October 4, 2011

How to host a sustainable conference

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Green conference
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4 easy tips to help you green your planning practices

Target audience: Nonprofits, NGOs, cause organizations, social enterprises, businesses, brands, CSR professionals, marketing professionals, event coordinators, sustainability officers.

By Tamara Schweitzer
Socialbrite staff

Tamara SchweitzerWith conference season in full swing, nonprofits across the country are gearing up to host an array of educational and entertaining events this fall. Be sure to check out Socialbrite’s Nonprofit Events calendar for any upcoming conferences you may want to attend in your area. If you’re on the planning side of an event for your nonprofit, you know that it takes an enormous amount of time and coordination to pull together a meaningful event. In the midst of all the programming, one aspect of event planning that often gets overlooked is sustainability practices.

Kimberly Lewis

But that shouldn’t be the case. In fact, incorporating any level of environmental responsibility into your event not only provides an additional opportunity to educate, but it will also help your organization stand out as a leader in the community.

Just ask Kimberly Lewis, Vice President of Conferences and Events at the US Green Building Council. She heads up the largest green building event in the country: the annual Greenbuild conference, which is taking place today through Friday in Toronto. Lewis has made a living of sustainable event planning and has even led USGBC to several awards for their responsible actions related to Greenbuild.

Lewis offered tips that can help any organization, no matter your budget, to start thinking about bringing sustainability practices into your next event by showcasing your commitment to not just the environment but also to the health and well-being of your attendees.

Tip #1: Introduce sustainability from the beginning

1Sustainability planning for your event may seem overwhelming, but Lewis says it’s not about trying to do it all. She says it’s a good idea to pick two to three areas where you’d like to incorporate sustainable practices and then pursue those goals at the beginning of the planning stages. “A lot of planners make the mistake of putting everything in place and then deciding on the back side that they want to green the event,” Lewis says. “Introduce sustainability from the beginning, starting with the RFP process so the site and vendors know what your goals are and can help you think through how to meet them.”

“Sustainability is about creating community and also educating.”

Lewis says a goal could be as simple as making sure there is recycling at the event, and working with the venue to inform attendees that they have the option to recycle. Operating costs will also be alleviated for the venue if you incorporate these goals into the planning process. “Just as you would negotiate a group rate at the hotel for the event, you can negotiate on incorporating sustainable practices,” she says. Ask the venue to write the sustainability goals and plan into the contract.

Tip #2: Sustainability starts with the venue

2“The biggest thing that I always tell people about sustainable event planning is to look at where you have the event,” Lewis says. If the venue is located in a walkable city, you can save hundreds of thousands of dollars on transportation costs for the staff, the vendors that support you and also for the attendees. The other consideration is having the event at a venue accessible to public transportation or in proximity to the airport. It’s much more ideal if attendees can take public transportation from the airport to the venue, and you might even be able to find a venue that offers shuttle transfers from the airport to the hotel. Last year, USGBC held Greenbuild at McCormick Place, a convention center located minutes from downtown Chicago. The venue was easily accessed by public transportation and the venue provided shuttle pickups from the airport.

Greenbuild expo

In addition to the location of the venue, Lewis advises planners to look out for indications that the venue is dedicated to sustainability. “If a venue has LEED certification, automatically, that means they are thinking about sustainability holistically,” she says. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an internationally recognized green building certification system.

Working with a LEED-certified facility will make it easier for your organization to incorporate sustainable practices because the venue will be able to provide more guidance for the planning process. If the venue isn’t LEED-certified, there are still other certifications you can look out for that will indicate the venue has instituted sustainable standards. If the guest rooms use Energy Star appliances or make an effort to cut down on their water usage, that’s a good indication that you’ve found a desirable venue. For additional guidance on choosing a venue, check out USGBC’s green venue selection guide. The guide provides questions you can ask to assess a venue’s green practices.

Tip #3: Support local

3Every event planner selects a menu for the meals that will be served throughout the event. Lewis says another easy way to incorporate sustainability is by making a decision to support local relationships when it comes to the food being served. A good goal is to try to source food within a 100-mile radius of the venue, says Lewis. “That way, you are not just supporting the local economy, but you are also supporting the health of your attendees by providing them with the freshest food. Remember that responsible food sourcing also includes the type of seafood that you choose; try to select sustainable seafood options.

Meet with the catering manager to understand their sourcing practices as well as how they deal with waste management. When Greenbuild was in Chicago last year, Lewis asked the catering about his sourcing practices and found that he had a strong relationship with a local farmer. For the event, all the meat was purchased from that farmer. The venue also provided the option to compost, and then that compost was given back to the local farms. Any decisions about sourcing and waste management should be put into the contract ahead of time, says Lewis, so everyone knows what supposed to be delivered.

Tip #4: Get the community involved

4“Sustainability is about creating community and also educating,” Lewis says, and when you incorporate sustainable practices into your event, you also have a great opportunity to involve the community in the process. People are much more educated and informed about sustainability these days, so when they are made aware of those efforts, they will be much more engaged. “Use social media to tease out information or metrics about the event to get people excited,” she says.

For example, you could tweet out that attendees of the event will have the opportunity to compost, which will save X pounds of waste from the landfill. You can also invite your attendees to contribute to your sustainability efforts, by offsetting their travel. You can have an option for doing that on your online registration form.

Another way to create a sense of community around your sustainable event is to unite with your staff around your goals. All the staff from USGBC in Washington, D.C. will be taking a bus to Toronto together for Greenbuild, rather than flying or driving separately. Coordinating travel efforts with your staff, or helping your attendees to do the same is a great way to involve more people in the process. Once at the event, you can put up signage around the venue to highlight certain sustainability practices or to remind attendees to recycle. You can also provide an area to recycle conference badges when the event is over. Ultimately, Lewis says, “It’s not about talking at people, but it’s about including people in the conversation.

What kind of conversation is your organization starting around sustainability?

Tamara Schweitzer is Executive Editor of Socialbrite. She also writes about social entrepreneurship for Dowser.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tschweitzer.

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