The room, set for a gala, looks gorgeous: tables dressed in glittery linens, exotic fl oral centerpieces, chairs draped and sashed, multiple glasses sparkling like diamonds at every place setting.
It’s breathtaking, for sure. But if that room is located in California, there’s something very wrong with this picture.
It’s all about the drought.
Mandatory water curtailmentbentlyreserve.coms issued by the state aren’t just impacting how often homeowners can water their lawns or farmers can irrigate their fi elds. The hospitality industry, too, is tasked with cutting back on water use by as much as 36 percent. Meeting and event planners are part of the loop, and as the drought drags on, they’re fi nding innovative ways to comply with the cutbacks. That might mean scrutinizing a venue’s water conservation practices, minimizing décor, rethinking menu choices or not setting tables with glasses that have to be washed even if they’re not used.
PLANNER & ATTENDEE RESPONSIBILITY
“We as event planners can only directly control the consumables on the table,” says Heather Tanfani, CMP, owner of Events! Enterprises, a full-service event coordinator in Sacramento. “But I think that on top of that, we have a deeper responsibility in finding a green venue to begin with, one that already has water-saving measures in place.”
Paul Salinger, a seasoned event designer/ strategist, sustainability champion and vice president of marketing for Oracle, the Silicon Valley tech firm, believes that planner responsibility extends even deeper, to developing sustainability standards and urging hotels, suppliers and other event partners to help raise awareness by making their water-saving efforts visible. “When we make conscious, water-wise choices,” Salinger says, “we can bring these issues to the surface for our attendees.”
That’s what Oracle has done since 2007 at Oracle Open World. The annual convention floods San Francisco with about 50,000-60,000 participants who convene at Moscone Center, one of the country’s leading green convention facilities and the first on the West Coast to attain LEED Gold certification. As worries about the drought increased in 2014, Oracle’s event staff developed numerous water-conservation programs that were carried over at this year’s convention. The biggest attention- getter was the introduction of “Earthsmart” menus, which incorporate more vegan and vegetarian selections, low-footprint protein choices and use of “imperfectly delicious” produce. A sustainability report published by the company estimates that its menu adjustments alone conserved 24 million liters of water, “enough to overflow nine Olympic-size pools.”
Other initiatives involved direct tracking of drinking water consumed at the convention center and outreach to more than 100 San Francisco hotels involved in housing attendees. “We do a lot of advocacy communication trying to get hotels on board with our goals,” says Salinger, noting that Oracle has long made environmental sustainability part of its corporate culture. “One of the good things about Oracle Open World is that because of its scale, we carry a big voice and engage with a broad community of stakeholders.”
Bringing back-of-house efforts to guests’ attention is part of Oracle’s advocacy strategy. “A lot of water-saving measures are not visible to our attendees, but we’re trying to build awareness around water as an issue,” Salinger explains. “The new thrust is to make hotels’ attempts to comply with water restrictions very visible. We ask all the hotels to have a sustainability policy in place, including towel and linen reuse, installing low-flow toilets and showerheads and making sure their food operations are paying attention to water use. A lot are placing drought signage in guest rooms. The Grand Hyatt even puts placards on the showers that include writing in Braille, letting guests know that we’re running out of water. All those things add up, and they matter.” Jo Licata, community projects manager for the Hilton San Francisco Union Square and education chair for the Green Meeting Industry Council’s Northern California chapter, adds that it’s as important for meeting attendees to comply with water restrictions as it is for planners to find venues that are making strong efforts to conserve.
“Choosing a venue is a multitiered effort,” Licata says. “Meeting planners can send out an RFP, get some history on a property’s sustainable programs and make sure they’realigned with the organization’s needs and requests. But there’s an onus not just on the hotel or venue to perform, but also on the organization to inform attendees of their goals, because a lot depends on them, as well. We can put out as many recycling bins and as much signage as possible, but we can’t force people to hang their towels or not take 20-minute showers. Much of the outcome depends on the behavior and practices of attendees, as well as on the venue.”
Jim Bruels is the director of events and sales at San Francisco’s Bently Reserve, the LEED-certified conference and event venue housed in a circa-1924 Federal Reserve building. Bruels helped pioneer the city’s greening movement during a previous career in the hotel industry. He no longer has to worry about sheet and towel reuse, and because tables at the Reserve are rarely draped, very little laundry is generated. Water savings is one of many built-in benefits that come with selecting a greencertified venue, Bruels says.
His advice to planners: “Look at a hotel or conference center and see if it has some kind of green building certification, and tie that into your own sustainability policy within your company. If you don’t know what the sustainability policy is, find out or help develop one. That way you are really supporting an environmental statement.”
At the University of California, Davis, where extensive research is being conducted on climate change and ways to mitigate effects of the ongoing drought, sustainability policies are everywhere in place, and water-saving reminders pop up all over campus. Water-wise tips for conference planners and attendees are provided with signage and handouts, while placards in dorm rooms and laundry facilities warn “Severe drought: Use water mindfully.” Display cards that slide into the napkin holders reinforce the mantra, as do alternating PowerPoint messages on LCD screens around campus. Students are given refillable water bottles and discouraged from buying the bottled version. Refill stations in dorms dispense filtered water from the city tap.
“It’s a different experience than in recent iterations of drought. Awareness has definitely reached a tipping point,” says Benjamin Thomas, sustainability manager for UC Davis Dining Services, which caters 3,500 events a year in addition to running student dining halls.
Over the past seven years, Thomas says, all the university’s kitchens have been retrofitted with equipment that uses significantly less water than older-generation appliances. Resource-use audits are conducted regularly to help identify more ways to save. Dining halls have gone trayless. That not only saves wash water, but without trays students don’t grab more food than they can eat, which cuts down on food waste. There’s even internal systems with drought-friendly menu options that help organizers identify sustainable foods.
“It’s much more focused than it used to be,” Thomas says of the university’s effort to reduce water use. “Before, we were really honed in on zero waste. This year, water conservation is our biggest concern.”