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We’re feeling a bit green today, and it’s all thanks to the topic of sustainability in events! That’s right, the third edition of our bite-sized pieces of wisdom is here. Our partnership with MPI at IMEX America is the gift that keeps on giving. And while we’ve already covered leadership and safety, there’s no shortage of hot topics to go around. Which is why this week, we’re tackling yet another conversation that’s near and dear to our hearts. Sustainability in events has been covered several times by our team. But because you can’t get too much of a this important topic, we have even more tips for you.

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Our incredible host sat down with four very special guests. Fiona Pelham, Roger Lehner, Guy Bigwood, and Courtney Lohmann joined us for a little chat on a massive topic. And they had quite a few bits of wisdom to share when it comes to implementing and promoting sustainability in events. Check out the interviews below, and join us on this quest to ride the green wave!

Strategic Thinking: How To Move Sustainability In Events Forward

If you’re an avid follower of Endless Events, then Fiona Pelham is no stranger to you. One of our favorite go-to’s when it’s time to talk about sustainability in events, Fiona has been featured in several episodes of #EventIcons. She’s the CEO of Positive Impact Events and the person behind MPI’s Sustainable Practitioner Certificate Program. Once again, she’s ready to share her thoughts on the role of leadership in planning sustainable events.

Sustainability In Events – Where Do We Stand?

We’ve covered before the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals. There are 17 of them, and it covers everything from gender equality to climate change. “For all of those goals to be met, people need to come together”, says Fiona. “To innovate, and to create. That’s what our industry does! So, we have a real strategic opportunity to reframe the way we speak about meetings and events. And to say that we are the industry that will cause the sustainability goals to be met”.

Fiona gives particular emphasis to the fact that we need to change the way we talk about our industry. “We do have a threat on the horizon. Because when people think about meetings and events, they think about travel. And they think about the practical elements like the food waste and plastic water bottle use”, she explains. “We need to reframe the conversation so that people don’t just think about the negative impact. But they’re understanding they brought 500 people together and they learned something”.

Handling Corporate Clients

“Corporate clients are reporting on their sustainability initiatives”, says Fiona. “We went through 200 reports in the Summer of 2019. And not a single sustainability report mentioned events. This is a huge opportunity for the industry to tell our corporate clients about what we do”. She also makes a point to mention that we can’t win the battle of not having a negative impact. That’s an inevitable part of bringing people together. However, “we can explain the conversation of why we bring people together”.

Leading The Way To Sustainability In Events

What can event professionals do to contribute to this cause? First and foremost, Fiona advises that any member of an organization that plans meetings “goes to their CEO and talks about sustainable development goal 4.7”. This is the goal that focuses on equipping people with the skills and knowledge to promote sustainable development. “That will change the whole conversation about our industry and it will give us more energy when we’re faced with the issues of reducing our carbon emissions, decreasing our waste footprint, and so on”.

“In my mind, there is no greater way to elevate than to use sustainable development goals. That’s the language of business and the language of government”, adds Fiona. “I would question whether the current leadership in our industry truly understands the opportunity to talk about our industry in a way that it meets the goals. So what I would challenge all of us to do is be that leader”.

What’s the ultimate advice from Fiona when it comes to leading the way? “I would say there’s no right thing to do. There’s just action to take. And the more you can share your story, the more our industry can talk about the sustainability journey, rather than waiting until they have all the reparations sorted until they mention it”.

How To Implement Sustainability In Events

Our next guest, Roger Lehner, is a true sustainability powerhouse. He was in charge of the operations and of the Green Squad at IMEX America when we had the pleasure of sitting down with him. Roger has been with the IMEX Group for nine years. So he has quite a bit to say about the implementation of sustainability in events. Let’s hear him out!

What Can I Do Right Now?

IMEX has been at the forefront of promoting sustainable initiatives. For instance, at this year’s IMEX America, they completely banned single-use plastics, which is already a gigantic step forward. But whether your event is of a big or small scale, there are also things you can be doing right now to implement sustainability in events. “If you think it’s overwhelming, just start with one thing”, says Roger. “One thing that everyone can do is put out water stations and ask their attendees to bring their own bottles with them, so you can save on single-use materials”.

“It’s very important to talk to your stakeholders”, he adds. “It’s important that you approach them well in advance, you listen to their concerns. Because there might be supply chains in place, there might be reasons why they use a certain material over another. So don’t try to do everything at once. Do little steps and count on the support of your stakeholders as well”.

Encouraging Your Stakeholders

Roger also tackles best practices when it comes to communicating with several stakeholders on the matter. “It really depends where you are in your cycle. So if you’re already in a contract, don’t think it’s too late just because you haven’t put anything on your RFP”, he says. “Start the conversation. The most fool-proof version is definitely to put it into the RFP, to say it’s important to you. And even make it open, to say you want to have a sustainable event, and how you can make it happen together”.

