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Every Effort Counts

As a meeting planner, you can slow climate change—one Minnesota event at a time

By Shelby Deering

Sustainable meal
St. Paul’s Paikka emphasizes locally grown food and flora, which reduces an event’s carbon footprint. || Courtesy of Nylon Saddle

Many are personally “going green” these days, whether it’s setting up a composter in the kitchen, taking public transit, or opting out of paper bills for digital versions. In fact, according to The Global Sustainability Study 2021 from Simon-Kucher & Partners, 85% of people worldwide purchase items with sustainability in mind. But as it turns out, being eco-conscious can go far beyond the home and our everyday lives. It can stretch to the events we attend as well.

As a corporate and meeting planner, perhaps you’ve already started thinking green when orchestrating events. Or maybe this is your lightbulb moment to start. Either way, there are myriad opportunities nowadays for groups to be good environmental stewards while gathering in Minnesota. This can include planning events at sustainable venues with employees who take part in conservational volunteer projects in the community or minimizing trash and the use of plastic water bottles. Many hotels, venues, and restaurants across the state are doing more than ever when it comes to eco-friendly practices.

“I’m a firm believer in the Leave No Trace philosophy,” says Mary Carlson, owner and lead planner of Duluth’s Pure Event Planning & Design. “While this is typically applied to exploring the outdoors, it absolutely applies to events as well. Too often, groups leave a venue, and there is a literal dumpster full of trash—one-time-use decor, confetti, boxes that held the decor—left behind. An event lasts a day, a weekend, or a week, but the trash [produced at] events … might last longer than a lifetime. It’s our responsibility to try to reduce our footprint, and events are a simple way to do that.”

Liz Donato, venue director at Paikka, a St. Paul event space with a sustainability program, says it’s particularly easy to host a sustainable event in the state. She says, “Minnesota is lucky to have incredible farms and wholesale floral markets so you and your vendors can prioritize locally grown food and flora. This not only reduces your event’s carbon footprint but [also] gives your guests a unique and impactful experience.”

Even when an effort seems small, it can help to think of it as adding a single line to the story that is our planet. As Ashleyn Przedwiecki, founder and creative director at Minneapolis’ Luum Collective, puts it—remember, if you’re just starting on this journey toward sustainability, it’s OK to start small. Pick two or three focus areas and grow from there. Track your impact and celebrate all the wins along the way, no matter how small.

Sustainable energy
Solar panels on the roof of Saint Paul RiverCentre. || Courtesy of District Energy

Cutting down waste

Many environmental endeavors start with one main goal in mind: reduce waste—and lots of it—if possible. Mariah McKechnie, CEO and lead planner of Duluth’s Northland Special Events, says that large groups can challenge the environment with large sums of single-use plastic and accumulation of waste “from temporary settings,” as she calls them. If you want to cut down on waste at your event, it can greatly help to plan it at a venue that already has these practices in place.

Take the Saint Paul RiverCentre for example. Kate Setley, executive director and general manager, says it has recycling programs for over 12 different types of materials, encouraging event planners to recycle unusual items such as electronics, construction materials, grease, and pallets. As the only convention center in the world to be LEED-certified (a stringent green building certification), it also happens to be one of the first convention centers to introduce composting in public spaces. Last year alone, it recycled and composted 450 tons of waste.

Through its sustainability program, Paikka doesn’t allow single-use plastic and provides recycling and compost dumpsters. As a hotel, Four Seasons Hotel Minneapolis separates all compostable products from recyclables and landfill trash, as Samantha Langs, director of purchasing, shares. Catherine Eckert, co-owner of Minneapolis’ event venue The Luminare, says it provides a complimentary infused-water station with each rental to eliminate the use of single-use plastic bottles. And Sue Ellen Moore, Duluth Entertainment Convention Center director of sales, says that in 2019 alone, its compost program diverted 55,000 pounds from the landfill.

These venues are definitely doing their part. And it can help to keep vendors in mind, too, if you want to go fully green with your event. Nick Peter, CSEP, event and facility sales manager at the Minnesota Orchestra (the first performing arts venue in the U.S. to achieve LEED certification), says it encourages all its vendors, especially caterers, to use sustainable practices and reusable or compostable service items.

