Corporate giving is a given, whether it takes the form of community involvement or environmental responsibility. The impetus for doing good may come from an embedded corporate mission and culture, a public relations move to offset negative optics, a mandate from shareholders, or more purely and simply, from societal expectations. But in this age of brand engagement, nothing connects as powerfully with customers and employees — especially Gen Yers who want meaning in their work — as a company with heart. And meetings play a critical role in that win-win process.
A growing number of meeting planners report that they almost always incorporate some type of CSR into the agenda, whether it’s engaging attendees in a local community service teambuilding project during a multiday meeting or incentive, participating in a charity golf tournament or contracting only with “green” vendors and suppliers, including convention centers, hotels, restaurants and other venues.
MPI recently completed a two-year study on corporate social responsibility, says CSR champion Andrew Walker, manager of events at MPI. One of the key findings from the study’s report “The Value of CSR in the Meeting Industry” is that “86 percent (of survey respondents) believe that the meeting industry will become more involved in CSR in the future because society expects it, and that the industry needs to respond to broader changes in the business environment.”
Walker says that based on the two-year study’s findings, MPI will introduce “six modules that take meeting professionals along the path of CSR. The modules include case studies, white papers, videos, presentations, articles and booklets in the areas of defining CSR, integrating, communicating, exceeding expectations, identifying best practices, and certifying and measuring.”
Finally, according to Walker, MPI’s 2012 Annual Business Barometer states that, overall, 25 percent of meeting professionals say their organizations are “very active in CSR,” and an additional 59 percent say their organizations are “somewhat active in CSR.” Also, “European and Canadian meeting professionals claim a higher level of current CSR activity, as well as higher predictions for the future, than their U.S. colleagues, with the Europeans projecting the highest levels of future involvement.”
One can only wonder if CSR certification for planners is just around the corner — maybe a CSRP? “There has been some talk within the industry about this type of certification, so we may explore further,” comments Walker.
A CSRP would be a natural fit for meeting planner Brooke Sommers who already has a CMP and CMM, and who adamantly believes there is always room for CSR.
“I think what should be stressed here is that CSR at meetings can be simple and cost-effective,” explains Sommers, owner of Strategic Conferences & Events LLC, a soup-to-nuts meetings and events planning company located in Westminster, CO, that works mostly with computer, software and technology companies. “Sometimes business unit leaders feel they don’t have the money or the time for it in the program, and that’s just not true. Even on the smallest scale, it is better to incorporate some type of CSR than choose to do nothing at all.”
Regardless, it’s Sommers’ observation that CSR is growing in leaps and bounds. “With all the emailing, texting and tweeting that goes on today, we don’t have a chance to get to know each other as individuals, and CSR activities, in addition to the altruistic benefits to local communities, help to do just that.”
When time is a consideration, Sommers recommends simple, adjunct activities during registration, lunch or a reception. She suggests planners have tables set up around the perimeter of the space for people to stuff packets or envelopes for a charity. “It’s a real ice-breaker and lets people choose when to get involved and how much time to put into it without feeling any pressure to do so,” Sommers states.
At an event she orchestrated in New Orleans last May, Sommers enlisted photographer Robert X. Fogarty and his Dear World portrait project. “Dear World” began as “Dear New Orleans,” when, following Katrina, Fogarty asked residents to write messages of hope and “Love Notes to New Orleans” on their hands, arms, chest and fingers, and photographed the results. People who were photographed donated money to aid the city. He now uses his distinct message-on-skin-style to tell compelling stories of subjects regardless of religion, race or language — an art project/social experiment that connects people emotionally and hopefully inspires the notion that working together can lead to good.
Corporations can invite Fogarty to their events to take pictures that engage their attendees to connect with each other on a more personal level. In addition, his interactive keynote event, Dear World Live, explores the subtle and powerful connections of colleagues, strangers, friends and family at annual conventions, leadership retreats and on college campuses throughout the country and the world.
At Sommers’ New Orleans event, Fogarty asked attendees to write on their arms what their message to the world would be. “It’s an amazing experience,” Sommers recalls. “Everyone checks out each other’s arms to find out what their message is and why it was chosen. It’s a great conversation starter at a welcome reception, followed by a video montage for the final night of the photographs, and people really get into it and get to know each other while getting a message off to the world.”
What was Sommers’ message? “Live your passion.” Other ideas run the gamut from sourcing event entertainment from an organization that benefits children, like a children’s chorale — “rather than spending tons of money for a top performer,” she notes — to donating an attrition of rooms to a local shelter, which she claims some hotels will do.
