The meetings and events industry produces a lot of waste, with leftover fl oral, food, packaging and other materials headed to landfi lls soon after an event’s end. To combat the industry’s carbon footprint and in an eff ort to better their communities, a handful of Chicago vendors and venues have adopted more environmentally and socially conscious practices.
In honor of Earth Day, we’re featuring six of the most unique ideas, from Swissôtel Chicago’s award-winning partnership with SOS Children’s Villages Illinois to the Hilton Chicago Oak Brook Hills’ linen donations to zoos and Hurricane Harvey victims.
RANDOM ACTS OF FLOWERS
Random Acts of Flowers is an Evanston-based organization that repurposes leftover florals into beautiful bouquets. Then, volunteers deliver these bouquets to individuals in health care facilities throughout the city. Since opening in January 2015, Random Acts of Flowers Chicago, part of the national nonprofit network, has served 75,000 people and recycled 63,000 vases. Its 600 active volunteers serve 500-600 people weekly.
Sydney Werd, program manager for Random Acts of Flowers Chicago, handles scheduling for floral pickups and drop-offs. She varies which facilities receive donations each week to keep up the element of surprise.
HMR Designs was one of Random Acts of Flowers Chicago’s first partners. “Everything that I have left over is often in good condition, so it’s a shame to throw it away,” says Rick Wroble, floral manager for HMR. “It’s the perfect solution for us to reuse good stuff and brighten people’s days.”
As word of the organization has spread, requests from health care facilities to receive bouquets has dramatically increased, Werd says. “I have a list of 30 facilities that want us to deliver to their residents,” she notes. “It’s unreal the amount of support and donations we’ve received.”
The best flowers for repurposing into bouquets have stems at least six inches long, Werd advises. However, even if the flowers received after an event are not usable in a bouquet, Random Acts of Flowers will compost them so they’re not wasted.
Volunteers and staff can pick up used flowers within a 30-minute radius of their office, and the service can be scheduled two weeks to two months in advance of the event on the website.
Swissôtel’s partnership with SOS Children’s Villages Illinois has earned the downtown Chicago hotel multiple awards and has become an important tenant in the company culture, says Brittany Robbins, marketing manager.
SOS Children’s Villages Illinois, a regional arm of SOS Children’s Villages International, aims to keep siblings in foster care together under the guide of a full-time, professionally trained foster parent. It also provides access to counseling, mentoring and educational and cultural enrichment opportunities. SOS Children’s Villages Illinois has four sites in the Chicago area, including three villages and a facility offering preventative and in-home family services.
Swissôtel’s support of SOS Children’s Villages Illinois began in early 2015 with a fundraising campaign. However, the hotel team decided to further their commitment to the organization after meeting the children. That interaction led the hotel to pull together a team from across departments to coordinate programming and fundraising, says Robbins.
In particular, the hotel has focused its fundraising efforts on the Roosevelt Square Village green gardening project, which strives to educate children on gardening, healthy eating and environmental responsibility. The funds were used to hire a full-time gardener, and to create a therapy garden and compost and irrigation systems. The hotel also recently funded the purchase and installation of indoor growing towers for the winter months.
Some of the children have used the garden to start a business: They use the leaves and flowers to create lip balms and oils that are packaged and sold in the Swissôtel Chicago lobby. Revenue from these products goes back to SOS.
The hotel also hosts a regular Career Day, allowing children to shadow personnel in various departments. They’ve sent students to a three-part culinary course with the hotel’s executive culinary team as well as a weeklong culinary camp at Kendall College.
Piquing students’ interest in hospitality has worked—Swissôtel recently hired an alum of the SOS program as a front desk agent.
Finally, the hotel frequently hosts SOS families for a variety of events throughout the year, including a Foster Parent Appreciation luncheon, Harvest Festival, Vitality Day and a summer picnic.
For this work, Swissôtel was selected as a recipient of AccordHotels’ Global Bernaches Team Award in 2017 and has also been recognized with a Distinguished Corporate Partnership Award from SOS Children’s Villages Illinois.
In addition, the hotel’s commitment to the organization is frequently mentioned in Swissôtel Chicago’s colleague engagement survey and is a great recruitment tool for new employees.
“[The partnership is] talked about in the interview process,” Robbins says. “It’s definitely a differentiator. People are proud to work with our company.”
Swissôtel has already raised $93,000 of its 2018 goal of $100,000. Guests can also pitch in by booking the “Give Hope” package that includes a $10 donation to SOS Children’s Villages Illinois.
BIG DELICIOUS PLANET
When local catering company Big Delicious Planet moved into its current West Town space seven years ago, owner Heidi Moorman Coudal saw the building’s geothermal technology as an opportunity to overhaul how her company operated.
“We wanted to do more to become a sustainable business,” Coudal says, “and at the time, we had a lot of clients asking us [about] our green mission.”
To improve the sourcing of her ingredients, Coudal added a vegetable garden on two nearby vacant lots in 2012, where the company now grows 146 varieties of vegetables on 50 raised beds. Big Delicious Planet also routinely donates leftover food, composts all food scraps and uses disposable goods. The company has a waste-recycling system and two beehives on property. Big Delicious Planet also donates its used cooking oil to Green Grease Environmental, which sends the oil Loyola University, where it’s used to fuel buses and to make soap used on campus.
