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Becoming Good Corporate Citizens. Is CSR the meetings industry’s new ROI?

Article written by Maria Lenhart
Meetings West, June 2008
”The only reason to hold a meeting is to save the world.”
That was the audacious gauntlet thrown down by Tim Sanders at the end of his keynote address at MPI’s Professional Education Conference-North America in Houston last February. The former Yahoo! executive, now a motivational speaker, author and CSR (corporate social responsibility) advocate, challenged the audience to start taking a leadership role in their organizations by initiating platforms for social and environmental change.
Similarly, CSR has been a hot topic at other industry conferences, including the recent SITE Executive Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where 143 incentive professionals gathered to discuss global trends.
“CSR is like the ROI of 2008–everyone is focused on it,” commented SITE President Padraic Gilligan after the summit. “While it has been a growing item of discussion for the past few years, it has moved to a point where you can’t be willing to take a risk and not have a company position on it.”
At PCMA’s annual meeting in Seattle last January, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) Task Force on Sustainability and Responsibility convened for the first time to determine how CIC member organizations can serve as resources on issues concerning the environment and social responsibility. Shortly afterward, MPI created its own task force comprised of CSR experts who will help the organization develop resources for members over the coming year.
Defining CSR
So what is CSR all about and why is it gathering so much momentum in the meetings industry?
Although it includes environmental issues, green initiatives are only one aspect of CSR. According to its “CSR: Where We Stand” statement, MPI defines it as encompassing a “triple bottom line” of “people, planet and profit,” a broad spectrum of social, economic and environmental concerns.
“The triple bottom line behind CSR also looks at social responsibility–the economic and social equity of business choices,” says Marge Anderson, assistant director of the Energy Center of Wisconsin and head of MPI’s CSR Task Force. “Meetings are perfectly positioned to contribute to social responsibility by integrating community service projects into their programming so the impact they leave behind is positive. We can also have a positive impact by contributing to the local economy.”
While CSR may seem to be most relevant to corporate meeting planners, Elizabeth Henderson, CMM, MPI’s director of Canadian development and staff liaison for the CSR Task Force, says it has significance for all meeting planners.
“Associations, including MPI, are very concerned with CSR,” she says. “And independent planners are working with both association and corporate clients who have an increasing CSR focus. It’s important for them to know how to fit in with this.”
For Sanders, author of Saving the World at Work, which will be published by Doubleday in September, CSR is no mere fad, but a “revolution” that is not going to go away.
“CSR is the biggest social trend of my lifetime and it will continue to be important,” he says. “After all, you’re never going to see headlines that say “Eco concerns are dead” or “Communities no longer need help.”
Sanders believes it is the emergence of a new generation of corporate employees that is making it essential for companies to have CSR policies and practices. He also maintains that companies who don’t have acceptable CSR practices will not be able to attract top talent.
“This is very important to young people and it strongly influences where they want to work,” he says. “Research shows that compensation is no longer the biggest factor–a company’s social commitment has more impact than anything else. This generation, the children of the Baby Boomers, has been strongly influenced by horrific events such as Hurricane Katrina and the media coverage, and corporate scandals such as Enron have also had an impact.”
According to Sanders, there are three main criteria that determine whether or not a company is being a good corporate citizen: how it treats its employees, how it gives back to the community and its ecological and sustainability practices.
“The first is the most important,” he says. “You can be as green as you want, but if you’re not good to your employees, it doesn’t matter.”
Sanders is optimistic that corporations have the ability and even the will to have a positive impact on issues such as global warming and poverty.
“I’ve always believed that companies can change the world for good, even though a lot of environmentalists believe that corporations are evil,” he says. “I don’t. Corporations are made up of people and people want to do good.”
Not everyone in the meetings industry is as optimistic, including longtime educator, consultant and independent planner Joan Eisenstodt, CMM, head of Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt & Associates.
“I do not agree with Tim Sanders on this one–because I do not think that most companies and organizations are embracing the deed versus the words of CSR, and because customers and staff and members are not shouting for it,” she says. “Moreover, when it is shouted out, most organization find a way around the actions.”
The Planner’s Role
Where Eisenstodt, Sanders and others do agree is that meeting planners can and should play a crucial role in influencing their companies to implement CSR practices.
“Meeting planners have a lot of power for change,” Sanders says. “They are the ones who pick the sites, the vendors, the speakers. They are the movie producers of their companies. Meetings are the only time in which people sit and think about the company’s goals and objectives–so they are the time when the message can be delivered.”
