Sustainability, going green and zero carbon footprint are all buzz words that are gaining traction in today’s meeting and event environment, but they may be concepts that are easier to talk about than to actually execute. Sustainability can be expensive and results are also hard to measure, as planners need to factor in the building itself, the energy it uses, the way people get there, the food being served, and a laundry list of items that need to be considered to create a greener meeting.

Still, there are myriad reasons why planners are serious about making meetings greener in 2022.

To begin with, big picture sustainability issues are increasingly taking center stage. For example, governments are beginning to require corporations to report on efforts to reduce their carbon footprint. “In the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission has openly discussed coming regulations on the declaration of sustainability metrics for public companies,” said Tatila Downing, vice president of HRS Stay & Pay. “In Europe, such regulations are already part of the landscape.”

Additionally, more than ever, employees expect their company to make sustainability part of its foundational ethos, and will take steps to make its meetings greener. Ben Hoeksma, regional account director for BCD Meetings & Events, notes sustainability is now a part of everyday life and plays an important role in a company’s higher aims, so it makes sense that this takes priority in corporate events.

“Added to which, the attendees’ expectations of events will be driving this as well,” Hoeskma says. “It could reflect badly on a brand/image if some basic best practices were not implemented. Hopefully now planners are more committed to putting this into the heart of their events as opposed to paying lip service and ‘greenwashing’ the event.”

Charles de Gaspe Beaubien, founder and chief customer officer at event management software provider Groupize, notes sustainability is now at the top of the priority list for corporations and those involved in the meetings industry. “It’s a checked box that they need to cover in an RFP today,” he says. “From a high-level perspective, it’s more relevant in Europe than it is in the US, and one of the big differentiators there is rail vs. air.”

Alyssa Peltier, senior marketing manager at Cvent, the meetings and event technology platform, notes companies need to look at the bigger picture and the emergence of environmental, social and governance issues (ESG), which are major drivers for sustainability practices in today’s corporate world.

“ESG is best characterized as a framework that helps external stakeholders understand how an organization is managing risks and opportunities in line with outside environmental, social and governance criteria, as well as helping establish internal goals relating to health and safety, greenhouse gas emissions, and corporate philanthropy, to name a few,” Peltier says.

This increasing stakeholder interest in working with like-minded partners in sustainability, combined with a broader societal movement to manage the climate crisis, is driving many planners, their organizations, and their meetings, events, and travel teams to prioritize ESG-related activities, especially those related to making meeting experiences greener and more sustainable

So, for meetings and events professionals, it’s becoming less a question of “Can we afford to go green?” and more a question of “Can we afford not to?”

“For event professionals, the social responsibility, and the business imperatives of going green really go hand-in-hand,” Peltier says.

Making Change
Gus Vonderheide, vice president global sales-enterprise corporate and transient for Hyatt, notes the company’s sustainability practices are supported by its World of Care global Environmental, Social, Governance platform. 
“An important component of this platform is Hyatt’s 2030 environmental framework, which was created by carefully listening to ESG experts and key stakeholders to establish focus areas,” he says. “The return of in-person events following the pandemic provided the opportunity to take a step back and look critically at how we can operate more sustainably. Planners were already interested in simple sustainability practices like reducing single-use plastics, but now they’re more actively working with hotels to identify opportunities to push the envelope and make each facet of a meeting or event greener than ever before.”

Vonderheide notes sustainability must be kept top of mind through every aspect of the event and meeting planning process. This can include strategies such as coordinating menu plans based on supply and availability of ingredients to prevent overproduction of food, designing a sustainable menu with locally sourced and plant-forward options, and avoiding single-use packaging. It could also mean planners and customers working together to collect data around reducing travel emissions or arranging alternate types of transportation.

“These smaller, uncomplicated tactics can add up and make a significant difference,” Vonderheide says. “One example of a Hyatt property taking many small but significant steps to reduce its environmental impact is Alila Villas Uluwatu in Bali, Indonesia. The property’s zero-waste policy means nearly all facets of operations are conducted with sustainability in mind, including bottling water in glass bottles on-site and turning organic waste into compost for the property’s gardens.”

HRS’ Green Stay Initiative, which was introduced in March 2021, also offers a transparent solution for corporate meeting planners. “The solution enables hotels to share structured information about their sustainability efforts and indicators as well as metrics on carbon, water and waste via a streamlined, secure API,” Downing says. “In turn, corporate travel, procurement and meeting planners can seamlessly factor sustainability scoring based on these metrics as they determine which hotels and meeting venues earn preferred supplier status.”

In less than 18 months, HRS’ Green Stay Initiative has been utilized by more than 300 brands across more than 130 countries worldwide, Downing says. “Hoteliers understand that they need to share this data as they compete for rebounding corporate volume across continents,” she explains, pointing out that since the initiative is based on international sustainability management standards such as the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the Climate Disclosure Project, ISO, and similar reporting programs, buyers and suppliers are working off the same standards as they consider the sustainability scores of hotels across the globe.

Leveraging HRS’ normalized Green Stay Initiative baselining metrics for carbon, water and waste, planners can provide the necessary data points to measure the total meeting-related emissions and environmental impact as input to any corporate’s Science Based Target initiatives.

The Cvent Consulting team recently hosted a webinar with Andrew Carne, BP’s Workplace Global Manager, who talked about “marginal gains” as the key perspective that gets the industry to start moving the needle. In other words, don’t let the enormity of the problem stop you from getting started somewhere, because every little bit counts, and every first step matters.

