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Starting Points for Creating Sustainable Events

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Developing a large-scale sustainable meeting may be challenging, but it’s not impossible. The keys to success for associations include ensuring sustainability stays a priority from day one, making manageable changes, and involving stakeholders throughout the process.

While the Association of Science and Technology Centers has been incorporating sustainable practices into its meetings for years, such as reusing badge holders and recycling appropriate materials,  ASTC has become more deliberate about its sustainability efforts in the last few years.

“Recently, it’s become part of what we do from the beginning of the planning process to the last day of the event,” said Nina Humes, ASTC’s conference manager.

ASTC now approaches the planning for its annual meeting through a sustainability lens.

“It’s about living the values we have as an association and demonstrating how we do that for members,” said Adam Fagan, director of communications, advocacy, and engagement at ASTC.

Though planning a large-scale sustainable meeting can be challenging, Virginie de Visscher, senior director of business events at Destination Canada, says associations will need to prioritize it going forward.

“There’s building interest in sustainability,” she said. “Attendees are asking for it. Sustainability has become almost a given for the events industry. Associations that are proactive in developing sustainable meetings will stay ahead of the curve.”

Prioritizing sustainability from the beginning, implementing small changes at first, and involving various stakeholders along the way will help associations meet their conference sustainability goals.

Prioritize Early

De Visscher recommends making sustainability a focus early in the planning process and discussing with senior staff what sustainability means for your association.

“Sustainability can mean different things for different organizations,” she said. “For some, it’s about environmental sustainability, but it can also involve economic and sociocultural sustainability. Have internal conversations about your values, what you want to measure, and what you want to focus on for the event.”

Including sustainability in early planning meetings will ensure that it doesn’t fall off the radar.

“We build sustainability into our RFPs and ask about it early because vendors, convention centers, hotels, and the entire industry is going to be incentivized to prioritize it if they know that’s what we want from the start,” Fagan said.

“Associations that are proactive in developing sustainable meetings will stay ahead of the curve.” -Virginie de Visscher, Destination Canada

Make Small Changes

Starting with smaller, attainable sustainability goals can have a big impact.

“It gives you confidence and enthusiasm to continue sustainable efforts at your next meeting,” de Visscher said. “Remember that it’s a journey; you can’t have it all at the first conference but get started and know you can always improve for next time.”

As part of its sustainability journey, ASTC has reduced the use of carpets in its expo hall, limited the number of conference buses, and minimized the use of paper, eliminating printed materials and instead encouraging attendees to use the conference app.

For its October 2023 annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, ASTC also introduced an optional planetary health “offset,” providing the opportunity for registrants to donate a suggested $25 to partially offset for the impacts of their travel, such as carbon emissions and air pollution.

“The beneficiary of the offset is a Charlotte-based organization, so we’re trying to moderate some of the impact in the local community,” Fagan said. “We hope to continue the initiative at future meetings.”

Involve Attendees

As associations roll out their sustainability efforts, it’s important to encourage and show their attendees how to take part.

“At our event, we advised attendees to bring comfortable footwear and reusable water bottles,” de Visscher said. “We included sustainability on the agenda and showed attendees what we were doing to forward our goals.”

At its recent conference, ASTC created messaging around its sustainability efforts and let attendees know how they could make sustainable choices at the event.

“We also try to work with our exhibitors and presenters to think sustainably, such as being mindful of limiting the swag that could get thrown away,” Fagan said.

In addition, sharing sustainability efforts with attendees may encourage them to incorporate similar practices in their own work. Several attendees at Destination Canada’s event approached de Visscher with questions about sustainability and planned to take ideas back to their organizations.

“Because we were open about our work, attendees could fully experience it and choose to implement ideas and strategies into their efforts,” she said. “Sustainability is a collaborative process, and everyone in the business supply chain needs to be part of the solution.”

ASTC also hopes its efforts inspire members, many of whom manage science centers that host the public, to increase their own sustainability efforts.

“Our meeting can be a learning opportunity for members,” Fagan said. “The more transparent you are with your audience, the more they see themselves as part of your efforts and take responsibility as attendees.”

Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now.

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