You’ve heard the buzzwords: green, sustainable, eco-this, eco-that. Environmental conservation initiatives almost sound so pedestrian these days they can be easy to ignore, but the benefits shouldn’t be discounted. There are a multitude of reasons why green is good and getting better including budget savings, marketing benefits, public goodwill and attendee engagement, and new sustainable practices are beginning to affect every aspect of the meetings industry.
But what does it mean to make meetings “green”? The best way to understand this concept is to get familiar with the APEX/ASTM green meetings standards, according to Connie Bergeron, CMP, board member of Green Meetings Industry Council and founder of Site Selection Solutions Inc., an organization that works with meeting planners to place them with host venues. The internationally recognized standards are a result of collaboration among the Convention Industry Council’s Accepted Practices Exchange, ASTM International and GMIC.
APEX/ASTM standards cover nine sectors of meeting planning: audiovisual and production; exhibits; transportation; accommodations; food and beverage; communications; on-site office; destination selection; and, finally, venue. Each sector includes factors like waste management, air quality, and energy and water usage. “They encompass all the different aspects of managing, reducing and expediting a host venue’s impact on the environment,” says Bergeron.
Planners and suppliers can choose whether to implement these standards, but Lindsay Arell, sustainable programs manager at Colorado Convention Center, says she began seeing more planners and suppliers planning their events around them once venues could become certified by ASTM and GMIC. Currently, six venues are certified: Colorado Convention Center in Denver; McCormick Place in Chicago; Orange County Convention Center in Orlando; Sands Expo and The Congress Center at the Venetian and the Palazzo in Las Vegas; Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto; and Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Arell says even more are in progress.
Six convention centers are certified by APEX/ASTM standards: 1. Colorado Convention Center in Denver; 2. McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago; 3. Orange County Convention Center in Orlando; 4. Sands Expo and The Congress Center at the Venetian and the Palazzo in Las Vegas; 5. Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto; and 6. Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
While APEX/ASTM certification is on the rise, LEED certification is probably the most well known. “LEED certification is a universal signifier that a building owner takes sustainability seriously,” says Jacob Kriss, media associate for the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is affiliated with the USGBC to provide third-party verification of green buildings. There are different rating systems in place for both new construction projects built with LEED standards in mind and existing buildings renovated to those standards. Application is voluntary, and buildings are rated based on a number of green items on a checklist in a variety of categories. “Depending on the number of credits achieved, the project earns a number of points (typically one to two points per credit), which cumulatively dictate its certification level,” says Kriss. There are four levels: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.
“There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to LEED, as every project is different,” Kriss explains. “The rating system was designed to be flexible and adaptable so that project teams have the freedom to pursue what a sustainable building means to them, whether that means the pursuing the Certified level or all the way up to the Platinum level.”
The certification process can be lengthy and costly, but worth it, says Roger Huldi, general manager of W San Francisco. Huldi was director of operations for the hotel in 2007 when the property decided to pursue LEED certification. Prior to joining W San Francisco, he worked at the Westin Maui, which broadened his interest in sustainable operations. “When you live on an island, you really see the impact the tourism industry can have on a very small microcosm,” he says. When he moved to San Francisco, Huldi wanted to bring his green interests into his new job. During the interview for his first position with W San Francisco, he and the general manager at the time discovered they shared a passion for environmental practices. “We said, ‘What can we do to in this hotel to push everything forward?’ I think he found an ally in me to push to the next level, and to do the right thing for the environment.”
The hotel, which opened in 1999, obtained LEED Silver certification in 2010, making it only the sixth hotel nationwide to earn LEED Certification for an existing building, Huldi says. It was also the first from a major hotel brand to do so. From start to finish, he says the certification process took six to eight months. “It is very time-consuming, and you really have to put a team together,” he says, noting that each department in the hotel had a representative who helped drive the initiatives in their respective departments.
Most of the green upgrades took place behind the scenes, including things like waterless urinals, low-flow showerheads and energy-saving light bulbs that have little to no direct impact on guests. “They don’t even see that we use less energy,” says Huldi . But he’s not stopping there. “We don’t want to rest on our laurels, because there’s always more you can do,” he says. Last year, the hotel installed a heat exchange unit to take advantage of San Francisco’s cooler nighttime air. The unit pulls in the air from the outside and uses it to cool the building without having to run the chiller for the air-conditioning system. Many nights, it’s enough to cool the entire hotel—not bad for a 31-story building. “It’s actually cleaner to work in an environment like that, and the hotel feels better,” says Huldi . “We’re seeing massive savings already with no impact on the guest experience whatsoever,” he adds. With all of these changes and even more underway, W San Francisco is currently operating at a Gold level (though still certified Silver), and Huldi says he’s confident they can achieve Platinum certification soon, joining a very short list of hotels that share that bragging right: Bardessono in Yountville, Calif.; Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, NC; Hotel Skyler in Syracuse, NY; and Crash Pad hostel in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Only four hotels in the United States are LEED Platinum certified: 1. Bardessono in Yountville, Calif.; 2. Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, N.C.; 3. Hotel Skyler in Syracuse, N.Y.; and 4. Crash Pad hostel in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“The hospitality sector is quickly becoming aware of the benefits of going green and achieving LEED certification for their projects,” says Kriss. “More travelers are becoming aware of their impact on the environment and have actively begun seeking out hotels that are demonstrating their commitment to the environment by building green.”
