Meeting Mentor Magazine

June 2024

How COVID Could Propel Sustainability for Events

“It’s very challenging in the eye of the COVID storm to see how this is going to settle on the other side,” said Stephen Carter, Group CEO of Informa, during a panel on advancing the sustainability of events during The Nest Summit, organized by NXT Events Media Group. However, he and his fellow panelists — Carrie Freeman Parsons, Chair of the Board with Freeman, and Alan Steel, President and CEO of New York’s Javits Center — believe that the pandemic may actually end up being a catalyst for more systemic change when it comes to making events more eco-friendly.

The panel, which was sponsored by SISO, was held as part of The Nest Summit in conjunction with Climate Week NYC, September 21-25.

Moving Sustainability to the Front Burner
The idea is nothing new for Informa, Freeman, and the Javits Center, which all have been working toward making events more sustainable for years. In fact, the panel was held in the Javits Broadcast Studio, one of the New York City convention center’s most recent offerings to help event organizers provide digital and hybrid options for those who can’t participate in on-site meetings during the pandemic — and beyond. Javits also has the second largest green roof in the U.S., and has worked to bring back birds and bees, as well as introducing a number of programs designed to redirect food waste and reduce energy consumption, including a solar array on the roof that will generate approximately 2.5 megawatts of electricity.

“In the short term, COVID-19 is having a significant disruptive effect on any plans that we might have. But I think in the long term what is really important is to be able to measure and then manage the sustainability efforts not just of the building but also of our customers, to help them develop the programs that can make sure that they have the information to determine what sustainability plans they need to have,” said Steel.

Informa, one of the world’s largest event producers, has instituted its FasterForward program, designed to make the organizer a zero waste and zero net carbon business by 2030 — after halving the waste generated through its products and events by 2025. Carter said one of the strategies driving the program is to look beyond just the sticker price of products and services to look at the true cost of production throughout the supply chain — including the environmental costs. The company also is making its content more sustainable by amping up its digital content business. “We’re trying to make sustainable content a bigger part of where we add value to our customers and their industries,” Carter said.

Informa also is spearheading a project with Freeman and SISO called the SEBIG Council, which stands for Sustainable Events: Big Initiative Group. The council brings together industry leaders to find innovative, long-term solutions to help create a sustainable future for the events industry. More than 20 leading events associations and organizers are participating.

About five years ago Freeman decided to become a “design thinking organization,” said Parsons. This included spending time with architects, business leaders and designers who were embedding environmental sustainability into their projects from the outset. “Not just from a LEED Green Building perspective,” she said, but how they incorporated waste reduction in their core values. “Once we started embedding our values into our manifesto, we knew that the tide had turned and that this was not going to be just a program for Freeman, but something that is going to be embedded into how we think about everything we do.”

This means looking at every event and every project in terms of how to reduce the materials required and so the costs for exhibitors. This really impacts the planning stage, she said, because by reducing environmental impacts, you’re also reducing the expense. Freeman also is concentrating on working with reusable exhibit systems and graphic materials, as well as sourcing materials that can be recycled more effectively.

“We’re also adding a measurement around environmental reduction and waste reduction, which is causing us to go a little further than we might have otherwise because we’re realizing that we have an opportunity to make an even bigger impact in the long term, when we add that sustainability lens into our decisions,” she said.

With COVID Comes More Scrutiny — and That’s a Good Thing
All industries, including meetings and events, are going to face more scrutiny after the pandemic, said Carter. “I think [sustainability] is an area where scrutiny is good.”

Specifically, he believes that there will be more focus on energy sourcing, not just consumption, moving forward. “We made a decision as a company to move to green energy suppliers as a means of contributing to our own carbon neutrality ambitions,” he said. Waste management and sustainable materials sourcing also are going to continue to increase in importance post-COVID, he predicted.

“I also believe the business will migrate more toward buyer qualification and lead generation rather than just absolute volumes,” Carter added. As air travel ground to a halt during the pandemic, organizations are reassessing when travel, including to events, is actually necessary. While the total number of attendees “won’t disappear as a metric, it is going to become a less important metric.”

Parsons agreed that what is going to preserve the sustainability of events is their relevance to the marketers who attend as well as the attendees. Organizers must “focus on making sure that the right people are attending, not that a maximum number of people are attending” — and that it will be up to the show organizers to be clear about their value proposition. Not only will attendees themselves be more discriminate about the shows they are willing to travel to attend, but companies also are going to be choosier about where they’re willing to spend their marketing dollars to exhibit, she added.

“Going digital certainly will expand the reach, but the live event is going to expand the depth — the ability of hundreds of people to make hundreds of connections in a short amount of time, as opposed to making individual trips.” While it may be a bit painful as everyone involved adjusts their financial metrics, “I do think it’s going to lead to a healthier place for the evens industry overall,” she said.

Creating Efficiencies
Will shows stay smaller and more regional, as those that have been able to happen in-person have tended to be during the COVID crisis? “There will be a different return path for different sectors, different geographies, different cultures and different communities,” said Carter. “We will have many large events, but there will be learnings from the virtual events,” he added, including more hybrid products.

We also may see some consolidation of events that were a little shaky prior to the pandemic, he added, “but overall, we think that large events will be back. It’s just going to be a matter and when and where and the business value we bring to our audiences.”

In terms of sustainability, the industry needs to reach a standard for waste management, recycling, reducing single-use products until the lack becomes as noticeable as someone smoking in a restaurant is now. “People are going to say, ‘Why are you doing that?’” said Carter.

However, event organizers still will have to balance the efficiencies of bringing large numbers of people together in one place and time with the environmental costs of air travel. As Parsons said, “The good news is there is more realization of the value of the events and meetings industry overall to the economies that I think is going to self-perpetuate. But if an event is not driving value for the constituents that are participating, providing the catalyst for building businesses or exchanging ideas or delivering education, then why are you getting on an airplane to do that? It continues to go back to this notion of ensuring that we are delivering events that are providing value and attracting the right audiences.”

Carter added, “While digital may sustain relationships, you need physical interaction to create those relationships. That’s an internal human truth. I don’t see that going away anytime soon.” — Sue Pelletier


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