For the last several years, sustainability has served as a guiding principle in the meetings industry. Clients, suppliers and event organizers have partnered in identifying core practices to reduce environmental impact while also lowering costs and waste. Beyond the basics of water and energy savings, and “reduction and reuse” of materials, sustainability has grown to include social considerations and “thriving economic practices,” among four core components outlined by the Events Industry Council in alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, MBA, vice president, sustainability & industry advancement for the Events Industry Council, explains that “Sustainability is multifaceted, and requires collaboration between all stakeholders to be achieved. Start by acknowledging this shared responsibility.” She defines sustainability as “not a ‘what;’ it’s a ‘how,’” adding, “All aspects of event design should be considered through a sustainability lens, one that includes environmental and climate action, social justice, inclusion and impact, and support for thriving economies that ensure prosperity for all.”
Vanessa Bass, CMP, director, The Scienomics Group, a healthcare consultancy group company. Bass defines sustainability as “intentionally implementing sustainable and environmentally friendly practices at events to enhance awareness, and promote healthier habits that benefit our world. Caring for the environment is a civil and moral responsibility. By implementing sustainable practices, we are part of a movement that is much larger than us.”
As the world turns now to a new paradigm due to COVID-19, meeting professionals have begun reimagining the future of events, including untapped opportunities for stronger sustainability practices. “Rethinking is the perfect word,” says Nancy J. Zavada, founder and president of MeetGreen, a Portland, Oregon-based sustainable conference management agency. “We need to rethink our events and how we can accomplish the same goals without a heavy economic or environmental impact. Each and every component can be reimagined and this “pause” gives us the opportunity to do so. By asking ourselves questions like: Do we really need that? Where was it made/grown/produced? Where will it end up after the show? How can we do this more efficiently? etc., we reimagine a new world of experiences for our participants.”
McIlwraith suggests it’ll take a conscious effort to implement sustainable practices into the meetings industry. “More than rethinking, I think we need to remember that sustainability needs to be incorporated into all of our decisions, including those about postponing events. For example, if you have postponed an event and have already produced materials, can these be stored until the event is held? If not, can they be donated? The first place to start is to focus on the goals and objectives for our event, and then assess what resources, and in what quantities, we need to achieve them.”
Teri Orton, general manager of the Hawaii Convention Center, agrees. In 2018, the property launched its Ho’omaluo Program, which Orton describes as “a comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability with the goal of enhancing the guest, planner, staff, and community meetings and events experience. This covers everything from our Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold Certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, to an enhanced focus on aspects of conservation and sustainability we have had in place for years — recycling, reduced waste, reduced energy use and so on.”
Top of mind when it comes to sustainability practices is the concern over the cost of implementation. Yet, experts focus on the long-term view, offering practical ways to minimize costs while meeting event goals. “Our holistic approach to sustainability — where these practices are integrated into everything we do — ensures that we evaluate both the short- and long-term impacts of our decisions so we can consistently improve,” Orton says. “Sustainability doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t need to be a huge amount of work.” As an example of one turnkey program, Orton cites the Hawaii Convention Center’s “One Million Trees” effort, which “supports the reforestation of endemic Legacy Trees in Hawaii, allowing guests to reforest trees either virtually or through a tour and to get involved with the click of a button.” In Orton’s view, “It’s an easily accessible way for attendees to give back.”
Tyra Warner, Ph.D., J.D., CMP, chair of the Department of Hospitality, Tourism, and Culinary Arts at the College of Coastal Georgia, says finding a way to save on costs is a matter of choosing sustainable measures wisely. “Some sustainable measures are actually more cost-effective than their wasteful counterparts. Using china instead of disposables, using bulk products instead of single-serve, for instance,” she says.
Bass adds that reusing material is definitely a cost-effective measure, and one of the easiest. “Providing multiple options for environmentally friendly transportation is another that event organizers can promote with some kind of exercise, game or competition at meetings,” she says.
McIlwraith says it’s “a persistent myth” that sustainable events cost more. “In fact, they can be incredibly cost-effective,” she says. “Of course, some sustainable practices will require a greater investment, but they can often be done with simple adjustments. For example, incorporating organic options, while at the same time reducing serving sizes, can make up some or all of the difference.”
Zavada presents another way to offset costs: “Sustainability should be budget neutral or budget saving,” she says. “While some things can cost more, like organic produce, the savings by not having conference bags include the purchase, shipping, and labor for stuffing and distribution.”
According to findings from the 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast, “North America has seen an uptick in the percentage of planners who use hybrid/virtual meetings in more than 10% of meetings, going from 43% to 58%.” It stands to reason then that those who count themselves among these meeting planners are well-positioned to take advantage of the industry’s unexpected changing landscape. One big plus of virtual meetings cited by sustainability practitioners is inclusivity. By providing a way for those who might otherwise be unable to attend an event to join in, they can be part of, rather than excluded from, the conversation. As Warner sees it: “Virtual events are a good way to both replace certain face-to-face meetings, and also a way to expand certain face-to-face meetings to a larger audience without increasing the carbon footprint.”
