When Marta Sala, who works in marketing and communications for Fiera Milano Congressi, which operates the Milano Convention Centre (MiCo for short), spoke to an intimate group of meeting planners at a breakfast within the Italian booth at IMEX in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, there were many aspects of the center complex that she could have talked about. But she didn’t expound on the center’s size (the largest in Europe), or its near-completion of greenscapes surrounding the complex, or its proximity to Malpensa airport (around 40 minutes) — those facts came up in response to questions planners asked after her presentation. Sala’s briefing focused on one thing only: Over the past year, MiCo became certified by the London, U.K.–based World Obesity Federation (WOF) as the first Gold Level Healthy Venue worldwide. (Since then, according to WOF, The Forum in South Africa also has earned the Gold Healthy status.)
The award is part of WOF’s Action Initiative, which aims to stimulate action to help reduce obesity across a wide range of industries, especially those that are not involved with health care, through healthy habits while at work, traveling, and in everyday life. WOF has “identified the global events industry as part of its key attack strategy to take on the global obesity epidemic,” according to its website. “It’s our belief that people should leave an event having experienced a healthy environment; whether that’s because of healthy options at meal breaks, or simply being encouraged to take a less sedentary approach to proceedings.”
As part of its commitment to the sector, WOF has developed an accreditation that “encourages venues to engage their event customers in a conversation to change slight aspects of the events they host, which in return would make a big difference to their visitors.” The MiCo team saw the goal of obtaining the award as a way to attract customers “by providing the best facilities to delegates and transforming each conference into a healthy and enjoyable experience,” Sala told the group.
Adopting the Healthy Venues standards, MiCo staff reasoned, would benefit event organizers and participants — minimizing the “negative impacts of conference-going,” Sala said, and “nudging people toward healthier choices while they’re outside of their routine.”
There are three levels to the Healthy Venues accreditation, and the MiCo team decided that if they were going to pursue it, they would fully embrace the initiative — going straight past Bronze and Silver for Gold, which, she said, they earned after 18 months. The Gold Award designation requires that venues meet at least 10 criteria to promote healthy eating; at least five for promoting physical activity; and at least three for workplace health.
MiCo adopted four pillars to promoting healthy behavior: Live an active life, eat well to live better, rest and recover, and free your mind. Each objective is visually represented throughout MiCo in a different color “bubble” — and corresponding signage and messaging printed directly on the walls is designed to be appealing and offer fun ideas rather than be perceived as rules or instructions, Sala said. For example, under a green “Did you know?” bubble (associated with “free your mind”) are these suggestions: “A walk down to Santa Maria delle Grazie is sure to raise your spirits, while Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper is a sight for sore eyes.” (The mural masterpiece is a short distance away, housed by the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie.)
MiCo staff works with event organizers to help them incorporate physical activity into their programs, such as stretching and taking the stairs, and to promote active travel to and from the venue, like walking and participating in a bike-share program.
When it comes to mangia, MiCo provides healthy food options across all its menus — with an emphasis on “options.” “We know that people come to Italy looking for pasta, pizza, and mozzarella,” Sala said, so the center offers traditional Italian fare, but healthier options are offered first and at the same price.
The venue serves no fried food, dishes are flavored with spices over salt and contain no refined flours, and smaller portions are served. Seventy-five percent of items for sale in vending machines are healthy products. In addition, water dispensers are located throughout the venue for refillable containers — single-use plastics are being phased out. Event planners and participants can make use of a complimentary wellness lounge within the complex, complete with shower facilities, yoga mats, and exercise equipment.
Sala emphasized that the healthy venue program applies to staff as well as guests. For example, the MiCo team members, she said, pointing to her wrist, all wear fitness trackers. Their steps are periodically converted into monetary donations that the facility makes to a local charity. Now that’s an extra helping I think the World Obesity Foundation would look kindly upon.