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A Sustainable Touch

Put the environment first with these sustainability-oriented venues, planners, and programs

By Theresa Sullivan Barger

Event planner Eleni Granas had been hearing about climate change before 2020, but when the COVID-19 pandemic forced dramatic decreases in travel, she took notice. The air quality improved. It caused her to seriously consider the role meetings and events play in climate change.

“I was in a business [that does harm] to the environment. It is never too late to start caring about the planet,” says Granas, who is also a clinical assistant professor at the School of Hospitality at Boston University.

Granas and some of her event planner peers, as well as a growing number of venues, have become more intentional about offering sustainable meetings and events. Some of this comes from their desire to reduce the toll gatherings place on the environment, and some is driven by the increasing environmental awareness on the part of some clients. Hotels, convention centers, and event planners are earning certifications to verify their commitment to reducing their environmental impact on their community and the planet.

While some clients are more open to sustainable options than others, meeting planners, conference center leaders, and hotel and resort staff are increasingly incorporating sustainability into their businesses. So even when the clients don’t prioritize environmental responsibility, event planners can help. They can steer clients toward decreasing their environmental footprint by booking venues certified as sustainable and contracting with sustainable vendors. Through education and experiences, industry leaders can make a difference.

Pennsylvania Convention Center holds several green certifications. || Courtesy of Pennsylvania Convention Center

A Big Impact

After transportation, buildings are a major contributor to energy use, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center (PCC) in Philadelphia—boasting 679,000 square feet of event space—has increased its purchase of renewable energy from 25% to 50% of its usage. The HVAC system is automated using artificial intelligence, which allows staff to monitor and control energy use to improve the facility’s energy efficiency.

“Every mechanical, electrical, and plumbing system,” says Stephen Shepper, the convention center’s director of engineering and capital projects, is run and evaluated against a checklist “to make sure it’s performing to the specifications the engineer put on the specs.” Using mechanical devices called economizers when the outside temperatures and conditions are right, they bring in outdoor air to reduce energy consumption.

The PCC has attained multiple green certifications, including the Events Industry Council Sustainable Event Standards for Venues, Gold Certification, in 2023; LEED Gold for new construction following its expansion, completed in 2011; and Global Biorisk Advisory Council  STAR accreditation for the past four years.

Through a partnership with a nearby construction and demolition recovery facility, the center diverts nearly 60% of its waste per year, says Janet Mitrocsak, facilities director and regional director of operations. This waste includes wood, pallets, metal, shrink-wrap, food, and old furniture.

Under the convention center’s sustainable purchasing policy, staff follows green practices and standards for all purchases, including office and cleaning supplies, furniture, electronics, and lighting (90% LED). The convention center uses eco-friendly serviceware, such as compostable or reusable plates, cups, and utensils. It has reduced single-use products, such as condiments. To cut its carbon footprint, the staff sources seasonal food locally. They’ve reduced food waste by practicing “precise portioning,” donating excess food to people in need, and by using anaerobic food digesters with leftovers that can’t be donated.

Working with the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society for the past nine years, the center’s landscaping is composed primarily of native plants that thrive without the need for pesticides or frequent watering. Native plants also provide the necessary food and habitat for bees, butterflies, and birds.

The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in Massachusetts is LEED-certified, and energy, water, and waste conservation are integral to the facility’s daily operating strategy. The convention center, featuring 516,000 square feet of event space, deploys sensor-controlled utilities, high-efficiency lighting, and strategies to minimize energy use in unoccupied spaces. The center uses green cleaning products, sources food and beverages locally, composts food waste, and increases the amount of waste diverted away from the waste stream each year.

To reduce waste, the facility staff places compost collection bins around the food court dining room. They donate used booth materials and products to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority’s Conventions C.A.R.E. program, which collects, sorts, and arranges transport of donated materials to local nonprofits. One of the uses of the vinyl signage ubiquitous at conventions is a partnership with a school where students convert the signs into backpacks, says Granas, owner of GreenbyGranas.

Eventgoers dine atop Brooklyn Grange’s rooftop garden in New York. || Photo by Dane Isaac, courtesy of Brooklyn Grange Rooftop Farm

The Green Is in the Details

The Brooklyn Grange, which can accommodate up to 250 attendees, has both indoor event space and a rooftop farm and venue. The Brooklyn Grange requires its preferred caterers to practice sustainability and composting, and the venue itself has on-site composting, says Justine Broughal, co-owner of Greater Good Events in Jersey City, New Jersey. The venue’s rooftop farm supplies local restaurants with herbs and vegetables.

Another event planner, Beth Lockwood, president of Brooklyn-based Details NYC, used the Brooklyn Grange rooftop farm to host an event for a client’s meeting in nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lockwood and her team will walk the client’s group over to the farm “because that will lower the carbon footprint, instead of having to use transportation to go to a new location,” she says. “We brought in all repurposed and recycled lounge furniture to decorate the event.” While the client hadn’t asked for a sustainable event, Lockwood says, she was delighted to get one within her budget.

