Creating sustainable meetings has been top of mind for planners and venues for several years. Then came a pandemic, driving health and safety to the forefront, which begs the question: Is sustainability still a priority? Are sustainability and health safety compatible? Are there secrets to creating sustainable meetings today? We reached out to planners and other experts to find out.
Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability for Portland, Oregon-based MeetGreen, a conference and event management company, offers one sustainability secret — incorporating environmental initiatives into meetings can be much easier and less expensive than you’d think. “At their core, sustainability efforts are often connected to optimizing efficiency, reducing waste and enhancing the life cycles of our event materials,” he says. It’s a process, he adds, that should start early in the planning timeline, “ideally at the time of site selection or contracting, enrolling the full spectrum of stakeholders in your conversations and ensuring your team has mechanisms for accountability in place to help drive these initiatives forward.”
Wallinger says he’s encouraged by the degree to which sustainability has remained a major focus in the industry. “There’s the growing sense that risk management is also closely linked to sustainability management,” he notes. “One recent striking example from the business community was BlackRock Chairman Larry Fink’s early 2021 Letter to CEOs. In it, he highlighted a 96% increase in sustainable asset investment in 2020 compared to 2019. This is a trend we’d like to see continue, and it’s particularly impressive given the significant headwinds our economy faced during this period.”
Wallinger is currently working with Acumatica on a mid-summer 2021 meeting at Wynn Las Vegas. Sustainability is front and center. “While we’re still in the initial phases, teams have worked to comprehensively engage suppliers around near- and long-term visions and implementing mechanisms for measurement. We’ve spent considerable time exploring ways to rethink material choices, reduce consumption and boost recovery across the event waste stream,” he says.
Despite gains, the industry has taken a few steps back due to the pandemic. Safety protocols have meant increased use of plastics in water bottles and individually wrapped snacks, meals and utensils. Wallinger also points to an increase in companies shipping “swag” around the country, which increases emissions.
And there’s the prolific use of cleaning products. “There’s clearly been an increase in cleaning products in our public spaces,” Wallinger says. “Currently, the impacts are speculative, though general consensus is that overuse of chemicals and cleaning agents is not ideal for our internal and external environments. On a positive note, however, disclosure, labeling and access to eco-products have come a long way in the past 15 years. Inquiring about a property’s baseline credentials, such as LEED, Green Key and Green Globes, can help ensure these supply chains have at least met a minimum level of oversight and follow a closely controlled chain of custody and documentation.”
Moreover, he says, it’s important to look at safety and sustainability holistically. “Reusable materials like cups, plates and utensils begin and end on-site and are washed at very high temperatures with cleaning products, and in many cases are actually handled less prior to use than disposables. But if you’re mandated to utilize plastic bottles and single-use items in the short term, your team should focus on optimizing its recycling collection, as well as implementing a compost program at your venue.”
While there’s no substitution for meeting in person, digital events have much to offer. “There are a number of compelling reasons to retain robust digital options in our meetings moving forward, for both our planet and people,” Wallinger says. “Air travel alone accounts for over 90% of most conference emissions. On a positive, our digital events in 2020 recorded a 117% increase in attendance when compared to 2019. And hybrid options can play a meaningful role toward reducing an event’s environmental footprint and supporting our attendees in new ways.”
Wallinger doesn’t think safety and sustainability are mutually exclusive, noting they actually work together and support each other. And planners, he says, can help make an event safer for attendees and the planet through sustainability efforts.
As evidence of the co-existence of safety and sustainability, MPI’s November 2020 World Education Congress was designed to help corporate and other planners create safe, sustainable events. Melinda Burdette, CMP, CMM, HMCC, director, events, with MPI, says, “You can have a safe and sustainable meeting. It just takes transparency in working with your vendors, venues, destinations, etc.” For example, Burdette says, “We worked extensively at our event with host venue chefs to ensure that all F&B containers were recyclable and/or made from sustainable materials. We also provided QR codes to download menus instead of printing them out.”
She encourages planners to ask vendors and venues about food, cleaning products, venue sustainability, service items, etc. And she says planners need to ask themselves before every meeting whether that meeting is best as an in-person or virtual event. “You have to know your audience and the objective of the meeting.” Burdette also points planners to the Sustainable Event Standards of the Events Industry Council as the go-to resource. “They include guidelines for event organizers, accommodations, venues, destinations, food & beverage, A/V and production as well as for exhibitions.”
Cisco IMPACT, a global sales conference, is also committed to sustainability. Desiree Hamilton, operations manager, Cisco IMPACT, says their approach started with the concept of “Grandma’s Rules” when visiting family and friends.
“This is easy to say, but it really requires a long-term partnership with our business partners and suppliers to build into their portion of the event design, and with the host cities to understand their constraints and needs,” Hamilton says.
