Events industry sustainability gap – good intentions versus action
For the events industry to live up to its commitment to sustainability, there is still a lot of work to be done. What is blocking things and what should be the next steps?
The events industry united last year in a commitment to fight climate change as part of a Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge signed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow.
Six months later, a report by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) and Cvent indicates that while good intentions abound, the events industry is slow to take concrete action.
According to the GBTA, 89% of respondents identified sustainability as a priority, and only 14% believe the industry has made good progress. Reasons include a lack of reliable measurement tools, concrete goals, and proper budgeting mechanisms, leaving event professionals in uncharted territory.
In the absence of clear national and international guidance, it is up to industry to hold itself accountable to its stakeholders. With many promising tools in development, there are many opportunities to realize the priorities that are now more promises than plans.
Achieving this will likely be expensive – at least in the short term – but companies that can deliver on their sustainability commitments reap significant dividends. In the long term, decarbonization initiatives can lead to innovations in engagement and connection that will ultimately be easier on corporate travel and meeting budgets.
It should also be noted that there are broader incentives that drive sustainability initiatives in the events industry. Will Curran, the founder of Endless Events, uses the analogy of a monkey who, having reached a small opening to grab a piece of fruit, cannot withdraw his clenched fist and finds himself trapped. “I think the analogy could apply to people’s events and who need to reinvent their models. Literally not letting go of the fruit, in this case air travel and national conferences, could literally kill the planet.
Lack of achievable goals
The GBTA/Cvent study, The Journey Towards Sustainable Corporate Travel and Meetings Management Programs, found that while more than half of companies surveyed generally have organization-wide carbon reduction targets, only 23 % reported specific business travel goals, with only 9% having a target for company meetings and events.
The absence of achievable goals in meeting and travel programs is the result of a lack of emission tracking tools. While 59% of travel programs track emissions from flights, only 35% said their company tracks or estimates emissions from other transportation, with 28% saying their company tracks or estimates emissions from hotel employee stays .
The event planning community is taking note of this disconnect between verbal commitments and operational change, and there is considerable appetite for more concrete action.
Suppliers, buyers, investors, employees, governments and external stakeholders have all backed net zero initiatives – and they want more than just intentions.
What is holding back progress?
Another GBTA report found that the two biggest barriers to action were higher costs (82%) and lack of transparent sustainability data (63%).
The first problem is relatively simple. When cost is a factor, the choice of sustainability will fall to senior executives to encourage budget priorities that may cost more in the short term but represent a long-term investment in a company’s brand and reputation for sustainability. corporate social responsibility. The GBTA/Cvent report finds reason to be optimistic on this point, noting that more than half of respondents (57%) identified senior managers as a force for sustainability and reducing carbon emissions in their company.
The second issue – an industry-wide lack of clarity on how to measure the ecological impact of travel and event attendance – continues to be a significant barrier to implementing concrete and to achieving measurable change.
There is a lack of industry-wide consensus on which measurement tools to use or how to use them. Perhaps that’s why only 6% of respondents indicated that their company used a framework to assess the sustainability score of a meeting program.
The need for reliable data is well recognized and organizations are working to create more frameworks. For example, Net Zero Carbon Events is currently releasing the first draft of its roadmap for achieving net zero events by 2050. GBTA’s Founding Partners In Sustainability program has also committed to creating a toolkit and other resources to “guide the journey” to sustainable events. .
Another factor impacting sustainability measures is the disruption caused by the pandemic. Will Curran points out, “Especially when staff have been reduced, sometimes the people planning these conferences have never planned one in person before – so they grab that old playbook and copy and paste it.”
Curran also notes that until very recently, Covid-fueled uncertainty inhibited any major initiative to rethink events from a sustainability perspective. However, he thinks that could change soon. “I think people have to be willing to do things differently, and they just get into that comfort zone,” Curran said.
Strong support for holding events in sustainable locations
According to the study, the two most requested eco-friendly actions are working with sustainable suppliers and locations. A preference for energy-efficient accommodations and event venues was cited by 81% of respondents, and 78% want to use suppliers with recognized sustainability certifications.
“From a planner’s perspective, it’s about finding ways to minimize environmental impact at all stages of the planning process. If you can source a green hotel, organize group trips rather than individual trips, use on-site digital signage, or work with the venue to minimize food waste,” says Rachel Andrews, Senior Director of Meetings and Events at Cvent. Carbon measurement tools will be instrumental in “helping organizations paint a clearer picture of the overall impact of their event – both on their business and on the environment”.
However, the study indicates that currently most companies do not engage in third-party sustainability initiatives such as the Science-Based Target Initiative or the Carbon DIsclosure Project to assess their venues. and their suppliers. And while 70% ask at least some questions about sustainability in their RFPs, only 41% say their company gives “some preference” or “a lot of preference” to hotels with green certifications in the call process. of offers.
Not all sustainability solutions have the same meaning
Only one-fifth of respondents to the GBTA/Cvent report said their company currently purchases carbon offsets, with just 10% saying company-hosted meetings and events routinely do so. This may not be bad news for the environment, especially when the events industry has plenty of options to fix the problem at the source.
Shawna McKinley is a director of sustainability firm Clear Current Consulting and a professor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She notes that the growing scrutiny of businesses in general and business travel and events in particular is intensifying, saying “the pressure is on businesses to take action and demonstrate real progress.”
Doing this, she says, will require closing “the knowledge gap between what we think is reducing emissions and what is actually reducing emissions.”
When asked to identify sustainability practices they had recently encountered, McKinley observed that study respondents cited initiatives such as reducing single-driver public transit and eliminating single-use plastics during meals. But these alone are not enough.
“All of these steps are helpful, of course, but when it comes to achieving meaningful carbon reduction goals, some practices matter far more than others. And these practices will need to be redefined if travel and events are to contribute to measurable reductions for companies setting targets. For example, selecting closer destinations and clean venues and hotels will become more critical, as will plant-based menus,” McKinley said.