What about hotels that don’t make the cut to become certified? “During the review process, GBCI does an intense examination of the documentation for all credits that the project is trying to achieve, and it offers feedback and comments on any credits for which the project, for whatever reason, is deficient in its documentation or did not fulfill the requirements,” he says. “If projects do not secure all the credits they are pursuing, they are free to address the deficiencies and resubmit their application, or file an appeal.”
Additionally, if buildings want to maintain their certification, they must reapply every five years. “The recertification process is entirely new every time, with the same rigorous technical requirements as when the project received its initial certification,” says Kriss.
But all that effort to implement green initiatives is not just for the benefit of the hotel and its leisure guests. Very importantly, meeting planners are also seeking out sustainable venues for their events. “It has become something that planners are requesting to fulfill their roles with the green meetings standards,” says Bergeron. Huldi agrees, saying he believes that soon, green venues won’t just be something they’re requesting—it’ll be something they expect. Huldi estimates that W San Francisco hosts about 2,000 meetings a year. “We continue to work very closely with our meeting planners,” he says, adding that they work with planners to ensure they use recyclable materials at their events. “We have zero-waste meetings, basically, where we make sure everything we use can be reused. We don’t want to throw anything away.”
Bergeron says GMIC includes a request for green initiatives undertaken by prospective host venues in every RFP they initiate, which serves three purposes: “It raises the visibility of the importance of green initiatives within the host venue community; it raises the awareness within our client base of the steps that can be taken by venues to green their operations; and it helps us be true to our commitment to sustainable events as a company,” she says.
With that comes an educational opportunity. “There are a number of things that you can do that will help your event have less impact on the environment and potentially educate the host venue as well on why these steps are good,” she says. “It can be a great creative exercise to sit down and brainstorm with a salesperson and their operations person to see what steps they might be able to implement, and to suggest things that might be modified in their overall method of operation.”
Kriss says USGBC is “extremely pleased” with the progress the hotel sector has made in sustainability with LEED. The LEED program was launched in 2000, and 14 years later, more than 240 hotels have been certified, and more than 1,400 are currently pursuing certification. “While there is always more work to be done, it is clear that LEED is driving market transformation across the hospitality space and is a leading force in the movement to create healthier, high-performing buildings that are better for the planet and the people who use them every day.”
Since the LEED program launched in 2000, more than 240 hotels have been certified, and more than 1,400 are currently pursuing certification.
Even with all the progress LEED and ASTM have made in raising awareness of sustainable practices through certification, one might wonder why more venues aren’t following suit. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, there were 52,529 hotels in the United States as of the end of 2012 (2013 figures have not yet been released). The number of LEED-certified hotels pales in comparison. “I think it really starts at the top; you need to believe in it,” says Huldi. “A big part is actually the attitude and just believing that you can change things and challenge the status quo.”
A common misconception is that going green is expensive, but that is not necessarily borne out. “Most green initiatives in host venues ultimately end up having a positive effect on the property’s bottom line,” Bergeron says. “When you think about recycling and repurposing things, most of those initiatives do end up being more affordable. So, by definition, doing the right thing ends up having a positive impact on your budget.”
“From a building perspective, building to LEED [standards] doesn’t have to cost a penny more than building a conventional project,” Kriss adds. “Additionally, an upfront investment of 2 percent in green building design, on average, results in life cycle savings of 20 percent of the total construction costs.”
Huldi points out that some venues might be hesitant to go green because of perception— “that you become kind of granola by doing that”—but he defends that’s not the case. “When you think of W as a brand—a hip, urban, trend-setting hotel—we have nothing to do with granola,” he says. “Green can be glam, too.”
To challenge these misconceptions, planners need to know what they want and how to get it. In 2013, Arell helped launch the Ask For It campaign, a call to action aimed to “get planners to ask suppliers to implement APEX/ASTM standards for their meetings.” She said she’d heard planners saying they’d like to implement sustainable initiatives, but they didn’t know what to ask for, and suppliers saying they’d do it if planners asked. The Ask For It campaign came about as a way “to empower the planners to feel like they can make a difference,” Arell says.
One green aspect that is often important to planners is the way venues handle waste management, Arell continues. And Bergeron echoes this. “In hotels that are taking some great steps, you also see a commitment to recycling, including receptacles that are clearly labeled and also accessible in public spaces,” she says. “It has to be visible and available.”
Waste management programs also have a charitable aspect. “I’m always surprised when people are not familiar with the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act,” Bergeron says. The act, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, protects anyone who donates food, from restaurants and hotels to private citizens, from liability (unless there’s proof of negligence in regards to food handling). “It’s a tremendous thing,” she says. “If you guarantee 200 people for dinner and you have 150 people show up, what do you do with the other 50 meals?” The law allows the extra food to be donated to homeless shelters and food banks. Bergeron always requests host venues include a provision in contracts stating that excess food will be donated. “The kind of waste management program that properties use is an important definer of their commitment to greening their operations,” she says.
Other organizations, such as Clean the World and Global Soap, make good use of extra toiletries in hotels and conference centers. Those programs sanitize soaps and other opened toiletry items and send them to impoverished areas around the world. “All of those programs are really important aspects of greening operations,” says Bergeron. Huldi adds that W San Francisco participates in a similar program, and that planners respond well to it. “We get good feedback from our meeting planners, and certainly they like to come back because of us having a green mind.”
Green is no longer simply a trend. “The world is changing, and not just for meetings but everywhere,” says Arell . Bergeron notes that meeting planners are definitely paying attention to the environment, and she says her clients are “pretty savvy about sustainability.”
“We are on the verge of creating a movement. We need to put past conceptions aside and embrace that this is happening,” Arell says. “And I think we can really do something cool.”