How Green are your meetings

Meetings and events have become an increasingly important part of a hotel’s business mix but now that sustainability is on the corporate agenda it’s no longer enough to simply offer high-quality facilities

A survey of international meetings and event buyers published by leading meetings and events exhibition show IMEX in 2009 revealed that 80% of respondents acknowledged taking environmental considerations into account in their work, while 79% said they would deliberately avoid venues with a poor environmental record. Furthermore, when asked which green practices they had applied to meetings and events they had organised, “selecting a hotel for its environmental programmes” came second to “using recycled conference material”.

A year later, professional association Meeting Professionals International (MPI) reinforced the growing importance of sustainable events in its FutureWatch 2010 study, which found that 76% of European and 63% of US meetings planners reported that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a focus for their organisations.

This doesn’t surprise Stephen Powell, senior vice-president worldwide sales at the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG). He believes offering a sustainable-meetings product, or compliance with a recognised green standard, is becoming a ranking criteria for venue selection. “Our customers want to know about our green products and policies, because it has become a consideration for their individual meeting attendees, as well as a requirement by many of the supply-chain partners and customers of the hosting organisation,” Powell says.

At the Willard InterContinental Washington DC, for example, a wide range of sustainable meeting options are available to meet the demands of eco-conscious event planners.

Apart from the property’s energy efficiency and its community initiatives—the hotel sources 100% of its energy from wind power and its employees are involved in many charitable efforts—the Willard has incorporated a full range of green considerations into its event packages, from preparing seasonal, organic, locally-grown food to using glass water pitchers instead of bottled water, china rather than disposable place settings and decorative potted plants not cut flowers. It also offers delegates the opportunity to become involved in local environmental and social projects—an increasingly popular option for team-building—such as national park clean-ups, tree-planting activities or working with disadvantaged youth.

Another hotel group offering an impressive variety of green meeting options is Starwood Hotels and Resorts. In June 2010, Starwood introduced sustainable-meeting guidelines at each of its North American properties, and it continues to roll out the plan globally. Its programme features five core components, including paperless meeting planning, sustainable meeting services, sustainable food and beverage practices, impact assessment tools and socially conscious activities, such as community or conservation volunteering.

“There's already a strong sensitivity toward sustainability concerns from meeting planners and they appreciate the programmes we've put in place,” says Sandy Swider, Starwood vice-president for global citizenship. “We think the next generation of meeting planners and attendees will simply expect green practices and sustainability initiatives as a given for meetings and facilities.”

Transparent reporting drives demand for green meetings

Asia-based Robin Lokerman, CEO of the institutional division of global meetings organiser MCI, which specialises in planning sustainable events for professional associations, identifies risk avoidance as key to driving the trend for more sustainable meetings. His work is focused in the Asia Pacific region, where he points out that many clients are reporting their sustainability performance to the public; this transparent reporting means that businesses that show no or little improvement in their CSR efforts will be more likely to be ignored by investors. “It’s our job to help our clients realise better performance in their CSR activities, so we put pressure on our suppliers to help us deliver our clients’ sustainability objectives,” he says.

Lokerman believes hotels that engage in sustainable business practices have a significant opportunity to build stronger, more profitable models through efficiency measures. “Green commitment from CEOs is finally trickling down to the meetings department,” he adds. “Increased consumer and governmental pressure on corporates to be more responsible will drive meeting planners to progressively analyse and choose more sustainable hotels to host their events.”

Spotlight on Intel Developer Forum, Beijing 2011

International software giant Intel is typical of where big business is heading with respect to developing green meetings and events strategies, and using venues with strong sustainability credentials is key.

One of the technology company’s most important events is the Intel Developer Forum (IDF), which takes place at various locations across the globe, most recently in April in Beijing, China. In fact, Intel’s commitment to green meeting practices was recognised in 2010 when IDF 2009 San Francisco received the Green Meetings Silver Award from the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC) and IMEX, one of the highest accolades in the world for sustainable events.

