Green Light: As Face-to-Face Meetings Return, So Will the Emphasis on SustainabilityMay 11, 2021

May 11, 2021

Green Light: As Face-to-Face Meetings Return, So Will the Emphasis on Sustainability

The priority with the return of face-to-face meetings is understandably their safety, more so than their sustainability. Planners are first and foremost concerned with implementing distancing and sanitation protocols, as attendees’ immediate well-being takes precedence over that of the environment in the wake of COVID-19. But even if sustainability in some cases is put on the back burner, corporations, planners and attendees still value it. And once in-person events regain their traction, the green meetings movement will surely regain its pre-pandemic prominence. After all, the reasons for eco-consciousness are just as pressing now as they were last spring.

“As devastating as COVID-19 has been to our planet, it has been equally hard for many to ignore the impacts of our changing climate, as well as our tremendous systemic inequities,” says Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability with MeetGreen. “The United Nations has called the next 10 years our ‘Decade of Action’ — a horizon that requires aggressive, coordinated and collective action.” Fortunately, corporate America has been responding to this call to action. “So far, we have witnessed a resiliency in corporate sustainability that has been encouraging,” Wallinger adds. “As Larry Fink, BlackRock’s chairman, reported in his annual letter to CEOs: from January through November 2020, more than $288 billion was invested globally in sustainable assets — a 96% increase over 2019. This is a trend we would love to see continue.”

Increased Engagement 

A trend of particular note is that the insurance and financial segments of corporate America have been increasingly involved in sustainability. “In recent years, we have witnessed an increased level of engagement from both the finance and insurance sectors regarding corporate sustainability issues at large,” Wallinger says. “As we continue to come to terms with both the scale of investment capital needed to support our global environmental initiatives, ranging from renewables to carbon removal technologies, the intersection between finance and green innovation is critical. Another positive development has been the growing recognition that sustainability management is intertwined with and directly supports risk management. In these ways, both industries have a central role to play in our decade of sustainability action.”

Securian Financial is just one example of a financial company that is strongly engaged in sustainability. On the meetings front, Koleen M. Roach, director, meetings & conference management, upholds that initiative. “It’s our planet to care for, and we all have a responsibility to do what we can in any given situation to engage in environmental best practices,” she says. “I think sustainability will only continue to be an important part of what we do in this industry, both on the planner side and the hospitality side. These initiatives are progressive, not trendy, so in the name of progress, we will continue finding ways to eliminate waste, and be as efficient and green as we can be in how we execute our programs.” And while Securian does not have a formal sustainability program, “We certainly do make an effort to be conscious of best practices in terms of reducing waste, eliminating plastics, using recyclable materials [especially in banqueting], recycling floral arrangements from dinner to breakfast where possible, providing food stations with servers to cut down on waste often experienced with buffet meals and more,” Roach says.

The vast majority of these practices can and should continue at meetings that follow COVID-19 safety protocols. In fact, MeetGreen determined that of the 16 items on its Green Event Checklist, only two were impacted by the current circumstances: Condiment dispensers — preferable to disposable packets — need to be used in tandem with hand sanitation prior to entry in food areas, since many attendees are using the same dispenser. And donated leftover materials need to be sanitized to mitigate the risk of transmission via surfaces.

“We actually found many of our pre-pandemic best practices can continue even in [this year’s] return to physical and hybrid gatherings,” Wallinger says. “We certainly do anticipate a waste stream with increased PPE, such as masks, sanitizer bottles and excess packaging. We approach these challenges as we always do — with education, encouragement and more sustainable options. For those interested in navigating the nuances of our changing events landscape, we have created a number of resources on the topic of safe and sustainable events on the MeetGreen website [].”

Adjusting sustainability practices in the context of the pandemic should not be much of a challenge for green meeting practitioners. After all, these practices have always been in flux: Planners learn of new practices and add them to their checklist, drop certain measures if they become impracticable for some reason and so on. For example, Lisa Ramsay, CMP, 2nd VP, event & meeting management with Protective Life Insurance Co., notes that her company’s sustainability initiatives have “evolved over the years.” Technology has been part of that evolution. Meeting agendas and attendee lists are documents “most people just have on their tablet, or if we’ve got a mobile app” for the meeting, she explains. So, “we no longer do printed materials, or pads and pens, on the table.”

Similarly, Jonathan Denmark, LIA, CLTC, CISR, CLCS, president & COO of MountainOne Insurance Agency Inc., says, “All of our board meetings are done paperless; that’s been the way for many years. iPads have been distributed to all directors and officers. Materials are posted in a shared app or website that board members can use on their iPads.”

Ideas Are Out There

Plenty of resources continue to help planners learn about the latest in sustainability, a major one being their industry colleagues. “My team and I are heavily involved with FICP. They have a lot of great green ideas and suggestions, and at their conference, they have speakers” focusing on that topic, Ramsay says. In addition to resources such as FICP and meetings periodicals, Roach notes that “the best conversations can be had with on-property catering teams. Many hotel chains make it a part of their business best practices to have sustainable/green programs, so often planners engage at the hotel/property level to coordinate initiatives into our programs.”

Another resource is MeetGreen itself. The organization sees sustainable events as a work in progress, and continues its research on optimizing that aspect of physical events even as these events have largely been suspended. “In terms of physical events, some of our most exciting and encouraging efforts have involved incorporating greater circularity and material end-use planning related to build design, printing and fabrication. We have also been actively working to quantitatively assess the impacts of our materials, across their lifecycle, related to emissions,” Wallinger says. “Interestingly, while the pandemic has clearly slowed some of the on-site manifestations of these efforts, the work of MeetGreen has steadily continued on in virtual environments and toward the delivery of hybrid meetings this fall and beyond.” Thus, MeetGreen has had the foresight to continue the development of practices that will help to green hybrid events, and of course fully in-person events once they return.

