Engineering a Sustainable Experience: The New Non-Negotiable of the Post-COVID-19 Attendee.
By Tara Milburn, CEO & Founder Ethical Swag
The COVID-19 pandemic imparted a number of important reminders regarding our interdependence. Undergoing a crisis of a global scale, people everywhere received a firsthand lesson on how their actions and choices were affecting their local community. Community means not only neighbors and locals, but also nearby businesses and the nature that surrounds us. And when a few weeks of reduced action resulted in signs of environmental reprieve — blue-again skies, newly unobstructed views of starry night constellations — that lesson of ecological interdependence became one people wouldn’t forget.
A renewed environmental awareness is showing up across many aspects of our lives. A recent study by BCG reported 70% of people feel a greater responsibility to the environment after the pandemic, and 95% are actively considering how their actions are affecting the twin crisis of climate change. More than ever, talent wants to work for sustainable and socially responsible employers. Consumers want to frequent environmentally aware vendors, and are often willing to pay more for products that come at a lesser social and ecological cost. Similarly, attendees want to see their social and environmental efforts reflected in the meetings and conference communities with whom they join forces. There’s a new post-COVID standard, and it’s one that planners and organizers need to understand.
Going Beyond Intention
It’s easy to see the value in ‘going green’ — more participation, greater attendee satisfaction, and an increased likelihood of seeing repeat attendees. Even in their excitement, organizers need to do their best to avoid making promises they can’t keep. Greenwashing refers to the too-often used marketing tactic of stamping a Corporate Sustainability Certificate sticker on an event flyer or home page and using it as a way to attract an audience rather than engineering a truly sustainable experience. In the end, this is a strategy that always backfires; attendees are too smart to be fooled, and people are getting in the habit of checking everything twice.
The truth is that the engineering of a sustainable experience is much harder said than done. With every good intention, organizers will only know that they’ve succeed in their green goals — whether that’s a net-zero emissions conference or a plastic-free event — once the meeting or conference is over. Sustainable operations is a long-term goal that organizers and meeting professionals can work toward. Until then, below are a number of places to begin to have the best chance at hosting a truly green event.
Venue Before Everything
A venue is one of the most important considerations for meetings and conference professionals. The sustainable values and greens solutions, or lack thereof, that are put into practice by the venue will determine a large part of the conference footprint. When selecting a venue, you’re selecting a water source, energy expenditure, employment strategy, supply chain and, often, catering team. And those are choices you can’t unmake once the conference is in action.
When selecting a venue, prioritize the spaces with solid sustainability credentials. Venues can undergo high-level audits to sign off on their practices, from their ecological footprint to their employee working conditions. Sustainability and socially responsible accreditations can help organizers understand that not only does the venue have their eye turned toward ethical operations, they’ve also gone to the trouble, and opted-in to the transparency, of undergoing an extensive audit to sign off on their practices.
If there’s a lack of accredited venues in the area, organizers can look for a number of key indicators regarding the venue’s environmental performance. Things such as on-site waste management, low-energy lighting, community involvement and staff training information will provide some peace of mind that the venue is working in line with the conference’s values.
A Proactive Approach
Before the event begins, organizers can brief their suppliers on their sustainability aims. Sorting through proposals and contracts is the perfect time to bring clear sustainability requirements into the conversation. There are more than enough vendors who have made a full switch toward environmentally and socially responsible operations, so approaching suppliers with a sense of necessity is the best way to find the right working relationship. The practices of your supplier will make a big difference in the overall environmental impact of the event. Organizers need not hesitate to ask for proof of sustainability claims; the companies that are operating in alignment with green values won’t hesitate to offer a look into their practices and credentials with full transparency.
Another great pre-meeting step is to add a carbon offset fee to your registration process. Market activity has proved time and time again that sustainability is something for which people are willing to pay. Meetings and conferences are no different; consumers are appeased when they know they’re putting money toward the sustainability of the event, even if it means a higher price tag. The fee can be optional, but it should be a prominent part of the registration process, explaining to attendees that the carbon offset fee will go toward minimizing the event’s footprint by contributing to an existing initiative — planting trees, inviting in renewables, etc.
Digital and/or Sustainable Materials (Nothing In-between)
When possible, organizers should use digital communications rather than printed materials. That includes conference flyers, directories, itineraries and event decorations. Ceiling-hung banners can be replaced with digital signage, speaker materials can be distributed through a mobile app, and LED screens can direct people through the event without needing posters or programs.
A classic hallmark of the in-person event experience is the things we get to bring home. Thoughtful gift bags and swag packs have long been an important part of attendee offerings, and they continue to be a crucial aspect of bridging the gap between in-person and virtual attendees. Individual gifts make an impact, and event organizers can use thoughtful conference swag to connect and unite the separated audiences. Whether you’re seated in the front row or watching the speaker from your living room, every attendee will have a thoughtful, physical takeaway. The gift gesture gives the event and the brand a lasting impression, regardless of whether the participation took place in person or online.
When it does come time to put something in the hands of attendees, make sure it’s in line with the environmental and social standards that were reflected throughout the rest of the event. Organizers have long known the value of offering relevant, branded gifts at the beginning or end of the conference experience; it’s a personal touch and a meaningful takeaway. But those gifts can’t undo the hard-won progress toward hosting a greener gathering. People love the swag that comes with meetings and conferences, but not if it comes at a cost to people or to the planet. Choosing a sustainable vendor is a crucial part of corporate gifting. Luckily, there are some vendors on the market who make it easy to offer beautiful, branded takeaways without straying from sustainability standards.
Having taken these steps and held a successful conference, organizers should look back on their initiatives, audit their process, calculate their footprint, and identify areas for improvement. There’s no need to get this process completely right on the first try, but it’s important to have an eye turned toward sustainable practices, making sure we’re moving forward toward those goals with each event. Organizers will not only be well-rewarded by attendees, they’ll be able to know they’re doing all they can to set the tone for a new, improved and more environmentally neutral normal.
Originally published at The Meeting Magazines (September 15 2021)