Luxury and Sustainability: Is it possible?

Green Meetings

When one thinks of sustainability, luxury usually comes to mind at the opposite end of the spectrum. But the question is often raised: Are sustainability and luxury mutually exclusive concepts within the context of travel and meetings?

This will depend upon your definition of luxury. The term luxury traditionally elicits visions of opulence, waste and unnecessary expense. By contrast, sustainability engenders a mindset of endurance, longevity and the triple bottom line. Has our business definition of luxury shifted with the growing global pressure for accountability, ecological transparency and corporate social reasonability?

I would answer yes. Today, luxury—rather than equating it to wastefulness—can also evoke sentiments of extreme comfort, simple elegance, sumptuous local food, quality décor, ambience, a calming appeal to all senses and, of course, exceptional service. Case in point: The following are two first-hand examples of how luxury and sustainability can be interconnected concepts for meetings and travel.

1. Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico. In November 2008, GMIC member and meeting organizer Jesús Aparicio, CMP, CMM with Eventia conducted one of the first green meeting FAM trips in Mexico. GMIC was invited as a guest speaker and observer of the event. Aparicio sought to educate meeting planners from Mexico City about how to conduct meetings in a sustainable and upscale manner in Morelia, Mexico. This involved the traditional elements of any new sustainable event engagement experience: education of media, the local hospitality community and other meeting planners as well as conducting back-of-the-house tours, presentations, planning and training events in addition to social/community legacy projects.

During this green FAM, I stayed at Casa en el Campo, an eco-luxury hotel located approximately 15 minutes from downtown colonial Morelia. Casa en el Campo was a unique self-contained, modern ecological experience. The architectural design elements (that reduced the need for heating and cooling systems), composting on-site, fruit trees on the property (which provided the freshly squeezed juice served at breakfast), and sourcing the meals from the farm nearby made it an ideal retreat experience. It may even sound a little too natural for some; however, here is the luxury part: It also has a spa (complete with solar panels on the roof, of course), which featured all-natural products. Even in the meeting room, the participants were served beverages in glasses, which were hand-made on the property from repurposed wine bottles.

This first trip was the initial start to an ongoing educational partnership with Mexico and Eventia. Following the event I had the following dialogue with Aparicio:

What is the importance of measurement in your focus for promoting green and luxury meetings in Mexico?
In Mexico, as in many countries in Latin America, sustainable events are a pretty new concept. Little by little it is gaining more attention. One key aspect is providing examples of real and measured environmental and economical benefits. Of course, what to measure is still the question; we are focusing on waste, recycling and diversion in addition to reduction of water consumption.

What results are you seeing?
While we are making progress, there is still a resistance to measure along the procurement chain. However, as soon as the providers can see the benefits, they get immediately convinced. One important aspect is that hotels, caterers and convention centers need more information on what to measure and how to make it possible for their businesses. I have been able to share the measurement results (both economical and environmental) of previous FAM trips which has helped this process.

2. Cancun.  The GMIC has continued working with our partners in Mexico for more than two years, participating in green educational events, case studies and membership development. There is concerted recognition and desire to preserve beautiful destinations like theirs that rely on tourism and meetings to support their economic and social infrastructure. Thus, after careful assessment of the economic, environmental and social impact of where to hold the GMIC board meeting (for our international board), Cancun and the Le Blanc Spa were found to be a viable destination for this retreat.

We discovered through advance research that Palace Resorts engages in many social and green practices at their properties, even if they are not widely promoted. It was the combination of these sustainable elements in a luxurious environment that made a difference at our 2009 board retreat.
GMIC always conducts a back-of-the-house tour during our board retreat to learn about the actual sustainability practices of our hosts (to compare with the espoused practices and to learn about challenges and opportunities). We endeavor to engage the surrounding hospitality community to understand more about their struggles and successes based on their local infrastructure.

During the back-of-the-house tour, we were pleasantly surprised. We saw a spotless kitchen, met with friendly cleaning staff, tasted a bit of pastry perfection, saw the clearly marked recycling bins, visited the employee cafeteria, learned about the hotel’s commitment for employee well being and marveled at the 18% of energy generated from solar panels. We left the tour impressed with the overall environmental and social practices of the Le Blanc Spa and Resort. When we asked why the hotel did not promote more of their sustainability efforts, the humble response from the general manger was that they were not there yet and still needed to address the perception issue with typical clientele.

Ultimately, there is no perfect answer when it comes to sustainability. This is a constantly evolving journey that is built on creating a culture that balances decisions based on the community, environment and economic choices. When you are seeking luxury for an incentive, personal or board retreat and you want to ensure that the venues integrate sustainable practices, there are a few elements to keep in mind:

  1. Third party verification. Is there an external eco-label or green certification of the property/meeting venue that is preferably third-party verified? As I was writing this article, I received my Responsible Travel Report from Sustainable Travel International that focused on this very topic. The Luxury Eco Sustainable Tourism Standard is just one of many programs to consider.
  2. Social Practices. How are employees treated? Does the property support social practices for the surrounding area/community?
  3. Environmental Metrics. Can the venue provide you with a list of practices and/or is its interconnection between luxury and sustainability evident enough already?
  4. Local and preferable organic food sourcing. While this may not always be 100% possible, it should be available. Often the best food experiences are local ones, and they’re produced in a sustainable manner. El Campo demonstrated this for me—and I’m picky!
  5. Do your homework. Ask the venue to send you an advanced list of their practices and/or have them adhere to your internal green RFP guidelines. While on-site, conduct a back-of-the-house tour as your own internal audit of the venue.

There are many hotel chains all over the world that provide varying levels of luxury and sustainable experiences for meetings and travel (again depending upon your definition of luxury and the purpose for your meeting/event). To learn more about sustainable travel, trends in sustainable meetings and standards, here are a few sources:

Tamara Kennedy-Hill is the executive director of the Green Meetings Industry Council, an organization focused on the meetings industry and its green initiatives. To learn more about the council or to find a local chapter near you, visit