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Developing the greenprint for sustainable event management

TTA business development director Dominic Bemrose shares the progress the agency is making towards its sustainability goals and how it is supporting clients to achieve theirs.

With the world on lockdown, we have had a unique opportunity to witness what happens to the planet while daily life as we know has been suspended. Carbon emissions and air pollution levels have dropped, and urban wildlife has thrived in our absence. But as economic activity resumes, we’ll need to rethink ‘business as usual’ if we are to flatten the curve on climate change.

We recognise that good intentions aren’t enough, so we recently formalised our commitment to operating responsibly, both socially and environmentally, through our Sustainability Promise:

People – we are fundamentally a people business, so the wellness programme we established last year not only looks after the physical and mental wellbeing of our employees but also extends to their career development and personal growth. We choose to work with like-minded partners and suppliers, so our sourcing process takes into account their ethical working practices and sustainability policies as well as their quality of delivery.

Planet – we’ve challenged ourselves as a company to forensically examine every area of our business to identify ways to reduce or eliminate our carbon footprint and any other adverse environmental impact. We aim to deliver events that are carbon neutral, working with all our partners, suppliers and venues to ensure that at every touch point, we minimise the emissions, waste and resource consumption associated with an event and, where possible, benefit the local community.

Like any strategic priority, sustainability initiatives need to be led from the top to become embedded in our values and drive behavioural change. To that end, we’ve established a Sustainability Committee, which includes two representatives of our Senior Leadership Team. Its three main areas of focus are: internal (actions we can take to make our own operations more sustainable); external (spanning the policies and practices of our clients, business partners and suppliers); and people (our own and those working throughout the global value chain).

There’s still no de facto standard or tool for measuring the environmental impact of doing business, but we’ve proactively undertaken a carbon audit of our own operations to set a benchmark for monitoring our incremental progress. We are now looking at every step of the event lifecycle to determine where there are opportunities to reduce emissions, waste and resource consumption on behalf of our clients.

How to add sustainable value

The global healthcare industry has been very active for some time in lessening its impact on the environment – investing in production technologies that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use and waste to landfill, and increasing the use of renewable energy. But business travel accounts for a sizeable proportion of a typical healthcare company’s carbon footprint, so we’re constantly looking for more innovative, sustainable ways to deliver the power of live.

Technology is part of the solution

Before the Covid-19 crisis struck, we were already developing our virtual and hybrid capabilities to bring people together while minimising travel. We’ve packaged the creative, technical and digital production capabilities to deliver multi-hub hybrid events, connecting groups of participants across different cities, countries or continents. We firmly believe this format delivers the best of both worlds: enabling participants to share live, interactive experiences while reducing reliance on carbon-intensive long haul flights.

We keep a watchful eye on emerging technologies with the potential to embed sustainability into everyday practice, and we anticipate that data analytics will play a key role in improving transparency and choice. In the industry’s development pipeline are dashboards that give travel planners an accurate, real-time visualisation of the CO2 emissions generated by flights and hotel stays at company, event and individual level, together with actionable insights to inform more sustainable choices. We envisage that we could use such data-driven tools, once available, to guide our consultative approach, such as optimising destinations to minimise the delegation’s total air miles, or choosing venue partners based on their eco-credentials.

Waste not, want not

I’m somewhat frustrated by industry discussions around environmental performance that focus myopically on carbon footprint as the sole indicator of sustainability. I believe we should be looking at the environmental and social impact of goods and services throughout their entire lifecycle – from resource extraction and production to usage and disposal. For example, around one-third of all the food produced worldwide for human consumption goes to waste – enough to wipe hunger off the face of the Earth. As well as squandering land, water, energy and labour inputs, food waste is also the single largest component going into municipal landfills, which rapidly generates methane – a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential over one hundred times greater than CO2.

So it’s encouraging to see projects that help local communities while reducing the GHG emissions generated by the food production system. For example, one of our global healthcare clients was looking to reduce food waste from meetings at a medical congress in Barcelona. The venue chosen was signed up to an innovative, group-wide sustainability project, powered by sophisticated online tools that measure the daily environmental impact of participating hotels. Each day, the venue donates excess food from meetings and staff catering and delivers it to a local charity. As our client’s event management partner, we were invited to come along on the remarkable journey of the surplus food from the hotel kitchen to the project’s beneficiaries.

I was also impressed by the catering at an industry roundtable event I attended a few months ago: the hotel’s executive chef develops the menu based on local provenance and carbon footprint, and the menu lists the food miles of everything on the plate that is not grown or produced onsite. That inspires me to work with the hotel on future projects, and I believe that venues looking to re-establish momentum once lockdowns are lifted will increasingly compete on sustainability as a point of difference.

The power of live need not cost the earth

To support our clients’ sustainability goals, we believe a flexible, forward-thinking approach is key. Some businesses have already set ambitious zero-carbon goals, issuing reams of detailed stipulations around their sustainability requirements, while others are at an earlier stage of maturity in developing and defining their initiatives and targets.

Of course, there are some quick wins and no-brainers: replacing paper with digital event apps, and printed signage with LED screens; ditching plastics in favour of renewable, biodegradable materials; using electric vehicles where possible for airport transfers. Other strategies that “look beyond the obvious” pose greater complexity. Is it better to procure equipment and branded items close to the destination rather than shipping them overseas if the local supplier can’t demonstrate ethical employment practices? If all other things are equal, do you choose the venue with a food rescue plan that benefits the local community, or the one whose electricity all comes from renewable energy sources? Such are the questions we can help our clients to explore and answer.

Where there is no additional cost associated with more sustainable options, we will always present these to our clients. If greener, cleaner or leaner options cost more, our proposal will give clients the freedom to choose. But finding more efficient, less resource- and carbon-intensive ways of achieving an event’s objectives can often offset any extra expenditure.

The response to COVID-19 has become something of a dry run for the sustainability agenda – prompting us all to re-evaluate what really matters. When the crisis eases, we don’t simply want to get back to ‘business as usual’ but rather ‘business reimagined’ to help shape a responsible, sustainable and resilient future for our dynamic industry.