Making Sustainability a Priority in Events

Beyond recycling and reducing carbon output, business events require sustainability initiatives that benefit the communities they visit.

Visit Spokane put their sustainability initiatives front and center at Convening Leaders in January 2022.
Visit Spokane put their sustainability initiatives front and center at Convening Leaders in January 2022. Photo Credit: Visit Spokane

Planner Progress
How does sustainability currently play into planners' policies, practices and relationships? Download the new First Look Research report, "The Slow Progress of Sustainability in Meetings," for exclusive insight on current sentiment and future plans.

During the Professional Convention Management Association’s Convening Leaders conference this past January in Las Vegas, representatives of Visit Spokane were there to talk trash. The convention and visitors bureau’s booth signage proclaimed Spokane’s dedication to sustainable practices, and leaders from the Washington city were armed with literature on the carbon-cutting benefits of gathering there. Visit Spokane sponsored garbage-can wraps, too, with slogans like “Slam dunk the junk.”

While the destination has long embraced environmentally friendly practices — Spokane hosted the first environmentally themed World’s Fair in 1974 — this was the first time they took such an overt approach at an industry event. "We’ve ramped up the sustainability effort and messaging," says Visit Spokane’s CMO, Jamie Rand. "We can’t come out of this pandemic doing things the way we have always done them."

Alexis Kereluk
Alexis Kereluk, a partner at Connect Seven Group, is well-versed in helping destinations embrace sustainability strategies.

The CVB is delivering that message loudly to the meetings community, notes Alexis Kereluk, a partner at the event management and sustainable destination development firm Connect Seven Group in Vancouver, British Columbia. Kereluk lauded Spokane’s marketing approach at the show. “I thought that was really bold, to make sustainability your top branding and priority in front of everybody in the industry,” she says. 

Kereluk, via her work as one of the North American representatives of the Global Destination Sustainability Movement, is well-versed in helping destinations embrace a green strategy. The GDS Index, a sustainability benchmarking program, now includes 73 participating destinations around the world. But only one current participant — Washington, D.C. — is in the United States, a fact that makes Spokane’s message all the more unique.

More efforts like Spokane’s are needed to make the events industry a more sustainable endeavor overall, Kereluk points out. "The responsibility needs to be on the destinations," she asserts. "They need to be providing the framework for planners to make it easier to host sustainable meetings — and planners need to understand that those opportunities are out there.

"Of course planners do need to start demanding that as well," she adds.

This demand does exist, Kereluk says, and it is growing. Fifty of the destinations currently participating in the GDS Index have joined since 2016. While only four are in North America, Kereluk knows of at least 10 more on this side of the Atlantic that are budgeting to participate. Plus, Kereluk and Connect Seven no longer need to pitch the project; the destinations are coming to them. 

Meetings With a Positive Impact

General demand for sustainable practices also is increasing stateside. According to research from Forrester, more than two-thirds of U.S. consumers plan to identify brands that reduce environmental impact, and 61 percent seek out energy-efficient labels when making purchases. Meanwhile, environmental sustainability has become more closely aligned with social and governance accountability in the corporate sector.

"For us, it’s about using meetings to provide a positive impact to a destination," Kereluk explains. "When we say 'sustainability,' we have to include the social and economic benefits to a community as well as the environment."

In essence, we’re really talking about the sustainability of the events industry itself, in the face of threats to the environment and community health. How can meetings benefit a destination, and be a part of the solution rather than the problem?

"We need to intentionally define an issue or a problem in the host destination... and then work backwards to make a plan of how this conference will address that."
Alexis Kereluk
Connect Seven Group

So, while destinations are responsible for promoting their efforts — and connecting planners with the right metrics and local suppliers to help them measure it — planners likewise should be approaching events differently to ensure they create that positive impact.

"We need to intentionally define an issue or a problem in the host destination," Kereluk explains, "and then work backwards and make a plan of how this conference is going to help address that. We can determine the impact and how to measure that in advance. And we have tools and models to help."

The benefit could be environmental, social, economic or all of the above. "It depends on what problem you’re trying to solve," Kereluk explains.

Particularly crucial, from an industry standpoint, is ensuring we have a way to measure that impact.

Measuring Event Benefits

Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact, wants to change the narrative of what events can accomplish.

"Traditionally, event professionals have­n’t been measuring," says Fiona Pelham, CEO of the global nonprofit Positive Impact, which provides education, engagement and collaboration to create a sustainable meetings sector. "The narrative around the impact of an event is still missing. Think of the opportunity we’d have if the events sector could more consistently measure our impact, and then lead on a conversation of what happens when human connection takes place face-to-face. In my lifetime, when that conversation has happened, it’s always been about money; it has to be more about legacy. We need the events sector to be able to discuss sustainable development goals and how bringing people together isn’t a bad thing."

A Values-Driven Workforce

The travel and events industry has long dealt with questions of environmental and community impact, and the lack of travel and face-to-face meetings activity during the pandemic has brought those matters into even sharper relief. The youngest generation in the workforce now is likely to be most insistent on demanding answers.

Surveys of millennials and Gen Z-ers reveal they are invested not only in social and environmental issues, but they also take great interest in how corporations address such challenges. According to the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, in the past two years, 49 percent of Gen Z-ers and 44 percent of millennials have based choices of the type of work they are prepared to do or organizations they’d work for on personal ethics. Three out of 10 Gen Z-ers have participated in a public protest or march. Just over two-thirds of both groups agreed with the statement, "Environmental changes seen during the pandemic — less pollution, cleaner water, etc. — make me more optimistic that climate change can be reversed."

Setting Industry Sustainability Goals

Corporations are rapidly responding to sustainability concerns, and the events industry is going to need to catch up. In early March, Microsoft announced it would be adopting more aggressive measures to reduce its carbon emissions. Among many other measures the company detailed will be an increase in the internal carbon-offset fee for business travel — from the current $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalent to a whopping $100 per metric ton.

The funds will help finance Microsoft’s various internal sustainability initiatives, such as contributing to the purchase of sustainable aviation fuel — and theoretically, the company will encourage its travel suppliers to take similarly aggressive measures. Environmentally speaking, it’s a bold, positive move, but likely will reduce the company’s business travel to a significant degree.

"I predict it’s less than 12 months before all the major companies have followed Microsoft’s lead," says Pelham. Event professionals can create a solid framework and begin measuring impacts towards net-zero carbon goals and more, she explains, but to do so most effectively they should look outside the events industry for universal benchmarks and commitments that are being adopted.

"The longer we wait, the greater our challenge is going to be."
Fiona Pelham
Positive Impact

Pelham is a proponent of the Race to Zero initiative, which grew out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent treaty of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Her company is helping to represent the events sector in the Race to Zero initiative: Small to medium events businesses can register at and will receive free support and resources to help them set goals.

"Making the commitment is no longer a 'nice to do,'" Pelham stresses. "By measuring and tracking our carbon footprint right now, we can speak the language of our corporate clients. The longer we wait, the greater our challenge is going to be."