Sustainability is a hot topic—and that’s not making light of our warming planet. The meeting and event industry leaves a huge carbon footprint, and more and more planners, clients, and attendees are saying environmental stewardship is becoming a higher priority. That trend is playing a significant role in destination and venue selection, as well as group activity choices. And that is ushering in green initiatives at hotels and convention centers and spawning a plethora of eco-friendly adventure options.
A survey by business information service Timetric indicates 47 percent of business travelers prioritize green hotels. And a recent Tripadvisor survey shows nearly two-thirds of travelers always or often consider the environment when choosing hotels, transportation, and meals.
Environmental awareness is driving ecotourism to become one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry, and it’s expected to grow 9 percent worldwide by 2026. In the United States, ecotourism is thriving as more travelers want to visit unique destinations and undisturbed natural areas and explore the biodiversity of a region, according to market research firm Expert Market Research.
A healthy environment isn’t just good for the planet. Nature refreshes the human body and mind. Scientific studies show spending time in nature can lower blood pressure and boost mental health.
For planners, hosting green meetings that help preserve natural resources, celebrate the environment, and practice sustainability gives attendees what they want, encourages registration, and creates unforgettable events. The South is filled with green venues and eco-adventures that will leave a lasting impression, not a lasting footprint.
Green hotels and convention centers
Increased awareness of climate change has contributed to the steady growth of sustainable practices at convention centers and hotels, such as recycling, reducing plastics use, energy and water efficiency, working with local providers, and offering green spaces and alternative transportation. Among them are these Southern spots: The 1.1-million-square-foot New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center earned two awards this year from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality for major, impactful initiatives aimed at reducing the facility’s environmental footprint. The center’s sustainability efforts include diverting materials from landfills through recycling programs, installing water-bottle filling stations in the lobbies and near restrooms, and upgrading more than 5,000 light fixtures to LED. Each year, the center and exhibitors donate tens of thousands of pounds of food to area non-profit groups, food waste is composted, and cooking grease is turned into biofuels.
Austin Convention Center is LEED Gold certified by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The center in the heart of Texas’ capital city stretches more than six blocks and is powered by 100 percent renewable energy from Austin Energy’s GreenChoice program. The convention center also boasts an extensive recycling, reuse, and composting program that diverts half of all waste generated away from landfills. The city’s CapMetro system offers rail and bus stops at the convention center, and car-sharing services and scooters are readily available.
Virgin Hotels has set an ultimate goal of achieving net-zero carbon and net-zero waste. With Southern locations in Nashville, Dallas, and New Orleans, the hotel chain has multiple sustainability initiatives in place. These include water conservation, green housekeeping, hotel-wide recycling, green roofs for better stormwater management, and donating slightly used soap to the Clean the World global hygiene initiative. Guests can choose to participate in the guest powered carbon offset program and neutralize the carbon emissions of their stay by supporting a carbon-reducing project somewhere in the world.
Proximity Hotel in Greensboro, N.C., led the way in sustainable hotel design when, in 2008, it became the first hotel in the United States to receive LEED Platinum certification from the USGBC. The high-performance, environmentally friendly building uses 39 percent less energy than a conventional hotel; incorporates salvaged, recycled, and sustainable materials; includes solar panels on the roof and high-efficiency plumbing fixtures; and incorporates natural light, according to the USGBC. The hotel boasts its own Bluebell Garden, and guests can take an educational tour of the hotel and check out complimentary bikes. The property offers 7,300 square feet of meeting and event space and 147 guest rooms.
It should come as no surprise that the first building in the world to earn LEED Platinum certification from the USGBC houses the headquarters of an environmental organization. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Philip Merrill Environmental Center is set on the bay and surrounded by nature just minutes from downtown Annapolis, Md. The award-winning, state-of-the-art conference center is a popular rental venue, with abundant natural light, beautiful views, and a tented deck along a secluded beach. The energy-efficient facility employs water conservation, and all materials used in construction are recycled or created by processes that do not damage the environment. The center has an onsite event coordinator, and the non-profit foundation, which works to restore and protect Chesapeake Bay, offers educational programs.