In describing the impact of hybrid/virtual meetings, McIlwraith says, “Many sustainable and socially responsible considerations apply. For example, gender-inclusive language in your registration forms, accessible platforms, gender-balanced panels, and incorporating health, wellness and sustainability education into your programs are all aspects that apply to virtual events.”
As Zavada points out: “Virtual events or hybrid events offer a huge carbon savings by not traveling to the event. We track the carbon savings for all of our clients who switch from face-to-face to virtual during this pandemic.”
It has been said that in crisis lies opportunity. In that sense, there’s never been a better time for meeting planners to transition into virtual events. To adapt successfully to the new meetings environment, planners view technology as a tool to help maintain community and connection. Event technology can also help create fun, memorable experiences for attendees, while at the same time promoting sustainable practices.
If meeting planners considered strong partner relationships an important asset before recent developments, today’s environment has underscored that value, especially when considering sustainability initiatives. “The investments which have the most impact are in the relationships with our vendors and suppliers,” Zavada says. “With true partnerships, our supply chain can bring us the most sustainable, exciting and innovative products/services their industry has to offer. By collaborating with industry leaders, your events will be sustainable and incredible.”
Strong partnerships unite travel companies, hotel brands and nonprofits with one common purpose: to support sustainability initiatives for people, the planet and wildlife. As a member of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, for example, Florida’s The Chesterfield Palm Beach hotel partners with The Travel Corporation’s TreadRight Foundation, as part of its Green Carnation Project. Green milestones have included the hotel’s participation to eradicate 15 single-use plastics and to encourage staff to take two-days paid leave to volunteer for charities they support.
“What will have the greatest material impact will vary depending on the nature of the event itself, but I would say we should never underestimate the impact of investing in people,” McIlwraith says. “When we inspire, inform and motivate people at events to apply sustainable principles in their day to day lives, we can really see the power of events to amplify results.”
In contemplating the future of sustainability in industry events, McIlwraith says, “We are all part of a global community. Integrating sustainability into event design supports this global community in the long term. As well, event professionals can support the achievement of organizational mandates for sustainability, demonstrating even greater value for our profession and how we advance the strategic objectives of the communities we serve.”
TreadRight ambassador and author, Céline Cousteau, echoes this sentiment. In an Instagram LIVE conversation with Shannon Guihan, chief TreadRight & sustainability officer, Cousteau described her hope “that travelers will take this learning with them, that we are all connected to everything that happens on the planet.” In Cousteau’s view, “I’m connected to the people in the hotel and also the artisans who are selling their wares and providing their services. It’s about treating every person with dignity and respect as part of sustainability.”
Bass adds: “We tell a story at our events as meeting planners. Our events can impact attendees in such a way that can cause a ripple effect based on how well the story is conveyed. Meeting planners have access to a plethora of information and resources at our fingertips, which gives us the knowledge and inspiration to do better. As a result, we can use our platform to educate others.”
In her conversation with TreadRight’s Guihan, Cousteau identified three categories of people when it comes to sustainability initiatives: those who are consciously aware and have understood the connections in sustainable tourism; those who are curious, but not yet sure what it means for them personally and those who don’t care.” Yet, Bass thinks event planners can have a positive impact even when thought otherwise. She says, “Some may think that incorporating sustainable practices at events won’t do much, but there is always someone watching, listening and adopting practices. What may seem insignificant to one is game-changing for another. As meeting planners, we are meant to inspire — do better and be better.”
McIlwraith cites the success story from Salt Palace Convention Center as on example of how partners can team up to achieve sustainability goals. CCA Global Partners, MC2 and the convention center’s Green Team Committee worked together to find ways to support the local community while reducing the carbon footprint of their event. As a result of their creative efforts, the team reused more than 4,200 carpet samples left over from a trade show event in an art installation project designed by a local artist called “Monumental Mattie” to showcase the first female state senator.
In thinking about the next phase of sustainability in industry events, Orton suggests it’s a work in progress and “these efforts are never done. We can always improve and find new ways to help our meeting planners and attendees have an incredible experience that also has less impact or a positive impact on our environment.” Recent initiatives include a renewed commitment to using locally sourced foods and products. Additionally, “We are currently working on phasing out the use of foam core materials in all meetings in favor of products that are more easily recycled and reused. Last year, we held our first zero-waste event, which helped us refine those practices and develop strategies we can use for future meetings.”
For Warner, she says, “‘Next’ is more … more trying to make sustainability accessible and understandable for every meeting planner, every facility, every person. ‘Next’ is trying to make sustainability not ‘another’ thing to do, but the way meeting planners plan all of their meetings, the way facilities manage their meeting facilities,” she says.
Cousteau emphasizes, “This is a good time to be talking about these matters, realizing the intricacies of how we are all aligned.” In recognizing the role that each entity has to play in sustainability matters, she cites a quote attributed to famed anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Toward that end, McIlwraith concludes, “I want to remind all the event professionals that have been working on designing sustainable events, products and services, that their work matters. Although we may not be meeting in person right now, the work we do to create safe, sustainable and inclusive environments is important for our industry, and the communities that we serve.” | AC&F |