Q+A with Green Meeting Guru, Bridget Chisholm

Hyatt Regency Buffalo
Hyatt Regency Buffalo

Following five years of planning meetings and conventions worldwide for the North American Association for Environmental Education, Bridget Chisholm now operates her own company in Washington, DC specializing in Green Meetings: BCC Planning Inc. We talked with her to learn more about her vision of the future for sustainable events, both large and small.

Q: Can you tell us about yourself and your company?

BC: BCC Planning Inc. is a meeting and event planning company. I can do anything from a 10-person board meeting to a 5,000-person conference. I really like to work with organizations that are passionate about the natural world as I am, or that have a social or environmental justice mission. So I want to try to align myself with those conscious organizations that want not just a financially and programmatically successful event, but who also want to do it sustainably.

Q: And why is that important to you?

BC: I’m passionate about it since my early twenties, when I was in Richmond, Virginia doing Earth Day celebrations there. So then I brought that passion into my career as I moved into event planning. I thought that if we as in industry have an opportunity to bring together hundreds of thousands of people to conferences and events annually, and we did it sustainably, not only do we change how our industry operates, but we can help send home the importance of having a smaller footprint on this planet.

Q: Tell us about your experience with the North American Association for Environmental Education?

BC: I was their conference manager, and they brought me on the summer of 2006 to manage their conference and make it walk the talk of environmental education. They are an environmental education association, but they were hearing from their members, ‘Hey, you are choosing venues that aren’t even recycling; we need to be portraying what we preach.’

So I started by telling our delegates to bring water bottles because we were not going to have plastic bottles. That was 2006, 2007. Then I wanted to move beyond that. It’s easy to get rid of plastic bottles and paper cups. Now lets talk about composting, and lets talk about sourcing from the local farming community. I began working on the conference two years in advance because if you’re going to source from the local farming community, you have to start early. You can’t just come in six months out and demand everything come from the local farmers. That takes relationship building. And it takes a convention and visitor bureau, a convention center, whoever you’re working with, to be involved. It’s not always easy.

I recommend getting sustainability in your RFP. All the sustainability elements that are important to you, even if you think the cities aren’t going to be able to meet that need; you should get it in there so they know what matters to you.

Q: Do you think that hotels have come a long way in the last couple of years?

BC: Absolutely. It’s all coming down from corporate. They get it.  You look at large companies like Marriott, Starwood and Hyatt, they have sustainability departments now looking at this because they got it six years ago. If they don’t have to wash the towels or sheets everyday, that’s cost saving. This is a business they’re running, and not only are they saving money, but they’re doing a socially responsible thing, so it’s a win-win for them. When you start saying you’re going to get all the foods sourced from the local community, you create a strong sense of economical foundation in that community, and the hotel is the champion of that source.

Q: What kind of programs are both fun and educational to teach people about sustainability, but also great for interacting and networking?

BC: I like to bring in sustainability directors from corporations to talk about their internal and external environmental education, and they love to do it. They love the invitation, they love to talk about what they are doing because they’re passionate and excited about it. So I think other planners could very easily work that into their program. That was a real cool thing at the time when I started calling on companies like Staples, Nike and Toyota.

I also do behind-the-scenes activities. I did it in Portland and Buffalo. In the course of the day, groups can meet in a common area and tour back-of-the-house operations and see how they’re handling the composting or the recycling. Or in some cases, the venues had roof top gardens and I’d take people up there to take a tour, like at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

The chef there spent a year keeping all of his food scraps out of the landfill, bagging them, weighing them, recording that data and sending it out to be composted. After a year, because he could prove the weight of what he had been kept out of the landfill, he was able to present those figures. And it was a huge cost saving. It costs money to haul trash, and he ended up going to the city council to talk about how they might implement a city-wide composting program.

Q: There’s a growing demand for farm-to-fork food. Any cool banquets that you’ve put together that celebrates sustainability?

BC: I actually demand it. That is my big, big passion. I grow most of what I eat here at my house. And if you work in advance, it’s not that hard. The Buffalo Niagara Convention Center loved the idea. The chef ended up working with a farmer not far from the convention center to raise all the chickens for our event. What that does is create an opportunity for that farmer to grow his business. And it ended up being less expensive than if I had ordered from the regular menu. You can do it, but you have to start the conversation. You have to be willing to make connections.

Q: Do you think that attendees take this info and incorporate it into their daily lives at home?

BC: I hope so. That’s my point. No only do we change our city and convention center operations, but hopefully you get your group to think about what they learned the next time they’re planning an event or just cooking for their family.

Q: Do you also plan community involvement programs for your groups?

BC: Yes, and I think it’s important because when you bring a large number of people into a setting and you don’t use that opportunity to get them introduced to the local community, outside of the dining and tourist attractions, you miss that opportunity to give exposure to that community. If there’s a community garden nearby like in Portland a few blocks from the convention center, we suggest people walk up there and help plant whatever the garden needs. We went to a women shelter and helped paint it. You might not be able to get into a food bank and help unless your planner makes that connection and opens those doors for their attendees.