“In Beijing, Intel used the China National Convention Centre, specifically for its state-of-the-art energy efficiency, which features solar-powered lighting and natural air ventilation, and water conservation practices. Natural ventilation at CNCC is anticipated to save 380,000 kWh of energy per year, while the collection and storage of 7,000 cubic metres of rainwater is used to irrigate the garden on the lower level.

In selecting its hotels for delegates, IDF looked for properties employing certain sustainable practices, such as recycling, linen reuse, room occupancy sensors and green-certified cleaning agents. It also gave preference to hotels located within walking distance of the conference venue. In addition, many of the selected hotels had water-conserving fixtures and used recycled-content paper.

With respect to the conference itself, IDF Beijing 2011 demanded certain services from its organiser and the venue, including the provision of water coolers with filtered drinking water (saving on the disposal of 100kg of plastic bottles), the recycling of paper, cardboard and carpet, and the minimisation of printed materials by providing an online programme and pocket-sized guide. It also requested energy-efficient LED lighting and audio-visual equipment, the recycling of name badges and the installation of reusable staging features and pod-style booths.

“A couple of years ago, event sustainability was a nice-to-have for companies when shopping around for event venues,” explains Lou Cozzo, Intel’s head of corporate event marketing. “Today it’s quickly becoming a requirement. Intel has started to integrate minimum requirements for sustainable events into our RFPs [requests for proposal] and contracts. Our agencies and the venues where we work, including hotels, are quickly realising that they need to have smart programmes in place that support sustainability in order to do business with us.”

How does Cozzo think hotels are performing in terms of their sustainable meetings service? “I believe hotels have come a long way. Most of the major hotel chains are implementing linen reuse programmes to reduce water usage, most can track energy usage all the way down to an individual sleeping room, while others have implemented waste diversion programmes that include back-of-house recycling. It is not all that apparent so you have to ask; you’d be surprised what hotels will do if you only ask.”

The sustainable meetings community is growing

Guy Bigwood, MCI Group’s sustainability director, is the current president of the GMIC. As such, he’s at the sharp end of CSR policies of both his clients and suppliers. “It’s rare to be approached by leading international or European-wide organisations about planning their meetings and events, and not be asked for our sustainability credentials and processes,” he says.

Software giant Oracle is one such company that has developed procurement procedures to ensure that any potential meetings or events hosts have the right sustainability credentials. “Oracle has standard RFPs that require vendors to submit their sustainability qualifications,” explains Paul Salinger, Oracle’s vice-president of marketing and soon to be president of GMIC. “Contract language also holds them to any practices and measurements they need to deliver.”

MCI has a growing list of clients that run events about sustainability, and they demand the most sustainable, responsible and ethical services and facilities. The company has organised more than 60 such meetings in the past three years for organisations such as Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), The Global Compact, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen COP15 (Conference of Parties 15) and the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). “Meetings about sustainability are booming, and will continue to expand,” Bigwood says. “The EWEA conference a few years ago was attended by less than 3,000 people; now it welcomes more than 10,000 delegates.”

The COP15, held in Copenhagen over two weeks in late 2009, was an inspiring example of how a large international event can be run to the highest level of sustainability. Attracting more than 33,500 participants from government organisations, media and business worldwide, it occupied nearly 77,000m² of conference space, comprised over 2,500 official meetings, required 300 tons of food for 200,000 meals, and saw the consumption of 350,000 glasses of tap water and 250,000 cups of coffee. So successful was the organiser, the Danish Foreign Ministry, in its efforts to raise the bar on event sustainability that the experiences of COP15 has formed the basis of the Sustainable Meetings Protocol, which now serves as a model for green events.

