Getting rid of plastic straws is nice, but the biggest positive impact will come from cutting back on plane trips and the use of gas-powered cars. At first, these changes may seem overly inconvenient, but that feeling will lessen once attendee expectations start to shift.
Events and corporate travel go hand in hand. When a large conference takes place, masses of business travelers will be racking up their airline miles, boarding planes as they journey from one state to another. Even in the age of Skype and FaceTime, companies understand the power of in-person connection, and year after year, they will set aside a large chunk of their budget to make those connections happen.
The fuel cost associated with business conferences is immense, however. It’s not only the multiple flights, which may carry hundreds to thousands of employees depending on the event — but also the Ubers, the Lyfts, and the rental cars, which ferry attendees, planners, and speakers alike from the hotel to the convention center and back again.
“Event organizers have an opportunity to reduce our climate impact through responsible transportation choices,” said Mariela McIlwraith, director of industry advancement at the Events Industry Council, an organization of certified meeting professionals. “These can include selecting destinations in consideration of air travel requirements, coordinating shared transportation options, encouraging the use of public transportation, and sharing information about safe, accessible walking routes.”
In recent years sustainability has become a hot topic for event organizers, but much of the focus has been on smaller changes. Disposable plastics, like straws and even water bottles, were some of the first things to go in the name of sustainability. Planners have long touted the absence of paper signs and brochures at their meetings, making use of digital technology to put information inside of event apps or project it along the convention walls.
But what about the literal tons of carbon dioxide a single plane trip releases into the atmosphere? A round-trip flight between New York and San Francisco emits roughly 1.4 tons of carbon dioxide, the same amount as the average car emits in nearly three months of daily use. Add to this the fact that many business travelers go on multiple trips a year, and that some conferences attract thousands of travelers, and it becomes clear: Events have a transportation problem.
This has led some companies and event planners to change the way they organize conferences, according to Angie Ahrens, a sustainability committee member at the Events Industry Council.
“You’re noticing that some events are becoming more regional versus national,” Ahrens said. “For example, if you know all your attendees are traveling from the Southeast, then you’re going to pick a Southeast destination to be more carbon footprint-friendly.”
This strategy has two benefits, according to Ahren. Not only will fewer people be flying, but event attendance will likely be higher overall, since it’s simply closer to where attendees live.
“And obviously, if [the attendees] are coming with more people from their staff, they’re probably car-sharing and all the other things that go into not flying. I’d say that’s definitely an easy way to be more sustainable in terms of carbon footprint.”
Meeting planners are not the only ones confronting the uncomfortable reality of planes’ impact on the environment. In fact, a trend called “flight shame” is starting to make its way down from northern Europe, throughout the continent, and even across the Atlantic and into the U.S. Originating in Sweden, where the concept is called flyksgam, the word conveys a growing sentiment that plane travel may simply be unethical or immoral, considering the current climate crisis.
Completely avoiding plane travel is not exactly practical with all events, however. Very large events, such as IMEX America in Las Vegas or the C2 Conference in Montreal, will attract thousands of people from all over the world. In this case, Ahrens explained, some companies will put staff on a chartered plane. Kind of like carpooling, this reduces the number of flights to and from the conference.
Once on the ground at the event, then it is up to the planners to educate attendees on public transit options and walkable routes, and in some cases to provide shuttle services. According to Ahrens, this is another instance where she sees planners making strategic decisions in terms of the event location.
There are two different ways planners can approach this, she said. On the one hand, very secluded properties, such as a resort in Palm Springs, may require lots of driving in order for attendees to initially arrive. Once there, however, attendees will have everything they need at their disposal, in walking distance to the conference hall, their rooms, restaurants, bars, and cafes.
On the other hand, many organizers are opting for smaller, more walkable cities to hold events, such as Cleveland or Seattle.
“All in all, it really depends on the type of event it is, whether it’s a single-use property or if it’s a citywide event,” she said. “When it comes to citywide events, I know planners are looking for a very tight-knit package. So, a city that is very walkable and is extremely trusted for their attendees. That way they don’t even have to worry about transportation.”
Issues of safety, however, mean that transportation will always have to be a factor in coordinating an event. Late at night, many attendees do not feel safe using public transportation or walking, and Ahrens believes that this is why cars, taxis, and rideshare vehicles are still a very necessary part of an event.
Ultimately, Ahrens admitted, all of these changes — whether it be carpooling to events or using public transportation — will have to contend with the allure of convenience. Yes, it will always be more sustainable to walk somewhere, but driving is simply easier.
But things change fast. There is almost always a little friction whenever organizations start to implement environmental changes. Eventually people get used to it, and after a while, may even consider it a necessity.
“People are looking for and expecting more sustainable approaches to their events,” Ahren said. “I mean, imagine going into a venue and not seeing a recycling bin. That would be a shock to the system — just to go into an event and not even see one. It’s just expected at this point. But it wasn’t always like that.”
Photo credit: A tram in Helsinki, Finland. Choosing cities with good public transportation is one of the easiest ways for event planners to make their events more sustainable. Benjamin Horn / Flickr