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Greening up the conference business

Marketplace Staff Sep 19, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: If you’ve spent any amount of time in the working world, odds are you’ve been to a conference. You probably remember the tedious schedules. The dry bagels for breakfast and entire days spent indoors. But conferences aren’t just hard on us. They wreak havoc with Mother Nature as well. Down in Austin, Texas, today one group’s trying to do something about that. It’s the third annual Engineering Green Building conference. And David Welch reports small changes can make a big difference.

DAVID WELCH: Amy Spatrisano spends a lot of time at conferences. That’s because she makes her living planning them. She heads a conference management company called Meeting Strategies Worldwide, and she knows all about how much a conference can impact the environment.

AMY SPATRISANO: “Anytime you do a conference of any size really it’s like creating a whole little community wherever you go because you have to feed people, you have to transport people, you have to make sure they have sleeping accommodations.”

All of that adds up to a lot of waste and pollution. Consider all those laminated badges, reams of paper and preprinted binders. Most of it ends up in the trash. That’s because a lot of convention centers don’t recycle. It’s a fact that has put convention centers in the crosshairs of those trying to “green up” the industry.

Peter Templeton is with the U.S. Green Building Council, which certifies environmentally friendly buildings. He says if companies want to change the way they hold conferences, the buildings that house them are a great place to start.

PETER TEMPLETON:“Traditionally, convention centers are energy hogs, if you will. They use incredible amounts of energy and they are used on alternate schedules.”

Which means many convention centers end up leaving their lights or air conditioners running twenty-four hours a day. That’s a lot of energy. After all, convention centers are usually enormous buildings. But Templeton says that huge size can mean huge savings when a convention center starts “greening up” its act.

TEMPLETON:“In buildings of that scale there’s a tremendous amount of money to be saved when you are achieving efficiencies because as I said before these are building that operate 24 hours a day year-round and consume a great deal to be heated and cooled and lit throughout the year.”

Templeton and the U.S. Green Building Council have studied these savings. They estimate that when a large convention center becomes more ecofriendly, it can save close to half a million dollars a year on energy costs alone.

That number has caught the industry’s attention. When the Oregon Convention Center in Portland expanded several years ago, the city decided to make it’s one million square-feet of event space more sustainable. An aggressive recycling and food-composting program cut down the waste bill. And measures like turning the lights off and updating the air-conditioning system lowered energy use by 20 percent.

Matt Pizzuti is director of sales for the Oregon Convention Center. He says that conserving energy has certainly helped his company save money. But that’s not the only reason to go green. Pizzuti says event planners are starting to request ecofriendly events.

MATT PIZZUTI:“We have a lot of clients that come to us and say, “What do you do to recycle, or what do you do to be sustainable.”

That demand has inspired cities like Pittsburgh and San Francisco to build sustainable facilities as well. And as the cost of hauling away trash or running the AC rises, other cities are expected to follow.

In Portland, I’m David Welch for Marketplace.

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