Most of us are no strangers to the world of philanthropy and the concept of “doing good.” We’ve been asked to lend our time and financial support to various charitable causes. We often are solicited by groups to help combat various diseases, construct new buildings or save the rainforest. And for many causes, business professionals are the cornerstones of these efforts — participating in philanthropic initiatives and charitable endeavors during onsite or offsite meetings and events.
Business volunteerism, often referred to as corporate social responsibility (CSR), can take many forms and can be a quadruple win. Everyone involved — the organizations that provide the employee volunteers, those where employee volunteers help out, the wider community and the employees themselves — has something to gain.
Such efforts offer a low-cost, low-risk, high-impact way of making the knowledge, skills and experiences of the business sector accessible to the non-profit sector while building understanding, employee skill and community goodwill.
And experts agree that business professionals who volunteer during meetings and events find their experiences inspiring, empowering and sometimes life-changing. They are giving the opportunity to practice service and compassion for those who need it most.
According to Lauren Deese, account supervisor of corporate events at GMR Marketing, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based global, full-service engagement marketing agency that creates custom solutions for clients to meet their specific CSR goals, numerous corporate clients want to give back to the community as part of goodwill activities that serve a higher purpose while also empowering employees to do more.
“The most popular component of CSR programs are those real-life moments when a child’s smile or a mother’s thank you resonate with our guests and let the attendees experience firsthand how they are making a difference,” Deese says. “It’s the human element that is so vital to the success of a CSR program.”
“The most popular component of CSR programs are those real-life moments when a child’s smile or a mother’s thank you resonate with our guests and let the attendees experience firsthand how they are making a difference. It’s the human element that is so vital to the success of a CSR program.” — Lauren Deese
From orchestrating the distribution of meals to Hurricane Sandy victims to painting the gym at a local Boys & Girls Club, many of these activities are becoming part of companies’ meeting and events initiatives — especially at offsite locales including resorts and convention venues.
“In our regional office in Charlotte, North Carolina, I chair a committee that runs an internal CSR program called Casual for a Cause (CFAC),” Deese says. “We help promote an employee-nominated charitable cause within the organization on a monthly basis. All GMR employees that donate or volunteer to support the monthly cause are permitted to dress casual for a designated CFAC week each month. This not only supports the passions of our employees but also our local community.”
Companies increasingly are offering employees the opportunity to participate in philanthropy as part of a structured meeting or event — and believe they’ll attract the best people by doing so. It gives everyone a chance to make a difference as not everyone can afford to donate to charities each year, so this helps them be a part of the greater good.
On August 15, 2014 GMR Marketing and the Cancun destination management company, Meeting Incentive Experts (MIE), assisted Cintas Corporation with an initiative to donate 850 backpacks filled with school supplies to students at the Raza de Bronce elementary school in Cancun, Mexico. While education in Mexico is government-funded, the funding is not adequate to cover all of a school’s needs.
As Deese explains, often this burden falls to the students’ parents, who most often are not in a financial position to take on the burden. Cintas’ donation of school supplies relieves some of that burden and helps promote pride in education in the young students of Mexico.
“This social responsibility initiative is part of the annual Cintas President’s Club program, an incentive program for Cintas sales employee-partners produced by GMR in partnership with Cintas since 2009,” Deese says.
In addition to the school supplies, Cintas donated sports equipment including a dozen each of volleyballs, soccer balls and basketballs along with soccer goals. MIE and GMR also were inspired to participate in the philanthropy. They, along with Cintas, donated funds to purchase truckloads of gravel to refurbish the school yard, and they hired cleaning and plumbing crews to restore the school’s neglected restrooms to full working order.
According to Deese, Cintas introduced this social responsibility initiative to the reward trip in 2013 by donating 500 backpacks filled with school supplies to the students of a local elementary school in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
“CSR programs, like Cintas’, continue to grow within the meeting and events industry because they provide a unique teambuilding experience while also inspiring pride in the organization and fostering a company’s culture of integrity and service,” Deese says. “The CSR experience is often the most appreciated and talked about event within our multiday events and meetings. This is especially the case during incentive programs when attendees take time to reflect and celebrate their own successes. Knowing that they can share their successes with the community and make the world a better place is a very powerful feeling to impart. The stories and buzz that surround a well-executed CSR program truly are priceless.”
