Sustainability is a hot topic in the events industry, and rightly so – we are by definition an industry which builds temporary locations out of disposable materials and invites people to travel 100s or 1000s of miles to attend.
That presents us with a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility to impact on the sustainability goals of the people and companies we serve. But where should we focus? Our impact will be determined by the size of the sustainability prize and our ability to influence it. The experts tell us that the travel related to events is the main culprit in terms of CO2 production. And of course in terms of waste, it is the stands and the carpets that end up in land-fill that have the most impact.
Matt Grey from Event:Decision explains, “We are seeing trends in data emerge as we measure hundreds of events and stand builds globally to help organisers make sustainable planning decisions. For instance, whilst carpet & badges are visible factors, travel and accommodation associated with an event will outweigh them significantly in terms of emissions. In fact, travel is almost always the highest factor, even without including flights. The largest proportion of a stand-build’s emissions will relate to the crew travelling to build and de-rig, rather than any physical materials on site.”
There is a school of thought that says that by creating marketplaces for an industry to congregate, that a lot of additional journeys are avoided that would have otherwise been made visiting clients or hosting meetings if you were meeting one-by-one. This is hard to quantify, and doesn’t account for the many journeys that happen to events for attendees that don’t end up buying from an Exhibitor.
Another approach would be to consider virtual events as either an alternative to smaller events, or a gateway to larger events by encouraging only those that are definitely in-market to attend, leaving those that are looking to keep up with industry trends and innovation to attend remotely.
I ascribe to the view that Trade Shows and Conferences fulfil a vital role in many industries to promoting business and providing an opportunity to meet suppliers and peers, see and experience products in a way that isn’t possible over a webcam. So we have to ask ourselves what will reduce the environmental impact of events without dramatically reducing their effectiveness in creating business opportunities?
In addition to the focus on sustainability of the event itself, let’s not forget that events are large scale opportunities to showcase sustainable business practices as well we showcasing innovation which reduces impact on the environment. Therefore there are a range of ways that we can consider leading by example to influence the way that our Exhibitors and Attendees do business.
How can we inspire our participants to change the industries in which they operate?
Here are 5 key areas to consider:
Whilst this isn’t actually a sustainable practice itself, it does count towards sustainable solutions and so should be made as easy as possible both by those registering for events, as well as by travel providers. The bigger question is whether the cost of environmental impact relating to travel and shipping should be factored into the price of attending itself. A difficult choice for organisers still trying to achieve pre-pandemic levels of attendance for their exhibitors.
And remember, measurement is vital to achieving carbon neutrality through off-setting. Whether it is your main strategy or part of your materials and transport strategies, you need a figure to offset.
It is understandable that large venues have a significant cost to manage the internal temperature relative to external conditions, especially when some of the most popular locations for events are in hot climates such as Las Vegas or Dubai.
But why do venues often overheat or overcool event halls? Surely this is a very easy place to start to avoid wasting energy. Should we go even further and set “low energy” expectations for participants when attending events, asking them to operate in more moderate temperatures? I for one would wear a coat at an event in winter as long as the hall wasn’t freezing!
Compounding this problem in 2022 is the issue of increase in power costs. This will no doubt impact profits in the short term, however it presents an opportunity to motivate customers to change. Everyone has an increased awareness of the need to reduce energy consumption as well as the need to somehow absorb cost increases related to energy. So as long as events are demonstrating activities to reduce consumption, participants will be more willing to adopt them, and will be understanding of price increases as long as they are transparent.
There are some simple but effective actions organisers can take to help with power consumption. In many countries, moving to renewable energy electricity tariffs incurs only a modest cost increase of around 5-10%. Ensuring that lighting and AV equipment in the hall is switched off at night is easy to implement and effective.
It has been suggested that venues could swap carpets with re-usable astroturf or painted floors. Anyone that has been to a venue with no floor covering will have experienced the multi-story car park acoustics, but can more be done to absorb sound with stand materials themselves?
To anyone new to the events industry, it is a jarring sight the first time you see vast swathes of carpet laid in a matter of hours and then taken up and thrown away 3 days later. As we become more attuned to the message of re-use, this practice starts to seem ridiculous.
Organisers can start to measure and then enforce a no land-fill policy, with recycling of materials only. It should be an expectation that signage and materials are re-used (and are sourced locally from a transport emissions perspective). Much maligned outside of the US, does this give pipe-and-drape a new lease of life over plasterboard and plywood?
