Conference Centers: Suffering from "Green" Fatigue?

Tired of hearing about how property after property is saving the world, one reused towel at a time? With the recent onslaught of "We do that too!" announcements, it's easy to be cynical. But many conference centers have made remarkable strides—making a business case for green initiatives, backing up claims with facts, and incorporating unique programs for employees, guests, and planners.

The Nuts and Recycled Bolts
In 2005, the Marriott-managed University of Maryland University College Inn and Conference Center be-came the first U.S. hotel and conference center to achieve LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), but conference centers were at work on environmental initiatives long before that.

The Airlie Conference Center in Warrenton, VA, was "green before green was cool," says General Manager Kevin Carter. Airlie boasts a Green Seal certification and the Department of Environmental Quality's E3 rating—the highest attainable.

The property has incorporated buffer zones around its lakes and ponds so wildlife has the most natural habitat possible, and spent $40,000 to replace all light bulbs with compact fluorescent and LED bulbs—a project that Carter expects will garner significant savings in the future.

The Conference Center at NorthPointe in Lewis Center, OH, has established its own green team and has also taken cues from its surroundings in terms of how best to coordinate efforts. The property is in an area of rapid development, but is also near a tremendous amount of farmland, so NorthPointe worked with an adjacent metropark to plant trees and works with local growers to procure some 60 percent of its ingredients as well as offer unused food waste to farmers for composting. "Okay, it reduces your carbon footprint, but the big secret is that it tastes a lot better," says General Manager Sean Anderson of the benefits of local food.

Airlie also grows its food locally. In hard numbers, Airlie's organic garden in one year supplied its kitchen with more than 4,800 pounds of vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers; the property recycled more than 38 tons of waste, including aluminum, glass, steel, and cardboard; and the kitchen saved 12 tons of food waste for composting. Those figures are from 2004, and the property has made further progress in the years since. "As far as we're concerned there is no holy grail of greening. It's ever changing and you're never done," says Carter.

The Airlie Center uncovered an unfortunate situation when an employee followed a truck transporting recyclables—and saw that the waste was never actually recycled. "We quickly fired them," says Carter, adding that "you really have to be careful and do your homework. You can't leave it at 'this is what the company says they're doing.' " Nearly everyone SM spoke with had a similar tale of good intentions that ended up having no impact, but due diligence and a little trial and error can reap rewards.

"It is a situation of 'buyer-beware.' When planners are able to do a pre-con or site inspection, do a back-of-the-house tour. What's in those recycling bins when they leave the show floor? Track some of those waste streams, because there is an element of risk in claiming to be a green meeting or venue," says Shawna McKinley, executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC) in Portland, OR.

"We try to do as many internal things as we can, but also allow staff to do their job without extra processes. So when cleaning plates, for example, anywhere there is a trash container there is also a compost container and recycling container—it's about ease of use as much as possible," explains Jeff Bloom, general manager of Chaminade, the Benchmark conference center in Santa Cruz, CA, which achieved a Green Business Certification from the county. The EPA-endorsed program requires businesses to, among other stipulations, meet standards for pollution reduction, water and energy conservation, and solid-waste reduction.

Bloom uses bulk items for continuous coffee breaks, provides boxed soaps instead of plastic-covered soap because the boxes can be composted, and as the property's gas-powered vehicles need to be replaced, he is buying primarily electric cars. "We're pushing it back on our purveyors too. As a resort, we used to buy a lot of plastic cups, but now we buy a corn-based cup that is biodegradable," he says.

"We had always been doing a few things here or there, like any hospitality property would do," says Leslie Vanderzwet, general manager of conferences for The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, which shifted into high gear in 2001. Policies at the center now include a ban on vehicles idling on property and a commitment to reusing worn towels and bed linens as rags for housekeeping. Vanderzwet credits the cooperative spirit of the housekeeping and F&;B staffs with making programs work. "We've forced them to work differently, but they are really into it. That could have backfired on us, and they could have said 'no way,' but it's gone really well."

McKinley has found that in many cases the conference services manager doesn't know what the maintenance staff does to be more energy efficient, for example, so planners should simply ask. "There is a learning curve, but more and more people are asking, so more and more sales reps are becoming savvy," she says. "Often it's the planner making a request that starts the education process for [the sales staff]."

