Episode 127: Decreasing the Eco-Impact of Special Events with Twirl Management

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Host Sean Daily talks about the importance of waste reduction in minimizing the environmental impact of formal events and casual get-togethers with Johanna Walsh, CEO and Eco-Event Consultant at Twirl Management.

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Sean Daily:  Hi and welcome to Green Talk, a podcast series from GreenLivingIdeas.com.  Green Talk helps listeners in their efforts to lead more eco-friendly lifestyles through interviews with top vendors, authors, and experts from around the world.  We discuss the critical issues facing the global environment today as well as the technologies, products, and practices that you can employ to go greener in every area of your life.

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Sean Daily:  Hey everybody, this is Sean Daily.  Welcome to Green Talk Radio.  Today’s topic is going to be on something that I think touches the lives and businesses of everyone, which is events, and specifically eco-friendly events and event consulting.

 I’m going to be talking today with Johanna Walsh, who is an eco-event consultant and is the CEO of Twirl Management, a company that specializes in eco-event planning and consulting in management.  Johanna, welcome to the program.

Johanna Walsh:  Hi Sean, thank you very much.

Sean Daily:  It’s interesting because I think everybody who’s in business eventually goes to an event and some people, like myself, probably go to many during the year and it’s always struck me as an area of potentially great waste and maybe in many cases aren’t run very sustainably.  So I was fascinated to hear about you and the specialty that you have with the company and the consulting that you do.  Is it correct that you do not only corporate events and conferences and trade shows and things like that, but also on the personal level like weddings and festivals and parties?  Is that correct?

Johanna Walsh:  That is correct and special events, as well, would be in that category; like a Christmas party for a company, that kind of thing.

Sean Daily:  OK.  So how did you get into this? 

Johanna Walsh:  My background has always been in some type of production; from film and fashion and photography production and always staying on the events side.  I worked many events from conferences to fashion shows to photo shoots that all ran the gamut and there was always one defining factor which was so much waste being created from these events.  One of the last large trade shows that I worked before I started the company, before I really got the ides for the company, was here in San Francisco and there were so many small, plastic chatchkies with the companies name on them and piles of plastics and garbage everywhere that you turned and the amounts of papers and handouts being distributed was almost appalling.  We were thinking there’s got to be better ways to meet and interact and have these great events and conferences that are necessary for business and just interaction and not have them have to have so many products and create so much waste for the environment and communities they serve that will, in the end, take up the brunt of having to recycle and dispose of these products properly.

Sean Daily:  It’s funny that you mention the chatchskies because I know a lot of people who go to trade shows – there’s a term for it and it’s escaping me at the moment – but people who go to trade shows just to collect chatchskies.  They’re kind of like treasure hunters.

Johanna Walsh:  [laughter] People love free stuff, they go crazy.

Sean Daily:  Right, free stuff junkies for lack of a better term.  So that’s interesting that you mention that, though, because I was thinking more from just the event side of the food and the trash and things like that but you’re even talking about down to the vendor level about what’s being provided at the booths, it sounds like.

Johanna Walsh:  There’s definitely the element of where the food is being produced, whether it’s coming from local sources, if you can also, for cost benefit, get organically grown things, and the venue that you’re in, in terms of the power usage, and transportation to and from the event.  It takes communication on all levels for all of the stakeholders whenever you’re planning an event to really examine what the best practices are to make your event as little-waste as possible. 

So everyone’s involved from, definitely, your on-site staff to the venue staff.  So everyone is essentially involved in terms of examining how to green your event – all of the key stakeholders, from your event staff to your venue staff, and your cooks, your busboys, and including the vendors that are coming into the space to help provide services to your visitors.

Sean Daily:  Are the vendors typically receptive to that, have you found with these events?  Are they willing to not do the chatchkies and do something that’s greener, like something that’s online-deliverable or something that’s not going to create as much waste?

Johanna Walsh:  It depends on the topic of the conference or meeting and how invested you get them in the project.  In some cases you can’t require it, in some cases you can depending on the pull that you have as a conference organizer.  A lot of times most of them are open to it.  A lot of them were looking for an opportunity to go a lot more eco-friendly, but weren’t sure how. 

What I’m seeing a lot, especially on the conference front, in the last month or two, the debate has changed.  It’s no longer me, or other people who are producing green meetings, saying ‘no, this is how you should do things’.  It’s now turned a little bit to where they’re saying ‘OK, we know we have to do this.  How do we go about doing this?’  That includes the vendors coming in saying ‘all right, we have to change but we don’t know how’.

Sean Daily:  Now I’m just curious, can you give us a specific example?  Maybe one on the corporate side, like a trade show or a conference you’ve worked with and how the event was greened, as it were.  And maybe something more on the personal side, like a wedding or something like that.  Would you be willing to indulge us on those two fronts?