As Coudal reworked her business, she looked for a third party to assess her progress. She applied for certification from the Green Restaurant Association, hoping to achieve three-star status. Instead, Big Delicious Planet was honored in 2013 with four-star certified status, the highest recognition awarded by the association. Big Delicious Planet was also the first four-star green certified caterer in the nation.
“They told me we were considered the greenest restaurant in America,” Coudal says.
The efforts also paid off by landing Big Delicious Planet one of its biggest accounts: catering breakfast and lunch to Facebook’s division in Chicago. “They were attracted to Big Delicious Planet because of our sustainable practices, which are important to a company like Facebook,” Coudal says. “For other clients that we cater to, that’s a part of the reason they hired us, too.”
Coudal emphasizes her company still has a long way to go, and she continues to look for ways to improve. She plans to add indoor shelving units to grow produce indoors and hopes to yield 4,000 pounds of vegetables this year alone. She’s also toying with the idea of aquaponics.
“We feed at least 500 people a day,” Coudal says. “There’s a lot of stuff that comes into our building every morning and waste that goes out the back. It’s something we’re constantly trying to improve for the Earth for the future.”
CHICAGO VINTAGE WEDDINGS
Kate Lerman, owner of Chicago Vintage Weddings, frequently helps her clients find ways to make their events more sustainable.
Lerman, who has a background in ecology, made incorporating sustainable initiatives a key component of her business from the beginning. Chicago Vintage Weddings takes part in composting and recycling initiatives and rents mostly reusable vintage pieces. The company also works with volunteers from Little Brothers—Friends of the Elderly and One Tail at a Time Adoption Center, volunteering and organizing events to support these organizations.
Chicago Vintage Weddings recently purchased a 5,000-square-foot space in Pilsen, where Lerman plans to build a 900-squarefoot event space. In designing the new space, Lerman is keeping green initiatives at the forefront, choosing insulation, windows and HVAC timers to cut down on energy use.
Lerman says conversations about sustainability with her clients haven’t changed much over the past year, but new trends prompt new recommendations. For instance, the rise in popularity of family-style serving can increase food waste, as guests take more food than they end up eating. She recommends better management of portion sizes and suggests her clients get details on how caterers are sourcing their ingredients.
She also advises her clients to consider not only sustainability but other progressive initiatives when supporting companies, like fair labor practices.
HILTON CHICAGO OAK BROOK HILLS RESORT & CONFERENCE CENTER
When sheets are retired at the Hilton Chicago Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, they take on a new life with one of the hotel’s community partners.
In addition to donating to local homeless shelters, the hotel donated bedding to the Lincoln Park Zoo to be used as nesting material for its gorillas in 2015. It also donated 500 blankets, pillow cases, sheets and duvet covers to Brookfield Zoo in 2016. In 2017, Oak Brook Hills donated more than 250 sheets and towels to victims of Hurricane Harvey.
“It’s a continual process,” says Jeannette Lemrise, director of marketing. With room renovations ongoing, the hotel is again looking for organizations to partner with to donate all retired sheets, pillows, blankets and table linens, she says.
The 150-acre resort in Oak Brook community also takes part in several other environmentally conscious initiatives and was recognized in 2017 with IACC’s Green Star certification. Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center was also recertified as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary in 2016, adhering to rules for creating a habitat for local wildlife.
To meet the criteria for the certification, the hotel focuses on environmental planning and public outreach, chemical use reduction, water conservation, water-quality management and creating a habitat for wildlife, among other initiatives. The hotel has a monarch butterfly landing station and bird houses to attract native swallows and eastern bluebirds, and is working on a nesting program for the native hawk population.
Steve Ewert is a commercial photographer whose photo studio in the West Loop became a sought-after event location in the early 2000s. In 2004, Ewert hired a studio manager that pushed for designing more sustainable events in the space.
That mission of sustainability grew when Ewert was approached to move into the Green Exchange building, a state-of-the-art LEED Platinum property and the largest green business community in the United States. The Green Exchange has an 8,000-square-foot sky garden with native prairie plants and trees, a 41,000-gallon on-site rain cistern system, a co-op vegetable garden, and an indoor air quality sensor and filtration system.
In this space, Greenhouse Loft can accommodate 200 seated guests and 250 standing.
Ewert refers to Greenhouse Loft as the nonhotel corporate meeting space. Sixteenfoot-tall glass windows span half the venue, illuminating the 130-year-old industrial floor and collection of midcentury office furniture.
“Everything is recycled and unique, and a lot of it goes back to the 20th century,” Ewert says. “Corporate clients love it. They come here to innovate.”
The venue works with caterers that typically have their own gardens and buy as locally, seasonally and organically as possible. Greenhouse Loft also partners with companies to pick up its compost and aluminum, glass, paper and cardboard recycling. Learning about a vendor’s sustainability practices is key, Ewert says.
“Very few things have to go into a landfill from our big events,” he continues. “We try as much as we can to learn about what makes somebody green. It’s a big collective effort.”
Ewert’s next initiative is to partner with more nonprofits looking to hold fundraisers and offer them a discount to use the space.