Angie Pfeifer, CMM, MPI’s chairwoman of the board, advocates that planners take the initiative on CSR matters in their companies, something she says she has done in her role as vice president-corporate meetings, travel and incentives for Investors Group Financial Services in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“I heard from my boss that we were starting a CSR task force and I said that I wanted to get involved,” she says. “Since I manage both meetings and travel at the company, I knew there was a lot I could do. My team and I took a lot of time to research how we could implement CSR. It’s not easy and it takes time.”
The results soon paid off, however, with the company able to save many thousands of dollars by taking such steps as not supplying bottled water at meetings, but reusable bottles instead.
“The myth is that CSR is costly, but it’s not,” Pfeifer says. “It was very emotional for me to see how we’d saved by doing the right thing. And, of course, CSR is not just about green meetings. I’m at the table at my company in regards to all sorts of CSR.”
Even companies that already have extensive CSR policies and practices in place may still need action on the part of planners to make sure these extend to meetings. Such was the case at Timberland, a Stratham, N.H.-based shoe manufacturer whose CSR practices include giving each employee 40 paid time-off hours a year to do volunteer work.
“When I joined Timberland a few years ago they had not yet integrated their CSR practices into meetings,” says Michelle Johnson, a former in-house planner for Timberland who is now a partner in a planning firm, Creative Community Communications, whose clients include Timberland.
She says the chief reason behind this is that Timberland did not have a centralized meetings policy, something she recommends to all corporate clients who want to implement CSR meetings practices.
“We had many different departments doing things, so we put together a meetings policy that reflected Timberland’s CSR focus,” she says.
“A centralized policy allows you to look at where you are spending the money. Then you can look at what should be asked for in every hotel contract in regards to CSR.”
Community Giving
One of the most visible ways that planners are implementing CSR is by scheduling a day or partial day devoted to a community project, endeavors that range from rebuilding hurricane-ravaged structures in New Orleans to assembling bicycles for needy children and other projects that can take place in a hotel ballroom.
Just as green practices can be good for a company’s bottom line, community volunteer efforts have type of locale also has its fair share of attractive, meetings-friendly sites with reasonable prices.
Oceanside Oases
While everyone appreciates a day at the beach, fewer and fewer companies are able to afford coastal prices and are now looking for alternative locales with affordable price tags that still provide a fun-in-the-sun atmosphere.
Enter Ventura, Calif. Located about 28 miles south of Santa Barbara, Ventura is an idyllically beautiful seaside community with a good deal of history, even housing one of California’s nine remaining missions: the San Buenaventura Mission.
“It is an old-fashioned California beach town,” says Kathleen Fitzgerald, director of sales for the Ventura CVB. “We have a self-contained little Main Street area that has some significant architecture and wonderful restaurants and boutique shops.”
Nature-loving groups can visit the breathtaking Channel Islands, just off the coast. They can also go whale watching or take a sunset cruise with companies such as the Island Packers.
“Another fun thing to do is have a meeting on the beach,” Fitzgerald says, adding that The Yellow Umbrella Company regularly sets up such gatherings.
Ventura also has plenty of places for groups to stay, Fitzgerald says, adding that its average daily rates during peak season (July-August) can hover around just $139-$149, and off-peak (December) at around $99 per night, and many accommodation offerings are situated close to the water.
“Every room has an ocean view” at the Crowne Plaza Ventura Beach, she says, adding that the Ventura Beach Marriott and Four Points by Sheraton Ventura Harbor are also a popular group choices.
Jessica Wimer, vice president-president elect for the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, regularly rotates her group between high-end coastal destinations and recently decided to bring a group to Ventura, thoroughly enjoying the experience.
“It was excellent. There was something for everyone. Ventura is really quaint and has an adorable Main Street with shops and museums and easy access to the water,” she says, adding that the price point was spot-on. “Value-wise, the hotel was reasonably priced, so that was great.
Moving north up the coast into the Pacific Northwest is Astoria, Ore., located on the Columbia River and just a few miles from the ocean.
Not only is the destination close to water, offering fun group activities such as oyster shucking and fishing, Astoria is also a historic destination with a funky flair.
“Astoria isn’t cookie-cutter,” says Donna Quinn, director of sales and marketing for Astoria’s Cannery Pier Hotel, adding that Lewis and Clark wintered there and it is also the site of the first post office west of the Rockies. “There is definitely a sense of character here and groups can sense that, whether they are meeting in an old Victorian house or a renovated building on the coast.”
