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Greater Fort Lauderdale Broward County Convention Center's Sustainability Efforts

Leisure & Hospitality: Using Multiple Techniques to Recycle 97% of It's Food Waste

As part of its sustainability efforts, workers at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center have been conditioned to reflexively turn off the lights whenever they leave a room – even when they’re at home. That’s great for energy conservation, but bad for spouses left standing in a dark kitchen, jokes SMG regional general manager Mark Gatley.

Energy conservation and sustainability have been major themes for the 24-year-old convention center over the past decade. “We do everything operationally on a daily basis to make sure we’re recycling and repurposing anything we can,” says Julia Johnson, a LEED-Accredited Professional and the center’s sustainable programs manager. The convention center achieved LEED Gold certification for an Existing Building in July 2012, and staff continues to implement more environmental measures ahead of its LEED Existing Building recertification in 2017.

SMG, a worldwide entertainment and convention management company that operates the county-owned venue, has fully supported those sustainability efforts. In recent years, SMG oversaw the switch to more energy-efficient lighting, including LED and compact fluorescent bulbs, and a state-of-the-art building automation system that cut the facility’s electrical bill from $1.2 million annually to approximately between $700,000 and $800,000. In 2011, landscaping was replaced with native and drought tolerant plant species and a new irrigation system was installed that reduced water consumption from 10 million gallons a year to 3.5 million gallons.

From it’s opening in September 1991, the convention center has always donated usable and fresh leftover food to several local and food banks. In 2011, the convention center continued its efforts to limit waste by installing an Eco-Safe Digester from BioHitech America in the kitchen. Instead of throwing out unusable food waste, kitchen staff now tosses leftover scraps into the digester. The food is then broken down by a mixture of hot water and enzymes and turned into gray water that can be put back into the water treatment plant. Between leftover food donations and use of the digester, the convention center is able to recycle 97 percent of its organic food waste, totaling more than 60 tons of food since the digester was installed five years ago.

The commitment to reducing its carbon footprint is the latest evolution for the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center. The building has been a leading venue for trade shows, conventions and athletic contests for south Florida since it was opened in 1991. Over the years, it has been a focal point for Super Bowl events, fashion shows, cruise line industry gatherings, presidential campaigns and even boxing matches promoted by the legendary Don King. “You name it and we have done it,” Gatley says. “Just about any type of event you can think of has given us a shot at one point or another.”

When the convention center opened it quickly drew interest from groups wanting to see sunny Florida’s latest destination. But within a few years, it became clear the building’s 370,000 square feet was not enough for the largest events. Between 1999 and 2002, the building underwent an expansion that added another 230,000 square feet and SMG has kept on top of upgrades ever since.

“The building today is bigger and as technologically equipped as any building in the country at high-end levels,” Gatley says. “We’ve turned into a very attractive and functional facility, and one that continues to be sought after by event planners nationwide.”

But as beautiful as the facility is, there have been some outside factors that have impacted its ability to lure customers. The convention center shares an access road with a cruise line and an industrial port, Port Everglades. The proximity to the cruise industry made it an ideal location for many ocean-related events, but also put the building under the umbrella of America’s post 9/11 homeland security response. Following the terrorist attacks, a checkpoint was installed on the road that feeds into the convention center, Eisenhower Boulevard. Anyone headed to the convention center had to pass through the same screening as cruise goers and port workers, causing some traffic inconveniences for events held at the venue.

“Port Everglades access became very difficult in many ways,” Gatley says. Events such as Pri-Med, the primary medicine conference with as many as 5,000 attendees, worried how the security checkpoint would handle its large crowds. The convention center responded by developing an outside plan with Port Everglades and local law enforcement for ingress and egress and hiring additional security to help guests efficiently move through the checkpoints.

“We worked really hard with the local authorities, the Broward Sheriff’s office and the private security firms, just to make sure the whole checkpoint issue was mitigated on an event-by-event basis,” Gatley says.

“If the checkpoint didn’t work, and our service didn’t back it up, I’m sure we would have suffered the consequence and would have found ourselves in the national news more often for all the wrong reasons,” Gatley adds. “But, I’m happy to say we weren’t.”

Pri-Med is bigger today than ever, which Gatley sees as a testament to the convention center’s ability to resolve problems for its customers. The checkpoint issue itself is now truly a thing of the past. The checkpoint was moved farther south into the port in mid-November, allowing the building’s many patrons to again freely access the convention center.

Broward County and SMG are considering the convention center’s future. Early planning calls for another 350,000 square-foot expansion to the building. Potential developers are also proposing a 750- to 1,250-room hotel for the site that could open sometime in 2020 or beyond. Gatley says it is still too early in the process to narrow down the costs of the expansion or the timing of the project, but the convention center expansion alone could cost between $100 million and $250 million and the hotel cost could range between $200 million and $400 million.

No matter how those plans shake out, the convention center is required to continue to operate. “It puts a lot of pressure on the staff to make sure that any issues with construction noise or potential interruptions are mitigated in some fashion so the end-result is a beautiful project and very happy clients,” Gatley explains.

As it prepares for the future, the center’s environmental efforts and commitment providing the very best service to clients will continue to support the venue’s status as a premier convention destination. “We have evolved into a very tech-savvy, environmentally friendly, five-star food service, and customer service-oriented facility,” Gatley says. “And we’re extremely proud of that record, and SMG’s ongoing partnership with Broward County and our Convention and Visitor’s Bureau team.”

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