A collage of greens blends together to form a diverse terrain across the Garden State. There are wild meadows and hemlock forests that span the Kittatinny Valley, tall saltmarsh grasses that frame Cheesequake Creek, sandy Pine Barrens stretching across the south and glistening waves that comb the coastline. There's a lot of beauty across New Jersey, and professionals and venues in the state are advancing in steps to ensure the meetings and events they host preserve and celebrate it.
“Sustainability is such a long-term journey— there is no perfect green meeting,” says Kristin Clarke, director of social responsibility for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). “You’re always learning new things, and there are new inventions all the time. It’s progress, not perfection.”
And it’s not just progress for progress’ sake. Going green has grown from a trendy buzzword to a meaningful movement that’s embraced by stakeholders across the meetings and events industry. It takes buy-in and support from the organization or company hosting the program, the attendees and exhibitors participating, as well as the venue and other vendors involved. Sustainable measures not only decrease the environmental impact that can result from transporting, feeding, accommodating and engaging a large group of people, but they also can generate cost savings, a favorable reception from attendees and creative new approaches in the planning process. “It’s gotten a lot more embedded into the meeting philosophy of what a good meeting is,” says Clarke, who is also the former director of the Convene Green Alliance.
Go Green, Save Green
The business case for a sustainable meeting or event is made even clearer, considering prices of many eco-friendly materials have dropped dramatically since the movement first began. Doing things in a way that produces less waste often results in lower overall costs.
“There’s always this myth that if you’re going to go green, it’s going to cost more, but that’s really not the case anymore,” says Clarke. “Now the business case is so clear: You save money. It’s a risk management issue, as well. You don’t want to get called out on poor recycling practices when everyone is very used to curbside recycling,” Clarke says, adding that this offers planners creative opportunities to not just meet the expectation of participants who want to recycle, conserve and eat while traveling in the same ways they do at home, but also to connect with them in new ways.
Cultivating a menu that’s sustainably grown, raised and sourced is not only a decision that’s good for the environment, but it also creates a sense of place for attendees by highlighting local specialties and stories. Planning a legacy project that actively supports a community cause or charity is another way to foster a hyperlocal focus while leaving a destination a better place.
Clarke recommends working with the area’s convention and visitors bureau for a list of organizations to consider. Projects can range from building hygiene kits for a local homeless shelter during a conference break to organizing a 5K run with all money from registrations supporting a charity. “Attendees love the opportunity to converse informally sideby-side with people to give back. You learn something about the social or environmental problem and what’s being done to fix it on the ground level, and then you’re able to be part of the solution,” says Clarke.
Solutions like edible or potted centerpieces, flavored water stations, branded reusable water bottles and donations to neutralize the meeting’s carbon footprint through an organization like American Forests are also ripe for underwriting opportunities. “You can offset a number of pieces of the sustainable strategy through sponsorship,” says Clarke.
There are many steps on the way to achieving a zero-waste program, but there are just as many places to start. Clarke says that going paperless is a common and accessible first initiative for many planners, transferring registration and conference materials to smartphone apps or online downloads. As an added bonus to eliminating paper usage, planners can create richer content embedded with video and links that can be updated in real time.
“If you’re a little nervous about how your attendees will react about going paper free, then spend a year or two being paper light before going totally digital,” she says. ASAE gave attendees the option to choose whether they wanted to receive materials digitally or as a hard copy when it first focused on reducing paper during its annual Springtime Expo in Washington, D.C., which in 2015 hosted 2,870 participants. That simple step resulted in savings of nearly $15,000, “enough that you’d pay attention,” says Clarke.
Another big impact area that can be broken down into accessible steps is eliminating plastic water bottles and replacing them with reusable canteens or water stations with biodegradable cups. Again, because it directly affects the attendees’ experience, gradual change that matches their expectations is optimal. “Ask your people to be green travelers, and be specific with your goals for your meeting, that you’re trying to lessen the environmental footprint of your being in town,” says Clarke. “Gather feedback and see how your attendees respond to it, and then go from there.”
