4 Creative Ways to Make Your Meetings Greener

How organizations are prioritizing sustainability at their meetings and events.

You have probably done away with plastic water bottles and reduced paper handouts at your meetings. But there’s so much more you can do to create a sustainable meeting.

Nearly three-quarters of global corporations have made sustainability a strategic priority, according to Successful Meetings. It’s something your members are calling for—the majority of people believe companies should do what they can to preserve the environment, according to Successful Meetings. Creating a sustainable meeting means going paperless, using sustainable meeting services and locally sourced foods, and giving back to the local community.

Here are four areas to consider as you strive to improve sustainability at your meetings:

1. Use renewable energy

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) aims for its meetings to be 100 percent wind-powered. Sustainability has always been a part of the culture at the AWEA, said Elesha Peterson Carr, senior director of conference planning and event logistics. In fact, one of the core values created by staff is: We “heart” wind energy.

Negotiate with host venues in the early stages—before the contract is signed—to require a certain percentage of energy used at your meeting be offset by renewable energy. Venues can buy renewable energy credits, or RECs, to accomplish this goal.

For the AWEA’s annual meeting in Indianapolis in 2021, eight major convention hotels in Downtown Indianapolis are already committed to buying renewable energy—something many cities don’t do on a broad scale, Carr said. Hotels in Indianapolis are taking part in the Green Power Option offered by the Indianapolis Power & Light Company, which allows customers to specify whether they want a certain percentage of their monthly electricity use to be generated by renewable energy from Midwestern wind farms. The Hyatt Regency Indianapolis committed 100 percent to the program.

Furthermore, the Indianapolis International Airport is the nation’s first LEED-certified airport and is home to the largest airport solar farm in the world and the largest electric bus fleet of any airport in the country. Plus, Indy’s walkability reduces shuttle needs on-site.

2. Donate materials locally

As Carr’s association found more and more ways to go green, she and her colleagues continued to be vexed by vinyl banners, which are not recyclable. But at their 2018 annual meeting, for the first time, the association repurposed 100 percent of their vinyl banners. The meeting department worked with Bannerville, which used the banners to create totebags, and Sky Group Wholesalers, which provided the banners to farmers in the U.S. and Africa to line ditches and cover hay.

In Indianapolis, the nonprofit People for Urban Progress repurposes vinyl and mesh event banners, incorporating the material with the salvaged roof canvas from the former RCA/Hoosier Dome to create purses and bags of all types.

You may not plan to throw away certain leftover materials, but remember that it can be costly and environmentally unfriendly to ship and store some items. Instead, look for local charities like Teachers’ Treasures in Indianapolis that can use donated items such as lanyards, notepads, pens, even carpets and tables exhibitors might leave behind.

Or find a local charity that’s a great fit for your particular organization. For several years, Do It Best Corp has held its semiannual markets in Indianapolis, and exhibitors have donated $5 million in products to local Habitat for Humanity chapters to help build homes.

3. Reduce food waste

Reducing food waste is a large part of reducing overall waste, said Julia Spangler, a sustainable events consultant in Indianapolis. Look for host cities, such as Indianapolis, that are home to the necessary facilities to compost leftover food. Ask host venues early in your negotiations about composting options. Without a composting program, it’s unlikely you’ll meet a goal to be a “zero waste event,” Spangler said.

During Meeting Professionals International’s (MPI’s) World Education Congress held in Indy in June, Spangler helped Visit Indy and MPI divert more than 5,000 pounds of waste [JS2] from landfills through composting and recycling. An additional 450 pounds of food was repurposed to Second Helpings, a hunger relief and jobs training program in Indy.

Beyond composting, strive to reduce the amount of food in the first place. Focus on improving the accuracy of your food count. If you don’t have statistics on the amount of food eaten and thrown away at your last meeting, collect data at your next meeting so you can plan better in the future.

Communicate clearly with your caterer about the amount of buffer. “The event planner may be adding in their buffer and then the caterer adds in their own buffer on top of that and then you end up with a lot of surplus food,” Spangler said.

Evaluate how you determine how much food to order for each banquet or reception, Spangler said. Can you require a registration system—even for free events—to improve your estimates?

4. Exhibitor swag

You’ve heard of reduce, reuse, recycle. Spangler adds a fourth “R” to the beginning of that mantra: refuse. Consider whether the materials and products you and your exhibitors bring to the meeting are necessary.

Attendees can decline tchotchkes, but “free” is often irresistible, Spangler said. “Evaluate the different elements of the event and think of what really adds value to your attendees, maybe even surveying them and being willing to cut out those things that have minimal value but generate waste,” Spangler said.

You can create exhibitor guidelines on the type or number of products they can give away. Encourage exhibitors to use natural or recycled materials or give away items that can be easily recycled, Spangler said.

It’s important to partner with your host venues early on—when you’re selecting the city for your meeting—on green efforts. And keep the conversation going throughout the planning process.

“Destination marketing organizations like Visit Indy are a great resource for event strategists to collaborate with,” said Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy. “They know the destination and venues better than anyone and will have gleaned insights over the years – not just on sustainability efforts – but on comprehensive CSR programs that have worked well for other customers in their city.”

Carr’s department at AWEA evaluates all aspects of their meetings—not just alternative power sources—to incorporate creative solutions to becoming greener each year. But she suggests not trying to do everything in your first year of sustainability expansion.

“Keep it simple,” Carr said. “If it gets too overwhelming, you don’t accomplish anything. I would recommend setting a few top priorities and focusing all of your energy on those. And then if you’re able to do some additional things, great.”

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