Asilomar Conference Grounds, in Pacific Grove, California, also places a strong emphasis on CSR.
As Suzan Carabarin, director of conference services at Asilomar explains, their facility incorporates sustainable efforts into everything that they do including offering environmentally friendly options and volunteer opportunities to companies that are considering hosting a meeting or event at Asilomar.
“When we speak with companies about hosting an event one of the things we discuss is CSR, it’s part of our sales package,” Carabarin says. “For example, we offer everything from sustainable meals to refillable water bottle dispensers at meetings rather than individual plastic water bottles. Additionally, we partner with organizations such as Ag Against Hunger, Pacific Grove Museum, Habitat for Humanity and the Food Bank for Monterey County to offer volunteer opportunities for groups.”
Carabarin is seeing a much greater demand for properties to offer sustainable options to those hosting meetings and events. For this reason, there has been an increase in industry standards.
“We have found that companies are recognizing it’s the right thing to do,” Carabarin says. “They are looking for volunteer opportunities now for teambuilding events and group activities. Companies want to give back and show they are active in the community.
Standards have increased for the properties as well. Groups are booking events based on what the properties are doing from an environmental perspective.”
Asilomar works with a variety of local organizations to provide volunteer opportunities to their clients. For example, recently a group built birdhouses for the native birds around the area, while another group did planting work in Asilomar’s greenhouse.
“By incorporating CSR into a meeting or event, it allows employees to interact with their environment, do something worthwhile with their free time, promotes teambuilding and camaraderie while also educating them about various topics and needs that exist in the community,” Carabarin says.
When looking for teambuilding activities that give back, meeting and event clients from around the country regularly turn to Marlton, New Jersey-based Team Builders Plus, the largest teambuilding company in the U.S.
“Years ago we started with a program called Wheels for the World, which is a program where the participants engage in team initiatives to earn bike parts,” says Team Builders Plus CEO and planner Jeff Backal. “They then build and decorate new bikes that are donated to underprivileged children. What the participants do not know is, we have pre-arranged for the kids to come running in the room at the end of the program. Once the participants see the smiles on the kids’ faces, there is typically not a dry eye in the room.”
Because of the increased interest in CSR teambuilding-focused events, Team Builders Plus also initiates Smile Kits whereby participants create care packages that are donated to kids in children’s hospitals, our military overseas or animal shelters.
“Our Kindness Wins event is a treasure hunt-type of activity, but as opposed to finding answers to clues, the groups are performing Acts of Kindness, such as recycling bottles and cans, inflate the beachball and give it to a stranger, and build the kite and let a stranger use and keep it,” Backal says.
And during their Mini Golf Charity Classic, participants create a miniature golf course made out of canned food. They then play the course. Following the game, all of the cans are donated to a local food bank.
“Once a client goes through one of these programs, the participants realize this is not a typical teambuilding event and everyone leaves feels great about themselves as they had the opportunity to help others,” Backal says. “It creates such a memorable event that the participants share their experiences with friends, family and coworkers. This word-of-mouth awareness results in an increasing number of groups wanting to experience the same.”
While many companies are incorporating philanthropic efforts and volunteerism into their meetings and events, others are determining ways their meetings can give back to the environment, through alternative corporate responsibility initiatives.
Hilton continues to drive meaningful change within their organization and in the communities where they live, work and travel.
“In fact, our corporate responsibility strategy, ‘Travel with Purpose,’ was the inspiration behind the recent launch of Meet with Purpose, a concept designed to make it even easier for meeting professionals to reduce waste and incorporate health and wellness into meetings and events,” says Andrew Flack, vice president, B2B marketing and customer insights at Hilton Worldwide.
As Flack explains, Meet with Purpose has two focus areas: Mindful Eating, which encourages meeting professionals to minimize food waste and make healthy choices, and Mindful Meeting, which helps meeting professionals host more sustainable events.