Choosing a venue that shares a sustainable commitment adds another strong partner to support your green goals. “That’s really the key, because then the infrastructure is already in place, and the practice is already in place,” says Clarke. If a venue isn’t yet focusing on conservation, a meeting planner’s request to do so can be a strong motivator to put new operations in place.
The Atlantic City Convention Center, topped with a solar array that covers twothirds of the 31-acre center’s main roof, has practices and features that amplify the efforts of sustainable-minded planners and that serve as a welcoming introduction for those who might not have considered the environmental impact of their programming. Jim Wood, president and CEO of Meet AC, says that these measures are increasingly part of the decision process when groups decide where to host their meetings and events.
“Across the board, it’s almost 100 percent that meeting planners are happy to see it. We’re seeing that some conventions will only go to venues that have green practices or that are LEEDcertified buildings,” he says, referring to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design designation. “It’s also providing awareness to those planners where if those issues are not on their radar at the time, it puts it on their radar screen.”
When visitors enter the center’s atrium lobby with a 90-foot, sky-lit ceiling, they’re surrounded by décor and art that reflects the barrier island’s ecology and wildlife—flying fish sculptures suspended above wave-inspired carpeting and granite flooring, and depictions of starfish, crabs and seahorses set into the atrium walls. They might not immediately notice the displays describing the solar panels and other initiatives in the building like intensive recycling efforts and energy-efficient lighting, heating and cooling practices.
“It’s certainly not in your face; the practices are spread out throughout the building. You become aware of it if you’re in the building for more than a few minutes,” Wood says.
Renovations and modifications have continuously enhanced the ACCC’s efforts to be a good seaside neighbor. Since opening in 1997, the facility has successfully reduced energy consumption. The solar array added to the roof in 2009 was able to produce 29 percent of the building’s electrical consumption through 2013. Wood says the center’s ultimate goal is to earn LEED certification. “It’s a very hard goal to attain, but that’s okay,” he says. “Where we are today is very different from where we were five years ago and where we’ll be five years from now. It’s a work in progress.”
Recognizing the importance and impact that progress can have in the tourism industry, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection launched the Garden State Green Hotels Project, a voluntary program that offers guidance and support to help hotels save resources and, as a result, lower operating costs.
Donna Albano, an associate professor in Stockton University’s Hospitality & Tourism Management Studies program, and colleague Dr. Christina Cavaliere helped to conduct audits of seven hotels along New Jersey’s coast in conjunction with the project. In evaluating opportunities for waste, water and energy reduction, and also measuring the air quality and greenhouse gas emissions in partnership with Stockton’s environmental studies department student research assistants, the audits revealed opportunities for increased action.
“These hotels are not as energy efficient as they could be, and it’s hard to get them engaged in the conversation,” says Albano. “Hotels think it’s difficult, or it’s going to cost them so much money, and it’s not the case. It’s a matter of getting that message out.”
Albano and the team at Stockton suggested updates like linen reuse programs, low-flow plumbing fixtures, bulk dispensers for shampoo and conditioner, and landscaping adjustments. She thinks that a driver for sustainable change will come from consumer expectations (among staff training, measurement systems, and customer outreach and communication). “I believe the move for more sustainable practices will evolve from demand from consumers who seek to travel in a more sustainable way,” she says. “The TripAdvisors and Travelocitys tap this market by providing tools for the consumer to search for eco-friendly accommodations.”
Students in Stockton’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program in Galloway are learning practices and philosophies that align with the movement. “We teach sustainability as a thread throughout our curriculum,” Albano says. “In an economics of tourism, facilities management, food and beverage—we are very conscious in trying to be more sustainable in a number of ways. We teach students the foundation to make sure that the companies that they work with have some sort of environmental statement and commitment.”
It's a Lifestyle
At The Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge, The Bocina Group that owns the hotel fosters a deep commitment to sustainability, which results in a number of forward-thinking practices at the historic property. “[The owners] live a very green lifestyle, and they brought that green lifestyle to the hotel,” says Marketing Director Sheila Palka.
