The Best Green Convention Centers

Solar panels on the roof of the Oregon Convention Center in Portland

Few segments of the meetings/hospitality world have embraced sustainability as fervently as convention centers. In the United States alone, 20 facilities are certified LEED Platinum or Gold, and another 16 are certified Silver, having implemented eco-friendly practices throughout their operations.

In some cases, sustainable practices reduce costs. Efficiencies can minimize spending on energy and water; smart purchasing decisions and waste diversion save on food and hauling fees. But that's not the only objective of leaders in this endeavor. 

"What we're trying to do is push the industry in an ever more sustainable direction," says Ryan Harvey, sustainability coordinator for the LEED Platinum Oregon Convention Center in Portland. A LEED Green Associate, Harvey has been on the job since January 2017 and notes, "It was jaw-dropping when I got here, how little focused effort or intent clients showed."

The following facilities are among those setting the green standard higher with every event they host.

Two More Earn LEED's Nod
In February, two convention centers got good news from the U.S. Green Building Council.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center was recertified, maintaining its LEED for Existing Buildings Gold status, thanks to a collaboration between Broward County and the facility operator, SMG.

"Since first earning LEED Gold in 2012, our team has been steadfast in implementing and maintaining environmentally friendly business practices, including saving water and energy, increasing recycling and waste-diversion efforts, and conducting sustainable purchasing," says Julia Johnson, LEED AP+, SMG's on-site sustainable programs manager.

Recycling at the convention center has increased from 8 percent in 2009 to 78 percent in 2017. Its F&B department, Savor Fort Lauderdale, practices energy-efficient food preparation, leftover food is donated to local food banks and all organic waste is disposed of in an Eco-Safe Digester, resulting in almost no organic waste in landfills.

In Texas, the expansion of the Henry B. González Convention Center in San Antonio received LEED Silver certification for implementing practical and measurable sustainability strategies in innovative design, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. 

The new space, which opened in January 2016, added 800,000 square feet of new construction; as part of the project, more than 78,000 square feet of the existing building was renovated. Added to the facility were 260,000 square feet of exhibition space and a 54,000-square-foot ballroom. -- S.B.

Waste not in Pittsburgh

When the Climate Reality Leadership Corps comes to town, bringing Al Gore and 1,500 participants who know more than most about the environment, green practices are a very high priority. Such was the case when the group took its October 2017 meeting to Pittsburgh's LEED Platinum David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Waste diversion and composting were among the sustainability stories the conference wanted to tell. "We take waste diversion very seriously here," says Conor McGarvey, LEED AP (a LEED credential, much like a CMP for meeting planners), who is director of operations for the facility. "But they wanted to track the event-specific waste. There was a lot of preplanning in that."

The result was a full report on the conference, showing only 0.175 tons of waste went to the landfill, while 4.72 tons were diverted through composting, recycling, food donation and the capture of materials such as shrink wrap for reuse. The waste-diversion rate for the event was an incredible 96.42 percent. 

"Nothing disposable was used; everything had to be reusable," says McGarvey. That meant using china and flatware for breakfast and lunch. "Under normal circumstances we would push out compostable flatware and plates, but this drove down the total amount of waste for the event."

Air-conditioning costs also were minimized for the autumn gathering, as the center is able to draw cool air into its three exhibit halls from the Allegheny River. Explains McGarvey: "It really worked out very well that the event was in October, when it's really comfortable here. We were very aggressive with the natural ventilation. For the 28 hours over three days that people were here, we were able to use natural ventilation over 25.5 hours. More than 90 percent of the time we didn't have to use mechanized heating or cooling." 

Conventions using the venue in March, April and some of May, as well as September through November, can take advantage of this natural system. And Mother Nature helps out as far as water consumption is concerned, too. The DLCC has its own waste-water treatment plant, which cleans anything that goes down a drain at the facility; that water is reused in the toilet system. The water comes not from the city's three waterways, the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, but from a fourth river, an underground aquifer. More than 87 percent of the water used in cleaning, cooling and water features at the center is reclaimed or reused. Last year only 12.5 percent of that water went to Pittsburgh's waste-water treatment plant.

Saving leftovers in Las Vegas

At the 4,000-room Aria Resort & Casino, which is certified LEED Gold throughout, a partnership with a top client has brought about notable changes not just at this Las Vegas Strip property but at other MGM hotels as well. That client is Cisco, and from the collaboration, MGM has enhanced many of its practices surrounding the capture and dissemination of leftover banquet food.