Stopping Speakers from travelling whilst allowing participants and materials to make the journey may seem pedantic, yet it demonstrates the principle of making intelligent choices about travel. Someone that makes a few journeys a year to trade shows can understand why it doesn’t make environmental sense for a speaker to criss-cross their way around the world all year long.
Again, we have to find a balance of how to create an event with buzz and excitement in the hall with the need to have every speaker in the room. And you could argue that it is easier for high profile speakers to attend more events this way and thus have a bigger impact (and reducing cost).
Round tables and panels can also benefit from remote access, which can be achieved with readily available tools. Though effective moderation is key to ensure that those participating remotely get their say, or don’t just talk over everyone else because they can’t read the body language in the room.
There are two main culprits for paper waste – badges and brochures. I take a pro-business approach when it comes to badges – they help grease the wheels of events by helping people know who is who, and to remind those (like me) who are feeble of memory the names of those we have met before. Therefore the idea of having badges on mobile phones available on request seems to overlook the valuable role they play.
That is not to say that we couldn’t make badges more sustainable. Plastic badge-holders for print-at-home badges are clearly not environmentally friendly (unless cleaned and re-used), and sponsored lanyards are something we may have to do without in favour of inviting people to bring their own and charging for new ones. My personal challenge is that I would much rather have badges on a lapel than hanging around your navel, making them much easier and more polite to read. Perhaps there is a lower impact solution in there somewhere!
I believe badges are a staple of event attendance, and those events that have tried removing them have incurred the wrath of Exhibitors. They also make lead capture simple, and digital document collect easy and intuitive.
Which leads me onto my favourite sustainability topic – that of digital content collection. I have worked in this product space as an organiser and a vendor since 2016, and I can confidently say that Organisers are pushing on an open door with this one. Exhibitors and Attendees vehemently agree that ditching paper brochures in place of digital content is not only better for the environment, but far better for the event experience. Allowing Exhibitors to create digital profiles with product images, PDF brochures and technical specs means that they can pass on all their most attractive and useful content without having to weigh down the attendee.
Attendees can realise their investment in time and budget in coming to the event by gathering as much information about business opportunities as possible, and easily share it with colleagues and managers. It also addresses the challenge of Exhibitors being tardy in responding to requests to send information after the event.
The cost savings can also be significant. Exhibitors can spend between $2K to $20K per event, with an average spend of $5-6K. Shipping and drayage is on top of that. Definitely a sum worth saving. An interesting statistic I found is that 1 ream of paper takes 5% of a tree to make. So, imagine a 1,000 Exhibitor event in which each Exhibitor gives away 500 4-page brochures; The printing alone saves 200 trees!
The kicker for Organisers is that this product is effectively marketing as a service – sending information directly to interested prospects and collecting their lead information in return. Which has sufficient value to create a significant revenue stream for the event.
The event industry has characteristics which make it a prime candidate for ensuring organisers, exhibitors and attendees are doing everything they can to limit the environmental impact of their participation as well as being responsible about the need to attend the right events. As governments cast their net wider for the companies that are being asked to report carbon impact, we not only need to reduce our own footprint but as a supplier allow our customers to calculate the impact of attending our events.
Recently the RX show Arabian Travel Market announced that its theme for 2023 is “Working towards net-zero” and that they will recognise exhibitors that demonstrate environmental impact of their stand and have attempted to reduce or offset their carbon footprint. This kind of initiative will no doubt become widespread, ahead of more stringent measures to enforce sustainability practices across the industry.
A key part of improving sustainability is measurement – only by understanding the amount of waste produced, your energy consumption, the travel distances involved, the paper distributed can you set yourself targets for reduction.
Companies like Event:Decision are providing events with tools and data to support such calculations, resulting in a sustainability assessment and report on virtual and physical event activities. Such reports should take into account all elements of event planning and delivery, enabling meaningful reporting of sustainability savings in accordance with ISO20121:2012.
Matt Harris, Konduko CEO says “we too often look for the big things to change when it is the little things that count. Removing paper, just like countries banning plastic bags in the supermarket, removing carpet, being conscious of the issue and doing our bit will all help in the short term. These are easy things to tick off, it takes us humans no time to adjust, and it won’t be before long that it is the norm”.
Konduko provides technology which takes paper off the show floor and uses digital content to increase engagement and leads for Exhibitors. Organisers can increase the value of their shows, improve the outcomes for Exhibitors and Attendees whilst becoming more sustainable.