Hosting sustainable conferences isn’t just the job of a sustainability officer or a forward-thinking meeting planner. Leaders are the ones who oversee the strategy and resources that can guide an organization toward environmentally conscious choices at every step of planning an event.
Besides reducing environmental impact, there is more at stake for organizations. “There’s a brand and reputational risk today that’s very real for associations and corporations,” said Amanda Simons, a cofounder and principal of Honeycomb Strategies, a sustainability consulting firm. “Organizations really have to show up in a more sustainable and transparent way,” especially when members are gathering at the group’s most public-facing events.
To create a 360-degree view of sustainability, leaders need to make sure that everyone who is involved in putting on a meeting is approaching the event with sustainability in mind.
Choose Sustainability-Ready Destinations
“Sustainable meetings start with finding a destination that has a demonstrated commitment to sustainability at all levels. The city, the destination marketing organization, the hotel community, and the host venue all should be working together and have eco-friendly policies and practices in place,” said Matt Uchtman, senior director of facilities and operations at the Oregon Convention Center.
“Destination selection is hugely important,” Simons said. “If the city has the infrastructure to move people and manage waste sustainability, if it has a social and environmental culture and ethos, then the lift as an event organizer doesn’t have to be so big.” Some cities, like Portland, are known for their environmental efforts. To discover other destinations that might not be top of mind, survey DMOs about what they can offer in the way of sustainability.
Do the same for venues. “Ask them, what have you done to be successful here? What ideas do you have for our event?” Uchtman said.
Ask about green certifications as well as energy- and water-saving technologies, too, as those are the biggest impact areas, Simons said.
Make a List of Vetted Suppliers
Simons regularly consults with associations about hosting sustainable conferences, and she recognizes the value of having vendors that are aligned on reducing their impact.
To identify partners that can support you, go through your list of vendors and have honest conversations with them about sustainability.
“A lot of vendors have made shifts to operate in a more sustainable way,” Simons said. “Let them know what your sustainability goals and objectives are for the event, and ask them where they can help.”
She said to ask vendors about how they are reducing their impacts and how they can best support exhibitors. For example, can they offer more sustainable building materials or more consolidated low-carbon shipping options? If suppliers happen to have sustainability officers on their team, Simons recommended directing questions to them specifically.
If a sustainability-focused destination has already been selected, the DMO can be a valuable resource for finding suppliers and community partners. “Ask them who they’re working with. They know their cities the best,” Simons said. “If there is an opportunity for making a positive impact locally, that’s where we start.”
Sustainability specialists such as Honeycomb Strategies can be another call you make to find like-minded vendors. “We have a pretty deep bench of partners and vendors that we rely on for many different types of sustainability challenges we face,” Simons said.
Collaborate With the Host City
When you’ve picked a sustainability-ready destination and vetted your supplier list, you’ve positioned yourself well for a low-impact event. Now, rely on your host city to help lead you in the right direction.
“It starts with the DMO,” Uchtman said. “What I’ve seen from Travel Portland is they do a great job of helping steer the ship and bringing together all the different pieces for a meeting to be successful.”
Booking a venue that champions sustainability is a significant step.
“At the Oregon Convention Center, we have done a great job over the years of trying to focus on continual improvement around sustainability,” Uchtman said. “And I think that helps lay the foundation for people bringing events in—that at a minimum, we have policies, procedures, and practices in place to help your event be green.”
Whether it’s reusable water bottles, durable serviceware, or an exhibitor engagement program that encourages waste diversion, the Oregon Convention Center in particular has set up “really awesome opportunities for event organizers to lean on programs or to employ programs at their facilities,” Simons said.
A collaborative host city can help association leaders make smart decisions that deliver on a desired impact through all stages of an event, from materials selection early on to recycling leftovers at the end. “There are a lot of tools out there,” Uchtman said, “to help associations have the sustainable event that they’re looking to achieve.”