As the planning cycle began for Cisco IMPACT FY21 held earlier this year, she says, “We knew that by hosting a digital event, climate impacts would decrease significantly. However, we still wanted to ensure that we were doing our part to offset anything we could, even on the digital platform. We also saw it as a huge opportunity to achieve one of our long-term goals, a completely carbon neutral event. Cisco IMPACT FY21 was successful in becoming our first-ever, 100% carbon neutralized event,” Hamilton says. “We partnered with Tentree to plant one tree for each attendee through their Climate+ program. The carbon reduced from these plantings exceeded event production by so much that Cisco IMPACT FY21 can be classified as carbon net positive.”
Additionally, she says, “We took measures to weave sustainability into our event award programs. In 2020, we opted for more experience-based prizes. Instead of shipping “things” around the world and increasing our footprint, attendees had a unique opportunity to win 1:1 time with Cisco executives, partaking in fun activities like cooking lessons and acrylic painting classes — all online. Not only was this initiative more environmentally conscious, attendees found this prize option more beneficial to their career growth.”
But can sustainability initiatives used in digital events transfer to live events? Bridgette Villano, Project Manager Global Events – Operations, Cisco IMPACT, says, “Yes,” adding, “Creating sustainability partnerships that are transferrable from the digital to live model is key. Whether that be a collaboration with an external organization to offset carbon emissions or including sustainable service ware at satellite production locations, what matters is creating relationships that yield green outcomes in digital models and future live models as well.”
In a pandemic, however, Villano says maintaining safety and sustainability on-site is tricky. “Creating safe environments where our staff felt comfortable working amidst a pandemic was crucial. Whether it be additional sanitization stations or individualized food options, we worked to create a space that felt like a sanctuary. Figuring out how to make this new work environment with elevated health policies as sustainable as possible was for sure the most significant change and challenge.”
Yet, Cisco’s main goal is unchanged. “Cisco remains committed to creating and funding innovative solutions that benefit our people, society and planet,” Villano says. “Cisco IMPACT follows this same motto and strives to ensure all facets of our event production have a positive social impact as well.”
Raquel Perez, HMCC, works with a leading medical device company where sustainability is a priority. “Our sustainability commitment begins with our credo,” she says, “which guides our values, spirit and conscience in everything that we do, and forms the framework for our aspirations, which are the goals that inspire us every day.”
Within the industry, she says, “sustainability is still very much top of mind, but health and safety have taken precedence since most companies were forced to pivot quickly during the pandemic.” Her group has scheduled a major program at the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort in 2022, and the hotel and company have committed to exploring sustainability options for the meeting.
Perez says excess food is a major concern, as is the increased use of plastic at events due to the pandemic. “Even plastic utensils are wrapped in plastic,” she says. “We’ll be looking at the use of biodegradable utensils, simple recycling efforts, and opportunities to donate untouched and unused food.” One step she hopes venues will take is “considering biodegradable, bioplastic, reclaimed ocean package products that won’t harm the earth. There are many biodegradable products that are safer for the environment and don’t compromise safety initiatives,” she says.
Like others, Perez sees the positives in virtual meetings, such as allowing companies to extend their reach with attendees. But she says whether virtual is the right format for a meeting depends on the specific industry and goals for the meeting. When it comes to selecting venues, her advice to planners is, “Ask the tough questions to understand what options are available. You never know what sort of flexibility vendors might have to offer more sustainable options.”
IMEX Group, an arm of Regent Exhibitions Ltd., is also dedicated to increased sustainability. Dale Hudson, knowledge and events director, says the pandemic has brought environmental issues into sharp focus. “For many of us, spending time in the great outdoors provided much needed support, and we’re now bringing this enhanced appreciation of nature and its benefits back into our daily lives. We’ve led some research into how nature can be incorporated into events. Our recently launched Nature of Space report shows how planners can take inspiration from nature-based solutions, using biophilic design to integrate environmental elements and support positive mental health while indoors.”
Sustainability has long been a core focus of the IMEX Group. IMEX America, for example, has focused on sustainability since launching at the Sands Expo in 2009, where IMEX worked with the Sands team to develop sustainability practices. This November, the show moves to Mandalay Bay. “The team there has been equally receptive, and we’re on our way to ensuring a strong start to our sustainability practices,” Hudson says. “Our primary concern at all venues we work with is waste, and we’ll be working closely with Mandalay Bay to try and reduce this as much as we can, building on the waste program they already have in place.”
In planning IMEX America, Hudson continues, “We collaborate closely with our sustainability consultants, MeetGreen, the city [through the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority], and our venues to ensure we align with industry standards. We want responsible consumption and production to sit front and center at the show.”