The COP15 followed the BS8901 sustainability management system standard for events—established by the British Standards Institution, it defines key requirements, such as venue selection, supply chain management, procurement and operating procedures—and reported “triple bottom-line” results of social responsibility, economic prosperity and environmental protection using GRI guidelines (link to GH financials feature). The main achievements of COP15 included offsetting 100% of its over 72,000 tons of carbon emissions, encouraging 93% of participants to take public transport to and from the event, using 75% organic-certified food and beverage, sourcing 40% of food within a 100-mile radius of the event and saving €532,000 by not giving gifts and investing it in the education of 11 international students instead.

Raising the standards in green events

Companies such as MCI and Intel are honing their green meetings knowledge and skills through associations with a growing number of agencies specialising in sustainable events. These include Portland, Oregon-based MeetGreen, which was closely involved in the launch of the GMIC, and UK’s Positive Impact, which helped develop the BS8901 and is contributing towards the creation of the first international meetings and event standard ISO20121, scheduled to be published in time for the London 2012 Olympic Games. “It will really set the standard for sustainability in the international events industry,” says Positive Impact’s consultant Rebecca Saunders.

Like BS8901, ISO20121 will focus on event management and strategy, for example requiring identification of key sustainability issues such as venue selection, operating procedures, supply chain management, procurement, communications and transport. There is also a new sustainable-meetings standard being developed in North America, Apex, which provides a clear list of criteria so hotels looking for advice on improving their sustainable credentials have strong guidance.

In October, Rezidor’s Radisson Blu in Krakow, Poland, became the first—and so far only—hotel to gain BS8901 accreditation. Standards are only as good as their acceptance by the industry but, says Michael Luehrs, MCI’s sustainability services manager, “the smart hotels will apply the new standards and become leaders in adopting these practices and even seek certification”.

How hotels perform

So how are hotels performing on driving sustainable events forward? Last year, global software company Oracle conducted 38 pilot projects around the world with notable differences from region to region—even among hotel chains.

The findings indicated that Europe and Asia are more ahead in terms of in-room sensors and water conservation, for example. Meanwhile, it revealed that franchisees seem to lag behind owner-operated properties that share the same brand.

The study also revealed the difficulty in comparing hotels on green meeting credentials because it is so dependent on destination infrastructure and hotel ownership. However, it added that those brands and independent properties that were able to provide end-of-meeting or end-of-year sustainability reports stood out as the greenest.

When organising events, MeetGreen has specific requirements regarding guest rooms, catering and meeting spaces. “We ask the hotel to share any credentials it has earned, such as LEED, Green Globe, Energy Star or another certification,” says its director of sustainability, Shawna McKinley. For larger events, the agency may also require post-event measurements to substantiate recycling and delivery of linen-reuse programmes, and documentation of purchased items in order to confirm recycled content and environmental credentials of cleaning products or bathroom paper, for example.

“What is really important is to get property-specific information and measurable and verifiable data, rather than looking just at corporate HQ programmes,” McKinley continues. “The former is really where the rubber hits the road, even though corporate philanthropy, which often falls into the latter, is laudable.”

These words are echoed by managing director of UK-based Seventeen Events, Andrew Williams: “Measurement is also vital to act as a reputational defence against criticism,” he says. “All too often groups starting to make small changes in the right direction can come under fire for not moving quickly enough. The best way to protect your business from this kind of PR attack is to back up your case with facts and figures. This allows you to state transparently what you are doing now and what you hope to achieve in the future.”

The future is green

While some in the industry would suggest sustainability has taken a back seat during these uncertain economic times, resulting in what McKinley calls a “static period”, others see practices that reduce, reuse and recyle as cost-saving and so more attractive in leaner times. Overall, however, the evidence suggests that the future of events and meetings is green, a trend that will become even bigger as the recovery kicks in.

We will see more government organisations, associations and businesses following in the footsteps of visionary companies such as Intel and pushing sustainability higher up the meetings and events agenda. Hotels will need to make sure they can provide the services and facilities to meet, and ideally surpass, these new demands; if the hospitality industry does not, it will be in danger of losing its share in the meetings and events industry.

Ian Whiteling is joint editor-in-chief of the global meetings and events web channel MEETINGS:review


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