Sommers highlights two other CSR events she has organized:
A channel sales incentive, hosted by a Fortune 500 company and their partners at Gran Melia Resort Puerto Rico, featured a book drive for The Kingdom Academy, a new school dedicated to providing affordable, quality education for the local children. Sommers relates: “As part of a pre-mailing, we sent a children’s book to the attendees and asked them to bring it with them, plus another new or gently used children’s book, and they did. Some brought bags of books for the kids. Then, we brought in children from a local school to the resort where we were meeting, provided them with a boxed lunch, smoothies and face-painting activities. The children then got to pick books for their classrooms. Attendees didn’t have to stay for the duration of this CSR event but they were so engaged with it that they all did. The children had to participate in a reading challenge at school, and the top readers from each class won the opportunity to go to the hotel to collect the books.”
During a meeting of 800 technical sales and partner attendees, Sommers’ client hosted a Texas Hold ’em Poker Tournament, with proceeds benefiting two local Dallas charities: Attitudes & Attire, which promotes personal growth and self-sufficiency for single mothers, and the Children’s Craniofacial Association, which helps “empower and give hope to individuals and families affected by facial differences.”
Sommers says, “This was a very cost-effective option. Poker tables and dealers are a minimal expense, and in this case, the client was able to obtain a grant to fund the charitable donation.”
The attendees were able to sign up as players or have a night on their own. As players dropped out, they could donate their chips to one or both charities, and the charity with the most amount of chips at the end of the night got the majority of the financial donation. At the closing general session, someone from each charity was able to get up and talk about their charity and the impact it makes on the local community. In this instance, the corporation offered a matching program that allowed individuals to go online and make a personal donation that was then matched by the company.”
Paying it forward is the primary mission of two young social entrepreneurs, as they are called in this new age of CSR, Guy Futi and Anthony Chamy, both doing good things in the world through their individual companies while operating out of Montreal, Canada.
Guy Futi founded Maji Water and whimsically refers to himself as Head Water Boy. “I find that members of the new work generation, of which I am one, not only want careers that promise high incomes, but they also want those jobs that provide meaning to their lives,” he states. “At Maji Water, we strive to achieve both, and we do it through driving sales, incentive programs and other initiatives that provide the revenue to achieve the company’s social goals,” he says. “And, we’re always keeping an eye on the triple bottom line: the three Ps of People, Planet and Profits.”
But to do so he put the cart before the horse — that is, his CSR goals informed his business: He incorporated a mission to provide clean water to crisis-affected regions of the world into a new business venture — Maji Water Inc.
Established in 2010, the company is now fast approaching the $1.4 million mark (US$). In the beginning, the basic idea was that one purchased bottle of Maji would result in three bottles of purified water in needed areas of the world, although the company has expanded its altruistic goals, as well as its base of operation from small community stores to larger retailers, including hotels and restaurants.
“Our strategy is to work closely with our sales force and retailers,” Futi explains. “We’ve developed a unique model. Retailers, by selecting Maji, have the opportunity to build their own ‘well’ to save an impoverished village throughout the world. We allocate 15 percent of all the gross profit to the Maji Foundation, which operates admin-free. Let’s say we generate $1 million (US$) in revenue from one retailer of our product — $65,000–$125,000 of that goes to the Maji Foundation, which then re-allocates this to building a well in that company’s name somewhere around the world.”
To accomplish that end, the sales staff gets all the perks — commissions, bonuses and, most importantly, incentive travel.
“When our sales staff meets planned quotas, they are rewarded with a unique experience by way of an incentive travel trip to a foreign country as well as an extraordinary experience — one that helps build a well or other water-related project — and they are ecstatic to have an opportunity like that, too,” states Futi. “For instance if a sales associate was the lead in closing down a big account, not only does he get his bonus, but he gets to decide if he wants to personally partake on a well-building mission.”
Maji Water hosts an annual event at a local hotel or unique venue for clients, friends, associates and prospective customers. Last year, the festivity was at Galerie MX in Montreal.
“This was a big networking reception,” Futi explains. “We served appetizers and wine, as well as Maji water, and the gallery was decked out with photographic canvases of all past water relief missions.” In addition, Maji introduced its new glass bottled water line.
“The goal is always to get people to drink our bottled water because the more of it they drink, the more we can contribute to those areas of the world that are in need of safe drinking water. One purchased bottle here, produces three bottles there, and more,” adds Futi.
What does the future hold? Maji has set forth even greater goals that include sanitation and irrigation in impoverished areas of the world.
For Anthony Chamy, CSR equates to ethics. He believes that the meetings and hospitality industry in particular should adopt a universal code of ethics pertaining to corporate social responsibility when traveling.
