Cleaner, greener events: The facilities, suppliers, and event organizers advocating for a sustainable future

The Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center now uses Entronix energy meters to facilitate energy tracking for events.
The Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center now uses Entronix energy meters to facilitate energy tracking for events.

As more Americans finally get their COVID-19 vaccinations, meeting planners and producers are cautiously optimistic about getting back to hosting in-person events.

While these events will include a strong focus on health safety, environmental wellness and sustainability will remain important. In a pre-COVID-19 survey, the Natural Marketing Institute revealed that 58 percent of respondents based purchasing decisions on their ecological impact. The institute’s recently released 2021 State of Sustainability in America Consumer Insights & Trends Report states the global pandemic may have ignited a more robust commitment towards environmental protection and sustainable behaviors among the population.

But as concerns about climate change grow, there’s a burgeoning trend towards producing trade shows and meetings that are more sustainable and kinder, not only to the environment, but to participants and the surrounding community. This philosophy affects all facets of event planning—from logistics and operations to the individual wellness of attendees.

“In the last five years, we have seen a fairly large increase in requests for sustainable meetings,” said Britta Ehnebuske, a project specialist with MeetGreen, a sustainability consulting firm for conventions and meeting planners.

Increasingly, clients choosing sustainable options understand how applying these practices to any event can go a long way.

“You simply can’t boast sustainable practices and then use Styrofoam at your event. People—in particular young people—are increasingly looking to businesses to truly walk the talk; they desire transparency and will vote with their wallets,” Ehnebuske said.

A vast wasteland

The U.S. meeting and conventions industry is a $1 trillion business. Pre-pandemic, on any given day, approximately 85 trade shows might take place across the 50 states. In face-to-face gatherings, an individual trade show participant could produce roughly five pounds of waste per day. The total amount of waste generated at these events has been estimated at around 600,000 tons, equivalent to 16 Empire State Buildings.

However, Informa, an international events, intelligence, and scholarly research group, is determined to change that trend. In partnership with The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC),

Informa is responsible for organizing the annual Greenbuild International Expo, the country’s largest event dedicated to sustainability in the built environment. The organization sets a yearly goal of generating zero waste at all of its events. They achieved that goal at the 2019 Atlanta conference, barring wasteful items such as single-use plastics, limiting paper cups, and installing water stations in the venue.

“Greenbuild was able to push the sustainability bar even higher, launching new initiatives and challenging the event-industry status quo,” said Sherida Sessa, Informa’s brand director for the annual event, at a recent workshop hosted by the Florida-based Sustainable Events Network.

To host a successful event for the world’s sustainability organization, Informa’s team knew they would have to live and breathe by those same rules and make sustainability one of its central corporate tenets.

To that end, the company recently implemented ‘FastForward,’ an aggressive sustainability program. Based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the initiative incorporates sustainability in internal company operations and every event Informa produces. By sharing this knowledge and applying the practice at the annual events it organizes, Sessa said these industries can generate interest and spur industry peers to follow suit.

“Businesses are more conscious of how energy efficiency, resource conservation, and other sustainability practices can be a differentiator,” Sessa said. “It’s the right thing to do and a smart investment for businesses.”

FastForward aims to inspire sustainable development, encourage environmental responsibility, and incorporate social responsibility. The recommendations for each go beyond recycling and sustainability within the confines of a trade show venue; they include far-reaching, more holistic measures, on the wellbeing of meeting attendees and surrounding communities.

Leftover food at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is donated to various charities or sent to the compost garden.
Leftover food at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is donated to various charities or sent to the compost garden.

Inspiring sustainable development

During the development of agendas and content, FastForward encourages organizers to look at issues relating to sustainability within their industry and incorporate them into the program. This includes highlighting industry innovation and rising stars; empowering entrepreneurs and small businesses; exploring diversity; and looking ahead at challenges and trends within the industry.

Another component in this focus area is to develop a ‘purposeful’ partnership with a not-for-profit in the local community. These partnerships can benefit in several ways, such as funding a community garden or providing the partner with space on the expo floor or even a keynote speaker spot.

“We give our partners opportunities to get their messaging out through our marketing channels,” said Sessa.

Inspiring sustainable development also extends to engaging conference exhibitors, vendors, contractors, and others at the event and sharing information on ways to incorporate sustainability into their lives and businesses.

