Turn on the television or open a newspaper, and you will be hard-pressed not to find information on “sustainability.” The green movement has embraced the business world and captured the attention of the corporate meeting and events industry like never before. From sustainable presentation strategies to “farm-to-table” menu options to eco-friendly material distribution, “going green” is causing meeting and event planners to take notice and change the way they’re doing business.
Casey Carignan, meeting and event planner at Exact Sciences in Madison, WI, sees the concept of sustainable meetings growing — not only through increased communication between companies and event venues, but through heightened awareness of the carbon footprint company events can leave behind on host sites.
“Convention centers are also working towards a brighter future by hiring dedicated sustainability staff members to increase accountability,” Carignan says. Whether it’s recycling or donating leftover materials or purchasing more generic materials to reuse for multiple events, many companies and event centers are taking steps in a more sustainable direction.
Sustainable events also are becoming more prevalent in the events community. In fact, the growing awareness of the importance of sustainability is one of the biggest trends Rachel Andrews, director of meetings and events, marketing for Cvent, has seen in recent years. As sustainability practices have become more commonplace around the world, Cvent has seen these practices blend into meetings and events as well.
“Convention centers are also working towards a brighter future by hiring dedicated sustainability staff members to increase accountability,”
“Business events involved more than 1.5 billion participants across more than 180 countries in 2017 alone and the industry is not slowing down. Think of the global environmental impact that events can have at that kind of scale,” Andrews says. “If we don’t start thinking sustainably now, meetings and events can have a detrimental impact on our future.”
There is a much more prevalent desire to address the environmental impact of our events — both as event planners and from the hotel and venue side as well, Andrews explains.
“Beyond the obvious things like plastic cups or bottled water offered onsite, the travel and commuting involved to shuttle attendees, and the energy needed to host large conferences and events is astronomical,” Andrews says. “As this awareness has grown, so has the willingness to make adjustments to how an event is organized and executed.”
Trends such as reusable water bottles, water bottle filling stations, and prominent recycling centers and containers are popping up throughout event venues. Additionally, food stations are now offering smaller portion sizes in an effort to combat food waste at large events.
According to Julie Blank, director, strategic accounts at Brightspot, more clients are inquiring about ways they can ease into sustainability. While many clients are quick to note that no additional budget is available to support the effort, many like the idea and want to participate in small ways.
And while five to 10 years ago “going green” felt like a fad, as Blank explains, today we have a better understanding and a greater public focus on the importance of reducing waste, conserving natural resources, improving both air and water quality and protecting ecosystems and biodiversity.
“The biggest trend is that people are acknowledging that events can produce a lot of waste and a large carbon footprint, and they are starting the sustainability conversations with event partners,” Blank says.
Companies recognize that incorporating environmental elements into a meeting or event is more than just ‘green’ business — it’s good business. Exact Sciences is a great example of the many companies focusing on community service both in their local communities and in the communities surrounding their larger events.
“Companies looking to incorporate more community service components should consider using the arrival or departure day for engagement opportunities since attendees might not always have set plans,” Carignan says. “A morning or afternoon of picking up trash from local parks, serving food at a homeless shelter, or compiling bags of necessities for individuals in need can offer an excellent opportunity to engage with and give back to the host community.”
Cvent partners with both local and regional nonprofits at many of the company’s events. For instance, at the company’s user conference, Cvent Connect in 2018, attendees worked with Clean the World and put together hundreds of hygiene kits for a great cause.
“We’ve also seen area event organizers host donation drives as part of their events,” Andrews says. “Adding a corporate social responsibility element to our events is a major focus for us. Not only does it offer your attendees a great way to give back, but the opportunity allows for more engagement and networking among them as well. It’s a win-win.”
Sarah Sebastian, meeting planner and owner at Rose Gold Collective, an experiential agency, says finding a local charity to tie into an event is a nice way to give back and share social impact.
“Choosing local vendors, minority businesses and other specialty vendors are also great ways to help support the community or town you are in and are proven to help keep the money in the community and support jobs,” Sebastian says.
Sebastian stresses the important role that meeting and events planners play in incorporating sustainability into the meeting and events they plan — regardless of the size. “We should all consider the waste and ways we can leave a space or community better after an event,” Sebastian says. “Even if our clients aren’t asking or bringing it up, it is up to us and our business to be aware and thoughtful of the impact we have. We have buying power.”
Sebastian always ensures the meetings or events her firm plans don’t have Styrofoam products being used. “We are producing higher-end events so we have control on what the glassware looks like, what items we are asking for — so I think we should all have that mentality and ask questions to our venues and vendors. What are they doing to cut waste?” Sebastian says.
One of Carignan’s favorite sustainability examples was when meeting attendees were offered a stainless steel water bottle — both as a welcome gift and as a method to reduce the use of plastic water bottles. By implementing this with a group of 100 attendees at a three-day meeting, with the average attendee consuming 2.5 bottles of water per day, Carignan and her team could prevent the use of 750 plastic water bottles.
“This strategy presents a great opportunity for increasing logo awareness while potentially saving money through the one-time cost of an environmentally friendly water bottle,” Carignan says.
Many of Brightspot’s clients have implemented paperless meetings. Advances in technology have made it easy to get rid of the 100-page binder full of speaker bios, agendas and PowerPoint printouts. And, as Blank explains, an ‘app’ is a great way to ensure that everyone has the most up-to-date meeting information and no reprints are needed as agendas change.
