The Green Continent

One morning last September, the wind direction suddenly changed over the English Channel forcing Stephane Rousson to abandon the flight of his pedal-powered airship just short of the French coast. As it ditched, a low-energy light must have gone out in the febrile brains of Europe's conference professionals. Another straw had blown away in the wind of change that is forcing that continent's meetings industry to find ways to improve their green credentials. And reducing the carbon footprint of delegate travel around the increasingly interactive European Union (EU) and its satellites is just the start.

So although that balloon may have ditched, across the continent a variety of initiatives continue to be launched to make European conference venues and routes as green as anywhere in the world.

This August, Meeting Professionals International's "Quest for Sustainability" European conference was the first to use the new British Standard for sustainable events, the BS 8901—which establishes a generic framework to manage sustainability implementation for events, venues, or suppliers. Diners at the closing night's event contributed to the sentiment by consuming tap water, thereby swallowing the environmental costs of delivering mineral water.

Meanwhile, IMEX, the international meetings industry exhibition is energizing its green credentials by becoming the first trade show in the meetings industry to offer its exhibitors hydroelectric power at IMEX 2009 in Frankfurt, Germany, next May.

IMEX Chairman Ray Bloom says, "Now, more than ever, it makes good business sense to take green issues into account. However, if they are to generate trust, credibility, and true, long-term business value, companies need to beware of 'greenwashing'—actively misleading the market about their green credentials."

Here's a look at some of the more interesting green venues around Europe.

Great Britain's Big on Green

Genuinely green benefits are sprouting at Liverpool's recently opened ACC Arena. Says General Manager Jacquie Rogers, "Our Green Dream Team are continually hot-housing and implementing fantastic ideas that enable ACC to make their events as green as possible. They're enhancing our 'very good' rating by BREEAM, the world's most widely used environmental assessment method for buildings, which are an essential credential for attracting conference producers these days."

London's Millennium Dome was transformed in 2005 from an unsuccessful exposition venue and relabeled "O2." This multipurpose entertainment and exhibition center is now one of Europe's most versatile venues. It's certainly the biggest venue: Turned sideways, it could accommodate the Eiffel Tower.

"Sustainability concerns drove both the design and construction of the O2," says David Campbell, CEO of parent company AEG. "For example, we conserved resources by reusing the existing piles and ducts, the service tunnel, and plant items and utilities from the original structure." On a continuing basis, 100 percent of O2's food waste is composted, 70 percent of their glass bottles are processed into building sand, 100 percent of uncontaminated cardboard is reprocessed, and 100 percent of cooking oil is turned into biodiesel. In addition, fan and pump speeds have been curtailed by 20 percent, delivering a 50-percent reduction in power consumption. O2 itself is surrounded by the UK's first Low Emissions Zone that restricts vehicles of certain types and age, and bars all high-polluting ones.

Vienna's Hotel Imperial

The equally well organized folks at Vienna's Hotel Imperial seem to have bypassed the historic preservation problem and turned an older building green. The premises were transformed from a former residence of the Prince of Wurttemberg into a hotel for the Universal Exhibition of 1873. This sumptuous 145-year-old building has again been converted for exhibition and meetings purposes, this time to 21st-century standards.

The hotel started along its Imperial green path by using waste-burning power; by cooking only with disposable, local, and seasonal products; by using "green" printers, computers, paint, and cleaning materials; with air-conditioning that monitors CO2 levels; and by capitalizing on the building's original thick walls to save energy year-round. The hotel's spokesperson Dr. Petra Engl-Wurzer points out, "By using water-saving modules in the fittings, the hotel saves four million liters of water a year—equivalent to 25,000 full baths. And with heat-recycling, we save the equivalent annual heat consumption of some 10,000 Viennese households."

Swiss Hits

Such credentials are a virtual given in Switzerland, a country proud of being selected in a Yale University study as "the greenest country in the world." Do its conference venues rate as highly?

"Certainly," asserts Remy Cregut, general manager of the Montreux Music and Convention Center. "The environment is our treasure. We must maintain and improve constantly this benefit."

That involved the venue, nicknamed 2M2C, setting up a pumping station using water from nearby Lake Geneva to help generate air-conditioning for the entire convention center (and the adjacent Fairmont Le Montreux Palace), saving 35 percent of energy costs. 2M2C has also recently installed two natural, energy-saving, low-polluting, heat-retrieving, nontoxic gas boilers and above them, a vegetative roof the main function of which is to improve the humidity discharge, enhance air quality, decrease heat pockets, and preserve a more natural environment.

Scandinavia In General

Sweden's green machine extends to eight other northern European countries via the Scandic group, through which meetings concepts are standardized across its 130-plus hotels.

