Hotels have been implementing green programs and initiatives for years now, improving recycling, laundry practices, energy efficiency, use of cleaning chemicals, and other things that can make a property environmentally friendly. Being green shows corporate responsibility, can save money, and also works as a marketing tool as the environment becomes increasingly important to potential guests.
When it comes to meetings, however, it’s not always so simple. Practices such as offering water bottles (often sponsored to generate revenue) and handing out paper directories, gift bags, and other materials have been in place for years. But as meeting planners and hotels make the environment more of a priority, many of these are being reconsidered.
“The companies that are asking for [green meetings] now are probably very committed to green initiatives in their own organization, so it’s a natural step for them as meeting planners,” says Vito Curalli, managing director of sales for Hilton Canada, Latin America & International. “If a particular organization is very committed to sustainability within their own building, then when they get out for a few days, of course they’ll want to carry that with them. So that’s what we’re seeing right now. The meeting planners are saying, ‘If I’ve got it here, why can’t I get it for three more days when I’m there?’ ”
Curalli says meeting planners are usually looking at the major overall environmental factors: energy, water, and recycling. After that, they may have specific requests such as not using linens or water bottles.
Ron Guitar, director, Canada, for Meeting Professionals International (MPI) says planners are concerned about the environment, but they don’t always have the resources to dig into all the details.
“With meeting planners, the buyer community, they’re typically a very busy profession. They juggle a lot of logistical information,” he says. “I think they’re concerned about being green but they don’t have the time to follow up on the details of everything. They have their own responsibilities and overall criteria to get a successful meeting planned and completed. So there are expectations that hotels have good green meeting practices in place. But they don’t have the time or wherewithal to go around and police it; they just add it to their list of things that hotels should be providing.”
Setting a Standard
One way that hotels have maintained a green standard is through the Green Key Eco-Rating Program. The program looks at a property’s sustainable practices in five operational areas (corporate environmental management, housekeeping, food and beverage operations, conference and meetings facilities, and engineering) and awards it a 1-5 Green Key Rating.
“There are two things people ask,” says Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada and managing director of Green Key Global. “Is it being verified by a third party? Yes it is. And then do you have a sufficient number of properties to make it work? And here in Canada almost 70 percent of all hotel bedrooms are part of the program. In the U.S., all the Hyatts, Accors, and Fairmonts are on board. We’re very close to a couple of the other big brands being part of the program.”
While meetings are factored into a hotel’s Green Key rating, a property only receives one overall score. So it’s hard for a meeting planner to look at the score and know how green the meeting facilities and services are. To change that, Green Key is partnering with Meeting Planners International and the Hotel Association of Canada to create a separate Green Key rating for meetings. The program will be piloted in the first quarter of 2011, with properties from Delta, Marriott, IHG, Hilton, and Starwood participating in the U.S. and Canada.
“We want to take this a step further than just the overall Green Key rating and really delve into the meetings business,” says Pollard. “Let’s say IBM is going out to IHG and they’re saying, ‘We’re going to be scheduling X number of meetings in your hotels across America. What is your MPI Green Key rating?’ ”
The specific standards for the meetings program are still being developed, but Pollard says that like the general Green Key rating, the standards will be transparent and aim to rate hotels consistently. The current Green Key rating looks at nine different areas of sustainable practices, including energy conservation, waste management, water conservation, indoor air quality, and land use.
“Meeting professionals expect green practices now,” says Guitar, “and I think most hotels get that. But this is a good exercise for them, amongst their peers with meeting planners’ input. It provides them a method of rating themselves.”
Guitar says the groups have performed a couple of beta tests of the new meetings program. One property did very well, but another one just barely passed the minimum standards. “They thought they had a much better program in place, so it was a real reality check for them,” he says. “And the person we interviewed was very upset and disappointed.”
Seeing how they rate against other properties and receiving feedback from the program will help hotels know where they need to make changes. Still, old habits diehard for some hoteliers and meeting planners. Pollard recalls making a presentation about a year ago in Kansas City, discussing green meeting practices.
“I was talking about recycling, and then someone asked ‘What do you do about water bottles,’ ” he says. “I said, ‘Get rid of them. You don’t need them.’
“He said, ‘What do you mean? What are you going to give people to drink?’ “I said, ‘Give them a jug of water with some ice cubes in it. If you want to make it pretty, throw in some lemons and limes. If you need a sponsorship, have them sponsor the jug.’ And they were blown away. The discussion went on and on. But the water coming out of the taps in most places in the U.S. is pretty good. I never question it.”
Trade show bags are another example of an old practice that’s not exactly green. “You walk a trade show and they give you a bag. You look inside your bag and you have one or two trinkets that are worthwhile and the rest of the stuff you throw into your wastepaper basket,” says Pollard.
Curalli says customers like to see that hotels are making an effort and doing innovative things to stay green. “Some hotels across the country are growing their own food, growing herbs on their rooftops and things like that,” he says. “It’s innovative, and the customers are saying, ‘That’s what we’re looking for. We want to feel like we can spend two or three days in your hotel and not feel like we’re leaving tons of stuff behind.’ ”