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Volunteer Programs Benefit Communities, Guests & Hotels


Meeting planners and attendees today are looking for more than just a nice hotel in a hip city to have their meetings. Green meetings—events and conferences organized with a lens toward reducing environmental harm—have become much more common, although the levels of “greenness” vary widely. Now groups are embracing “green” in a broader sense, one that includes social responsibility, by seeking ways to give back to the communities they are visiting.

The hospitality industry is all about serving the needs of others. Therefore, it makes sense that meetings destinations and venues partner with local nonprofits to offer community service opportunities. At many hotels, employees have taken the lead to give back, volunteering both time and money to organizations that improve the environment and lives of people in need.

They are among the staff first tapped by meeting professionals keen to set up short-term “legacy projects” that let attendees volunteer to address local problems such as hunger and homelessness. For instance, members of the ASAE Convene Green Alliance (CGA), a community of meeting professionals and industry partners with a shared interest in creating sustainable and socially beneficial conferences and events, are committed to the communities around them. Well more than half of their associations organize legacy projects at least at their annual conferences and often at other events and meetings as well.

Ways to Learn About Opportunities

Organizations and meeting attendees can find opportunities to support venues that support causes that appeal to them and in many cases, can participate in local programs. Meeting planners and associations can contact the CVB or individual venues in their destination city to see what social responsibility programs are offered.

Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts International has an extensive employee volunteer program to help communities where its properties are located. Among the initiatives the company sponsors are a public school teacher recognition program to honor excellence in education.

MGM employees also participate in a massive annual canned-goods drive for the local food bank, Three Square. In 2011 employees donated and sorted 196,000-plus pounds of food. Employee volunteers also built a house for Habitat for Humanity that was sold to a local family in need, participated in school and neighborhood cleanups, prepared and packed meals at food banks, mentored at-risk students, provided job skills training for homeless shelter residents, and visited homebound seniors.

Overall, employees donated $4.6 million in 2011 to the MGM Employee Foundation, which allocates funding to help nearly 175,000 families and provide educational opportunities for 120,000 children.

MGM’s Inspiring Our World Musical

MGM Resorts recently celebrated and showcased these diverse volunteer programs Las Vegas-style in a musical. Through dance and music produced and performed by employees, Inspiring Our World creatively shared the company’s diversity and inclusion training with all employees and valued stakeholders to emphasize social responsibility as a core value and imperative.

In addition, MGM and the world-famous performing company Cirque du Soleil have united to support the mission of One Drop, a global non-governmental organization that promotes awareness of the central role of clean water.

“We earnestly believe that the health of our company is directly linked to the health of the communities in which we operate,” says Jim Murren, chairman & CEO of MGM Resorts International.

But it doesn’t take a glitzy musical to get employees jazzed about volunteering. At the Westin Phoenix Downtown in Arizona, for instance, associates recently had a peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich-making competition, after which all of the sandwiches were donated to Children’s First Academy.

“We certainly would work with any client who would like to execute a similar activity,” says Katie Brashear, director of public relations for two key meetings venues, the Westin Phoenix Downtown and Sheraton Phoenix Downtown.

According to Brashear, either hotel can work with meeting planners to create social responsibility activities at any time that best suit the needs of the group or organization. In fact, the hotels are looking into new community partnerships for 2013.

Marriott Employees’ Generosity

At Marriott properties worldwide, associates donated more than $30 million dollars and volunteered $9 million worth of time in 2011. Marriott routinely partners with The American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity International, Feeding America, and SOS Children’s Villages. Marriott owned Ritz-Carlton properties also offer Give Back Getaways, in which guests include volunteer work in their stay, working beside Ritz-Carlton employees in a community program. For groups, the Ritz-Carlton offers VolunTeaming, projects that allow organizations to blend team building and volunteerism.

Even large international programs need employee volunteers. Marriott has two major programs it has worked on for several years: the Juma Reserve and “Nobility of Nature” in China. In 2008, the company pledged $2 million to help preserve 1.4 million acres of rainforest in the Juma Reserve in the state of Amazonas, Brazil.

In May 2010, Marriott rolled out “Nobility of Nature,” a $500,000 commitment to help protect the source of fresh water for more than 2 billion people in Asia. Located in the mountains of southwest China, the program helps rural communities develop sustainable businesses, such as mushroom farming and honey production, that reduce erosion and sedimentation and improve water quality downstream. Employees help make guests aware of these great programs.

Education may be just the ticket for an organization wanting to learn how to go “green.” Employees at the LEED Gold certified Omni Dallas give free sustainability tours to the public and professional groups such as the American Planning Association and the U.S. Green Building Council as a way to give back and promote green building.

Founders Inn’s Creative Idea

Seasonal programs help make the holidays merry for everyone. At the Founders Inn in Virginia Beach, Va., the holiday season has become a special time to give back. Gingerbread houses decorated with gumdrops, candy canes, frosting, and other childhood delicacies are a traditional feature of that period, but Founders Inn found a way to make them sweet for another reason. The property sells “gingerbread house roof tiles” to guests or groups to place on the gingerbread masterpieces as a fundraiser to benefit the Food Bank of Southeastern Virginia.

The popularity of such short-term charity projects and long-term nonprofit volunteering programs has become so pronounced that the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau recently initiated programs that reward groups who “do right” by the city. Its Star Performer Program spotlights conventions and meeting groups that exemplify a spirit of service and social responsibility by incorporating voluntary services or experiences into their Nashville meeting through donations of time, funds, or supplies. The program was created in May 2010, after a major flood hit Nashville and countless convention groups sought ways to help the community recover while attendees were in town. The CVB now connects groups with Nashville-based charitable organizations that offer volunteer opportunities, as well as helps organizations plan benefit concerts, races, and events or brainstorm other ways to raise charity dollars.

Finding a Fit

With so many different frameworks for hospitality-based volunteer programs, one is sure to fit with either an association’s mission or with causes that are meaningful to their members’ hearts. Working closely with clients to learn what issues are important to them or their attendees will help hospitality professionals best serve both their clients and the local community.

For example, the American Water Workers Assn. might want to participate in MGM’s One Drop initiative, while the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians may prefer to schedule an All-Access Expedition at the Nashville Zoo to raise money for improvements in its animal care program.

Even if a hotel or venue’s program doesn’t allow for direct interaction of attendees, knowing that your business will help a cause that is important to your staff or customers will make attendees feel proud and positive toward your brand and property. With so many meeting venues giving back, and such diversity of structures around which to organize those efforts, volunteering has never been easier or more rewarding.

Sallie Hyman is a freelance writer for the ASAE Convene Green Alliance and Association Vision. She is also a veterinarian and book author who lives with her family on 20 acres near Leesburg, Va.