Hudson says many changes are easy to make. “Our biodegradable lanyards are made from bamboo; we’ve swapped vinyl banners [made from plastic] for re-board; [and] we no longer produce delegate bags or printed show catalogues. We collect materials, including food, that would otherwise be thrown away, for distribution to local community organizations. We also donate show materials. Falcon board [re-board] signs were given to local schools to construct homecoming floats; 2,591 badge lanyards were collected and donated to Teacher Exchange; and real grass turf on-site was given to GES show contractors to use at home.”
IMEX also encourages buyers and exhibitors to bring their own water bottles and coffee mugs. “We know this strategy can deliver powerful results. At IMEX America 2019, we saved 12,000 single-use plastic water bottles by encouraging attendees to bring reusable bottles.” A focus with Mandalay Bay is exploring the use of compostable service ware and food packaging along with meat-free menus.
Like others, Hudson has had concerns about cleaning agents — even before the pandemic. “We believe it’s an issue that planners should query. This isn’t to say we think venues will immediately have all the answers or the right products, as cost and procurement must be considered. But if the issue is part of the conversation between planner and venue from the outset, this will in time lead to suitable solutions being developed.”
As for the negative environmental impact of attendee flights to in-person events, Hudson offers an intriguing perspective. “I believe in-person meetings are sustainable; gathering people together under one roof across multiple days enables thousands of meetings to take place that would otherwise have necessitated multiple separate flights.”
Hudson encourages planners to start small, noting that even one change can make a difference and help drive planet-wide change. Her suggestions include using plastic-free lanyards, recyclable and PVC-free signage, carpet made from recycled materials, water-wise and local F&B options, and donations to local not-for-profits, including flowers, bags, stationery, lanyards and even furniture.
Venues can also switch to renewable energy. “We’re proud that IMEX America was our first show to be 100% powered by renewable energy, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions the equivalent of driving a car more than 266 times the length of the iconic Route 66,” Hudson says. Our ultimate aim, she says, “is to create a truly circular trade show. It’s no longer enough to simply prevent resources from being used up and thrown away. We all must find ways to refresh them and invest new life where we can. We believe the circular economy can help rebuild a resilient and regenerative global events industry. And we’re exploring this further in our report. Regenerative Revolution – A new paradigm for event management, powered by Marriott International.”
Sustainability is also a focus at American Express Global Business Travel. “Sustainability remains very high on corporate agendas,” says Eloísa Urrutia, global sustainability lead, meetings & events, American Express Global Business Travel (GBT). “Our 2021 Global Meetings & Events Forecast found that 79% of organizations emphasize sustainability in their meetings and events programs. Many businesses have set strong emissions reductions targets, and their travel and meetings programs are an integral part of these objectives.” While Urrutia sees “continued investment in digital technology as key to supporting more sustainable and efficient meetings,” she also emphasizes that in-person events will remain vital to organizations’ ability to connect, grow and be successful.
American Express GBT is currently working with clients to create a roadmap for building best-in-class sustainable events programs. “This includes creating policies that align with their ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] objectives, and regular engagement with their supply chain, partners and internal stakeholders,” Urrutia says. “Location plays an important role,” she continues, and planners should ask questions. “Is it optimal for attendees to travel to this location? Does it minimize greenhouse emissions? Are there local initiatives supporting sustainability events? What are the transport links; can you use fossil-free vehicles for ground transfers?”
It’s also critical for planners to engage with their suppliers. “Share your policy with suppliers early and often. Get their insights to improve your policy and agree on sustainability practices in your agreements,” she says. “Source venues that are mitigating usage of energy, water and waste and making the most of renewables. F&B is another key area. Can your provider offer local, seasonal ingredients, farm-to-table produce with minimal ‘food miles’ and energy footprint? The type of food also has an impact; minimizing meat options can reduce the event’s carbon footprint.”
Echoing others, Urrutia says there are opportunities to design events that minimize plastic, paper and waste, using recyclable products instead of disposable items. Digital attendee management and networking tools can help create a paperless event. Like IMEX, American Express GBT is setting an example of what’s possible. “In 2019, we became the first global travel management company to offset 100% of its emissions from employee business travel,” she says.
The bottom line is that sustainable meetings are possible, but it takes work on the part of companies and planners.
Cisco IMPACT’s Villano gives planners a place to start. “Be creative, be mindful and be listening. Everything is changing constantly, and now more than ever, it’s important that, as planners, we find moments to create sustainability initiatives that are unique, and mindful of everywhere and everyone. Work to find solutions that benefit not just your local community, but possibly the global community as well. Listen to the issues at hand and what other groups are doing to make a difference. Resource sharing helps us stay aligned as a human race and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. Once you’ve done this, make sure you have a plan — one that’s purposeful and buildable for whatever the future brings. Above all, remember, in whatever you build, to do it through empathy for those around you.” C&IT