Corporate Social ResponsibilityJune 14, 2021

How Companies Can Make a Difference in the Meetings Industry By
June 14, 2021

Corporate Social Responsibility

How Companies Can Make a Difference in the Meetings Industry
The JetBlue for Good program is just one of the company’s many CSR projects. Courtesy of  Kayla Carpenter /  JetBlue

The JetBlue for Good program is just one of the company’s many CSR projects. Courtesy of Kayla Carpenter / JetBlue

Today’s leading edge organizations are now including economic, environmental and social programs for a more holistic and integrated approach to their company’s efforts. When implemented effectively, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) also gives companies a way to differentiate themselves in branding, marketing and operations.

Kayla Carpenter, program manager for CSR at JetBlue, sums up what CSR means to her airline as “striving for meaningful impact.” The sixth-largest airline in the U.S., JetBlue supports three core CSR pillars: community, environment, and youth & education through its JetBlue for Good program, and the company also supports several nonprofit organizations. In addition, the company engages with grant recipients in STEM and aviation-related education through its JetBlue Foundation. As Carpenter explains: “For us at JetBlue, one of our values is caring. Our aim is to utilize opportunities and our crew members’ wide range of skills. We take care to listen, whether connecting with crew members to see what they’re passionate about, as well as other stakeholders in the airline community, and how they are relevant to our industry. When we can find a place where we can make a difference, we will. We integrate engagement from day one in our [JetBlue] cities.”

When asked what CSR represents at Eat the Peach Travel, Sharon Kemp Gonzalez, owner, responds, “My answer would have been very different a year ago.” Yet now, she says, “Basically, it’s the three P’s: People, Planet and Prosperity.” For people, “make sure you provide direct financial benefits. Hire local whenever possible, for example, guides and cleaning crews.” To support the planet, “build environmental awareness guardians with local guides that you teach.” As an example, Kemp Gonzalez describes how years ago in Costa Rica, locals would mine or log because they needed the money, versus today, “[where] we say if we train you as tour guides, you’ll make a sustainable living.” She emphasizes, “You teach them the value — that the environment is a resource for the family.” As far as prosperity goes, “You are responsible for safe working conditions for hired locals. Give power to the local people and charities. It comes full circle.”

Kemp Gonzalez applies these principles when planning her own tours, following criteria from Martha Honey, co-founder and director emeritus of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST). Specifically, the company follows these mandates: travel to natural destinations, minimize impact, build environmental awareness, provide direct financial benefits for conservation, provide financial benefits and power for local people, respect local culture, and support human rights and democratic movements.

‘Living Out Our Company Values’

At Caesar’s Entertainment, Gwen Migita, vice president, social impact, sustainability, diversity, equity and inclusion, and Wendy Bangnasco, senior manager, ESG, sustainability & responsible business, describe their corporate culture as one that supports “People, Planet and Play.” As Migita sees it, “Sustainability, community and social impact overlap with our internal practices.” It’s about “living out our company values, the heart-side of the company.” Adds Bangnasco, “We look at CSR holistically as an intersectional definition. It matters to team members when their services are similar to the company’s.”

In choosing community partner organizations such as Meals on Wheels, Migita says, “We ask ‘What is the biggest need and need gap in the U.S?’ For example, over a decade ago, the most underserved were seniors. Meals on Wheels provides nutrition, but more than a meal, it also addresses social isolation.” While the company supports creating fun, memorable experiences for guests, Migita cites “responsible gaming” as an important element of their overall commitment to Play. Through science-based research, “We have very active ambassadors with 30+ years [of a] legacy of company preventions to manage anyone with compulsive gaming addiction.” To evaluate and quantify the company’s social impact, Migita says, “We track charitable and in-kind donations, Meals on Wheels, and what our teams are doing through volunteer hours,” which according to company reports, in 2019, amounted to $67 million, including the value of 370,000 hours volunteered in local communities.

Sharon Kemp Gonzalez, owner of Eat the Peach Travel, says her company follows mandates that promote CSR, such as traveling to natural destinations, minimizing impact, providing direct financial benefits for local people and more. Courtesy of Sharon Kemp Gonzalez

Sharon Kemp Gonzalez, owner of Eat the Peach Travel, says her company follows mandates that promote CSR, such as traveling to natural destinations, minimizing impact, providing direct financial benefits for local people and more. Courtesy of Sharon Kemp Gonzalez

The Impact of COVID-19

CSR experts agree that the pandemic has stressed the need for organizations to develop a robust CSR strategy. For many, it has even provided an opportunity to expand CSR efforts. For instance, Migita highlights how the pandemic has “accelerated efforts towards justice, and racial and social equity,” at Caesar’s Entertainment. Bangnasco agrees, noting that “COVID has underscored the social impact of inequity, “asking what corporate America can do” to make a difference.