At Aramark's new Desmond Tutu Center in New York City, green is going to a whole new—subterranean—level. The property, which opened last month, installed a geothermal system that replaces all conventional heating and cooling systems. The project involved drilling to depths equal to the height of the Empire State Building and is expected to reduce CO2 emissions by 14,000 pounds over the next 10 years. "It's an investment in the beginning, but is very easy to maintain and will provide a return," explains Marcel Kromhout, director of sales and marketing for the center. "In the end it will be cost-effective."

Aramark has also started to develop EcoRooms at other properties that are retrofitted with environmentally friendly products like water-efficient sinks, showers, and toilets designed to save more than 20,000 gallons of water annually per room. Bath flooring and tile are made of 55-percent recycled glass, carpeting uses 25-percent post-consumer and 25-percent post-industrial material in addition to eco-friendly dyes, and the rooms include energy-efficient doors and bath and bed linens made from organic, pesticide-free, and Fair Trade Certified cotton.

"It's not just us deciding within a property to do this because it's the right thing to do. It's working with clients, suppliers, and waste management teams so therefore the entire process works. You have to get everybody along the way in sync," explains Karen Wittig, Aramark's vice president of sustainability.

Dolce International has begun using the card-key program at some properties that controls energy use by requiring guests to insert their key into a slot by the door in order to turn on the lights. According to Amy Spatrisano, principal with Meeting Strategies Worldwide and GMIC director, the program is gaining popularity as consumers and properties alike deal with high energy costs. "Energy-efficiency pieces are the big push right now," she says. "Until we come up with some suite of alternative energy, I think hotels will start concentrating on that and people will start getting used to that process." Moving forward, Steve Giblin, president and COO of Dolce, says the company is exploring larger programs such as retrofitting its Barcelona property with solar panels.

But not all green initiatives have to be elaborate and expensive, says Spatrisano. "When people tell me it costs more money I say, 'Show me why it costs more money.' It should be cost-neutral or cost-saving, generally." Using bulk condiments should result in a savings of 30 to 75 percent; 30-percent recycled paper and soy-based inks should not cost more; and using water pitchers can save thousands of dollars. Spatrisano says that for a recent week-long conference for 1,100 people, she saved the organization nearly $66,000 by using tumblers and pitchers instead of bottled water.

The Great Dispenser Debate
On the quest for green, the idea of dispensers has proved unexpectedly contentious. While Aramark says that its use of bulk amenity dispensers saves more than one million individual packages from being dumped in landfills annually, others contend that their guests remain unwilling to accept what can be considered an inferior amenity.

"People want luxury, and their interpretation of luxury is French milled soap and some spa products by the sink. To replace that with dispensers makes them think, 'I've traded down.' Somehow a spa product doesn't resonate when it's coming out of the wall, and customers are not willing to give up that luxury yet, but we'll get there soon," explains Dolce's Giblin.

"If the hotel is offering a higher level of product in those containers I don't think you'll get pushback. It also depends on what the dispenser looks like—you don't have to buy an industrial-looking dispenser," says Spatrisano. Or, properties can follow The Banff Centre's lead and work with their amenity provider to recycle individual bottles.

But recycling is far from ubiquitous. "Recycling, surprisingly, is not very available, although it is becoming more visible," says Airlie's Carter, who decided that there would be no blue plastic eyesores in his property. "I wanted ours to be higher class because we're a historic property, so I designed a wooden, mahogany-type box. You can overcome the obstacles," he says.

The Big, Green Picture
Earlier this year, IACC formed a Green Task Force to both educate IACC conference center personnel and encourage conservation. The task force began by sending all properties a checklist to determine "who's doing what," says T.J. Fimmano, general manager of the Jack Welch Learning Center in Crotonville, NY, head of Dolce's Green Committee, and vice chair of the IACC Green Task Force. Results have been encouraging. "In some cases I was surprised by how much we're doing," he says, and IACC has now asked each property to develop its own green team in addition to association-wide initiatives.

The task force is currently developing a living document on IACC's site that lists environmentally friendly suggestions for properties; members can add their own ideas to the file. "Long term, we may get to a situation where we add some green initiatives as criteria to be a member of IACC," says Vanderzwet, who chairs the Green Task Force.

The IACC team and GMIC are also hoping to meet in the near future to discuss complementary strategies.

"There may be a few industries ahead, but there are many more behind" what conference centers have done, says Bloom of the progress they have made. "Conference centers are small cities, so, for the most part, we're ahead of the curve, although of course we could do better. I bet every conference center in some way is involved in the process—it's just a question of how to move that process along."

Originally published October 01, 2007

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