Johanna Walsh:  Sure.  I can talk about a great Christmas event I did that was kind of a mix of both corporate and private for an architecture firm in the Bay Area.  We looked at a lot of different aspects because it has to be event-specific; some things work and some things won’t work for each event.  What we did for this architectural firm, they’re called Nolan Tamm and they’re based in Berkley, we did a bunch of different things from having solid china-ware instead of any kind of plastic disposable material.  We created so much less waste in terms of paper plates, plastic forks, even the biodegradable stuff.  We saved on all that by using real glassware for the guests. 

We provided all the beverage service in bulk, which, again, cut down on so many containers from serving the 500 guests that were there in addition to making sure all our beverage were brewed and made locally. 

We did a few different options for transportation, which included a shuttle to and from the B.A.R.T. station.  B.A.R.T. is our local Bay Area Rapid Transit system and the architecture firm was about three miles away from there.  So to encourage people to take public transportation, we set up the shuttle that went around and picked people up and brought them to the event and then also brought them back to B.A.R.T., which was great because we got a response that probably a third of the guests, if not more, actually utilized this and were thankful for it because they could really enjoy themselves and drink wine with the event and there wasn’t the liability of getting in the car at the end of the night.

Sean Daily:  Any other aspects to it that you can remember?

Johanna Walsh:  Let’s see, it was December which feels so long ago. [laughter]

Sean Daily:  You can move on to another event, too.  I’m just curious to hear snippets from each event to create some inspiration for people that are maybe planning these types of events or are responsible for creating them and working with folks such as yourself to create the event.

Johanna Walsh:  Sure, of course.  Well, right now I’m actually currently working on a project based in Syracuse.

Sean Daily:  Ahh, my alma mater.  Sorry.  [laughter]  Syracuse University – go orange.  I’m sorry.  I’m done.

Johanna Walsh:  [laughter] And we’re looking at a couple different things and Syracuse really wants to become a center for green meetings and green conferences so working with their current infrastructure, like one of their main conference centers is being developed to be lead of the current and existing building lead certification, so within that, kind of providing infrastructure for meeting to go on with utilizing much more local businesses in terms of recommended vendors for people holding conferences there. 

They do a lot of good things already at the conference center for using local foods, but we’re trying to look at how to better utilize “no bottled water” policies and have attractive water stations.  That’s a big thing at conferences, actually.  It’s one of the largest, that there’s so much bottled water drinking.

Sean Daily:  I know, it’s terrible.  Every trade show I go to there’s a gazillion bottled water bottles everywhere.  That’s usually what the things are filled with because you’re talking a lot and you’re dehydrating and you’re thirsty all the time.  I just thought of a really good give away; these people need to be giving away the sig bottles and similar aluminum bottles.

Johanna Walsh:  Exactly.  I was just at a specific green meeting’s trade conference and that’s what we got and I love it because I’ve been wanting to have one for a while.
 
Sean Daily:  They’re so great.

Johanna Walsh:  To replace my old [inaudible] and it’s nice to have one now.

Sean Daily:  That’s cool.  So anything else before we move on to some other questions I have for you?  Actually, this would be a good place to take a break.  We’re going to take a quick break with a commercial sponsor and then we will be right back talking with Johanna Walsh who is the CEO of Twirl Management, which is an eco-event consulting and planning firm.  And we’ll be right back.

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Sean Daily:  OK, and we are back with Johanna Walsh, and I should mention that she is the CEO of Twirl Management; an eco-event consulting planning and management firm, and we’re talking about ecologically-conscious events, both in business and in personal events, and parties, and so forth.  When we left did you have anything in the tip category before we move on to another question?

Johanna Walsh:  Yes.  In terms of the public sector, I am helping coordinate a festival and helping them do a lot more green initiatives in downtown San Jose.  And one of the really cool things that we are going to get implement that – it’s one of my favorite pet projects because I don’t usually get to do it on the corporate side – is we’re going to go and have local community members, such as schools and classrooms that the festival is serving, help us design really cool and event-reflective receptacles.  The trash receptacles can both be marketing tools for the theme of the event as well as be visual indicators to easily divide trash for the visitors. 

But also, it gives us an opportunity to go into classrooms and to community centers to teach the benefits of composting and recycling and the fact that if you’ve got a compostable, biodegradable item, it really does need to be composted and it won’t go into the trash or it doesn’t really work.  These kinds of lessons that we’re developing for this festival are what I’m really exited about in terms of the waste diversion from landfills.

Sean Daily:  I don’t know if this is possible – well, I believe that it’s possible, but it’s got to be challenging – is that I just talked to a company that has zero trash cans in their facility, it’s all recycle.  Literally, they have no trash cans.  And I was just thinking about what a cool thing it would be to be able to achieve that at an event.  I know people can bring in their own stuff that’s going to be garbage, but literally with an eye towards something like “zero in the waste bin.”

