The meetings industry has a huge environmental impact – from the millions of miles delegates have flown to attend events to the reams of paper squeezed into bulging delegate bags and the kilowatts of energy used to light exhibitions and displays around the world.

Now green culture is taking hold and event stakeholders are thinking carefully about environmental impacts, becoming keen to show their sustainability credentials.

Olivia Galun, member services manager of the UK-based International Association of Professional Congress Organisers (IAPCO), has noticed increased awareness of the importance of sustainability in meetings and events around the world from clients, organizers and the various stakeholders involved.

“There is more of a focus on the long-term impact of a meeting and the throwaway mentality is now being challenged,” she said.

Ian Cummings, vice president of EMEA for CWT Meetings & Events, is among those who see the trend towards sustainable meetings and events as much more than a passing fad. “It has certainly been growing every year as a key buying factor,” he said, noting that some clients go as far as ensuring their events comply with the ISO 20121 sustainable event standards.

Clients who have a strong company culture based on sustainability require it as part of any event, and this can influence the venues, activities, and even menus selected as a part of the event, according to Rose Squitieri-Strickland, senior project manager at BCD Meetings & Events.

The stakes are even higher when staging events for younger delegates. “Millennials and Gen Z care deeply about issues of sustainability and CSR (corporate social responsibility), and if you’re building an event that resonates with them, it’s important to factor this in,” she said.

A HOLISTIC APPROACH IS NEEDED

Insiders stress the importance of a holistic approach to sustainability, looking to “green” all stages of sourcing, organizing, planning, and executing events.

Mindy Hanzlik, senior solution designer at BCD Meetings & Events, is seeing the green approach starting at the sourcing phase. Companies looking for low carbon footprint impacts are choosing venues close to their audiences to minimize flight miles, and may even look to add carbon-offset to their overall flight budget.

“Hotels are being asked about their green initiatives and green programs prior to selection,” she explained.

Venues are actively promoting their environmental certifications and awards to win business. The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) in Australia’s second-largest city is a good example, boasting that it is the first convention center in the world to be awarded a 6-Star Green Star environmental rating. Leighton Wood, chief operating officer, said the center has reduced its energy consumption by 30 percent over the past two years through a number of measures, from replacing over 600 light fittings with energy-efficient alternatives to eliminating the use of all plastic water bottles in catering.

IAPCO’s Galun sees companies including sustainability suggestions within their proposals and creating their own environmental policies, as well as encouraging local venues and suppliers to become more eco-friendly.

At a tactical level, there is also a strong move to paperless events, avoiding the use of printed material at every stage – from invitations to event apps which keep attendees informed about the program and share presentations.

Event planners are commonly avoiding single-use plastics and promoting recycling in everything from ID cards to reusable dinnerware.

On the catering front, Hanzlik is seeing a more sustainable approach to menus, with a strong move towards a farm-to-table approach.

CWT advises organizers to ensure minimum wastage by getting headcounts and choices correct, with Cummings adding that “no-one likes throwing away a lot of food when it can be easily avoided”.

Showing You’re Green

It’s not enough to go green: events need to show off their environmental credibility. Cummings believes it’s important that today’s delegates are aware of the sustainability credentials of an event, whether corporate or consumer. “Research has shown that sustainability is high on many millennials’ agendas. For delegates today, it’s not just about salary – they want to work for organizations that care. Their engagement with a company, their motivation to work and their desire to remain can all be majorly impacted by the organization’s responsible business credentials,” he said.

Cat Butler, BCD Meetings & Events’ director of operations for project and onsite management, sees more clients highlighting their green credentials at an opening general session or welcome dinner, mentioning the property’s sustainable operating techniques.

“During the closing general session, clients also communicate to their attendees how the efforts made during the meeting have positively impacted the community and environment,” she said. “In addition, delegates will see subtle reminders within their normal program contents, including the hotel’s green credentials, local sourcing information on menus, and a note in the program of events that indicates the intentional efforts the organization has made to help offset the carbon impact of the program. Clients are also giving back via corporate social responsibility projects during their event.”

The heightened awareness of sustainability is broadening expectations for all players in the supply chain, and suppliers are increasingly offering green solutions – usually at no additional cost. “It’s getting easier to find more properties, venues and suppliers who have environmentally-friendly programs in place,” said Butler.

Going green has significant benefits for organizers, delegates and, of course, the environment. And events perceived as green have additional benefits for their organizers. “Positive CSR efforts resonate with attendees, helping build brand love and loyalty during the attendee journey,” she added.

As long as the environment remains a hot issue in society, events with green credentials will be perceived as more worthwhile and will help organizers please their audience and deliver the right messages.

The green movement also gives an edge to those providers that can demonstrate their environmental contributions. As standards and expectations rise, however, conservation could become a prerequisite rather than a differentiator.

Photo Credit: Attendees at a Culinary Institute of America event. Leadership Programs / Flickr