Taking Event Sustainability To The Next Level

“One thing that people can do for their events is definitely some sort of certification”, adds Roger. “We’re doing the EIA sustainability event standards. That really gives you a very broad approach to look for ideas, what you can do. And the real benefit of the standards is that you don’t have to do everything. It gives an overview of ideas to work on, and you can start with a few, and then go to the next ones. It gives you a structure to work with”.

There are dozens of resources you can check out to help you on the journey to sustainability in events. In addition to this, Roger advises that you “follow sustainability in the media, in general, to see what our current topics that are important. One thing that we look into very deeply is the circular economy. Because reducing waste in our industry is something we need to make happen”.

Speaking out is also another tip from Roger. “It’s important that you start telling people that your event is sustainable. And just make sure you tell them at every single point. Catch people where they are – on the menus, you can have logos of locally sourced items, for example”.

What’s On The Horizon For Sustainability In Events?

“One thing that has big fruits for us is catering”, Roger adds. “Through your meal choices, you can actually have a really big impact. Red meat we all know is a little bit of a culprit. No one is saying that you need to become a vegetarian or a vegan. But just think about maybe once or twice switching your red meat for another option. And the impact that you can have on climate change is actually very, very large”.

IMEX America had a partnership with Impossible this year, making the Impossible Burguer one of the meatless options for the event. “From the first day at IMEX this year, nearly 50% of all burgers sold were actually Impossible Burgers. And one of the reasons why I think this was possible is because the impossible burger was the first option on the menu”. Smart move!

Achieving Sustainability In Events

Guy Bigwood is our third guest speaking on the topic of sustainability in events. And talk about a pro! Guy has been doing this for two decades, which makes him a true veteran. He’s the Managing Director of GUBI Consulting, and he worked as Group Sustainability Director at MCI Group for ten years before that. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s get going!

Global Destination Sustainability Index 

Guy created something called the Destination Sustainability Index, which started back when he was running a workshop in the Scandinavian countries. “We kind of started creating a vision for a sustainable meetings region. And then someone asked how would we know when we were there. So we created a system, a benchmark. We launched it in Scandinavia, and it worked so well, created so much change and progress, that we decided to launch it”, he explains.

“So we launched it globally in 2015. And so today, we have 60 cities from all around the world, and what they do is they benchmark what they’re doing as a city, environmentally and socially. Then, as a meetings industry, and then as a destination. So you have four chunks, and that gives you a ranking, a performance grade. And once you have that, you can then get better. We work as a community to share information and knowledge, and to drive change”, he concludes.

The Learning Process

Years of gathering information reminded Guy of the “importance of collecting data, having a data-driven program is invaluable”. And the second thing he learned was that “you don’t have to be Portland or San Francisco to be the best at doing stuff and getting action around events. And that for me is a key message”.

“What we’re all about is how you take a city, an ecosystem, and with all the parts of the organism, how do you get those all aligned and working together towards sustainability”, he adds. “Many, like Portland, have done a great job at that. But others are nowhere near. That takes real leadership to do, and that’s what we drive the destinations to do”.

Moving Forward With Sustainability In Events

When it comes to tactical tips in order to start implementing sustainability in events, Guy is all about the “zeronaut” philosophy. “Let’s go zero plastic, let’s go zero carbon emissions, zero waste, zero pesticides, things like that. So, just start basic. Get rid of all single-use waste at your events, get rid of the butter packs, the sugar. Have a conversation. Create a policy with the five things you want to do, send that to your suppliers, and say – how are we going to do that together?”.

“That’s the key thing, commitment, sharing, start working towards it”, he adds. “And then you can start to break it up into different areas. You can use EIA to break it into chunks – your venue, your AV production, etc. Choose a sustainable venue, choose a sustainable hotel. Ask for certifications, go for certified suppliers”.

Where Should We Look?

Guy also brings up the concept of a circular economy. “As an industry, we have to find a way to generate and twist. We are one of the most wasteful industries in the world. So how do we go towards that cycle where we take, we use, we recycle, we purpose, bring it back into the system so that there’s a constant cycle?”

Making this concept a reality can be tricky. When something is recycled, and then recycled once more, it loses its value. So how do we go around this? “A great example is Adidas. Great new shoes they came up with, they re-spin the ocean waste, and they make the new training shoe. And that can be recycled”, explains Guy. We have to think about “the best ways to disrupt ad break the model” so we can spin things to our advantage in the quest for sustainability in events.

The Role of Food In Event Sustainability

Another thing we can start doing today is related to food. “I’ve used quite a simple methodology over the years, which is FLOSS”, says Guy. “Fair, Local, Organic, Seasonal, and Smart. So you have to think about who is making the food, where it comes from, and is it fair. And local used to be just about having local food. The next step now is how we can help accelerate our local food revolution. How do we bring back all of those recipes that got lost along the way”.

