With their substantial use of water, energy, and consumable goods, hotels have a tremendous impact on the environment and need to pay close attention to issues of sustainability — not only for environmental reasons, but also because many guests are increasingly concerned about the impact their travel has on the Earth. These days, travelers expect eco-friendly stays.
Millennials are especially driving the conversation, often choosing to use — or work for — companies with sustainable business practices. They like companies that focus on benefits, rather than profits.
Another benefit of choosing the best environmental technologies, whether it's to save water, limit energy use, or reduce or recycle waste, is better cost efficiency, which can increase a hotel's profitability over time. Such changes also impact the guest experience and reflect positively on a corporate brand.
People attending corporate meetings want social responsibility as well. The 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study found that 86% of U.S. consumers expect companies to operate in ways that protect and benefit society and the environment. There are sometimes economic incentives for environmental improvements.
How do you make the types of decisions and changes that support these needs? By paying attention to the details. Choose green vendors. Reuse and recycle. Go all in with your sustainability-related practices and train your employees about them.
Here are three groups taking important steps toward sustainability and leading the way in the meetings and events industry.
Colorado Convention Center: Going All In
Hotels can look at the Colorado Convention Center to see what a significant commitment to sustainability looks like — and to take away some good ideas. In 2012, the LEED-certified site was the first event and conference venue in the world certified to an international sustainability standard that promotes responsible environmental and social practices in the event industry.
The convention center hasn't gained that reputation by picking and choosing sustainable technologies or practices. It has that reputation because its team is targeting sustainability in every possible way.
Sustainability Programs Manager Lindsay Arell says the facility's goal is to erase the line between a regular event and one that is “green" by making all of its events sustainable.
In 2018, the Colorado Convention Center diverted about 50% of its waste from landfills — 1.5 million pounds — by reusing, repurposing, recycling, and composting. Between its administrative offices, parking garage, and ballroom, the center saved 341,746 kilowatt-hours of energy and more than $36,000 in annual energy costs. The team also replaced grass along the street with native and drought-resistant plants, allowing them to use 75% less water to maintain those areas.
Some planners, Arell says, seem to feel that booking their event at the convention center is enough — that it means their event will be sustainable — but it's actually only the first step.
She refers them to the Event Carbon Footprint Calculator, an online tool the center developed in 2008, and requires them to purchase carbon credits. The tool calculates carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions resulting from any conference or event in Denver, including air travel, ground transportation, and hotel accommodations. Then, organizers purchase carbon offset credits, which support energy efficiency and renewable energy projects that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Arell says all venues need to understand their own energy consumption and waste production. “You can't even begin to think about how to reduce it when you don't know what it is in the first place."
That will get easier once the Events Industry Council releases its new Sustainable Event Standards, comprehensive international criteria for venues that cover nine areas of event management. Arell, who is part of the council's sustainability committee, says, “It's a checklist of things from super-easy, low-hanging fruit all the way to how to track and manage your carbon footprint."
She adds that being sustainable is not always more expensive, as some people still believe. “There may be an upfront cost in terms of time and effort, but once things are implemented, they're really easy to replicate," she says. “I think that's been the biggest challenge — overcoming some of these misconceptions."
Rust Belt Riders: Focusing on Compostables
Another area where hoteliers can make huge strides toward sustainability is composting — and reconsidering anything they currently use that is not compostable.
They can learn from Daniel Brown and Michael Robinson, co-founders of Cleveland's Rust Belt Riders, who started their business modestly, hauling leftover food from restaurants they worked at and coffee shops they frequented in trailers behind their mountain bikes. They took the food scraps to gardens and urban farming projects they worked with for use as compost.
Now, they have employees who pick up food scraps in box trucks and cargo vans, instead of bike trailers, and they help more than 150 businesses across northeast Ohio be more sustainable.
“We saw this massive interest in folks wanting to know where their food is coming from," Brown says. “But it didn't appear that many people gave much thought to where their food might end up going. We wanted to provide folks with a sustainable alternative to landfill for their food waste, to capture that material and have it go toward helping build a better, healthier, more equitable food system."
He says food and other compostable materials are the single largest component of our nation's landfills. “And they emit methane, which is the third-largest global emitter of greenhouse gases."
Any venue, he says, can look online for food composting facilities in their area. “Quite literally, if all we do is keep compostable material out of landfills, we've got a really good chance of stopping this climate change thing. Furthermore, when you take that material and create healthy soil out of it, soil has the ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere."
The Rust Belt Riders also work with venue managers to identify potential sources of what Brown calls “contaminants to our planet," such as plastic bottles and plastic bags. “They can't be composted," he says. "So we work on upstream solutions to minimize those."
Details Matter: Taking Small Steps for Every Event
Perhaps the biggest message is that “going green" doesn't have to mean leaping in with huge new objectives or changes all at once.
Dena Rose, who created the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Green Meetings Industry Council (which has since merged with the Convention Industry Council), now works as a meeting manager for a Philadelphia association management company. She helps associations plan meetings that are as “green" as possible and points out there are many small steps that a hotelier can take to improve sustainability.
“You might not think your 200-person event will make a difference," she says. “But when you calculate how many events are going on on a daily basis around the world, it does make a difference. There are so many small steps that each property can take and that each planner can do."
Hotels, she says, can provide water pitchers on tables instead of prefilling glasses, some at seats that will remain empty. Other examples of hotels making good decisions include one in Atlanta that recycles leftover soaps and shampoos with a company that sanitizes them, re-creates them, and ships them to developing countries. Hotels on South Carolina's Kiawah Island, she says, recycle their oyster shells.
And many restaurants, food retailers, and caterers use Food Connect, she says, which is an app for food providers with surplus food. Hotels, too, can schedule a pickup of their reusable leftover food, which is then delivered to a local shelter.
“We can all take these sorts of steps," Rose says. “And we need to start. We need to start yesterday."