And their return to pre-pandemic levels will be driven not just by Zoom fatigue, but also by the limitations of that medium. “Team-building and business-building opportunities you can’t really accomplish well over Zoom,” Denmark says. Virtual events, he notes, do have the green advantage of eliminating transportation to a meeting site; indeed, his company had always been cognizant of that environmental impact and thus advocated carpooling. However, increasing sustainability will not be the only consideration when weighing whether or not to hold an event virtually. Apart from increasing engagement, in-person events “help the economy,” Denmark points out. “They help the hotels, the restaurants, the highways because you’re paying tolls” and so on.

Thus, in many cases, the ideal route will be to hold a physical event, and do it with state-of-the-art eco-friendly practices. The motivation for those practices can stem from the values of upper management, planners, attendees or some combination of these parties. In Securian’s case, “Our best practices are not driven at the behest of management or attendees, but rather educated through meeting planners who’ve learned over the years where to cut waste and still provide value,” Roach says. In the case of Protective Life Insurance Co., upper management, planners and attendees are all motivating green meetings. “Our attendees are very versed in [sustainability] now and look for that type of thing,” Ramsay says.

Younger attendees especially tend to look for meetings to display eco-consciousness. “With the younger generation coming into the workforce, who are thankfully more aware of these sustainable practices, I think they’re going to demand it more and more, so I think it’s going to continue to grow,” Denmark predicts. “About a third of our workforce is over 55, but we do have some younger people coming in, which is exciting. Those folks came up with the initiatives of recycling bins in the breakrooms, shredding of paper, etc. They want to be able to work for an employer that’s making an overall impact in sustainability. There are some companies out there that donate 1% to the environment. Those companies tend to get good candidates.”

In addition, “at the corporate level, the C-Suite and senior leadership are being held accountable to higher degrees of transparency and disclosure than ever before,” Wallinger adds. “This is simultaneously combined with an attendee and stakeholder base that expects and encourages these [green] practices. Having both levers applying pressure here is helping raise the bar for sustainability and events.”

Reduced Costs

The primary reason for greening events has always been, as it should be, the preservation of the environment for future generations. “Waste, under any circumstances, is not a good thing, so whether you save a lot or spend a little more, being a good steward of our planet is the point,” Roach says. However, the cost reductions entailed by many of the practices are certainly an added benefit. “In many cases, planning a greener meeting can often reduce costs in both pre-and-post pandemic settings,” Wallinger says. “One of the key reasons is that sustainability best practices regularly involve efficiencies and less ‘things’ in general. You can substantially reduce your environmental impacts across the board by eliminating, reducing and reusing. In the case of items like event carpeting, applying any of the above strategies will save both financial and environmental resources. Other examples include signage designed for reuse, leveraging venue electronic signage, as well as rethinking your gifting and appreciation strategies from meaningless branded items. All can be achieved without increased costs.”

And while planners always welcome cost reductions that do not compromise the attendee experience, savings may be especially important for post-pandemic meetings that carry reduced budgets. Insurance and financial companies that have had profits adversely impacted by the pandemic will naturally want to keep future face-to-face meeting costs down. In addition, they may have to absorb price increases from venue partners. “We are really trying to ascertain that,” Ramsay says. “We’re wondering if the hotel is going to have to up their prices for sleeping rooms and F&B going forward due to all the business they haven’t been able to secure this past year. So we’re anticipating that the budget we will propose will potentially increase slightly. We’re telling our customers, [for example] what you spent $100,000 on last year, you’ll probably have to do a 5% increase on that.”

Cost savings from greening events usually aren’t major, but as they say, every little bit helps. On the F&B front, for example, Ramsay relates that “in the past we used to do these big elaborate breaks where people would have all different types of selections. Now, we’re trying to do a lot of packaged [food items], like a KIND bar or a package of unsalted peanuts. And generally the hotel will only charge us on consumption, so we’re not wasting a ton of food. We also stopped putting bottled water on the table; we just do a water station in the back of the room. You can pay $6 a bottle for water, so this is an initiative that really paid off, and everybody seems fine with it.”

It should be stressed that green meeting protocols are not only compatible with COVID protocols; they are part of the same overarching mindset, namely, a devotion to responsible meetings. Responsible planners and venues will emphasize both attendee and environmental health. Meeting venues have long shown their environmental stewardship by earning certifications such as LEED and ENERGY STAR, and over the past year, they have been demonstrating their COVID preparedness with certifications such as GBAC STAR and VenueShield.

Planners focused on responsible meetings will often look for both types of certifications in their venues these days, although the green certifications typically aren’t make-or-break when it comes to site selection. “For Securian, the LEED and ENERGY STAR programs are very beneficial from a corporate standpoint as there are many financial and insurance benefits to achieving these ratings,” Roach says. “But I don’t lean toward any one company or venue solely because they are certified green.” Similarly, Ramsay notes, “I wouldn’t choose a hotel because of [a green certification], but needless to say, it’s always important to see that our vendors and partners are doing their part as well.”

Just as meeting venues have successfully integrated hygienic and green practices in their operations today, so will their clients in the near future. One concern need not and should not supplant the other. “Once we, hopefully, get out of this situation for a while, the whole green aspect will definitely come back to the forefront, or at least be back to where it was,” Ramsay predicts. The approach, as Denmark illustrates it, will be “let’s make sure people are safe, but also that we’ve got the recycling bins in the right areas.” The two initiatives certainly give planners more to think about, but both represent a “call of duty” that responsible planners will heed.     I&FMM

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