The technology giant holds its annual Cisco GSX (global sales experience) conference at the resort, which now offers a 500,000-square-foot convention center (a 200,000-square-foot expansion just opened last month). For the summer 2016 iteration of GSX, Cisco and MGM Resorts started looking at ways to get leftover banquet food to Southern Nevada's needy. 

At the time, the resort already was sending food scraps to pig farms, but management was willing to look into capturing the banquet food for human consumption. From their work following the 2016 event came the announcement this January of MGM's collaboration with Three Square, the food bank that serves the residents of Nevada's Lincoln, Nye, Esmeralda and Clark Counties, to restructure MGM's surplus-food donations. 

"We were already in deep exploration of food-waste management," says Yalmaz Siddiqui, vice president of corporate sustainability for MGM Resorts International, "but with the encouragement of this client, we explored the much more complicated but more satisfying way to donate to people." 

Further supporting the efforts, MGM gave Three Square an $800,000 grant to help them develop the raw infrastructure needed to handle large-scale donations, including staff, computers and transport. 

One of the biggest problems concerned monitoring and regulating the temperature of the food. "We are focused on safety," notes Siddiqui. "If we're taking this food and sending it to the pig farm, there's no time or temperature management. With donation, you have to check the temperature in the back of the house, check it again at the time of transfer and make sure it goes from hot to cold in a specific time period." 

MGM has taken the effort one step further, freezing large volumes of uneaten food so that it doesn't need to be consumed right away. "By putting it in the warehouse, charities can order food as they need," Siddiqui says. "They might want 20 trays of potatoes that have been gathered from three different events over two months. The contrast is surplus food just arriving at the food bank on a given day, and supplementing [the food bank's] produced food with this additional food. This allows ordering and planning." 

Aria's sister property, Bellagio, has adopted the same practice; MGM Grand and Mirage are next. (It will take longer to establish food-safety protocols for Mandalay Bay, with its 2 million square feet of convention space, says Siddiqui.) 

Also coming soon will be a pre-event menu of sustainable options for planners, allowing them to make clear choices regarding the environmental footprint of their events.

Green policies in Portland, Ore.

The 2017 Evolution Conference left a very small carbon footprint last year at the Oregon Convention Center. The annual gathering, which drew 1,735 attendees, is the joint conference of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Society of Systematic Biologists and the American Society of Naturalists.

Among earth-friendly details: 
• No programs were printed; all attendees found everything they needed in the event's mobile app; 
• No bags or promotional materials were given out; 
• For an event at the Oregon Zoo, transportation was not provided. Participants were encouraged to use public transportation via the MAX light-rail system, and
• Daily eco-friendly activities were offered at lunchtime, such as biking and hiking tours across the city. 

The Evolution Conference, as well as any client that rents at least 30,000 square feet of space (equal to one of the facility's halls), have to follow the center's waste-diversion policy.  

"We have a pretty robust recycling and composting program," says Ryan Harvey, the facility's sustainability coordinator. "We try to partner with the client, particularly during move-in and move-out. We separate individual streams of recyclable materials as opposed to using a mixed recycling bin."

Communication with conference organizers about sustainability rules is critical, Harvey adds. "There are items we prohibit at our venue, like single-use plastic bags and foam-core signage. They are not recyclable here." Foam-core signs with no date or without a single-event logo on them, allowing the signs to be reused, can sneak in, as long as the signs leave during move-out. 

"I want our sales team and our events team to have these conversations often and early," says Harvey. "If a client is going to show up with foam-core signs, we need to know months before," so they have time to discuss what will happen to such materials. 

Harvey is happy to find homes for leftover furniture, electronics, carpet or pallets as long as he knows in advance that he'll need to do so. Those items can be found in the center's donation room or are hauled off to Scrap PDX, a donation-based creative reuse store.

"The teeth that we have, or the stick that we wield, is the $1,000 deposit that comes along with the waste-diversion policy," says Harvey. "For every 30,000 square feet of space rented, it's another $1,000 deposit, up to $5,000. If everything goes according to plan, they get their money back. If not, they don't." Evolution 2017 got its money back.

Coming this summer is an addition to the waste-diversion document: a clean-floor-in, clean-floor-out policy. On move-out, the floor has to be as  broom-swept clean as it was on move-in. "People ask, 'Is this good enough to get our deposit back?' We're adding this in hopes of making it more black and white, and to help decorators bill their clients," says Harvey.