Sourcing local eats

Sometimes, saving the world can happen one bite at a time—that is, when you’re eating local. Eating local translates to keeping cross-country trucks off the roads and oftentimes savoring organic foods, thereby eliminating pesticide runoff. Przedwiecki also makes the point that by swapping one meat item, you can further reduce your carbon footprint.

With large ballrooms and event spaces, it’s hard to picture hotels and resorts as champions of sticking close to home and eating local, but at many Minnesota locales, it’s true. For instance, the chefs at Madden’s on Gull Lake in Brainerd source sustainable ingredients and stay local whenever possible—they even use some herbs grown on-site, according to Kelley Flahave, senior events manager. Radisson Blu Mall of America was the first LEED-certified hotel in the Twin Cities and continues environmental dedication by providing accurate headcounts at events to limit food waste and has “sustainability in its DNA,” as General Manager Alberto Abreu puts it.

“We focus on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and work directly with dozens of growers across Minnesota,” he says. “Our executive chef personally visits farmers markets and local artisan shops to ensure the best-quality ingredients are used and that they are sourced in a sustainable way.” The hotel even partners with a local pig farm to divert remaining food waste from landfills.

Small event venues and sizeable convention centers have also jumped on the eat-local bandwagon. Through its sustainability program, Paikka provides a preapproved list of caterers and bartenders who have conservation top of mind. Saint Paul RiverCentre has committed to menus full of foods that are sourced locally and grown and raised naturally without antibiotics or hormones.

Area restaurants with events spaces emphasize local as well. For her restaurants, Kim Bartmann, CEO and founder of Minneapolis’ Tiny Diner, says that she started focusing on sustainability in 2000. “We started with local sourcing, like serving 100% grass-fed beef and eliminating harmful seafood choices and kept going from there,” she says, practices that are still in place at Tiny Diner and her other eateries to this day.

Sustainable ingredients
Brainerd’s Madden’s on Gull Lake sources sustainable ingredients. || Photo by Dennis O’Hara, courtesy of Northern Images

Setting a green scene

Being environmentally friendly can come right down to the decor of an event, with trimmings that not only make a space look stunning but are also sustainable. In Minneapolis, Hotel Alma, a restaurant, cafe, and hotel, sticks to reused decorations, sourced florals from local Twin Cities markets and organic vendors, and house-made beeswax candles for its events, as Gabriela Seidel, events coordinator, shares. Provided decor is made available to planners at The Luminare, focusing on popular visuals like arches, frames, and house greenery, which eliminate single-use items. It also offers projectors for things that would normally be printed, like bar menus, seating charts, and timelines.

At the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, sustainable decor is built right in. Hailey Fenton, private and corporate events manager, says sustainable features include eco-friendly buildings with indoor venues along with gorgeous outdoor venues. “When you host your event at the arboretum, you’re supporting investments into the natural world,” she says. “That includes our eco-friendly gardening techniques, plant conservation, and habitat restoration.”

Minding energy use

At sustainable events, it’s not just about the things that you can see—it’s also about the stuff you can’t see behind the scenes, like energy usage.

Many event venues take energy use very seriously, which pays off for an eco-friendly event. As Abreu shares, Radisson Blu Mall of America has become the first hotel in the world with a CarbinX carbon-capture unit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He explains, “This technology captures carbon dioxide from heating systems and converts it into a nontoxic powder that can be reused in products such as soap and detergent.” Additionally, they have LED lights in 95% of the building, plus its guest rooms are all equipped with smart thermostats.

Saint Paul RiverCentre is powered by Windsource renewable electricity, along with two solar arrays installed on its campus. “Saint Paul RiverCentre’s electricity use is down 37% since our efficiency efforts began over a decade ago,” Setley says.

U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis has an elaborate energy-tracking system. Shannon Kelly, director of events, says, “We have evaluation and monitoring processes in place to track energy use, which allows us to make real-time as well as long-term adjustments to stay on track with our goals.”

And there are other subtle ways to control energy usage, too. Four Seasons Hotel Minneapolis has meeting spaces and public areas equipped with motion sensors and timed lighting to minimize energy use. Madden’s on Gull Lake has installed electric vehicle chargers and has switched some property vehicles to hybrids. McKechnie, who often partners with sustainable vendors, perfectly wraps up this relatively new approach to event planning by saying, “When it comes to saving the environment, every effort counts. With a large group, this effort is compounded significantly and can drastically decrease the footprint of the gathering.”

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