Not sure your audience is ready to go paperless? Blank recommends printing a small agenda that can be folded and slipped into the back of a name badge as a baby step. Also print an app download instruction card that can be sent with pre-event documents or handed out at check-in.
“My favorite way to help ease people into app usage is to set up an onsite app concierge desk,” Blank says. “When getting checked in, we ask if the attendee has downloaded the app. If the answer is no, we direct them to the app concierge desk where we have staff available to help download and navigate the app. People want to participate, they just need someone to help make it less intimidating.”
At Cvent’s recent internal companywide event, the company gave away customized S’well bottles that more than 1,400 employees could use throughout the day to fill with water rather than using plastic and paper cups. “Conference or event swag is also a big ticket item. Many of these swag items are cheap and end up in the trash and landfills,” Andrews says. “By giving our employees the S’well bottles rather than other less expensive branded tchotchkes that wouldn’t be used, we were able to reduce our waste, while also giving our team something that they would use every day.”
And because food waste is a considerable issue for meetings and events of all sizes, at Cvent CONNECT, the meeting planners also work closely with the catering and banquet teams to present buffet items in a way that reduces overfilling — and thus, wasting — of food during meal breaks.
Luckily, more hotels and venues are offering other programs to avoid food waste. For example, hotels will take food that hasn’t made it to the show floor and will package and distribute it to approved providers who deliver to local area food banks. “Such programs are increasingly becoming a priority for venues and planners alike,” Andrews says.
Working with suppliers, vendors and destinations who are using “best practices” in greening meetings also is important to many meeting and event professionals’ overall sustainability vision. Whether it’s a facility, ground transportation, use of rental goods, audio/visual and even entertainment, stewardship is key to being as carbon-neutral as possible.
“Collaboration throughout the industry is also helping drive growth — other individuals in this field can help you determine what materials and/or goods your meeting may be able to donate after the event,” Carignan says. “It’s a question I believe every meeting planner should be asking to see what options there may be.”
When choosing a ‘green’ locale some key questions that should be asked include:
Shel Horowitz, owner of Going Beyond Sustainability and author of Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, specializes in green and ethical marketing strategies. He recommends meeting planners include green features in the venue evaluation criteria such as:
“Attendees will actually feel better at a venue like that, too,” Horowitz says. “Fresh air and natural light create a sense of well-being — and they’ll want to come back for their next conference.”
Blank suggests checking with CVBs and choosing a destination that supports sustainability, has great access to public transportation or allows attendees to walk to local restaurants and shopping areas. “Choose a hotel that recycles. Better yet, choose a green-certified hotel,” Blank says.
Other suggestions include placing recycling bins in the meeting space, collecting and recycling name badges, not using pre-set water at the functions and using water bottle refill stations.
Horowitz also recommends meeting planners encourage transportation sharing. “It’s pretty easy for meeting planners to set up a web page to match people needing and offering rides,” Horowitz says. “A car consumes almost as much fuel with one person onboard as it does with four, and the other resources consumed, such as time, impact on traffic flow, parking, etc., are constant no matter how many passengers are in the vehicle. Thus, if a driver gets three riders, the environmental impact is reduced by nearly 75 percent. If people are flying in for the event, coordinating airport pickups to maximize vehicle occupancy is another green option.”
Horowitz suggests planners also put “green” on the agenda. If the event theme lends itself to it, encourage the organizer to incorporate green speakers into the platform — and green messaging in the program. “This could include all the steps they’re taking to reduce the footprint of the conference, and everything else the organization is doing beyond the conference, as well as things the attendees can do to reduce their own impact at the conference and when they get home,” Horowitz says. “And suggest green side trips such as a local organic farm or recycling center.”
Meeting planners who take steps to become more environmentally friendly often find that the benefits of “green business” go far beyond contributing to a healthier planet. They also make for a healthier bottom line.
And while consumers may be getting tired of the green speak continually being discussed throughout a myriad of industries, experts agree the green movement is here to stay. Also, if handled correctly, embracing the sustainability within the meeting and events industry can be a powerful advantage in today’s environmentally focused economy.
While strong environmental initiatives are beginning to gain the upper hand within the meetings industry, attendees also are demanding companies show the steps they are taking to become more sustainable and renewable. How can they do this? Companies can train meeting and event planners to think about sustainability through all facets of the meeting and events planning process or be trained to put sustainability frameworks into practice to capitalize on current demands for “green” products and services.
“Sustainable practices are now often the norm in our everyday lives,” Andrews says. “We are used to dividing trash into multiple bins at the local Starbucks. Food and beverage labels at grocery stores highlight sustainable practices to encourage awareness. It often takes that kind of broad implementation for something to find its way into other industries such as meetings and events. When we expect a certain level of sustainability in our personal lives, we then expect that in our professional setting as well.”
Of course, with growing awareness about the effects of humankind’s current habits on wildlife and oceans, hotels and venues are becoming more interested in committing to new initiatives to help reduce waste. “If every company eliminated just one unsustainable component from their meetings, such as plastic straws, plastic water bottles or Styrofoam cups, we could significantly impact the carbon footprint of corporate events,” Carignan says.
And while the meetings and events industry is still in the very early stages of making meetings and events truly sustainable, Andrews says event planners need to drive awareness and ask for more sustainable options from our partners and vendors. “Many hotel and venues offer a variety of green initiatives — it’s our social responsibility to ask about them,” Andrews says. “There is so much opportunity and as sustainability practices become even more ingrained into our daily lives, I have no doubt that it will continue to positively impact the meetings and events industry.” C&IT