Johanna Walsh:  There are venues – I think there’s some in Canada, and I know Mosconi here in San Francisco and a few other vendors – that really strive for that.  The thing is, it really involves so much communication with your participants.  There was an anecdotal story I heard from the woman who’s the general manager at Mosconi that they use all biodegradable plastics and serving ware for every event that they do, it’s billed into their rate, however, for their boxed lunches, they had everyone put water bottles into their biodegradable boxed lunches and then throw them into the trash.  So the bottled waters contaminated the biodegradable ability to just shove those things into the compost bin.

Sean Daily:  Right.

Johanna Walsh:  So, so much of it is communication and education.  It’s something that I think is very easy to do on site with a company because you’re really utilizing and educating your staff.  And this is where I’ve seen so much well done work with volunteers and setting up different programs to help facilitate the trash sorting on site, which is the biggest problem, I think, in terms of going one hundred percent waste-free.

Sean Daily:  I’m curious, since you mentioned it, I was going to ask you about the Mosconi, because that’s the biggest one that’s close to us in the San Francisco Bay Area and certainly a lot of events are held there and it’s very popular, but how much of the ability to achieve this has to do with the event facility itself?  How much can you cart in, philosophically and materially, and how much of it is really being dependent on the facility, and thus, it comes down to a choice of facilities and cities and such?

Johanna Walsh:  I know that certain cities are really positioning themselves as green centers for meetings and conferences.  San Francisco is definitely one of them.

Sean Daily:  What are some of the other ones out there that are greener?

Johanna Walsh:  Pittsburgh, who has the only lead certified conference center as a new building, Portland.

Sean Daily:  Makes sense.

Johanna Walsh:  And like I said earlier, Syracuse is looking to do that as well.

Sean Daily:  That surprises me and I’m glad to hear that.

Johanna Walsh:  Actually, there’s a lot of building and environmental conservation going on technically, on the tech side, and architectural side happening in Syracuse, which is really exciting.

Sean Daily:  That’s a good cross section of the country, as well.  You’re covering almost all the major areas there.  How about in the Midwest; Chicago or any of the places more towards the center of the country that are greener or trying to go green with the conference centers?

Johanna Walsh:  Off the top of my head, I don’t know.  I know green event planners that work very hard in places like Salt Lake City to do green events.  I’m not sure about cities from the Visitors Bureau trying to make their city a green meeting center.

Sean Daily:  I’m just curious because I’m thinking of all the typical markets for conferences; you have Northern and Southern California, you have Texas, you have the Midwest – Chicago is a hot spot – and then, of course, Las Vegas is a big one, then you have the East Coast, you have the Boston area, Philadelphia, New York and such, and occasionally down in Florida, in Orlando.

Johanna Walsh:  I know Vegas is doing a lot with their power supply in trying to do a lot more solar offerings.  And Anaheim Convention Center has a great organic food program.  It has done a lot within their facility to minimize waste and utilize a lot more local agriculture for their events.

Sean Daily:  Johanna, going back to the client side of this, I’m curious – and I’m not actually interested in you, I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position with this question with your clients, so let’s talk about the industry in general and not necessarily your clients, but are you finding that most individuals and organizations that looked to having an eco-friendly event are doing so based more on an intrinsic motivation to be green sustainable or is it more about the public perception and the rap - i.e., more of a green washing kind of thing?

Johanna Walsh:  Sure.  I would say that a year or two years ago, I was seeing clients that were more interested in this because that’s how they operate.  I have certain clients that are pretty green year round and following up with their events in that way is just a no-brainer and part of their corporate culture.  I think that definitely from larger corporations there has been kind of an ‘oh, no’ moment that in order to be relevant, as well as they’ve got other initiatives across the board from E-waste recycling and these types of things, that the events are just another side of that and that service to their employees. 

And then I see a lot of green washing and I don’t think that somebody who’s green washing necessarily hires somebody like me to do an event because what I see a lot of times with [inaudible] trying to promote a green event is that it will always be carbon-neutral.  And at least from an outsider’s perspective, it looks like they’ve just purchased a lot of carbon credit in order to neutralize the effects of their event instead of what I prefer to do, which is working to see how much you can reduce; how much waste, how much fuel, how much imported food to products.  Bring that down to the bare minimum and then talk about carbon credits.  Some things you can’t get around, like air flights, which as you know are one of the worst things you can do.

Sean Daily:  Right, and events dictate that – in-person events.

