Liz Reitman

5 min | Leadership & Management Musings

Sustainability in Focus: The Javits Center

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Alan Steel, CEO Javits Center

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Reit has worked with the Javits Center for over nine years. From social media and community-based projects to our latest work with the Javits Center on their sustainability efforts, our work with the NYC staple goes way back. Liz Reitman had the pleasure of sitting down with Alan Steel, CEO of the Javits Center to discuss the sustainability initiatives and conservation efforts of the center. This was an inspiring conversation that centered community care and dove deep into how a business prioritizes the needs of the world today. Take a listen and check out some of the highlights below! 

Liz Reitman: Hi, everyone. I’m so excited to have Alan Steel, the CEO of the Javits Center, here with me today. Being that it was April and Earth Day kicked off, I felt like it was a great time to continue the conversation. Reit has been helping Alan and his team with marketing for the past nine years, and it’s been so cool to watch the transformation of all these sustainable initiatives that, from my understanding, really were led by Alan. So this is an amazing opportunity to have you here, Alan. Thank you.

Alan Steel: Well, thanks for having us. It’s always nice to talk about what we’ve been doing and the successes we’ve had doing it.

Natasha Cucullo: Alan, thanks for being here.

Let’s talk sustainability: The Javits Center's conservation efforts are far and wide, with a roof that boasts nearly seven acres of greenery, a one acre rooftop farm, a rooftop orchard and greenhouse, and an oasis for wildlife.

Alan: In addition to what you’ve already described, we now have the largest solar roof in Manhattan. We will be generating about 10% of our electrical consumption through solar panels on the roof. And we’re about to do some testing of small wind turbines to see if we can, in addition to solar, have wind generated power. I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of energy from the wind turbines, but what I think I’m most proud of is that we’ve actually become a bit of an experimental station for many different organizations. If someone says that they have a new product that’s going to help with our sustainable goals, we’re willing to look at how and whether we can use it.

Could you share how sustainability became a focus for the Javits Center under your leadership?

Alan: Well, I guess there are two phases to my life at Javits. The first began in 1986, when the building first opened, and I came here in the month of April of 1986 to hold what was, I believe, the second event to be ever held in the building.

My second part then began in 2012 when I took over as then president and CEO and came in primarily with a goal of changing the culture within the organization in regards to its customer focus. But when I walked into the building, almost immediately I saw another opportunity; and that was because the building was at that point going through a renovation and had just begun to install a green roof on the existing building. And when I went up on the roof, I kind of looked around and saw all of this green stuff and birds and things and I thought, you know, this is an opportunity.

Liz: I didn’t realize that — I thought that was something that you started.

Alan: No, I wasn’t involved in starting. I came and that was already in place. You know, Bruce Fowle is an interesting character. He’s an architect and his wife, Marcia, was on the board of the Audubon Society. And she actually led a conversation with him about another element of our renovation, which was the implementation of the bird friendly glass, because Javits used to be the biggest killer of birds in New York City, as you probably heard me say before. And by putting in bird friendly glass, we were able to reduce bird deaths by 90%.

So the combination of green roof and bird friendly glass had a big significant impact upon the bird population in the neighborhood. And now all these years later, we have 56 species of birds that use the roof. And we see different changes as global warming has had an impact on bird populations and migratory patterns.

So it sounds like sustainability was a critical focus for Bruce, but it sounds like you were really interested in it as well.

Alan: Well, I think there were several elements to it. I think I’ve always been interested in birds. Living on the northeast coast of England, the Farne Islands were a place I used to regularly visit on vacation and the bird populations up there are pretty impressive.

I think the sustainable part of it came about through a couple of different things. One was the introduction of a Clean Air Act in England back in the 1960s, which really changed my perspective — I became much more aware of the value of government legislation in that respect.

And what I found was that as we talked about the birds and as we talked about this bird friendly glass [at the Javits Center], we talked about a sustainable approach, and people said, “That’s great. What are you doing next?”. So it became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy because every time we talked about something that we’d done [at the Javits Center], we then had to find something else that we’d done or we had to talk about something else that we planned to do.

