Green Interview: Rachel Motekaitis, Greenbuild International Conference & Expo

October 2, 2019

If you’re well-versed with sustainable trade shows, you’ve heard of Greenbuild International Conference & Expo. As the world’s largest sustainable event for the green building industry, the 17-year-old trade show and conference has become one of the most pace-setting events in the sustainable show universe. Behind the curtain is a team of passionate individuals building upon the show’s sustainability prowess, including Senior Show Manager Rachel Motekaitis, who has been with the show since 2013. TSNN sat down with her to learn how Greenbuild works, as well as what’s in store for its 2019 edition set for Nov. 19-22 at Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. 

What were you doing before you came to Greenbuild?

I was with the Ultimate Fighting Championship Fan Expo, so I came from the consumer side of things. It’s definitely very different to switch over to a B2B show but there’s a unique aspect of Greenbuild that’s different than other B2B shows, which is that the people are very passionate about sustainability. There’s a greater cause and mission overall. 

Had you ever worked with a sustainable event before?

This is my first foray into this universe. [But even all these years later], just when you think you know everything there is to know about doing a sustainable event, you continue to challenge yourself and take it to the next level. There’s always a new way to do things. We can all pretend to be experts, but there’s always something to learn and do to continue to improve. At Greenbuild, sustainability takes a village.  

Has sustainability become a passion for you?

I think everyone believes they’re doing something to better the world, people and their cause. But for us, it’s common sense to be doing things in a less wasteful fashion while helping people continue to do business, grow their companies and better the economy.  

I love my job and get to work with people who are passionate about what they’re doing. Our exhibitors aren’t just there to hock and sell their products; they need to prove why their products should be in a sustainable building, especially when you have engineers and people looking to procure specific products to help them achieve green building certifications.

What does it take to maintain Greenbuild Expo’s standing in the sustainability realm and also keep building upon it year after year?

Continuing to improve is the hardest thing we have to do. We’ve already achieved such high waste diversion rates. We’re one of the first shows to be continuously offsetting our full carbon and water footprint, so what else can we do to become more sustainable while moving toward a zero-waste event? It’s difficult but something we’re striving for. 

We have a baseline goal that includes the building and city we’re in, the waste haulers there and what’s possible. Once you’ve gotten to a certain point where the majority of your food is local; you’re not printing or producing anything that’s not necessary; and it’s going to be repurposed, recycled or composted, you have to get more and more creative. Sometimes taking it to the next level isn’t increasing or becoming more sustainable but providing interesting or exciting ways to involve our audience. 

Can you give an example of this?

Something we’re doing this year is a “bring your own bottle” experience. We’ve always had water stations where people can refill their water bottles or coffee cups, and also populated those with compostable cups to go into our compost stream instead of regular plastic or cardboard cups. But this year we thought, why do we even need to produce anything to compost? Our exhibitors and attendees are some of the most passionate in the industry, so they should be bringing their own water bottles.

We’ve eliminated straws, and we’re still providing some compostable coffee cups, as you have to do it one step at a time – if you take people’s coffee away and they’re not prepared, it’s a problem. So we’ll have a sleeve of compostable cups but we’re going to make them hard for people to get; they’ll be [available] in only one spot in the building.   

We’ll also be working with Goodr this year, a local organization that will help us donate leftover food to reduce waste while helping families struggling with food insecurity in Atlanta.  

How do your exhibitors handle your green exhibitor guidelines?

There has been some hesitation in our messaging with our Greenbuild Mandatory Green Exhibitor Guidelines. The word “mandatory” can freak people out. They see this huge list and if they’re not used to implementing [them] at trade shows, they often don’t understand it. [It’s our job to] help them understand that they’re likely doing a lot of those things already and that if they make some tweaks, it makes their experience more affordable and allows the attendee to be more engaged with their company.  

What have been some of the show’s biggest green challenges?

When it comes down to composting, recycling, etc., the challenge is making sure there are local haulers that can support those. [Another challenge] is [getting] the facility onboard when it comes to areas that they don’t directly control. For example, with catering, helping them to understand that everything needs to be put into a compostable package, not wrapped individually with cellophane.

When we were in Los Angeles a few years ago and still doing conference bags, we found this cool bag that also turned into a reusable shopping bag. They were made from plastic water bottles that had been diverted from landfills in California, and we made a point of putting all of the sustainable properties of the bag in huge text as part of the design, including what the intent was and that it was also recyclable. We still had people freak out about it, so we finally learned that it wasn’t really worth the experience and wasn’t the best messaging opportunity. So we continue to learn, even when we’re trying to do creative and sustainable new things.  

What do you see as our industry’s biggest barriers to sustainability at this time?

Changing hearts and minds. The events industry has been slow to adopt sustainable change. There are a ton of shows and buildings that are making changes on some level, but we haven’t gotten far enough into what’s sustainable versus not sustainable, and helping people understand that it’s good for their bottom line. 

For example, we need to help people look at things differently, such as sponsorship signage; finding alternatives to all those big, beautiful signs everywhere and vinyl clings on every window. That’s a big block of revenue for shows, and they have sponsors that buy these pieces every year so they don’t want to change it. The idea of being creative and selling other sponsorship experiences instead of doing what they know works and what they have no problem selling year over year – that’s scary for some companies. But until people are forced to change, they’re likely not going to. 

What’s your best advice for making events more sustainable with limited resources?

Our 2019 Guide to Green Meetings [has] all of our trade secrets for the bare minimum of what we’re doing, which is really easy to [implement]. You don’t need extra staff or a lot of extra money to do these things, and [sustainability] also adds money to your bottom line. Anybody can take the guide from our website and cherry-pick the things they want to do just to get started.


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