Global Updates

How sustainable is the business events industry?

As world leaders gather for the UN Climate Change Summit this week, it’s time for event professionals to get serious about sustainability.

For the business events industry, sustainability has been a watchword for some time now, with stakeholders — from venues, hotels, airlines and associations to convention bureaus, increasingly vocal about moves to reduce carbon footprint, offset ‘event pollution’ such as reducing the use of plastic and paper, and limit waste.

But is there too much talk and not enough action?

The complexity of climate issues makes taking action daunting, with very few having really thought through the implications, says Guy Bigwood. He was sustainability director at MCI and is now managing director of the Global Destination Sustainability Index (GDSIndex), which monitors the development and performance of sustainable business tourism destinations.

“To limit climate change to a 1.5°C temperature increase, we need to reduce net emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, and net zero by 2050 [according to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change],” he says. “This requires a major overhaul of the tourism and meetings industries’ business model.

We will have to radically reduce the amount of flying, accelerate innovation, combine business and leisure trips and fundamentally optimise our meetings and their infrastructure.”

Guy Bigwood

Bigwood believes the events industry is not quite ready yet — but says it is approaching the tipping point and that business leaders are really opening their eyes to the need for change.

And with the events sector’s spread of contacts and influence, it could be a catalyst for global change across all industries.

“We need to be better storytellers. Event professionals need to create an engaging and aspirational narrative that explains what they are doing to make their events sustainable, and to inspire participants to support these goals,” he says.

“Most organisers still communicate sustainability poorly. We need to use better imagery and language to touch people’s hearts and minds.”

The question of whether the industry contributes to ‘over tourism’ is also an interesting one. Bigwood says that in many ways the industry is a solution to over tourism, bringing visitors to destinations out of season, where they spend at least double compared to a leisure tourist.

“Additionally, events bring in knowledge, investment and inspiration,” he says.“But mega-events undoubtedly affect some local people and their day-to-day patterns. The trick is for organisers to better engage and involve local citizens in the planning of a destination and its events.”

Craig Lehto, general manager of Vancouver Convention Centre, believes the current [sustainability] reality is still one where economic impact often wins over the environmental one.

Vancouver Convention Centre features a ‘green’ roof

In October 2017, the venue was the first convention centre in the world to be double LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified, a benchmark for the next generation of green buildings.

“When it comes to sustainability and the impact being made, you can’t be humble – when others see what these efforts achieve, they’re drawn in and more willing to have that conversation,” he says.

“For us, being able to clearly demonstrate the organisational value of adding sustainable practices into our operations has had an immense impact on clients and other groups we work with.”

He adds that from a business standpoint, this is still a very fresh way of thinking. When the convention centre can showcase how it has benefited from green building design or a community element in services such as its scratch kitchen or recycling programme, it encourages event organisers to think about how they can do likewise.

Pushing the boundaries

Bigwood suggests a simple yet powerful incentive would be for exhibition organisers to charge exhibitors for the waste they produce. Centres and hotels need to go ‘full into’ sustainability — not as a purchasable option but as a standard way of working.

IMEX America 2019

At this year’s IMEX shows, for example, exhibitors were encouraged to take a sustainability pledge by committing to three initiatives from a list of nine, including reducing all single-use plastics and paper, using public transport or walking to the show where possible and reducing or only offering sustainable gifts/ giveaways.

CEO of IMEX Group, Carina Bauer, says that the pledge was “generally very well received”, although just under a quarter of the stands at IMEX Frankfurt took part (78 from a total of 320).

An in-house ‘sustainability squad’ carried out unofficial audits during the show to see what progress was being made and at IMEX America a series of ‘sustainability safaris’ took place around the show floor to help raise awareness.

Sustainability safaris at IMEX America

“We know there’s an appetite among many of our exhibitors to do more to actively protect the environment, especially locally where they live and work,” says Bauer. “However, those behaviours aren’t always easy to replicate during a trade show and this is what we want to help them to achieve.”

This year, IMEX eliminated delegate bags, issued bamboo lanyards and most caterers avoided serving red meat – there was even an ‘Impossible Burger’ on the menu at Sands Expo Convention Center during IMEX America.

“We’re starting to explore if fairtrade options are feasible in the long term,” adds Bauer.

This week, industry leaders submitted an Acceleration Action to the UN Climate Change Summit, outlining how the events sector can contribute the the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.