Sustainability continues to be a significant worldwide issue, and though the meetings and events industry has focused on it extensively, much more work needs to be done in navigating an ever-changing landscape.
“The recent realization that all global industries, including the business events industry, will need to adapt to meet zero net targets sooner, rather than later, is a significant issue,” says Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC. “The challenge keeping many up at night is [to achieve] an industry-wide acceptance of measurement and strong tools.”
Nancy J. Zavada, CMP, president of MeetGreen, says the meetings industry, except for venues and facilities, has been very slow to adopt sustainability initiatives. “Venues have readily adopted energy and water-savings programs that have an impact on the bottom line,” she says. “They are saving money. MeetGreen has been successful in working with clients on the ‘low-hanging fruit,’ such as Styrofoam and bottled water, but it is time to support our clients to up the game. The challenge for the meetings industry is to understand that how or how often we convene, people will most likely not be going back to ‘normal,’ and creative solutions must be found. We must be forward-thinking and provide more sustainable ways to meet.”
Julia Spangler, owner of Ecosystems Events, calls for a mindset shift. “Collectively, as an industry, we need to become more confident in saying ‘no’ to old ways of doing things that are overly wasteful and extractive, and bolder about exploring new, creative event designs that intentionally have a lower impact on the planet,” she says.
Sustainability is a very broad, challenging issue to address, however. Planners already have an overflowing to-do list, and many need to learn or develop a new skill set to attain a solid, working knowledge of how to make their meetings and events more sustainable. Several industry experts acknowledge that the task is difficult, but offered some specific, effective solutions. Many emphasize that, first, all stakeholders — including planners, organizations, companies and facilities — need to have clear, meaningful and attainable sustainability goals. “But one of the main challenges is simply to know where to begin,” says Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group. She recommends for each organization to work with experts such as MeetGreen, the Events Industry Council (EIC) and Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) to develop goals that are most relevant and achievable. The EIC’s Sustainable Events Standards, which has helped to give the entire industry some grounding on the issue, is an especially valuable resource, as is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Planners have many other opportunities to enhance their overall knowledge of sustainability issues. Meeting Professionals International (MPI) offers a digital Sustainable Event Strategist Program that Spangler teaches, and the EIC recently made its Sustainable Event Professional Certificate Program available online. Some planners participate in some of the ever-expanding number of networking groups, which include the Sustainable Event Alliance, Members United for Sustainable Events and the Sustainable Events Network, Florida & Caribbean. “Having access to meaningful education about sustainability, coupled with spaces to collaborate with other professionals on ideas and solutions, is the first step to moving the industry forward in a bigger way,” Spangler says.
It’s critical for companies, organizations and facilities to place a high priority on achieving sustainability goals. Planners need to not only understand the sustainability goals of their organization and its stakeholders, but also the main priorities. “The main challenge is when sustainability goals take a back seat to other goals, especially financial ones,” says Adam Radziminski, director, events Vancouver Convention Centre, the world’s first LEED platinum convention center. “It’s important for all of us to bring sustainability goals to the same level as other business priorities, and to make sure that we can tell ‘why’ — and that why is the survival of our communities, our businesses and our future. That’s why it’s such a guiding value for so many, especially younger demographics who are attending these events.”
Zavada recommends that planners set five to 10 measurable goals, and to implement, measure and report on them to be held accountable. “This sets a baseline you can build upon,” Zavada says. “Don’t try to go for 100% right from the beginning. Just start.”
Bauer thinks it’s important to always remain focused on the main goals. The ultimate goal for IMEX Group is to create “circular” trade shows because it’s no longer enough to simply prevent resources from being used and thrown away. The IMEX Group thinks the circular economy can help build a resilient and regenerative global events industry, and as a signatory of the Net Carbon Zero Events Pledge, IMEX is aiming to achieve a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and to reach zero emissions no later than 2050.
Courtney Lohmann, CMP, senior director, corporate social responsibility for PRA Business Events, contends that sustainability efforts need to be implemented within each stage of a meeting. “Most planners have taken sustainability and put it on a separate to-do list, and end up being well into the planning process before they start to consider what sustainability initiatives to include in their event,” she says. “When you do this, it makes it extremely difficult to implement sustainability. It feels like you are lifting a very heavy bucket.”
Meetings and events involve several parties besides the planner’s own company or organization, so it’s essential to start planning early and find business partners — including venues and vendors — that share sustainability preferences. “As you work toward the sustainability goals, make sure you have everyone’s support,” Zavada says. “Enroll your venues, vendors, sponsors, marketing teams and management early on. A team of champions can work together on solutions that may not even have been possible a few years ago.”
It helps immensely if the venue has systems in place to measure environmental impact. Some venues, such as The Venetian Resort Las Vegas, have excelled at this by providing customers with an impact statement listing total energy and water consumption, carbon emissions, recycling rate and highlights of the group’s sustainability initiatives.
Collaboration only works when the planner’s own team is focused on achieving sustainability goals. Some organizations, including IMEX Group, set up their own internal Green Squad to help. “The Green Squad is a group of staff who have chosen, in addition to their day jobs, to work on our sustainability performance,” Bauer says. “They have their fingers on the pulse of the current ‘climate’ and are working hard to shape our sustainability efforts to respond to the changing business world. The Green Squad has been a game changer in the speed with which we’ve built up a solid sustainability program.”
Even the best-planned meetings and events often have difficulties achieving sustainability goals. One of the main challenges is to motivate attendees to become active participants in the process. “Planners need to engage with attendees and tell a concise, clear sustainability story,” Lohmann says. “If you can tie that story back to something that is already being told at your corporate level, it can help the attendee draw lines between the change and the ‘why.’ It can then provide better attendee engagement and allow you to further push the limits of what you change and incorporate on-site.”
