Offsite meetings can be opportunities for attendees to do good in local communities, and the main motivation for extending corporate social responsibility (CSR) into the meetings sphere is (or should be) moral: It’s simply the right thing to do for companies who have the means.
But satisfying an ethical duty doesn’t preclude other benefits that can result from CSR activities at meetings. The programs also can support a company’s business goals, such as creating a more cohesive and engaged work force. Participants can bond over the activity, get to know each other better and learn to work as a team. And assuming they value community service, they also will become more engaged with the company that staged the program and demonstrates it shares that value.
“CSR activities are truly a unique way to break down barriers and allow attendees of all generations, demographics, interests and abilities to work together to accomplish something great.”
— Bonnie Boisner
Victoria Johnson, CMP, CMM, global manager, strategic meetings management at Northbrook, Illinois-based UL LLC, has been a champion of sorts when it comes to integrating CSR with the safety science company’s SMMP. Doing so is good business strategy, since CSR programs “cover two of the three reasons you have a meeting, which are networking, motivation and learning,” Johnson explains. “There is the teambuilding/networking component, and attendees also become motivated in their work for the company. They think better about the company and its mission.”
And especially for high-profile meetings and events, that perception extends beyond the company’s employees: CSR “is part of who we are as a company; let’s have our meetings and events reflect that as well,” says Johnson. “It’s a very prominent marketing activity when all can see that you’re ‘walking the talk.’ ” As part of the SMMP protocols, Johnson sends post-meeting CSR/sustainability reports back to UL’s CSR office so they can report the activities to the company’s board members. They also can feed the information to customer service because some of our customers are now asking about our CSR initiatives,” she adds. “More and more customers want to do business with responsible companies. And the other side of it is to attract and retain employees who want to work for companies that are socially responsible.”
Teradata, a Dayton, Ohio-based data analytics company, also has integrated CSR into its meetings in a systematic way, via Teradata Cares. “The company does try to have a Teradata Cares presence in most of our large meetings (including the external events Partners and Universe), but it seems it’s really becoming prominent in a lot of our meetings. It is increasing,” observes Sherri Morgan, director of community relations, Teradata Cares. “I joined the company in 2012 and we already had a Teradata Cares presence at Partners and at Universe (conferences), and we are now at sales meetings and even smaller events like training sessions, where sometimes they’ll do a Cares activity.”
The general trend reflected by UL and Teradata is a rise in CSR activities at meetings. As Bonnie Boisner, vice president of event management for marketing and loyalty analytics company Aimia, notes: “We work with many of our clients to incorporate CSR activities into their meetings and events. It continues to grow year over year. According to the 2015 SITE Index, over two-thirds of both buyers (67 percent) and sellers (71 percent) incorporate one or more activities in their travel programs to help reflect corporate social responsibility.”
This survey result by the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence highlights the integration of CSR with incentive programs, which may be a bit surprising. After all, incentive programs are generally supposed to be about diversion for top performers, as their “reward.” But clearly, community service at the destination can be quite rewarding.
“I have evidence based on our post-event surveys that (CSR) is the most valuable experience from people attending incentive trips,” notes Thais Toro, MBA, corporate event planner for Atlanta, Georgia-based Cox Automotive. The company partners with local organizations that are in need in destinations such as the Caribbean, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
This year, a 210-participant incentive group visited Aruba, where Cox provided a senior center “not just a monetary donation but improvement of the organization. We painted the whole facility inside and out in four hours,” Toro relates. In order to ensure the paint job was feasible in that time, Cox hired a contractor to prep the walls and surfaces. Incentive qualifiers also took to improving the garden at the center, treated the seniors and staff to lunch, and gifted them bags of personal items.
“The hotel we were using as well as the DMC were so impressed that an international company was giving back to their community, which (they noted) never happens with the people who are actually from the island. They got inspired, and the DMC provided us complimentary transportation, while the hotel provided complimentary water and some side food items for lunch. So we were able to save that money and invest it back into the senior center,” Toro adds.
Apart from being an inspiring activity for attendees and local partners, the paint project was organized so as to promote teambuilding. “We assigned them to groups and we made it competitive,” says Toro. “Each group of 10 or 20 wore a bandana of a different color, and painted a different part of the wall.” Similarly, a CSR activity at a meeting in Wisconsin had hundreds of Cox attendees competing in captain-led teams to build hygienic kits. The event was organized by Clean the World, a company that recycles soap and other discarded hygiene products. “It was very energized and very well appreciated by my attendees,” Toro adds.
At a Teradata Universe event in Copenhagen, the company supported a charity for cystic fibrosis, a disease that affects lung function. “It’s all about their lung capacity so we had the participants blow windmills, but they did a challenge where we would time them for one minute: how many seconds could you blow the windmill in one breath,” Morgan describes. “It was a lot of fun because the participants get really competitive and they learn about the charity.”