With that in mind Chamy’s ecotourism company Kepri Expeditions was born. From the start, concepts such as ecotourism, social and environmental awareness, carbon footprint and cultural respect were the inspiration; global leadership in the sustainable travel industry formed its mission.
Now in its 10th year of taking adventurous, individual travelers and corporate incentive groups on fantastic journeys off the beaten path, Kepri’s goal is to create trips that enable cultural exchange and promote a responsible way of travel.
As Chamy describes it, “We take corporate groups to exotic destinations which help reward and rejuvenate incentive qualifiers. Custom-designed to each particular group’s needs, our leaders know the places and people in their native countries, making it possible to create a cultural bridge between the travelers and the local communities. Each journey includes cultural activities and outdoor recreation, as well as workshops and networking opportunities within the most amazing surroundings.”
While the travel group promises to build strong bonds among colleagues by creating memories for a lifetime — such as crossing a river in Colombia’s jungle; trekking in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca; or celebrating with the Baja tribes in Egypt — its travel philosophy and methodology aims to foster a maximum ROI as a motivational tool, a CSR commitment, personal development and employee engagement.
“Everything we do is always with the utmost values in mind,” Chamy notes. “We are an ecotourism company that is politically and socially correct, always trying to adjust the tourism industry to make it more responsible with respect to the local economy, environment and culture.”
In doing so, the CSR issues Chamy has witnessed while on the road are from a different perspective. “One of them is when our corporate event travelers sometimes do not want to mix with the local population and even offer to pay extra to have their own plane, bus or boat as way to show their employees or clients that they are offering them more privileges, whereas we always feel that there is more value in getting our travelers to actually live cultural exchanges with the populations they visit, even if that means traversing the desert on a camel,” Chamy adds.
Weighing in on CSR is veteran planner Maureen Santoro, CMP, manager of group operations for Atlas Travel Meetings & Incentives in Milford, MA. Santoro has 20 years of experience planning meetings for companies of all sizes and works out of the Boston office. According to a recent guest post on theprofessionalassistant.net, Santoro confirms that CSR is an emerging segment of corporate meetings that is likely here to stay.
Admitting that there is a good deal of debate among corporate managers over whether companies should engage in CSR, Santoro also adds, “There is a cost associated with performing a CSR volunteer activity both in terms of money and risk management. Besides being one more line item in the meeting budget, there are risks of possible injuries that might be sustained during some of the volunteer activities. Still, the sense of pride and accomplishment experienced by the volunteers, as well as the good press generated, means that CSR is quite worthwhile to most meetings.”
When queried further about the “good press” aspect of giving back especially at meetings, Santoro explains that “volunteering in the destination where the meeting is being held brings goodwill to the community and casts your company in a better light than the days of old when the corporate meeting was perceived as just an excuse for a huge party. With the economy as it is, local charities and organizations not only benefit from the participation of companies and the publicity it brings, but they also rely on it. Local charities always need volunteers just to keep them running, so they appreciate the temporary, complementary work force. In short, it is a win-win for everyone.”
Sommers’ professional CSR advice to novice planners is, basically, don’t go it alone.
“CVBs of the targeted destination are very helpful, but not so much with the DMCs (destination management companies) and hotels. In fact, I think DMCs and hotels have to educate themselves on the subject and identify those organizations or situations in their communities that could use a little CSR applied to their causes. Both should know what is needed but often they do not.”
There are some hospitality brands that would beg to differ, notably Ritz-Carlton and its VolunTeaming program and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’ “Meetings That Matter” program, both of which help planners coordinate local volunteer projects for groups. And through Marriott International’s “Spirit to Serve” program, planners can arrange voluntourism activities that also directly benefit the local community — for example, at the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, groups can work on building or upgrading orphanages, schools and parks.
“Some hotel chains are making CSR part of their overall list of activities for companies looking to book rooms with them,” says Santoro. She describes two programs that The Fairmont Banff Springs offers: “One of them involves volunteering at a local church where volunteers can pitch in to help provide a free hot meal to deserving Banff residents. Another activity, done primarily during the summer months, organizes volunteers to help clear debris and trash from the trails of Banff National Park.”
She adds, “Fairmont is a good example of a group that takes CSR seriously. In addition to those examples, they have a written corporate policy that emphasizes CSR and promotes green initiatives. They work closely with local community organizations to bring about responsible corporate tourism.”
More than anything else, while companies have made CSR part of daily corporate life at the office, Santoro firmly believes in the company meeting as a vehicle for doing good.
“It is the company meeting that is a good place to start down the road of CSR,” she says.
And when asked what “Dear World” message Sommers would write on her arm today, she replied, “CSR = Pay It Forward.” C&IT