“Based on my own experience, I think that’s the right way to look at it – focus on one category or one function of your meetings or travel program that can make a difference, and then build out a framework for action,” Peltier says. “From the Cvent Consulting vantage point, we believe that this starts with first getting a holistic view of your Total Event Program so that you can baseline your current footprint. Understanding where your largest carbon investments are coming from and why you might need to change your approach is key.”

After all, Peltier notes, having a comprehensive and programmatic view makes it much easier to set realistic targets and allows a company to build a strategic plan for future improvements.

Hoeksma says the use of internal case studies is invaluable, showing other planners in the business that it is possible to deliver a successful event while incorporating greener principles makes it a lot easier for others to visualize and understand how they can adopt similar best practices. “At an event level, the biggest impact can be from the travel component, so providing data analysis during the planning stages allows planners to adapt to reduce the emissions,” he says. “This includes, in part, reducing the attendees who have to fly in, providing alternate means of transportation, provide the content virtually, etc.”

At the events, Hoeksma is seeing less and less paper and plastic being consumed and menu choices being considered with minimal waste in mind, as hotels and venues are offering more solutions for sustainability as they realize this is going to remain a priority for clients.

Meeting Sustainability Metrics
The broad variety of “standards” on meeting sustainability metrics in the industry is unwieldy and can be more than a little bewildering. “We’ve counted more than 200 rating programs of varying descriptions and standards yielding more than 300 labels,” Downing says. “Only 30 percent of these programs attach to international standards relevant for corporate travel and meeting buyers.”

Many of these programs would more than likely not be acceptable for corporate audits on non-financial ESG disclosures and upstream sustainability certifications, she notes. That’s why it’s important for hotels and meetings venues to frame their efforts at lowering environmental impact and fostering local communities using normalized form and in accordance to corporate reporting standards.

An important step to meet sustainable metrics, Peltier notes, is understanding that carbon reduction and/or neutralization is the primary goal of any sustainability program, as this is the greenhouse gas organizations are measured against.

According to a recent GBTA study, 55 percent of organizations have a company-wide carbon emissions target, but only 23 percent have a target for their business travel program, and only 9 percent have a target for their company-hosted meetings and events. There are clear gaps in accountability for the stakeholders of the meetings, events and travel spaces.

“That said, for those that do have targets, the challenge then starts with understanding the key categories of carbon consumption and their corresponding metrics,” Peltier says.

Cvent offers four key areas for planners to get organized and see where their organization stands: Travel and transport, accommodations and venue, food and beverage, and waste and energy. “There are also several carbon calculation providers in the sustainability tech sector that will allow companies to extract metrics from a central data source for meetings and event data, such as Cvent, to tabulate how much carbon is being consumed event-by-event,” Peltier says. “This visibility allows one to make smarter, greener decisions in future program planning and make sure they are meeting sustainability goals.”

Smaller Footprints
Corporate meetings and events have a number of things that can impact the total carbon footprint, including food and beverage scenarios, travel or resources used at the venue. “Beyond measurement, venues can take other steps to reduce carbon emissions, including elimination of single use plastics, high efficiency lighting, water recycling practices, etc.,” Downing says. “Corporations and travelers can contribute by working with sustainability-focused partners, using electric ground transport options, and taking other actions.”

Hoeksma notes the largest impact is created by the travel to and from the event – especially air travel. Therefore, thinking of ways to host smaller, more local events that require fewer air miles is going to become increasingly more important. “If you review the total emissions for an event with a large number of guests flying in, then you will see the breakdown showing this could account for up to 75 percent of the total emissions,” Hoeksma says.

“Having this data at hand can make it easier to make a decision on where to hold your event and, if travel is considered necessary, even the class of travel, with business class flights accounting for a higher emission output than economy.”

Of course, with the dramatic rise of virtual and hybrid events over the course of the pandemic, reducing travel remains a more feasible option. In general, event professionals will need to scrutinize the objectives of their events and understand how, when and where their events are to take place to balance meeting goals while also maintaining a carbon-conscious mindset.

The venue chosen for meeting space and sleeping accommodations also has a large impact on the event’s overall carbon footprint. After all, attendees will expect to use the venue’s heating and air conditioning, consume its water, throw away trash, turn on the lights, and many more activities that all contribute to carbon emissions.

“Considering how sustainably a venue is built, organized and operated, and also how long your organization will stay in the space, can make a huge difference in your carbon reduction goals,” Peltier says. Metrics and proof-points that highlight the importance and achievement of sustainable spaces and facilities include green building standards and programs like LEED and WELL, which exist to certify buildings that are highly energy efficient.
But event planners can’t just do away with everything that brings attendees to meetings in the name of sustainability or many won’t come. For instance, not holding a golf outing may be environmentally aware, but it also could limit attendance.

If you do want to pursue an event format or outing that may not be as ‘environmentally friendly,’ like a big golf trip, carbon credit purchasing and carbon offsetting are also options. This is where investments are made in actions that contribute to the removal of carbon from the atmosphere (e.g., reforestation projects, investing in renewable energies) and compensate for one’s own program emissions.

“Ultimately, event professionals will need to be able to clearly communicate the value that any event type brings and justify why it must be delivered in the chosen format or approach considering the carbon costs for the organization,” Peltier says. “The best way to approach that conversation with management is to refer to the overall sustainability program and metrics you established at the beginning and lay out where the organization is making progress, where it needs to improve, and how your chosen event type/format can make a difference toward that goal.”