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Can Business Conferences Ever Be Green?

You might be able to conduct a videoconference with key business partners, but when it comes to meeting new contacts and picking up new ideas, real-life business conferences are difficult to beat. But if we are to continue to meet with our corporate peers in giant aircraft hangar scale conference centres, how do we reconcile that with the desire to limit our environmental footprint?

Douglas Sabo, worldwide director of corporate responsibility for security software vendor McAfee, recently attempted to take up that challenge for the company's sales kick off meeting in Las Vegas this year.

Sabo couldn't find any standard industry guidelines for greening an event, so the company's green team instead began investigating its own measures to curb the event's environmental impact. "We approached the event by putting it into different buckets," he explains. "We looked at travel, lodging rooms, meeting rooms, food and beverage, and conference materials." The team then identified areas of environmental impact and devised ways to mitigate them.

For example, Sabo claims the company implemented a range of measures that reduced the non-air travel carbon emissions for the 1,800-person event by 16 per cent and then offset the remaining 1,856 metric tonnes with carbon credits.

Environmentally speaking, though, people might be forgiven for thinking that selecting Las Vegas as the location for an event could undermine much of this good work. As a desert city, the resources required to keep it up and running must be bought in across vast distances, and its reputation for largesse and unnatural splendour accentuate the feeling that it exists in spite of its environment, rather than because of it.

The Federal government has warned that water could run out for the city by 2025. More recently, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said there was a 50 per cent chance that Lake Mead, which supplies Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego with water, could run dry by 2021. That would also have severe implications for hydroelectric generation.

Is a resort with half a million people -- 1.7 million if you count the wider metropolitan area -- living in the middle of the desert really a good place to hold a green conference? How can an event held in a place like this, that shoots fountains hundreds of feet into the desert air and creates lavish buffets with imported food -- be considered green?

"The greenest approach is simply not to have the event -- to just have a three-day webcast," accepts Sabo, arguing that there are different shades of green. "Part of the feel was that it's an entertainment destination, and that was an important aspect for the event." He adds that for software firms in particular networking events are essential, arguing that "as a software company it's often business travel and corporate events that matter more than the material issues that affect other manufacturers".

Viva Las Vegas?

Besides, things may not be as bad in Vegas as you think. The city has made great efforts to reduce its water consumption since a 2003 drought, and it ranks as the 26th most environmentally friendly of 72 cities according to a recent study conducted by the Earth Day Network. It may not be particularly high up the list, but there are 46 US cities
doing worse.

Ashley Katz, spokeswoman for the U.S. Green Building Council, has a positive view of the city. "Las Vegas is actually on the forefront of ensuring that the new projects that they have reduce their environment footprint," she says, adding that it has been instrumental in facilitating the development of LEED-certified buildings. "And there are some existing hotels that are going for LEED for their current buildings as well."

Those firms who do select the city can work with the hotels to ensure that they offer the right environmental approach, such as the use of laundry water-saving programmes, says Katz. "You can also work with the convention centres to reduce the lights, power, and HVAC used during the move-in and move-out times in the convention halls," she adds.

The other thing in Vegas's favour is that the strip, where almost all the conventions happen, is compact and easy to walk to. That's an important point when considering transportation, which according to Sarah Webb, campus sustainability co-ordinator at the University of Victoria, should be a key concern for any event.

"You should look at your venue, and find out how accessible it is to public transit?" says Webb, who explains that the University has its own guidelines for organising green events. "Do they have bicycle parking available? When you're inviting people, you should let them know about those options." It's also useful to provide incentives, she says. Reimbursing public transport costs, or entering the names of car poolers into a prize draw, can all help to improve attitudes to travel.

Food for Thought

Food and beverages are another important area to consider, says Webb. "For example, here in Victoria, we have some of the best water quality. There's no need to order bottled water. Jugs of water are just fine," she says.

It's also important to think about the total life cycle of the products and services being used for a green conference. For example, Webb advises trying to source food from local suppliers when organising an event to reduce the amount of carbon burned during transport. Similarly, McAfee thought about where the l eft over food was going after meals. "We ensured that the hotel had a food donation program so that waste food could be used," Sabo says.

The fundamental question for anyone planning a more sustainable event is how much of a trade-off do you want to make between the time invested in greening an event, and the resulting impact reduction? McAfee seems to have missed the mark in some areas. For example, it used compostible, corn starch-based cups for its drinks at the sales event. But did it take advantage of that when disposing of them? "They went into the normal waste cycle," admits Sabo. His protests that the cups will at least biodegrade in the landfill seem weak.

Other waste reduction options include digitising literature so that it is available online, rather than handing it out on paper, says Webb. Such measures may only save minimal amounts of waste in the context of the whole event, but each small action adds up.

But there are some environmental impacts that are difficult to alleviate. Nine tenths of the carbon emissions at McAfee's event came from air travel. People flew from across the world, and Sabo says that no one city stood out as being closest to a larger number of delegates. Some companies may be able to choose their locations wisely based on their attendees' place of origin, but for many, the only real option will be to pay for offset credits to try and get the carbon off their conscience -- or not hold the event at all.

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