Situated near miles of South Carolina beach, Myrtle Beach Convention Center boasts a green initiative and honors biodiversity. The 250,000-square-foot center, one of the largest on the East Coast, has installed occupancy motion sensors that turn off lights in meeting rooms, ballrooms, and restrooms when there is no movement for 30 minutes. The facility also has a robust recycling program for paper, plastics, and aluminum. Even the outside of the convention center celebrates the environment: Splashed across an exterior wall is a mural depicting frolicking bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles, and right whales. Painted in 1993 by internationally acclaimed artist Robert Wyland, the marine-life mural welcomes attendees to the ocean-adjacent center.
Travelers today are spending more on experiential travel than material objects such as souvenirs, research finds. Couple that with environmental awareness, and eco-friendly adventures can be the tipping point that boosts registration.
The International Ecotourism Society describes ecotourism as activities that preserve biocultural diversity and ecosystems, protect natural and cultural heritage, and promote environmental appreciation. These small-scale responsible outings leave natural areas undisturbed, contribute to conservation efforts, and empower local communities.
Consider adding these enriching Southern adventures to your next meeting schedule:
– Outside Hilton Head specializes in adventures in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Among its popular eco-experiences is the Dolphin Eco Tour. On this 90-minute boat tour, guests search for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the salt marsh ecosystem of Broad Creek. Tours are led by knowledgeable naturalist captains who share the history and stories of the Hilton Head Island, S.C., area.
– You can’t touch them, but you can swim with manatees on an Explorida tour. Daily three-hour tours take guests into Florida’s Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge for a look at these gentle giants. The refuge is located in Citrus County, which has been called the “Manatee Capital of the World,” and Crystal River is one of the only places in Florida with a year-round population of the federally protected manatees. Guests are paired with expert in-water guides.
– The Cahaba River Society in Birmingham, Ala., works to inspire river stewardship through education, recreation, and volunteer service projects. The society’s naturalist-guided float trips include canoes, paddles, and life jackets to experience the river. One of the most biodiverse waterways on Earth, the Cahaba supports 139 rare and imperiled fish species. It’s also a habitat for the Cahaba lily, an aquatic flowering plant that is
said to grow only in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
– Wild Horse Adventure Tours, based in Corolla, N.C., takes guests through a wild horse sanctuary and three distinct ecosystems to view the Outer Banks’ wild Spanish Mustangs. Trained guides lead the two-hour tours over nearly 20 miles of pristine beach. Although guests ride in a customized open-air vehicle, the company touts that it offsets the carbon output by donating trees to the non-profit American Forests conservation organization.
– Take a hike through the hardwood forest and explore the waterways of Congaree National Park in central South Carolina. The old-growth forest contains some of the tallest trees in eastern North America, according to the National Park Service. There are hikes for all skill levels, from a short hike on the Boardwalk Trail to longer treks in the backcountry. Oxbow lakes and the Congaree River offer fishing and paddling. Ranger-led programs also are available.
– Kayak Nature Tours offers three different dolphin adventures: on the ocean, Chesapeake Bay, or Broad Bay. The bay tour is the easiest amid calm waters in First Landing State Park in Virginia Beach, Va. Morning, noon, and evening tours are available. The tour company’s mission is to teach and guide visitors through the outdoors
in a safe, fun, and respectful manner that encourages non-consumptive wilderness travel.
– Asheville Adventure Company offers guided rides on electric bikes. Routes include unique itineraries and activities created by in-the-know locals. The company’s eBike Sunset Tour is a leisurely 14-mile ride highlighting Mount Pisgah, the River Arts District, and downtown Asheville, N.C. The eBikes have headlights, and each participant gets a safety helmet and a complimentary beer. Tours are typically for small groups, but larger groups can be accommodated if planned in advance.
– Get Up and Go Kayaking offers tours in clear kayaks so paddlers can see into the water below. The tour company has more than a dozen locations throughout Florida. At Shell Key Preserve near St. Petersburg, guided daytime eco-tours let participants get close to Florida’s mangrove trees or walk on a sandbar while looking for manatees, pelicans, dolphins, and starfish. After dark, the tours light up. Guided Glow Tours feature LED lights that illuminate the water beneath the clear kayak, ideal for seeing marine life below and stars above.