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Green From the Get-Go

Sustainable requests for proposal move environmental consciousness for events to the forefront

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The garden terrace of the Seattle Convention Center’s Summit building || Courtesy of Corry Parris

The meetings and events industry is flourishing. But so, too, are the large carbon footprints often left behind by a hospitality of abundance. In response, planners and organizers are taking steps to green up their gatherings.

Sustainability is a major priority for meeting planners when choosing destinations. Many regularly ask about sustainability in their requests for proposals, and most look for venues that use ethically and locally sourced ingredients and that minimize food waste. Other leading site selection criteria are recycling, energy efficiency, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building certification, and local and long-distance transportation. These requests with an eco-friendly focus are known as “sustainable RFPs,” although the degree of specificity ranges from general to granular.


“It is certainly something moved to the forefront of the RFP process,” says Chris Connelly, senior director of sales at Visit Seattle. “It used to be something you didn’t see. Now most organizations are asking about green initiatives, not just from the facilities but also the cities themselves.” Some planners want their events’ carbon emissions calculated, or even data on emissions per attendee, he adds. Convention centers nationwide are taking notice. For example, a huge draw to Washington’s Emerald City is the downtown Seattle Convention Center. Its Summit building opened in January of last year—nearly doubling overall capacity by adding 573,770 square feet of event space—and was recently awarded LEED Platinum certification. The original Arch building, constructed in the late 1980s, earned LEED Silver certification.

Hotels are also emphasizing sustainability. At the trio of Hiltons in San Diego, California, “meeting planner clients are interested in participating with local sourcing,” says Peter Kane, commercial director for the three hotels. “They ask about our sustainability and to describe our corporate social responsibility, and ask if we have any certifications or credentials.”

The Hilton San Diego Bayfront, the largest of the three, maintains a rooftop apiary and participates in the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant program to prevent plastic pollution from entering coastal waters. Globally, Hilton Worldwide’s Meet With Purpose initiative assists planners with impact calculators for carbon, energy, water, and waste; sustainable menus; food donations; and other efforts.

Beekeeping at Hilton San Diego Bayfront || Courtesy of Hilton San Diego Bayfront

In San Jose, California, support for sustainability is echoed. “A lot of it is driven by organizations that care … and by younger people who as a whole are more climate aware,” says Matthew Martinucci, vice president of sales and destination services for Visit San Jose. For example, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center earned LEED Silver certification in 2015 and boasts a green-minded food and beverage team.

Location matters in how deeply planners dive into green meetings, and Innisfree Hotels is ready, says director of sustainability Bethanne Edwards. All 24 Innisfree properties are Green Key-certified, a standard of excellence for tourism-related environmental responsibility and sustainable operations. Government entities are the biggest proponents so far, but she expects others to follow. “At this point, it’s lagging in certain markets,” she says. “As more people start to understand the environmental impact of meetings and conferences, they will look for ways to mitigate that.”


An event’s food and beverage component largely contributes to planet detriment by way of types, amounts, sourcing, preparation, and packaging. It’s also the costliest.

An example is GreenBiz Group in Oakland, California, which developed an extensive sustainable food program for its conferences. Last fall, GreenBiz brought in a plant-based chef to train the culinary team of the San Jose McEnery Convention Center to prepare “plant-based food that tastes good and that people actually want to eat,” says GreenBiz Group Senior Conference Coordinator Jessica Coons. GreenBiz also partners with organizations like Greener By Default, to analyze menus for environmental impact, and with Copia, to help with leftover food donations.

Serendipity Catering sources ingredients locally. || Courtesy of Serendipity Catering

Green hospitality doesn’t have to mean cutting corners, adds Michaella Holden, whose company, Lucent Blue Events + Design in Minneapolis, Minnesota, fosters sustainability without sacrificing luxury. “You can have the best of both worlds,” she says. “You can be thoughtful about how you are producing your event and still have all the little details you want.” She advocates for water stations and reusable glassware instead of single-use bottles, locally grown flowers to reduce shipping and packing costs, signage made from recyclable Falconboard rather than nonbiodegradable foam board, and event swag that is useful rather than gimmicky. An example of purposeful swag includes the giveaways Visit Seattle distributed to a group of 3,000 last year. Those included sourced tote bags sewn from repurposed sailboat sails by the local Refugee Artisan Initiative.


It’s important to submit RFPs early for niche requests that are important to your group, including things like donations to a specific charity or inclusion of particular ingredients or precise measurements for dining.

“We can source locally. We can source humane treatment of animals,” says green event specialist Laura Zaspel of Serendipity Catering in Denver, Colorado. “But if you don’t plan properly, the supply might not be there, or you can have a significant amount of waste that could go to the hungry or composting.”

“Remember that sustainability is a journey,” Coons says. “You don’t have to have it all figured out immediately. Pick the easiest things to tackle first and go from there.”