Last April when Scandic received the IMEX Green Meetings Award for its sustainable meeting product, Scandic vice president Jan Peter Bergkvist, said, "We have tried to be part of the solution instead of contributing to the problem of an unsustainable world. The meetings industry has an important role to play both directly and indirectly. By making the right decisions, Scandic, which hosts almost 200,000 meetings a year, can reduce any direct environmental impact and influence a large number of people."

Scandic aims to halve fossil carbon dioxide emissions by 2011, and reduce them to zero by 2025. Toward that target, all correspondence and invitations to a recent environmental meeting at Scandic's Ariadne Hotel in Stockholm went via e-mail, and all documentation was electronically published. Participants were encouraged to travel by train, bus, or renewably fueled cars. Lunch and breakfast, wine and beer were 100 percent organic and mostly locally produced. Paper catering service items were eschewed in favor of china and linen, and bowls used rather than individual serving containers for butter, jam, sugar, milk, and sauces—all contributing toward Scandic's target of saving 400 million packages within 10 years. Water in meeting rooms is served from glass carafes into real glasses. Bottles are recyclable. There are waste sorting bins in all meeting rooms. And even the furnishings and equipment are as natural as possible, including wooden coat hangers and clocks (the frames, not the works).

Sweden in Particular

When completed in 2010, the Stockholm Waterfront aims to have the first "eco-labeled" conference center, which will include a 3,000-seat congress hall. Says Kenth Larsson, director of its developer, Rezidor, "The complex will focus on social interaction and organic materials, affecting everything from the people we employ to the food we serve. And as well as solar panels producing all the energy for the complex, the building will be cooled in the summer from cold water from the nearby lake, Klara Sjo.

"Our aim is to achieve the official Nordic Swan eco-labeling, a seal of approval that encompasses the whole process of building and running the complex. This would be a first for a combined hotel and congress center."

Brussels' Green Benchmark

Anyone looking to design a green facility should make an initial visit to the Renewable Energy House in Brussels for inspiration. Run by EREC (European Renewable Energy Council), an umbrella organization of 12 European associations, it actively represents the entire renewable energy sector. The house is a showcase for "renewables" and though 120 years old, it features solar thermal heating and cooling, a pellets heating system, and the latest PV (solar photovoltaic) technology for electricity generation. It's a must-visit for those planning new or upgraded conference venues.

Germany's Green Push

At the forefront of what the German Convention Bureau terms "the art of successfully combining meetings and environmental concern" is Berlin's Steigenberger Hotel, which claims to be the only hotel in Germany with a genuinely certified Green Meetings option. This means it offers bio-certified menus along with "healthy eating opportunities" for the delegates. Eco-friendly building materials extend to non-plastic, wooden-seated, water-based-varnished conference chairs and natural fiber carpets with recyclable rubber underlay. And at the end of it all, organizers receive an environmentally friendly certificate affirming they have held a carbon-neutral meeting, to use in their own publicity.

There's hot green competition from Frankfurt's Kempinski Hotel Falkenstein. The hotel not only has its own block heat and power plant generating energy for its facilities and services, but it lies inside an award-winning bio-climate zone. An innovative use of water aerators cuts water use by 50 percent, while all conference room systems switch off automatically when not in use.

Paris, City of Eco-Chic

Conference delegates may not yet be able to avoid Paris' notoriously congested streets aboard a French airship, but there is functional evidence of the city's support for eco-friendly meetings. There's the Velo self-service bicycle rental program available at 1,450 stations; the clean and economic Vogueo, Metro-on-Seine boat; and Verture, the "eco-chic" carbon-neutral chauffeured car service that uses Toyota Prius hybrids.

In 2005, the Palais des Congres de Paris implemented a selective sorting program, leading to the recycling of 620 tons of waste in a single year. "And now even the products we use for maintenance and sanitation are biodegradable," says Maintenance Manager Maryse Tricoire who has a staff of four dealing exclusively with recycling issues. "We're tough on convention organizers, too, imposing fines on those whose delegates leave garbage behind."

Hungary for Progress

The Budapest Congress and World Trade Center in Hungary's capital is the country's biggest conference and congress facility. An investment of 10,000 euros was recently made in upgrades by the Accor Convention Network, including a 64-point Earth Guest commitment covering bio-diversity, water, wastewater, raising environmental awareness, green purchasing, energy, ozone layer, and general waste. Accor managers are prompted to communicate with customers and delegates about the environment and environmental conservation, answering such inquiries as, "Do you collect ink cartridges for recycling?" and focusing on such minutiae as, "Do your minibars consume eight kilowatts if fitted with solid doors or one kilowatt if fitted with transparent doors?"

Europe's meetings industry seems to appreciate the commercial need both to build new venues with green assets and to upgrade venerable edifices to uncompromising environmental standards. That's not easy with investment capital currently so scarce, but there's a united determination to meet the environmental challenges, and it's far from just hot air.

Originally published Nov. 1, 2008

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