The meetings industry is tackling issues similar to other industries, including reducing carbon emissions, energy consumption, and the use and recycling of materials. Spangler thinks planners are also becoming more aware of the importance of waste diversion. “More planners are trying to find ways to keep event waste out of landfills through composting and recycling,” she says. “However, I would love to see this focus shift to preventing waste in the first place.”
Determining the impacts of transportation on an event poses another challenge. In most cities, meeting participants use ground transportation, which means mainly using standard-fuel vehicles, though alternative-fuel vehicles are gradually becoming more available. Also, air travel accounts for 70% to 85% of a meeting’s entire carbon footprint. “Researching locations close to the majority of attendees to lower air travel is one strategy,” Zavada says. “Providing a local virtual component for those who must travel further or those with accessibility or inclusion issues is vital. Are there opportunities to meet locally and connect with a larger community online?”
Zavada also encourages planners to reassess all components of a meeting to determine the environmental cost. “Don’t do it ‘the way that it always has been done,’” she says. “That includes swag, local sourcing and sustainable food, such as plant-based menus. All of these environmental savings also have economic savings to the planner and host organization.”
The pandemic has created a unique, new scenario for planners, bringing new sustainability challenges and a need for quick solutions. Some changes made during the pandemic, including the increased use of event apps rather than printed items, provide a sustainability boost that is likely to continue. “I think the rise in how the event app is used, the functionality of it, the abilities the planners will have to incorporate into the event and the way attendees will be more willing to interact with it are forever changed,” Lohmann says. “I look forward to seeing more innovation from this sector of our industry.”
Ali Ames, director of sustainability for Three Squares — an environmental consulting firm based in Los Angeles — thinks the pandemic has brought both opportunities and challenges for event sustainability. “The pandemic has normalized hosting events virtually,” she says. “By allowing attendees to experience events from the comfort of their homes or offices virtually, it significantly reduces travel-related emissions inherent to events that bring people together from different areas.”
This has forced technology to quickly become more sophisticated to make virtual meetings easier and more effective. In turn, this has enhanced the possibilities for hybrid meetings, in which in-person attendees benefit from meaningful personal interactions and virtual participants improve an event’s overall footprint.
Ames notes that one of the main challenges posed by the pandemic is satisfying the new health and safety practices that mandate individual packaging of food and supplies, which causes significant increases in single-use packaging, and therefore, more waste. Planners can take additional measures to ensure that individual packaging is diverted from landfill, but it poses an additional challenge.
Lohmann thinks safe practices can help to eliminate all single-use items. “In general, we went back to all single-use, throwaway items and were afraid to allow anyone to touch something,” she says. “The reality is that we don’t have to live in this space, and we are OK and safe to use items that are washed and cleaned appropriately. With this knowledge, we need to drive back in hard to eliminate all single-use items from events.”
Cooper points to another challenge that has emerged during the pandemic. “For venues, some progress has been hampered by supply-chain issues,” he says. “It’s one thing to want to change from a current bad habit, but that’s only possible with the availability of a more sustainable alternative.”
Some hotels and resorts have taken the lead in developing programs to improve sustainability during the pandemic. The Venetian Resort Las Vegas was the first meetings property in Las Vegas, and one of the first in the United States, to develop a program to recycle surgical masks, which are being used by guests and employees as part of the Venetian Clean initiatives, says Chandra Allison, the property’s senior vice president of sales. As part of this pilot program, more than 8,000 pounds of these masks were sent to a recycling facility, where they were shredded and densified into a crumb-like raw material that was then used to make resurfaced products such as shipping pallets, composite decking and railroad ties.
Also, some planners have either introduced or expanded outdoor meetings, mainly for safety, but they also can enhance sustainability of events. “And moving forward, meeting and networking in outdoor spaces is a sustainable practice that I can envision continuing in the future and becoming a more prominent aspect of events,” Radziminski says. “If the weather cooperates, there’s no better place to be.”
Experts are optimistic that the meetings and events industry will continue to add more sustainability measures and play a larger role in protecting and preserving the environment. “There is a renewed sense of urgency as the people of our world seek a better future,” Zavada says. “No longer is sustainability a nice, value-add for the future; sustainability is vital. Don’t project goals for 2050 without starting right now, today, to make a difference. I am optimistic and hopeful that the meetings and events industry will take a leadership position and make significant progress toward a more sustainable planet. We certainly know our impact is great, but so is the opportunity to show other industries how it can be achieved.”
Bauer emphasizes the importance of ongoing collaboration. “Sustainability measures are fundamental now, and will remain so in the future,” she says. “What’s key is that the entire industry — planners, venues, destinations and other suppliers — work together to achieve sustainability goals. Our industry can only make progress if the entire supply chain believes this and works in partnership to create change and find solutions. But it’s important to believe in sustainability not simply because of the business benefits, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
Matthew Uchtman, director of facilities and operations at Oregon Convention Center — one of only two LEED platinum convention centers in the United States — says continuing progress can most readily be made by making environmentally sound practices part of standard operating procedures. “Communication and training reinforce sustainable practices to the point that it is just how your business operates at all levels of the organization,” he says.
Radziminski provides some words of wisdom for planners as they strive to attain their sustainability goals: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s easy to get discouraged when you consider the scope of how much needs to change, but remember that every step matters. In the words of Jane Goodall, ‘What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.’” | AC&F |