Running an environmentally responsible event

This focus area touches on sustainability practices that are already relatively well known, like energy conservation and waste renewal. Sessa noted that making LED lighting more available to exhibitors is important, along with limiting the lighting on booths already outfitted with custom equipment. Opportunities to use natural light whenever possible and cutting off energy during moving and installation periods are other approaches. Fortunately for show planners hoping to go green, most venues already have ambitious conservation systems and are ready to accommodate as much as possible.

“We are committed to meeting any standard of sustainability for events at our facility,” said Tim Hemphill, vice president of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.

Consistently ranked as one of the nation’s largest and leading meeting venues, the venue has marketed its size and location for more than 35 years. But Hemphill and his team know that without an aggressive sustainability program in place, size won’t matter.

“Each meeting has a different level of interest and requests for sustainability options. We work very hard to make sure we can accommodate their wishes,” he explained.

This became particularly evident in 2015, when Greenbuild’s conference took place at the New Orleans convention center. Building upon a food composting program it already had in place, convention center leadership and staff saw Greenbuild as the perfect opportunity to amp up their sustainability options.

For front-of-house compostable waste—which included cellulose-based paper towels from 34 restrooms—a 30-yard open-top collection container was placed in each of the facility’s four loading bays. By the end of the conference, the convention center’s local environmental partner, NOLA Green Roots, estimated that more than 9,000 pounds of organic material was composted. Another 2,827 pounds of food was donated to a food bank, while more than 20,940 pounds of event waste were diverted from a landfill.

The final report showed that the meeting surpassed its original waste diversion rate goal of 65 percent, set by the USGBC, reaching an impressive 78 percent.

The convention center is currently making changes and enhancements to host cleaner, greener events. The facility has upgraded all exhibit hall light fixtures to LED, installed more than 60 water bottle filling stations, and now uses Entronix energy meters to facilitate energy tracking for events. Another big nod to sustainability has been the greening of part of the busy boulevard adjacent to the facility, reborn as a seven-acre pedestrian park. The park will manage stormwater in rain gardens planted with native Louisiana wetland plants.

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has upgraded all exhibit hall light fixtures to LED.
The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center has upgraded all exhibit hall light fixtures to LED.

Food service provider Centerplate practices composting in the back-of-house and employee cafeteria. Most of the foodware is made of biodegradable materials, and leftover food is donated to various charities or sent to the compost garden. In 2019, the convention center turned 24,000 lbs. of kitchen grease into bio-fuels.

“As we establish these and other initiatives, we hope to become [LEED-certified],” said Linda Baynham, the facility’s director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility. “When that does happen, we will be the largest [LEED-certified convention center] in the region.”

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is an internationally recognized green building certification system, providing third-party verification that a building or community was designed and built using strategies aimed at improving performance,

More than 35 U.S. convention centers already maintain this status, including the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center and the Austin Convention Center, both of which have LEED gold certification.

With or without LEED certification, convention centers, meeting venues, and their service providers are becoming more accommodating when event planners want to go green.

“There is a lot of power in asking questions to your providers,” noted Ehnebuske. “We always suggest talking to the [event’s] virtual platform provider to determine if their servers are being powered by renewable energy. Depending on the client, the answer might have a big influence on their choice and even push the provider to look into sourcing their energy from renewable sources.”

Sessa agreed, noting that sustainability options at trade shows are endless. For example, planners are replacing canvas tote bags with digital versions, and post-consumer recycled paper is the go-to for paper products.

“You’re eliminating excesses—like giveaways that go straight to trash when conference attendees get home—and replacing them with activities that enhance innovation, effectiveness, and engagement,” Sessa said. “More industries and exhibitors are beginning to understand the value.”

Incorporating ‘social responsibility’

According the FastFoward program, sustainability and community wellbeing can happen in many ways. For example, Informa’s events tend to work with local food sources and vendors, which helps sustain the community and cut back emissions.

Social responsibility also means focusing on participants’ welfare, with amenities such as yoga sessions, kickboxing, and other sponsored wellness events. Private nursing rooms for new mothers or parents of young children are also popular.

With more significant concerns about individual health and safety, Informa is taking extra steps to ensure that emergency plans are in place while looking for new ways to improve safety at each event.

Despite the onset of COVID-19, Informa has maintained its focus on sustainability. Greenbuild’s 2020 Expo, planned to take place in San Diego, went virtual instead.

“We still supported our (San Diego) Legacy project and funded the building of a community garden. We still hosted complimentary wellness sessions, including yoga and meditation, throughout the event,” Sessa said. “We tracked energy usage of attendees, exhibitors, and vendors, and then purchased corresponding carbon offsets. Sustainability can be practiced at so many levels. Virtual or in person, every effort makes a difference.”

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