In the past, JetBlue has sponsored essay contests to bring members of the public and crew members to local communities for service projects as part of its JetBlue for Good program. Crew members have also supported TECHO, a nonprofit organization dedicated to overcoming poverty throughout Latin America through the efforts of youth volunteers. Like so many companies in the last year, however, JetBlue has shifted its offerings to online settings. “Right now, we’re taking a pause to ensure safety of all participants. We’re hopeful that we will be able to move forward by the end of 2021,” Carpenter says. In the meantime, “We’ve been flexible and able to shift in a supportive way by providing flights to medical professionals who are serving communities around the country, and it’s been inspiring to watch crew members show and explain airplane parts online to help inspire young kids, for example.”

Kemp Gonzalez says that “Prior to COVID, I inherently built my tours in a sustainable fashion. We also brought in locals for transportation and guides while using smaller, family run bars and restaurants. We always felt that there was a way to help those ‘on the ground’ that made our adventures what they were. Tom [Kemp Gonzalez’s husband and partner] and I are both civil servants. We’ve always wanted to take care of people. That’s our goal, what we do and want to show to others.” Nonprofit organizations the tour company has supported include Casa De Los Angeles and Blue-Green Connections, where Kemp Gonzalez has also joined the board of directors.

CSR for Meetings & Events

So how exactly does CSR figure into event and meeting planning? When participants have a shared experience of helping others as members of the same team, it gives a sense of purpose in addition to camaraderie. Fundraisers and service projects are among the most popular and accessible implemented programs. “There’s always a great opportunity to use CSR to set the tone,” Carpenter says. “Integrating meetings with CSR can help shift the group’s mindset. When it’s so hard to put away our digital devices, CSR can jumpstart the group’s intent and help refocus.” In choosing appropriate and effective activities, she adds: “We want activities that are meaningful and also conducive to the space you have available. I always start with space. Are we going to be working in small groups? Also, being thoughtful about how you want to support the local organization. We don’t want to leave a box waiting to go somewhere. What’s the impact you want to have?”

As one example of JetBlue’s giving efforts, 2018 essay contest winners and companions traveled to the Dominican Republic to participate in three days of three different volunteer activities complementing the company’s three core pillars of giving: First, in partnership with Paradiscus by Meliá, volunteers created a colorful playground canvas for a local school in Punta Cana; second, together with the Dream Project, volunteers assisted children with disabilities by helping renovate classrooms and hosting a book fair at a local school; and third, the volunteers teamed up with Fundemar to build buoys designed to protect coral reef beds.

How important is it to integrate CSR into meetings and events? From Kemp Gonzalez’s perspective “very,” emphasizing, “Lecturing or telling people not to do something never works, but if you can create an alternative path that’s attractive — doing the right thing — you’re easy to follow. If you create the mindset that it’s non-negotiable, and that everything starts with [CSR], then it does. Through education, a brief intro of what CSR is, what it means and why it’s important; people get that.”

Tips for Planners

Migita cites lessons learned along the way in implementing CSR programs at Caesar’s Entertainment. Her top advice for event planners is to “Not do too much and meet people where they are. Break CSR into something more digestible, asking what can you wrap your heart around.” She recommends companies communicate more on the back end while encouraging corporate meeting planners to “look under the hood” and ask companies more about what they’re doing behind the scenes. “The more they challenge us [in a good way], the more it helps us further the work internally,” she says. The bottom line for event organizers is to ask companies, “Do my values match yours?”

Every experienced event organizer knows the importance of having a positive attitude together with a back-up plan, not only “if” but “when” the unexpected happens. Carpenter advises, “Having on-site meeting planners and organizations that are open and flexible makes a huge difference,” as she knows firsthand from a conference planning experience a few years ago in Puerto Rico. For the conference, JetBlue had partnered with Florida-based Feeding Children Everywhere, but “With the hurricanes in Puerto Rico, we wondered if we could do it, i.e. make it to the conference, and how it would impact attendance, or were we going to be leaving the organization to pack 30,000 hygiene and meal kits?” All turned out well in the end, but it helped to know she was working with a strong on-site support team.

Kemp Gonzalez recommends doing a bit of research. “Look at credentials of partners, vendors and suppliers,” she says. Some companies are certified by their social and environmental performance, and many hotels, resorts and other venues “have outreach programs with amazing local non-profits.”

The Future of CSR

At JetBlue, Carpenter says, “The future looks the same, but a little different. We’re reconnecting with crew members and encouraging spontaneous volunteerism, still helping through what we call ‘acts of caring’ locally. For example, helping shovel the neighbor’s walk, tutoring kids who are learning from home, helping with eldercare and delivering food to neighbors.”

CSR today, and moving forward, has a very different outlook at Eat the Peach Travel. For one thing, the company is building more volunteerism opportunities into their tours “and lots planned for this next year,” Kemp Gonzalez says. “We can do it all still, but we have to do it better. The future is small-group guided travel. True eco-tourism will take awhile, but it is the new world order whether we like it or not.” C&IT

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