The town of less than 10,000 residents is a true value to planners, with a variety of unique meeting venues available at prices much less than larger beachside destinations.
Quinn says many visiting groups like to take a ride on the city’s Riverfront Trolley for just $1 per person. Groups can also reserve the trolley for events or even head over to the Columbia River Maritime Museum for a tour.
Although it may be small in size, Astoria is far from a sleepy coastal town, Quinn says that “in the last five years there has been a renaissance of energy and vitality” in the destination, starting with a surge of restaurants and new venues such as The Loft at the Red Building, a popular meetings site.
The Loft, which overlooks the Columbia River, offers on-site catering for banquets, receptions and awards banquets.
Just next door is the Cannery Pier Hotel, located on a pier over the river, offering several spaces for meetings and events.
Just down the road are two other convention hotels: the 32-room Hotel Elliott with more than 15,000 square feet of meeting space and the 78-room Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Astoria with 2,000 square feet of meeting space.
Mountain Tops
Groups looking for a beautiful yet thrifty location in the mountains needn’t look to high-end ski destinations, but can instead consider places such as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“I think we are kind of undiscovered at this point, and because of that hotel costs have remained consistently affordable,” says Dani Zibell-Wolfe, vice president of tourism for the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.
Sitting at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Coeur d’Alene not only offers 15 blocks of boutique shopping and a variety of group-friendly restaurants with outdoor seating in its downtown district, but the community is also located right on Lake Coeur d’Alene, offering a plethora of activities at reasonable prices.
“When you add the lake into the equation, it creates so much value,” Zibell-Wolfe says. “Not only dollar-wise–but the activities we have create a wonderful value.”
Available water activities range from parasailing on the lake to organizing a dinner cruise for visiting delegates with companies such as Lake Coeur d’Alene Cruises.
Surrounded by mountains, groups are never far away from land-based adventures as well.
“You can walk out of your hotel and generally be within a half-mile of a paved, non-motorized bike trail,” Zibell-Wolfe says, adding that during the winter groups can also enjoy skiing nearby. “We have two ski resorts, Schweitzer Mountain Resort and Silver Mountain Resort, within an hour’s drive.”
With a vibe that Zibell-Wolfe calls “small town boutiquey,” she says oftentimes groups who visit the destination have an inkling to stay permanently.
“People come here for a convention or meeting and they end up buying homes,” she says. “It happens every year. We have a convention coming in June and one of the things they want to set up is a real estate tour.”
As far as meeting space goes, Zibell-Wolfe says the destination is known for the Coeur d’Alene Golf & Spa Resort, which while consistently rated a four-star property, is still affordable for groups.
Other meeting hot spots include the Best Western Coeur d’Alene Inn and the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Coeur d’Alene, both offering reasonable rates.
“Conventions and meetings are all about attendance and after awhile [of going to the same place], it becomes old and stale,” Zibell-Wolfe says. “If you can add some interest in a new destination with exciting activities for the same price, if not less, it is more exciting for attendees. When you come to a destination like Coeur d’Alene, there are so many activities that are at your fingertips, and that adds a lot of excitement.”
Driving about four hours east on I-90 will land groups in Butte, Mont., another affordable and unique meetings destination in the mountains.
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Butte was a boom town, known for its copper mining. At that time, mining was so profitable it attracted people from all over the world, giving the destination an ethnic flavor that is still felt today.
“Butte is authentic; it is the real deal,” says Sara Rowe, director of the Butte CVB. “It has this incredible history and people really haven’t discovered Butte yet, so we still have good rates on hotels and the food is phenomenal.”
Rowe explains that during the mining boom, Butte welcomed a good deal of Irish, Chinese, Cornish, Italian, and Serbian workers, whose influences have greatly affected the town’s culinary options.
“We don’t have a lot of chain restaurants, we have ones that have been here a long time and have a real ethnic flavor,” she says, highlighting group favorites such as Lydia’s Supper Club and Pekin Noodle Parlor.
Located “right at the top of the Rockies,” Rowe says there are plenty of ways groups can experience the beauty of the outdoors in Butte.
“We have incredible trails, both for vehicles and for hiking,” she says. “There is also a lot of climbing and within 15 minutes you can find some of the best trout fishing in the country.”
Although winter weather can prove chilly, summers “are gorgeous,” Rowe says. “In July, it will be in the 90s and at night it will be around 65-70.”
