NET ZERO: Climate Pledge Arena was just named the first arena to achieve the International Living Future Institute’s Zero Carbon certification. More than ever before, sustainability is acutely tied to the food and beverage industry and a key driver of innovation in hospitality. (Getty Images)
Best Overall Corporate Profile: Sustainability
These days, most companies, teams, venues and other single entities will have their own sustainability executives, program or individual action intended to help the planet. While those are well meaning and do matter, real change may depend on real investment, priority, investment and — perhaps most of all — the influence and operational ability to implement it.
Sustainability has previously been seen as its own component separate or even in contrast with typical venue operations, but that has changed.
“You can’t talk about OVG without talking about sustainability,” says Chris Granger, president of OVG360, Oak View Group’s venue management division that officially launched after the acquisition of Spectra, among other operators, which includes full service Hospitality and Sustainability divisions. Known for the ambitious Climate Pledge Arena, which by design was built with sustainability as its core mission, and the renovation of CFG Bank Arena in Baltimore, a $200 million project that saved millions of carbon emissions through innovative redevelopment, Oak View Group has made sustainability a priority in all aspects, with food and beverage being a practical instance.
“There are certain outcomes that we are chasing,” Granger said. “One is zero waste, two is zero plastic, three is a reduction in water consumption, four is a commitment to local diverse suppliers. How those manifest themselves at different buildings will vary, based on the age of the building, based on the type of the building, based on the geography of the building. We try to understand the broad pillars or the broad principles that we’re going after, and then we pull the levers more or less aggressively based on the local needs or local sort of environmental construct.”
Being able to implement these goals takes real commitment from the top, as well as the ability to make it happen.
“Our leadership from the highest levels are committed to addressing the real effects of climate change,” says Kristen Fulmer, sustainability director for Oak View Group. “And they’re not shy to talk about that and the challenges that our industry face because of climate change currently. We’re also not shy to recognize our role in the opportunities to address it, both physically and operationally, but also through influence.”
Fulmer, who joined the company in the last quarter of 2022, notes the impact of sports and entertainment to impact change, such as the naming rights to Climate Pledge Arena putting the word “climate” into every discussion about the venue. “Although the physical operations have to come first,” she says.
Those physical operations can manifest in many ways and OVG360 takes a practical approach to figuring out each venue’s priorities.
“Within OVG360 and, specifically OVG Hospitality, we focus on and have specific sustainability goals set for the things that we know that we can control the most,” Fulmer says. Food and beverage is at the top of the list for venues managed by OVG360, which means waste, plastic, energy, water usage and all food-related supplies.
“Food waste reduction is a huge global problem and one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions,” Fulmer says. “So we know we have to address that specifically and we’ll have a broader set of sustainability goals, which we’re announcing soon.”
Oak View Group, VenuesNow’s parent company, has also made a mission to share its findings and strategies with the industry, through its GOAL – Green Operations & Advanced Leadership, developed by OVG, the Atlanta Hawks, Fenway Sports Group and architect and green building figure Jason McLennan.
Enmarket Arena in Savannah, Georgia, has been a testing grounds for new sustainability initiatives on the hospitality side, and one of those is soon to be rolled out to 29 other OVG360 venues.
“We have this water conservation program that we’re rolling out that basically recirculates water over food, and maintains temperatures so that it’s safe, but conserves all the water in one place,” said Fulmer. “So the payback on this initial investment of this simple installation in a sink is many, many, many fold the longer it’s being used.”
In recent years it’s become clear that sustainability means not only saving the planet but cutting costs. That’s becoming more apparent and in different ways, with new lessons to be learned from new situations.
“Not many people would think it, but our Fairs division is one of the most sustainable platforms we have,” says Ken Gaber, president of OVG Hospitality, noting the diversity between accounts and venues within the company’s portfolio. “We learn a lot from the fair division that we can actually roll out to the whole company. We do all the catering for Burning Man. You have to be very strategic on what you bring out there because it’s three hours away from the closest grocer and you’re trucking everything in through the middle of the desert. You’ve got to think about ways to compost things because you don’t have big trash receptacles everywhere, you don’t have the dumpster being picked up every week or day to pick up things. You have to think about things in a different manner.”
Having sustainable operations also creates goodwill with brands and artists, who are increasingly passionate about the topic and may even require it on riders or contracts.
“To the extent that you are authentically doing the right things in order to demonstrate movement on your sustainability journey, that’s interesting to corporate partners, who want to authenticate their sustainability initiatives in your building,” Granger adds. Subaru Park, home to the MLS Philadelphia Union, is a prime example, with the naming rights partner working together with the OVG360 operations team to implement a zero-landfill goal by reducing plastic, increasing composting rates and reusing materials.
“Artists are increasingly passionate about the topic as well,” Granger adds, noting sustainably minded artists such as Coldplay, Billie Eilish and Dave Matthews Band who are showing real commitment to the cause.
“Increasingly there are artists who will only play venues that they know are doing something to take better care of the planet. So to the extent that we are making a difference, we think we’re making ourselves more attractive to artists who really are interested in this and, and again, who want to authenticate their commitment to a better world. So I think that benefits us from a content standpoint as well.”
Gaber notes new accounts including McCormick Place in Chicago, the largest convention center in North America, as another example of clients requiring sustainable operations, and presenting opportunity to make real change.
“One thing we’re seeing from all the show managers that are coming in is that it’s a requirement there, too,” Gaber said. “There has to be a sustainability platform.” New OVG Hospitality accounts such as McCormick Place and Footprint Center in Phoenix immediately become members of the GOAL program.
By 2025, all OVG Hospitality employees will have received food waste reduction training, which will include collaborating with food suppliers to source ingredients efficiently and reduce food spoilage. Another effort is to ensure venues take part in food donation programs, with unused food finding its way to those in need rather than becoming trash.
While sustainability continues to make sense financially and ecologically, it also can help inspire confidence and attract talent at the corporate and staff level.
“It matters not just to our guests but to our staff and our employees,” Granger said. “To the extent that you’re doing the right things as it relates to sustainability, as it relates to social justice, as it relates to making the world a better place, you’re going to attract better staff and you’re going to engage them at a higher level, and you’re gonna retain that staff at a different level than if you’re not showing that you care about the world.
“The return on sustainability comes in many different ways. The key is to be honest about it and to be consistent about your effort here. Everybody can and should do something. And it’s our responsibility within the industry, given our platform, to make some of these moves and to do them very publicly.”