Despite the various benefits of CSR activities for the host company and the attendees, some meeting schedules may be too tight to accommodate them. However, that does not prevent the host company from engaging in CSR at the destination, without the attendees themselves participating.
“Nonactive” CSR initiatives, Johnson says, can include partnerships with organizations like Clean the World. “When we negotiate our contracts we ask the hotels to either pay for it or pay half with us,” says Johnson. “So even if the host says we have no time (for a group activity), we can still have that ready to go if the hotel is willing to do it.”
With a similar rationale, UL has partnered with a food recovery organization. “They are certified in food safety handling. They come in and they rescue the viable food, and they put it in certified containers and bring it to a local shelter. So that’s another nonactive CSR way of doing things.”
As far as “active” CSR, there are ways of keeping the programs time effective. “We’ve worked with clients to incorporate small activities including filling backpacks with school supplies for children in the local communities,” says Boisner. “This could be a time-effective CSR activity as much of the activity (buying the supplies, packing the backpacks, etc.) could be done prior to the onsite experience.”
Boisner also suggests saving time by combining CSR with a dinner or reception one of the evenings. “As an example, one of our automotive clients had artist Erik Wal do a few different paintings. Then they did a silent auction for the paintings. The money was donated to the boys and girls club.”
This year, Cox Automotive combined CSR with the registration period for a 2,000-attendee Sales Summit in Phoenix, Arizona. While participants waited to register or after they registered, they visited Red Cross stations where they assembled bags of personal hygiene products to be donated to the fire department.
Activities held onsite as opposed to a coach ride away save time, as do lunch-hour activities and individual activities that can be performed when time allows. The most time-effective solution will depend on the nature of the meeting and its agenda. “At Partners, we have a specific time slot on a Tuesday, 12–2 p.m., so everyone knows from year to year that during that break a Teradata Cares activity is going on,” says Morgan. “But a lot of the smaller meetings do it around the lunch hour, where attendees can stop by the Teradata Cares table. At Universe, they have a Cares booth going the entire three-day conference, and people can stop by and do the activity any time. So however the conference is set up, we try to fit in the Cares activity appropriately.”
Most if not all attendees will be moved by a community service mission, which has a universal appeal. “Meetings and events bring together a diverse group of attendees, but one thing remains constant — people want to make a difference,” as Boisner puts it. “CSR activities are truly a unique way to break down barriers and allow attendees of all generations, demographics, interests and abilities to work together to accomplish something great.” But ideally, the nature of the activity will be appealing in and of itself. That quality will help to drive participation among the group. Thus, a match with participants’ interests and skillsets is desirable.
Some activities will be especially appealing to the more technically oriented. Teradata groups have built wheelchairs for veterans as well as “Green Machines” (the modern version of the Big Wheel) for kids. “It’s a technology company, so they like putting things together,” Morgan says. “They like putting together relief kits also, but I think they enjoy really in-depth building a little more.”
At the Teradata Universe event that took place this April in Hamburg, Germany, a more creative CSR activity was offered to attendees. The company partnered with Children for Tomorrow, which supports children and families who have become victims of war, persecution and organized violence. “The charity does a lot of art with the children to get them to express themselves and the tragedy that they’ve been through,” Morgan says. “So attendees made origami cranes to create an artistic display for the children.” Charity representatives were onsite to coordinate the activity.
Both tech skill and creativity were combined in a bike-building program held by UL at its leadership conference in Phoenix, Arizona. While the company’s engineers were mostly focused on the building, other members in the teams could contribute creatively by decorating the bikes or coming up with the team chant. “So they divided and conquered based on skillset,” says Johnson. “Also, with UL being a safety company, it was nice that the company that we used for the activity did a safety test of each bike and then put a tag on it that it passed for safety.” She adds, “There may have been a few people who left the event to work in their hotel rooms, but we had the majority participating.”
A key driver of participation in any CSR activity is that the attendees are clear on how the community will benefit from the activity. “I think one of our goals as event planners is to explain how their effort will be perceived and who will be benefited,” says Toro. One approach is to let a director from the partnering organization make a presentation prior to the activity.
In the case of the senior center in Aruba, once attendees visited the facility, the impact that their effort would have became very clear. “It was hot, but (attendees) didn’t care since they saw the seniors and the condition of their facility. Our people in general are very giving. And when we went back to the hotel we had about 100 people from the staff welcoming us and clapping.” At this point, repeat qualifiers in Cox’s incentive programs will actually ask what the next community service activity will be.
The idea of integrating CSR with meetings also must be accepted by meeting owners and upper management. They may believe, for example, that charitable contributions are sufficient and that taking up valuable meeting time with CSR activities is unnecessary.
At the UL leadership conference in Phoenix, the bike building served to make the case for such activities to the company leaders in attendance. “The motivation was to expose them to the fact that they could do this with their meetings, so it cascades into the organization,” explains Johnson. “I did get people saying that that’s what they want to do now. And our president was ready for us to do another one next year. He saw firsthand what a great motivation and networking opportunity the build-a-bike activity created.” C&IT