In addition, Butte is known for its festivals, such as Evel Knieval Days, this year scheduled for July 24-26.
“Butte is known as a festival city, and Evel Knieval was from here,” Rowe says, adding that the community also has a Chinese New Year’s celebration and a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. This year’s National Folk Festival will run from July 11-13 in Butte.
When it is time to get to business, Butte has a variety of affordable meeting space options for groups, starting with the Butte Civic Center, which can seat 5,000 guests theater-style and 2,000 banquet-style.
The 131-room Butte War Bonnet Hotel is another popular group option, with more than 4,000 square feet of meeting space, as is the Copper King Hotel & Convention Center, complete with an 8,000-square-foot ballroom.
Desert Destinations
While Palm Springs’ gentle breezes and Scottsdale’s long stretches of green fairways may come to mind first when planners consider a desert destination, alternative locations such as Moab, Utah, can also quench groups’ thirst for the desert, but at greatly reduced prices.
“There is so much to do for very little cost,” says Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council, adding that hiking, camping and rafting on the Colorado River are all popular activities. “Golf is even cheap here. It is around $26 for 18 holes, or just $38 with a cart.”
The Moab Golf Course is one such place where groups can enjoy a day in the sun. The facility also often organizes tournaments, DeLay says.
Beyond its golf, Moab is within easy driving distance to many of the country’s national parks, lending itself nicely to groups looking for reasonably priced outdoor activities. For example, DeLay says groups can visit nearby Arches National Park for $7 a day.
Moab offers a variety of ways to experience the desert, one of them as a split activity between a Jeep and a jet boat.
“We have outfitters that take groups on a Jeep and jet boat combo,” DeLay says. “In the morning, half of the group will get in Jeeps and go up to the Canyonlands and the other half will go on a jet boat on the Colorado River. Half way through the day, the Jeeps end up at the boat docks and they switch.
“They absolutely love it,” she says. “All that is about $60 a person and it includes lunch.”
Groups can also enlist companies who specialize in leading guided ATV and dirt bike tours of “some of the most spectacular scenery you are ever going to see,” DeLay says.
Two of the most popular meetings hotels in Moab are The Red Cliffs Lodge and the Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa, both of which offer a variety of indoor and outdoor meeting spaces for small- to-midsize groups.
DeLay says meeting planners can expect to pay around $200 a night at the two hotels during peak season (May-September), but prices can go as low as $140 during slower periods. Limited service hotels are also available for groups in Moab, with prices hovering around $60-$70 per night.
Traveling south to Arizona, the terrain is as much known for high-end meetings destinations as it is for long expanses of cactus-filled desert. Despite this, by heading a little more than 100 miles south of Phoenix to Tucson, planners will find that their dollars stretch pretty far.
In January, Preferred Meeting Management’s Cline brought a group of 700 delegates down to Tucson, staying at the JW Starr Pass Resort & Spa, and couldn’t be happier with her experience.
“It is absolutely a fabulous city to bring conferences to,” she says. “It has an intimate feel and all the advantages of being a smaller community, but it has everything you need. The price structure definitely had a little less impact on our budget [than other destinations].”
Although prices were reasonable, Cline says the quality was still there.
“They certainly could demand the same prices [as other destinations],” she says. “They have beautiful facilities, but their prices are not high-end.”
Graeme Hughes, director of convention sales for the Metropolitan Tucson CVB, says the city’s value not only stems from its attractive prices, but from its variety of venues.
“Value comes from having choices and options,” he says, adding that the city is host to several group-friendly resorts such as Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa and the Hilton Tucson El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort, as well as the Tucson Convention Center.
“So much of what we do is based in the desert,” Hughes says, adding that some groups like to head up to Cocoraque Ranch & Pavilion for a truly Wild West experience. “They can accommodate up to 30 people on horseback, and they will take you on a cattle drive. It is like City Slickers. Then the full day ends with a barbeque at the ranch house.”
Groups who would rather experience the desert from the indoors can visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the second-most-visited attraction in the state, according to Hughes, with a zoo, museum and botanical garden.
Yet regardless of what groups decide to do when in Tucson, they are in for a truly unique desert experience, Hughes says.
“Tucson still offers a little bit of mystery,” he says. “We like to think of it as authentic Arizona. We have the rugged terrain and the picturesque sunsets. In Tucson, you can literally walk out your door to hiking trails and nature preserves.”