So I think that we were again fortunate in terms of timing, but I think we saw the opportunity — I saw the opportunity to move the building’s image and reputation from what it had been, which wasn’t always great, to something that was much more of an asset to the community. So we had the green roof and that led us to talk about what else we can do to help the community, which led us to discussions about one of our big programs called Javits Cares, where we recycle goods left by exhibitors at shows to local charities. Then we looked at catering and decided we could recirculate food that we had been serving to people for lunches, dinners and other things where we weren’t using excess food.

We try to do as much as we can, but culturally it’s always a challenge to change people’s behavior. I will say that having things like the beehives — when we put beehives up and we started to collect honey — that actually helped some of the cultural change because it made our employees more aware of what we were doing. And it was kind of fun for them to talk about having not just the Javits Convention Center, but a Javits Beehive and Javits Honey. And we did some things associated with that, like having the staff join us to do bottling of the honey and labeling of the honey and those kinds of things. And we gave those honey jars away to our customers. So each of those people, whether they’re an employee or a customer, gets a message that is reinforced by the honey, and it helps to kind of make their attitude towards sustainable items a little better — and, you know, hopefully stimulates them into thinking what can they do to make a difference in their [own] locations.

Liz: I was actually there at one of the bottlings — when the New York Times was doing a feature article [on your work with the bees]. It was fun because Reit did the packaging — and to try to find the right size jar and the box and make it match the Javits brand, but still make it fun — I loved being a part of that. And I learned so much about the honey making process.

Alan: And because it was an employee activity that they hadn’t been able to do before, you know, people are leaving their desks to go and do this. It’s a fun, little change. And they’re interacting with other members of the office that they’re not normally interacting with [on a daily basis]. So it’s a good activity for the organization.

Getting people connected back to nature -- whether that be with bees or with the food pickling or just even being in those spaces with the birds -- is a really special opportunity for reconnection. So it's huge that the Javits Center is doing that in the heart of New York City, where nature isn’t always readily accessible.

Alan: Yeah. And I think the interaction of employees in particular with some of the elements of the programs have helped them make much more of a connection with that. You know, we occasionally get bird collisions even now. And our staff will now call the bird rescue lines and they’ll take injured birds up there [to the roof]. And we encourage them to do it — and it again helps make a connection for them, but it [also] helps us from a cultural perspective within the organization to show that we care for birds, we care for each other. You know, it’s a little fuzzy at times, but it’s very beneficial.

Liz: Now, I believe it. One of our core values at Reit is that we care for each other and we use that internally as well as externally. So I completely get that. It’s that core message. But it’s not just for your team, it’s how you’re treating your customers, your vendors. I love that.

Alan: Yeah, I think it’s a way of reinforcing messages. I mean, you know, we can all have marketing messages, we can all have mission statements, but if you can show with little things that you are actually doing that, then, you know, people do follow in their own behavior what they see others doing.

Natasha: So well said: Community care in action.

The Javits Center embodies the core values of the center: world class technological innovation, resourcefulness, an unrivaled commitment to excellence, and I'll add from our conversation, community care. What aspects of this work are you most proud of?

Alan: So I think that the programs themselves, they’re small pieces that many different people have had a hand in. But overall the thing I’m most proud of is that the organization has become culturally more more inclined to support these community based activities — including sustainability as a community based activity — because the what we do from waste management, what we do from solar power, what we do from noise, what we do from truck traffic on the streets, you know, all of those things impact the community in a positive way.

Natasha: That thread of community care is everywhere.

At the Javits Center, sustainability has become a critical focus in an effort to improve the quality of life for their employees, visitors, surrounding neighborhood and ecosystem. Ultimately, the Javits Center strives to be a model of sustainable practices for the exhibition industry, buildings across New York City and the surrounding community. The Javits Center works with several institutions to study the impact of their conservation efforts while introducing new elements that they believe will have a maximum impact on the environment. As a part of the Javits Center’s recent expansion, the team has installed a one-acre rooftop farm, as well as a rooftop orchard and greenhouse, along with a host of other sustainable upgrades. All of this builds on their efforts to transform the convention center into a wildlife sanctuary and a leader in energy conservation.