As a result, guests and planners will enjoy a number of programs that reduce the impact of their travel and gatherings at the 102-room hotel. A dock-to-table partnership delivers fresh seafood to the property’s Grain House Restaurant—which once functioned as a Colonial era gristmill that supplied flour, meal and feed to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War—from small-scale wild fisheries. “Sustainable here means that what is being caught is in season so all species are not overfished and are being caught the proper way; small family-owned boats use traditional methods like long line and bait,” says Executive Chef Luca Carvello. “This contrasts with commercial fisheries that trawl the bottom of the seabed, destroying the natural habitat of many species for the present and future. Commercial fisheries catch species that they might not have intended to catch but catch anyway, including endangered fish, and those species wind up being discarded.”
The large Grain House Organic Garden provides a number of ingredients as often as possible for the menu, and purchasing decisions are made with local suppliers in mind to limit transportation impact. Leftover food from events is donated to a community food bank, and an ORCA food waste diversion machine was recently installed to turn organic food scraps into earth-friendly water, preventing it from heading to a landfill to produce potent methane greenhouse gas as it breaks down.
The Inn, which features 16,000 square feet and 18 private meeting and function rooms, is a member of the Green Hotels Association and changes linens less frequently (per the guest’s request) to conserve water and energy. Laundry is done on-site with an ozone washing system that carries an electrical and chemical charge that sanitizes and dissolves soil on contact. “Not only is it saving the environment by not putting caustic chemicals into the environment, but it does a much better job of sanitizing the linens than regular laundry,” says Palka. Guests often mention how much they enjoy the natural fresh scent of their sheets, and the process has proven to be very cost effective, as is the case in a number of other measures that they’ve implemented.
“During the original changes where we had to buy all new lighting, all new windows and so forth, that was an investment. Over the years it does pay off in the savings that we have in energy bills,” says Palka.
The three properties that comprise Crystal Springs Resort are a more recent addition in lush, mountainous Sussex County. The development began in the mid-1970s and has steadily grown into a four-season destination with skiing, a waterpark, multiple awardwinning golf courses, two spas, and soughtafter food and beverage. As Crystal Springs continually evolves to delight today’s travelers in a beautiful natural setting, it’s important to respect the resources that surround it.
“That’s why we’re doing it, for others to live a better life and to be good to nature,” says Robby Younes, vice president of hospitality and lodging at Crystal Springs Resort, where more than 600 events are hosted each year in over 60,000 square feet of meeting space. Such a commitment comes with a cost. “We’re paying a good 30 percent more for that mission,” Younes says.
Some of the initiatives that increase the resort’s sustainability include chemical-free cleaning products, natural toiletries in guest rooms, a dry carpet cleaning process, a chlorine-free biosphere pool in a live year-round tropical environment, trash sorting to ensure complete recycling and plans to install a solar array that will see Grand Cascade Lodge and Mountain Creek Resort properties completely sufficient on solar power by early 2017.
Even with all of these efforts, Younes says that the staff has to be realistic about what they’re able to accomplish. “We’re a big resort,” Younes says. “I wish we could do better or more, but for the size of our resort, we do our best.”
When it comes to dining at Crystal Springs, the resort offers 12 unique restaurants throughout the property. While there is a focus on incorporating organically grown and locally sourced ingredients in every dish served, the reality of New Jersey’s climate and growing season means that there are some exceptions. For example, growing sweet corn organically in the resort’s garden isn’t practical because the crop is highly susceptible to a husk fungus.
The small-size and fine-dining focus of the resort’s Restaurant Latour, accompanied by a world-renowned wine cellar, allows Executive Chef Anthony Bucco to curate an evolving taste menu that is hyperlocal, highlighting the edible wild ingredients that his foraging partners have gathered that week. The bounty depends on the season and the weather from week to week. “There’s a lot of valuable assets that [these ingredients] bring you from a health standpoint, but also from the incredible flavors that they can bring to a dish. With Latour, if it doesn’t grow here, we don’t really use it,” says Bucco. “It’s almost working backwards. You wait for the ingredients and then you write the menu, instead of writing the menu and sourcing the ingredients.” These local treasures allow Bucco to create a customized group menu for a group of 10-26 seated in the wine cellar for an experience that could happen only in New Jersey. “It really tells the story of our area,” he says.