“From the initial planning stages, our sales team presents customers with a menu of options to add sustainable and healthy practices to their event, allowing them to easily select those that best meet their needs,” Flack says. For example, Hilton offers solutions such as locally sourced food, preplated meals for reduced waste, central water stations and paperless registration.
“From there, we work to customize each event to ensure that our customers get the most out of the planning process and to infuse greater purpose into the final outcome,” Flack says.
Hilton also was one of the first major multibrand companies in the hospitality industry to make sustainability measurement and improvement a brand standard with the launch of LightStay, a proprietary system that measures sustainability performance by tracking more than 200 utility and operational metrics such as energy, water, carbon and waste. The tool features a “meeting impact calculator” that can calculate the sustainability impact of meetings or events held at any of our hotels.
“As we’ve seen an uptick in companies interested in planning more meaningful, sustainable meetings, ensuring we have dedicated, accessible and useful solutions for meeting professionals is critical for us,” Flack says. In fact, Hilton’s corporate responsibility strategy, Travel with Purpose, encourages every one of their hotels to find meaningful ways to contribute to the thousands of communities they touch in one way or another.
As Flack explains, this comes to life in many different ways, from Hilton hotels partnering with organizations such as the Global Soap Project to donate discarded soap to be reprocessed into new bars for vulnerable populations around the world, to activating more than 3,500 volunteer projects company-wide during Hilton’s annual Global Week of Service.
Flack associates the growth of corporate responsibility within the meetings and events industry primarily with greater consumer awareness.
“We also see it as a byproduct of increased consumer demand for hyper-personalization and transparency in how companies deliver their products and services,” Flack says. “Today’s meeting professionals are looking for tailored, unique solutions, and today’s attendees are seeking personal, memorable experiences. By making meetings and events more purposeful, brands can deliver just that.”
Maria Barboza, events manager at Los Suenos Marriott Costa Rica, agrees. “As a whole, the corporate social responsibility industry continues to gain traction this year, with social impact increasingly making its way into every segment of the market and transparency becoming the new norm,” Barboza says. Currently Marriott Costa Rica offers meeting and event attendees a variety of CSR options including the opportunity to participate in the The Reforest the Rainforest program, which reintroduces the scarlet macaw to their natural habitat, an alliance with Habitat for Humanity, and a waste-water educational program.
Marriott’s Reforest the Rainforest initiative allows meeting and event attendees to participate in the resort’s ongoing efforts to preserve the rainforest while creating a habitat for the area’s 150 species of birds and local wildlife. Guests can participate in the complimentary program by planting a Tropical Almond Tree, beneficial for the preservation of the iconic macaw, along the property’s La Iguana Golf Course located on a 1,100-acre rainforest overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The Reforest the Rainforest initiative is part of the Scarlet Macaw Reinsertion Project, the property’s ongoing initiative to preserve the rainforest while creating a habitat specifically for the endangered macaw.
Deese expects that CSR programs will continue to grow in popularity as an element of meetings and events. As the demand increases, planners, facilities and destination management companies are going to have to be more creative, and the ability to create custom programs will be essential.
“We continue to see the build-a-bike CSR experience being offered in multiple markets these days and eventually clients are going to say, ‘Ah, we’ve done that. We want to do something new,’ ” Deese says. “Unfortunately, there are plenty of communities and people in need, so there is a world of opportunity for creativity within the CSR landscape. Tapping into the most essential needs of the local market or into the strengths and passions of the attendees so that the CSR program makes the most positive community impact, will be key.”
Carabarin adds that while companies strive to differentiate themselves from competitors, they are becoming increasingly more transparent about their desire to give back and have an environmental footprint. “Surveys have shown that employees are happier when they can be active in communities and look favorably upon companies that offer those kinds of benefits,” Carabarin says.
“CSR has become the norm now for corporate functions. It has replaced the elaborate gala or reception,” Carabarin says. “We are doing a lot more organic and sustainable meals and planning more outdoor activities and events. We have even seen brides and grooms, for example, planting trees to commemorate their special day. We anticipate we will continue to see this shift in mindset.” C&IT