Meeting Mentor Magazine

March 2024

Events Industry Post-COVID: Let’s Build Back Better

The United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, will lead to sustainable development that will support the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

When most people think of the word “sustainability,” they think in environmental terms. And yes, that is an important piece of the puzzle meeting professionals must consider as they rebuild the meetings and events industry post-COVID-19. But it’s not the only piece, said Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, MBA, Vice President, Sustainability and Industry Advancement, Events Industry Council; and Yalmaz Siddiqui, Vice President, Corporate Sustainability, MGM Resorts International, during a presentation on the sustainable and equitable path to recovery during the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) digital Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID) program.

Meeting professionals have to think in terms of all three of the three Ps — people, planet, and profit — coined by John Elkington 25 years ago, said Siddiqui. Meetings of the future must “support the bottom line of economics, environment, and society.” Specific needs that need to be met by 2030, as laid out in the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, will lead to sustainable development that will support the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, he added. These include environmental goals such as access to clean water and affordable energy, along with social goals like eliminating hunger and achieving social and gender equity, and economic goals around infrastructure and innovation.

“We have a responsibility to affect positive social change in the communities where we hold our events, the communities we create in our workforce, and in our event environments,” said McIlwraith.

“Equity is fundamental for us to think about — we are the industry that fosters human connections, and we need to make sure that we’re connecting as many people as possible, and including many diverse perspectives. That’s only going to lead to a stronger, more resilient workforce, and ultimately will be beneficial to all of us,” she added.

Events Are at the Crux of Sustainability

“The events industry sits within a much broader context of companies and associations, both in the public and private sector,” Siddiqui pointed out. “This awful complicated COVID moment” has encouraged the world to think about how to rebuild better, more resilient companies and societies, he added. “We need to be aware that external factors have a direct and very significant impact on us, and also that we’re vulnerable to those external factors, sometimes very profoundly, as we saw with COVID.”

Companies, associations, and countries are now thinking beyond the usual economic factors to determine how they can build back better both environmentally and socially. “Building back better for events can be a crucible for action around these important themes,” said Siddiqui.

No Time to Waste

The UN’s SDG deadline of 2030 means there’s not time to waste, said McIlwraith. Fortunately, “We know that we have the capacity to take on major challenges together and to apply a sense of collective consciousness to resolve global challenges.” One example of that is how the meetings and events industry has come together to share knowledge around COVID, specifically through the accomplishments of the Event Industry Council’s APEX COVID-19 Business Recovery Task Force.

“There’s a saying that, before you split the pie, you have to grow the pie,” she said. “With COVID, everyone has contributed everything they could to build this pie. Now it’s time to grow the ingredients to make the next pie” by thinking about the contributions we each — suppliers, event organizers, and participants — can make, she said.

Top Environmental Priorities

There are two event-specific environmental priorities that meeting planners must address as they rebuild the industry: carbon emissions related to air travel, and single-use plastics, Siddiqui and McIlwraith said.

Air travel is tricky. Not only is it essential to meetings — “one of the risks of a focus on avoiding flying post-COVID is that we lose that value of the human connection,” said Siddiqui — but reducing air travel will only exacerbate the challenges many destinations around the world have in terms of being able to thrive as local economies.

“There’s been profound economic disruptions to cities and countries around the world that depend on tourism that comes from comes from events,” he said. “Like many things in life, this is really about finding the right the right balance — and that includes recognizing that we should have digital options as part our event design.” While digital events have some limitations, they also can expand the audience access to your content.

The key will be to make responsible travel choices, he added. This could mean thinking about where your attendees will be coming from the perspective of reducing carbon emissions — can more people fly direct? Can you lengthen the event to provide maximum benefit per attendee flight? Planners also must determine their event’s carbon footprint and plan for mitigating that environmental impact through purchasing offsets, for example.

And make sure the event is worth traveling to, added McIlwraith. “Make sure that it’s worth getting on that plane, that we are designing and executing exceptional events that will outperform their digital alternatives.” Leverage your ability to build connections digitally, and then give people the opportunity to build on those relationships in person, she said.

While single-use plastics are even more ubiquitous now that we live in an era of disposable everything to reduce the risk of COVID transmission, planners can make more sustainable choices, said McIlwraith. Are the materials compostable or reusable? What’s the lifecycle of that box — and what’s inside of that box?

Keep Social Equity on the Agenda

“I’d like to encourage everyone to think about is equity, both in terms of employment within your organization, whether you’re a venue or a meeting planner, and also outside your organization in terms of encouraging venues to work with diverse suppliers,” said Siddiqui. Are you, and they, supporting women-owned businesses, local businesses, and minority-owned businesses?

McIlwraith added that the EIC Equity Task Force is looking at four focus areas: career pathways in our industry; leadership opportunities in the industry; event design; and organizations themselves. “How can we make each of these more equitable, more diverse?” she said.

“As we look at ramping up our industry, I would strongly encourage all of us to take a look at our hiring and meeting practices to make sure that they genuinely are welcoming and accessible to all.”




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