With 6,000 square feet of meeting space, Saybrook Point Resort & Marina in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, has addressed sustainability inside and out for more than a decade. “From sourcing papers and napkins to local foods and spa products, everything is sourced with our green initiative in mind,” says Candace Engdall, director of marketing. “Our vendors are very much aligned with our green mission.” Even the pens used by the staff are made in the U.S. to lessen the facility’s carbon footprint. “We try to convey at every guest interaction that we are green and looking to reduce waste throughout our operations,” she says.

For example, the resort no longer provides miniature shampoo and conditioner containers in the rooms, instead having guests dispense the products from larger containers. The housekeeping staff does not launder sheets and towels daily as routine, unless requested by guests. The resort donates leftover food to a women’s shelter and a farm for composting. To reduce single-use bottles, the resort offers water stations and glass bottles of water for easy refill by attendees. If event guests are served a box lunch to prevent food waste and lessen virus risk, no plastic straws or utensils are used, Engdall says.

The restaurant menu changes seasonally so food can be sourced from local growers. “We try to keep our food miles [the distance food is transported between provider and consumer] down,” Engdall explains. “We have a little bit of a garden where we grow herbs and a couple of local farms that we work with.”

Over the past decade, Saybrook Point has reduced the size of its lawns to cut the use of gasoline lawn mowers, which emit air pollutants such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. The resort has replaced lawns with low-maintenance native shrubs and perennials, and rain sensors are used so gardens are not watered more frequently than needed.

Additionally, guest rooms’ thermostats are monitored so that if someone leaves a balcony door open, the computerized system will automatically shut off the air conditioner or heat. The resort is close to 100% solar powered, and if there’s a power outage, the entire facility can run off the generator, which is connected to the solar energy system, Engdall says. “During hurricane season, the locals come and stay here because they know we don’t lose power.”

The resort and marina sit at the point where Long Island Sound meets the Connecticut River, and the owners of the resort place a high value on protecting the water, Engdall adds. An automated system monitors the marina’s fuel tanks for leaks. Saybrook Point has been certified by the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection as a “Green Lodging Certified Hotel” since 2009, and the resort is a member of the Green Spa Network Planet, a trade association.

The bike parking zone at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island || Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

An Event Planner’s Influence

Whether clients choose a venue that is certified as sustainable or not, event planners can give clients choices to make the event more eco-friendly. Many of the sustainability measures may be invisible to visitors, but event planners with clients who care about sustainability can ask potential venues for a detailed list of measures. If they’re certified in some way, they have to track and report metrics. When planning an event, consider every facet and reevaluate with a sustainable lens.

“We try to be green and equity-oriented when making vendor recommendations,” says Broughal, who understands each client has different levels of commitment to sustainability. “The people who hire us tend to be excited about our mission. Some of our clients … are less interested in that aspect of our work. We continue to work with them.”

If a client requests an unsustainable preference, such as providing single-use plastic water bottles for guests, she says, she asks about the client’s desired outcome. “If it’s that they want it to be easy for guests to grab something between sessions, we might talk about alternative solutions. We provide our best recommendations to reach the outcome they want while minimizing the environmental impact,” she says. Ultimately, the client has the final say. “I don’t think any event can be fully waste neutral. … We try to take a cumulative approach.”

Event planners can also recommend a sustainable florist. If the clients are flexible with their color palettes, the florist can work with flowers that are in season. After the event, the event planner can suggest the clients spend about $200 more to have the leftover flowers picked up and delivered to hospitals and nursing homes. If the client spends thousands of dollars on flowers and the venue doesn’t offer composting services, Broughal says, she suggests options other than adding flowers to the overtaxed waste stream.

Swag bags are another contributor to excess trash. Consider alternatives to plastic items made outside the U.S., event planners suggest. Skip the bag of junk and offer something consumable, such as a food or beverage, or something useful, such as a headshot from a professional photographer or a year of LinkedIn or YouTube Premium. Event planners can even reach out to these businesses for exposure and sponsorship, Granas says. Or, suggest ditching the swag bag all together and directing those funds toward waste management, Broughal says.

In Rhode Island, when race organizers give away T-shirts to runners or cyclists, they no longer individually wrap each shirt in plastic, says David McLaughlin, programming services officer, environmental sustainability policy, with the state of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The DEM’s Green Events staff provides guidelines and a checklist for event planners to follow to self-certify their events as green. Rather than handing runners cups of water along the race route, event organizers could encourage hydration-pack makers to offer discounts on their products to those who register for the race, he says.

Event planners are not doing their job if they do everything the client wants without providing options, says Granas. “Your job is to educate how our decisions impact the planet,” she says. “Ultimately, the client is paying for things, and you have to navigate that. But you can show clients how their event has the ability to make a statement.