Johanna Walsh:  Yes.  It’s something you can’t get around, but if you could actually on-site and really utilize every tool that you have to decrease the amount of waste you generate.  Even in registration, offer opportunities for people to [inaudible] their flights with their tickets – maybe even bill that indirectly.  There are various options that you can do that with.  I think there is a need to look at what you can do and not interfere with the participants of the delegate’s experience at all.  It doesn’t need to be that way at all.  It can all be behind the scenes.

Sean Daily:  Are you seeing interest in online events?  It seems to me that the greenest event of all would be an online event.  I realize that an online event can never really truly replace meeting people in person and I wouldn’t recommend that that’s the way we go as a society because I think that has its own set of problems, but I think that in-person events, within reason, have a lot of value.  But are you seeing that from your clients?  Is that anything that you get involved with or have an opinion on?

Johanna Walsh:  I definitely have seen it.  Technology is allowing that process to be a lot more interactive as well as it saves a lot of costs for companies to be able to have a teleconference or video conference to pursue things like [inaudible] and all the different meeting tools that are available.  I think there are different ways to look at not having to travel so much for meetings.  One of the solutions I’ve found or have heard is that if you have an annual meeting, you can change it to every other year and then on the off years, have localized meetings, like chapters, so that people aren’t traveling as far as often.

From the event planner side, that means that you just inherited ten extra meetings that you get to book for your profit and your business model and you get better, stronger team building I think.

Sean Daily:  OK, so we’re going to take a quick last break and then we’ll be right back with Johanna Walsh from Twirl Management.  Thanks everybody.

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Sean Daily:  OK, and we are back talking with Johanna Walsh from Twirl Management.  She’s an eco-event consultant and planner.  Johanna, I guess the last question before we run out of time today; I just wanted to find out if you have any additional tips more on the personal side for people that are, in general, just planning parties and doing events on a smaller scale - some of the things that people should be thinking about and the kind of research they can be doing – anything along those lines?  What would be your advice to somebody who’s sitting there saying ‘I’m planning a big party’, what’s the first step forward in this process?

Johanna Walsh:  Personally, when I approach any event, I like to look at what is going into creating the event and where all those things are coming from and what you are going to end up with in terms of your waste and your garbage.  Where is the food being made and how is it being made; is it seasonal?  If you have the fortune of living somewhere such as California or the East Coast or various farm communities, you have great local seasonal foods all year round.  Where is it being held?  Are you using tons of power in order to light and produce sound for your event?  How far are people traveling?  I would totally recommend using rentals.  There are great rental companies that will do service ware; forks, spoons, knives, plates, and they’re fairly reasonable prices.  It’s reusable material – you don’t even have to do the dishes.  It works out nicely.

Sean Daily:  I like that.

Johanna Walsh:  If you can, use biodegradable stuff, if it’s available in your marketplace.  Other good tips?  Recycle, reduce, reuse, repurpose.  Get creative in terms of how you apply your basic ideals of conservation to your individual events.

Sean Daily:  OK.  Do you keep tips on your website – at the TwirlManagement.com site?

Johanna Walsh:  There is a blog there that highlights various things that the company does in terms of its events – about the products we use and how we go about making our own tradeshow booths.  It’s very company specific.

Sean Daily:  OK.  And I’m curious, one last question before we go - I said that that was the last question but I just thought of another one.  How many other companies and individuals like you are there out there, like Twirl Management?  Are you one of a handful or is this a burgeoning industry?

Johanna Walsh:  It’s a growing industry.  There’s a great organization that most of us are all part of called The Green Meeting Industry Council – it’s GMIC.  They’re a great networking place in terms of venues and planners that are starting to focus on this as their specialty and their product offerings.  I know in San Francisco, there’s probably five or six companies that I know of that are specifically doing this on all different scales.  Some have been around for 20 years and some have been around for 1 year.  But it’s definitely a growing industry and there are standards and benchmarks that are starting to be created specific to this industry.  It’s an industry that’s often overlooked so there’s definitely a movement towards trying to create a baseline to qualify as a green event and to be able to empower more event planners to always plan green.

Sean Daily:  Well, I think the fact that you have your own council speaks volumes. [laughter]  That it’s a growth industry.

Johanna Walsh:  It’s getting there.  I probably shouldn’t officially say a number, but I was just at a conference for them and it was really refreshing to be in a room of two hundred-some people all on the same page.

Sean Daily:  Hopefully an eco-friendly conference. [laughter]  I’m assuming.

Johanna Walsh:  It was very eco-friendly.  They did a wonderful job.

Sean Daily:  That’s good.  That would be kind of expected in that industry. [laughter]

Well, my guest today has been Johanna Walsh.  She is the CEO of Twirl Management and an eco-event consultant.  Johanna, thank you so much for being on the program with us today.

Johanna Walsh:  Thank you so much, Sean, for having me.  I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this.

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