“It’s not about perfection, it’s about progress. So how can we bit by bit start increasing the percentage of organics? It’s about sustainable food, sustainable fish, lowering the amount of meat you serve. And then lastly, smart. Let’s think about food that stimulates brain activity, like avocados, and oils”.

Remember The Goal

Guy leaves us with some words to instigate action. “We have to make our industry carbon neutral by 2050. That’s the challenge. We gotta do a lot of action. We have to really step up, scale-up, and step-up to the challenge. And that means we have to rethink our business models. But also, we need a lot of meetings to bring a lot of people from other industries together because they have to do the same. So yes, we need to be a lot more conscious and get so much better in the creativity and strategy of producing events. Optimize them and make them deliver results”, he concludes.

Strategizing For Sustainability In Events

And last but certainly not least is Courtney Lohmann. Courtney is the Director of Culture at PRA. And one of her biggest passions is, of course, sustainability in events. Courtney has been taking part in this conversation, and she has a handful of great tips to share with all of us on how we can keep moving forward with sustainability.

Let’s Get Going!

“We’ve talked enough”, says Courtney. “We are all talked out, let’s start implementing, let’s start taking action. And let’s start figuring out how we can do this together. That’s what we need to be doing”. She believes now is the time to begin thinking strategically and to actually do something. “I think the most important piece right now is that we, at a corporate level, all of us need to take accountability, and put in place our own internal strategic action plan for how we’re going to operate our businesses sustainably. And if we can take that step, we’ll start to see change on a radical level spread throughout the industry”.

But how can we begin? “The first thing you should do is, you need to take a pulse on what your internal corporate culture is”, Courtney explains. “Where we need to begin to really implement change is internally with our own culture. So how do you engage the stakeholders within your organization? How do you talk to them about what we can do from a strategic standpoint to change the operation of the company? That’s where you want to begin”.

How To Talk About Sustainability In Events

When it comes to this kind of conversation with your stakeholders, Courtney believes “it’s bigger than even sustainability. It’s what do we believe in and what do we want to stand for. How do we see ourselves in the greater landscape of the industry itself? And we can we affect change through things like corporate social responsibility and sustainability? So there are a lot of issues that fall under the umbrella of sustainability”.

“Next plans would be trying to figure out what your action plan is going to be from there”, she continues. “And I think the next step action plan is what are you doing in your office? How is your office handling their own internal sustainability? How are you engaging with your employers and how are you teaching them about change with sustainability? And how does that change the business forward? How does it affect the operating business outwardly to your clients, and how that positively affects everyone?”.

The Key Elements Of A Sustainability In Events Action Plan

We all wish there was the perfect template for everything out there. Such a thing doesn’t exist, but there are some key elements that you should always look into having. “From an internal standpoint, it’s making sure you have total employee buy-in”, says Courtney. “Because you can’t really push the plan outward to a client, or then an attendee, without that strong, internal buy-in. And that starts at the top. You need to have your leadership involved fully in what that plan is for your strategy and implementation. And then how you affect that communication down and get buy-in to every level of the company”.

“There are so many differences with sustainability that happen on a regional level, that everyone’s abilities to participate may be slightly different. And so you have to craft buy-in so that it makes sense to everyone across the entire brand”, she adds. So the importance of having strategic goals arises, which offers both the chance of participation and pushing forward by doing more.

What’s Keeping Us From Sustainability?

Courtney led a discussion where almost every single person present blamed cost for keeping them from implementing sustainability in their events. “Again, internally, when you’re developing your strategic plan, one of the most important things to look at and address is why is this good for business?”, she explains. “And understanding how business can change because of sustainability, and why it changes in a positive way. It’s about creating efficiencies for your team, and everyone wants to ensure profits stay positive. Sustainability can be very good for both of those things, and so that buy-in, and understanding, and setting those goals that relate back to those two things really help drive it forward”.

So, what to do next? “Absolutely get started!”, says Courtney. “If you have a passion for sustainability internally, start having that conversation, and be the champion. Take that passion, move it forward, and you’re going to find that it’s so fullfilling from a career and personal standpoint that your passion will help drive you forward”.

And That Concludes Sustainability In Events!

That’s a wrap on this week’s amazing conversations brought to you by our partnership with MPI. Are you feeling green yet? Ready to join the revolution and change the world, one event at a time? Then make sure you check out MPI’s Sustainable Practitioner Certificate Program to make sure you get started with the right foot through the door. Plus, all the other awesome resources mentioned during the interviews, that we’ll link below. Stay tuned, there’s more content coming your way!


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Will Curran

Author Will Curran

Information junkie, energetic, and work-a-holic are just some of the words we can use to describe Will Curran. Aside from spending 20 out of 24 hours a day working as the Chief Event Einstein of Endless Events, you can catch Will ordering a chai latte or watching The Flash with his cats. He is also well known for his love of all things pretzels.

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