environmental integrity across nine sectors: transportation, audiovisual, accommodation, onsite office, meeting venue, food and beverage, exhibits, destinations and communications. Though still relatively new, many in the industry have already undergone its rigorous assessments, earning certification at Level One or Level Two status.

iCompli, a division of BPA Worldwide, provides independent, third-party certification to suppliers for adherence to the ASTM/APEX sustainability standards. iCompli audits and assesses suppliers’ staff management policy, communication, waste, energy, air quality, water, procurement and community partners.

Karl Pfalzgraf, vice president of sustainability assurance at iCompli, says certification gives convention centers and destinations a leg up on the competition, and helps planners produce more sustainable events. “It’s a competitive marketplace, especially in terms of the final tipping point—what will win the final destination,” he says. “These standards give planners a road map. We need to get meeting planners and associations involved, so they ask suppliers for [certification]. It’s two blades of a scissor—one is suppliers, but we need the planner blade, too. When we get both of these blades cutting, then we’re making progress in sustainability.”

Here’s how venues, suppliers and destinations have embraced the latest ways to go green.

Denver Goes All In

Colorado Convention Center, Denver

Colorado Convention Center, Denver

Already highly committed to sustainability, Denver was quick to jump on the ASTM/APEX bandwagon. It became the first city to earn the new certification in four separate sectors: destination, meeting venue, audiovisual and F&B.

The city’s Colorado Convention Center was the first to earn Level One status; then, both its preferred A/V supplier (Image Audiovisuals) and catering company (Centerplate) were certified at this level as well. Finally, the Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau earned Level One designation for its citywide efforts.

According to Tiffany Hoambrecker, the CVB’s associate director of convention services, the bureau had an inside track for information, as one of its team members served on the Destination Committee for the standards. It took a couple months to collect and finalize the data, followed by a thorough two-week auditing process.

Fortunately, says Hoambrecker, the city already met most of the requirements for Level One status, so the assessment served more as a gap analysis to determine what needed improvement.

After making all necessary changes, the CVB and the City of Denver completed submission forms at a total cost of $4,000. Since becoming the first to earn the designation, cities including Portland, Chicago and Toronto have also received a sustainable seal of approval from ASTM/APEX.

“Denver took the lead, driving this down their supply chain,” Pfalzgraf says. “Denver has a chief sustainability officer—one of the few—who wants to drive it all throughout the city, [to] the zoo, aquarium, performing arts, ballpark.”

Why is certification so important? “Until the ASTM standards, there were no sustainable standards specific to the meetings and events industry, and in particular nothing for destinations,” Hoambrecker says. “Until now, most green cities were self-promoted. As an organization, we were very excited about the ASTM standards because they are very specific and relevant to what we do. They give us a platform by which to measure ourselves against what our competition is doing. If a planner is comparing two cities that are 100 percent equal on paper, but Denver has the ASTM certification, then that could be the deciding factor for booking Denver verses our competition.”

Orange County and Oregon Convention Centers Go Bold

With its 2.1 million sq. ft. of exhibition space, 74 meeting rooms and 235 breakouts, the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in Orlando, Florida, has the distinction of being the second-largest center in the country with Level One ASTM/APEX certification (the largest is Chicago’s McCormick Place; the only one with Level Two status is the Sands Expo in Las Vegas).

The OCCC earned its designation last June; like Denver, it was involved early on, as its deputy general manager and environmental services supervisor were part of the industry group that worked on committees to create the standards. In January, it began compiling information, and in May it submitted materials including waste audits, green purchasing records, and information on water and electricity usage.

According to Gwen Wilson, public relations manager for the venue, the OCCC already had a lot of required documentation in place, thanks to the center’s LEED Gold certification for existing buildings and recertification as ISO 140001 for its Environmental Management System. To up the ante for ASTM/APEX certification, the venue increased communication lines to clients about green meetings and policies, and integrated a green meeting process into established meeting planning procedures.

Embracing the certification, says Wilson, just made sense. “It was the right thing to do for the OCCC, our community, our clients and our environment. We are always striving to improve our sustainability initiatives,” she says.

The Oregon Convention Center (OCC) in Portland, Oregon, achieved ASTM/APEX Level Four certification this summer. Earlier this year, the convention center earned LEED Platinum re-certification as an existing building and in 2013 it was re-designated a Salmon Safe facility based upon its design and use of storm water runoff.

“Certification to the industry’s global standard at its highest level is further evidence of OCC’s ongoing commitment to sustainability,” says Scott Cruickshank, executive director of the OCC.

Green Ideas We Love

Water taxi, Boston

Water taxi, Boston

With sustainability, it takes more than diligence to stand apart from the rest. It also takes a commitment to innovation. These venues and suppliers haven’t been afraid to think big, and go bold, when it comes to helping the environment. And for that, we salute them.

1. Encuentro’s Stilted Lodging

In Guadalupe, Mexico, Encuentro Eco-Retreat takes sustainability to new heights—literally. The resort features “ecolofts” that are perched on stilts. These minimal-impact lofts surround a hub where local producers trade goods and connect with travelers. The property turns the traditional lodging experience on its head and has been dubbed the “anti-resort.”

2. Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center Zero-Emissions Water-Taxi Service

Want to avoid traffic and provide an experience your attendees will remember, while minimizing environmental impact? Consider booking a ride on a zero-emissions, electric-free water taxi in Boston. The green ride is available to transport guests between the Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center and various destinations throughout the city, including Logan International Airport, Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market and Cambridge. The water taxi can be booked by groups for sightseeing and sunset cocktail cruises.



3. Nimbus Eco’s Tree-Free Toilet Paper

Before starting the sustainable products company Nimbus Eco in San Diego, entrepreneur Mark Samuels ran corporate responsibility projects for brands including Volcom, Nike and Rockstar. Now, combining his two interests, Samuels has helped develop a tree-free toilet paper that can be used at special events. The paper, made from bamboo and sugarcane, is chlorine-free and harvested from farms rather than forests. It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was used at Coachella earlier this year. Tree-free napkins are also available for events.

4. Baltimore Marriott’s Green Team

As any hotel can attest, going green takes a village. The Baltimore Marriott Waterfront has embraced this truth by pulling together a team of managers and associates from 14 departments, using input from leaders at all levels of operation to initiate sustainability initiatives. Among many team initiatives, the group engages in daily “energy walks” to turn off all unnecessary lights and adjust temperatures in unused rooms, which alone helped the hotel save more than 72,000 kilowatt hours of energy in 2011 and 2012. The team is also involved in a yearly tree-planting event with local members of the community. The property makes a contribution to the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation in the name of companies holding an event at the hotel.

5. Caesars CodeGreen Certification

Plenty of properties have green programs in place, but Caesars Entertainment has gone deeper than most with its data-driven CodeGreen program. Since installing the management software program to track utilities consumption, this initiative has resulted in 298 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions averted and 208 million kilowatt hours in energy saved each year. The company has also trained more than 200 sales and meetings managers from 17 resorts to earn CodeGreen Meetings & Events certification. To earn the designation, managers must complete a course on green meeting planning strategies and initiatives, then pass a comprehensive sustainability exam. The initiative was developed by external advisors and remains an industry leader for staff training programs. Caesars operates several properties in Vegas, including Paris, Caesars Palace, Rio, Planet Hollywood and the Linq Hotel & Casino, as well as hotels in New Orleans, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City.

Lied Lodge & Conference Center, Nebraska City, Nebraska

Lied Lodge & Conference Center,
Nebraska City, Nebraska

6. Lied Lodge & Conference Center’s Biodiesel Tractor Ride

How’s this for green pedigree? Lied Lodge & Conference Center, a peaceful pastoral retreat in Nebraska City, Nebraska, is located at the former home of the founder of Arbor Day. Naturally, the property remains deeply committed to environmental research and preservation. It is home to 270 tree and shrub varieties, and boasts the second-largest hazelnut research field in the country. But its coolest green initiative may be the biodiesel tractor it offers for group tours of the grounds, past blooming sunflower fields and fruit orchards.

7. Green Key Global

Green Key Global (GKG), in partnership with MPI Foundation Canada, released its 2.0 version of the Green Key Meetings Program this summer. The comprehensive environmental assessment tool for lodging and non-lodging properties has been updated to ensure incorporation of current meeting practice elements as well as to complement the well-known APEX/ASTM standards.

Nikki Gloudeman is the former managing editor of Smart Meetings magazine and a Northern California-based freelance writer.

Annual Green Meetings Conference

Meeting planners know better than anybody the power of face-to-face interactions at live events. This dynamic spearheads the success of the annual conference for the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC), the leading industry group for sustainability.

This year’s conference lured 250 attendees to green-city extraordinaire San Francisco back in April. The event included sessions on everything from marketing event sustainability to the emerging collaborative economy to green tech, with several small-group discussions to facilitate productive conversations. A brainstorming board also invited guests to share and collaborate on new ideas.

Naturally, the event walked its talk. Attendees wore biodegradable badges; local, sustainable Philz Coffee was served; and sessions were live-streamed and archived to make it a hybrid affair. As of press time, GMIC was accepting bids for cities to host the 2015 conference, but expect it to take place somewhere sustainable next spring. Attendees leave this conference filled with ideas and high on the excitement shared with colleagues.

To learn about GMIC co-founder Nancy J. Zavada, see this month's Smart Talk Q&A.

Next-Frontier Green Reporting

MCI, a leading global communications and events management company, named its 2013 report, released this June, Where the Future Begins. The name is fitting, as the report leads the way thanks to being the first to use the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) G4 reporting framework to measure and report on economic, environmental and social performance.

Established by the GRI, the G4 reporting standard is one of the most reputable in the world. Guidelines were developed through a global multistakeholder process involving representatives from business, labor, civil society and financial markets. Auditors, experts, regulators and governmental agencies in several countries also weighed in.

MCI used the rigorous framework to report on everything from its volunteering in the community to its work organizing green events such as the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit and the Responsible Business Forum, which earned the IMEX-GMIC Green Award in May 2014.

For more information on the GRI G4 for sustainability reporting, go to globalreporting.org.