How Flight Shame Could Impact the Events Industry

As concerns over environmental cost of air travel grow louder, meeting planners must rethink event sustainability in terms of transportation.

Plane Flying

In Sweden, they call it "flygskam." In France, it's known as "avihonte." In the U.S., it's "flight shame." Across the world, a new movement is forcing people to rethink their travel habits. Rather than hop on an airplane, a growing number of travelers are opting for more eco-friendly options, such as trains.

In fact, a recent survey from Swiss bank UBS found that 21 percent of people flew less over the last year due to climate concerns. The study, which polled more than 6,000 people from the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and France, suggests air travel growth could be cut in half over the next year as a result. 

But travelers aren't the only ones taking charge on climate change. According to Bloomberg, companies such as Klarna Bank AB, which is based in Sweden, have banned employees from flying within Europe and discouraged long-distance flights. In addition, Germany plans to hike flight taxes and cut taxes on trains in an effort to promote more sustainable travel.

As the flight-shaming trend takes off, meeting planners must consider what this means for the events industry.

"With climate change and sustainability being in the spotlight not only within the industry, but across the globe, event organizers and meeting planners are becoming much more conscious of their environmental footprint and the need to demonstrate their sustainability credentials," said Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC. "Particularly in Europe, we’ve seen an increase in the number of meetings and events taking place in the organization’s home country rather than overseas. This is something we are expecting to increase in the coming few months as businesses become much more conscious of their impact on the environment."

Sustainability has been a hot topic among meeting planners as of late, with Climate Week NYC adding sessions on sustainable travel and leisure for the first time ever this year. But conversations on sustainability within the meetings industry tend to focus on food waste, energy consumption and recycling, while transportation emissions are often overlooked. 

"Transportation is very much the elephant in the room," said Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability at MeetGreen, a meetings management firm that focuses on green practices. "The meetings industry is driven by people coming to a location, so it becomes hard to bite the hand that feeds it."

According to Wallinger, it's often easier for planners to focus on things such as food and plastic waste, which are clearly visible at an event. Transportation can be a tougher issue to tackle, but should not be ignored as it constitutes nearly 70 percent of an event's entire footprint.

Below are a few ways meeting planners can step up their sustainability practices and get ahead of flight shame.

1. Measure Your Environmental Impact

"The first thing an event professional should do is try to get a sense of what your footprint is," said Wallinger.

Many meeting planners have started conducting waste audits of their events and an increasing number of venues, such as New York City's convention facility, the Javits Center, offer reports on energy consumption upon request. 

The next step towards sustainability is to begin measuring the environmental impact of your meeting's air travel, as well. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which is part of the UN, offers a carbon-emissions calculator that planners can use to get a sense of the environmental impact of one roundtrip flight to their event. For more detailed analysis that includes the travel impact of all attendees, Wallinger suggests consulting a professional. 

2. Consider Virtual Events

Perhaps the simplest solution to curbing carbon emissions is to host more virtual meetings. Virtual meetings might not be an option for certain events, such as large industry conferences and networking get togethers, but planners can continue to keep them in mind for smaller events that don't necessitate meeting in person. 

3. Rethink Site Selection

"If your attendee base is in New York City, but you're holding your event on the West Coast, that doesn't add up from a sustainability perspective," said Wallinger. 

Instead, he suggest picking a closer location that is easily accessible via public transportation. This will significantly reduce the environmental impact of the event and might also provide a boost in attendance due to shorter travel time. 

4. Look Local

It's not enough to just consider the air travel of attendees. Meeting planners should also analyze the carbon emissions of flying in labor, speakers and supplies. 

To create a more sustainable event, experts recommend focusing on local sources. This means locally sourced food and beverages, supplementing your staff with local labor and prioritizing local speakers.  

According to Wallinger, the annual meetings industry trade show IMEX America used to source its water from Evian and Fiji. After realizing the environmental impact of providing water that traveled from the French Alps and Fiji to the trade show floor in Las Vegas, IMEX decided it was time for a change. Starting this year, the event provided Arrowhead Water instead, which comes from the San Bernardino Mountains in California. 

5. Offset Your Carbon Emissions

Another option for planners to consider is carbon offsetting. This practice often supports projects that create clean energy and reduce carbon emissions, such as wind turbines and the replanting of forests. Airlines such as Delta, Alaska and JetBlue partner with carbon-offset programs and accept donations to offset flights.

As the conversation around climate change grows louder, event professionals must rethink their sustainability initiatives and prioritize greener options for transportation.  

"Now is the time for action because if we wait for flight shaming to become stronger, we are leaving our event delegates without any narrative to tell their peers, friends and families why they are flying to a conference," said Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events, a nonprofit focused on making the events industry more green. "The 7.6 million young people who attended climate marches in September will all be asking their parents why they are flying and 'pester power' could have an impact on optional business travel."