Events might have disappeared during Covid-19, but climate change hasn’t. Paul Harvey looks at how sustainability is set to fare when events finally return.

We want to live in a world where events can take place – but we also want to have a world to live in.

That’s the quandary facing event organisers as we emerge from Covid-19. We’ve seen first hand what happens when countries shut down, when businesses can’t operate. The dire warnings from the climate change movement are a lot more fathomable now. This year has shown us just how quickly circumstances can change, how vulnerable we are and how fortunate we have been in the past to do what we do.

Anna Fox, head of events, Liberty Global says, “This is the world’s way of telling us to stop, pause and reflect. There aren’t as many planes in the sky or cars on the road.

The carbon footprint of events are huge. We do an enormous amount of travel – I’m glad that has stopped. As an industry, we now appreciate the freedom we had of being able to go to events, meet with suppliers, network freely… it makes you appreciate what you do.”

Fay Sharpe

Fay Sharpe

For Fay Sharpe, event agency veteran and founder of Fast Forward 15, the pandemic has also been a wake-up call. “I’m guilty of travelling all over the place for meetings that I probably could have done on a Zoom call”, she says. “But actually, Zoom is a much more effective and efficient way of doing business. “When you think of the amount of travelling up and down from London we used to do... If we can combine the new and old ways of working, a bit of getting together and a bit of virtual, it’d be much more sustainable.

“I do think there’s an economic negative to that. By us not going up to London and buying a train ticket and a coffee and lunch, there’s an economic downturn – but we have to be resourceful. We have to look at it and say our planet can’t survive and go on forever by us going on as we are.” For many event professionals, there is a real sense of using the time we have been provided by Covid-19 to prepare to come back better.

Montse Regal, account manager at Abbey Ireland & UK, says “This is a good opportunity for all worldwide governments/organisers to establish firm regulations so there is a good balance for when we get back to face to face events. As some people say: There is no Planet B!”

Selina Donald

Selina Donald

Selina Donald of sustainable event consultancy The Bulb agrees: “Covid-19 has made us all stop in our tracks in this incredibly fast-paced moving industry and it’s an opportunity for looking inwards at our working practices and operations and think about the practicality of how we can do things better and be more responsible in our choices, our supply chain, our materials, waste management.

“We can take this time that we’ve never had before to realign everything in our businesses and be able to hit the ground running again when live events get the green light. And they can be running again in a responsible way.”

Donald cites November's COP26 climate conference in Glasgow as a possible catalyst for change.

“People are setting massively bold targets, all with the view that we have COP26 in Glasgow and the eyes of the world will be looking at the UK. The events industry needs to keep up, and it also needs to make these bold targets. Using Covid and the time we’ve got now to look and think about things is incredibly important.”

COP26 will be held in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021.

COP26 will be held in Glasgow, Scotland in 2021.

For senior marketing director John Kelly, formerly of BCD M&E and a self-confessed eco-warrior, the Covid pause represents something of a missed opportunity for sustainability. “What would have been great is to do a reset, and come back with a big bang, educating people about what a truly sustainable event can achieve”, he says.

“We can’t do that at the moment because we don’t know when meetings and events are going to come back again. I’d love to say ‘Let’s have a month of education before we start again’, but realistically that’s never going to happen.

“I think we run the risk of creeping back in with a lot of the bad habits that we had before. If anything, there’s probably going to be more water bottles and things like that on a very granular level.”

John Kelly

John Kelly

Selina Donald shares his concerns around PPE. “It’s a guarantee that we are going to use a huge amount of PPE and one of the things we need to do is make sure we’re not adding to this insane amount of plastic pollution that’s coming out of an increase in plastic use”, she says.

“The events industry was on such a trajectory of becoming more sustainable and people were recognising not to use plastic bottles, finding brilliant alternatives and finding ways to be creative in that. We were on a roll - and then Covid has knocked us back. It’s so important to ask, if we’re going to use disposable masks, how are we going to dispose of them properly?

“129 billion facemasks are disposed of globally per month. Imagine where they’re going to be. It’s shocking to think that it’s already there and it’s already having this impact. As an industry, we need to look at the way we’re going to do things and think about how we can do everything responsibly, so that we’re leading the way and showing how we can do things better.”

And corporate event organisers are already showing that they can lead the way in showing how to do things better.

“Just because we’re now dealing with a pandemic doesn’t mean we should give everyone a plastic bottle”, says Anna Fox.

“I’ve got a big mailout to staff, we’re doing boxes with a lot of branded merchandise and I made sure everything in there had a sustainable element; we sent hand sanitiser on a carabiner clip that was recyclable and refillable. I hate food waste and single-use plastic. It would bother me if the industry forgot about sustainability just because it wanted to get back to live.”

For Rick Stainton, founder and group executive director of Smyle, the return to live events in a sustainable way is the big quandary facing the industry.

“We have a job to demonstrate the power of live events but at the same time that’s got to be married to enhanced sustainability protocols”, he says. “So we’re appeasing the concerns of the increased costs of events as well as the increased potential sustainability impact, versus what everybody has started to get used to with the virtual and hybrid elements.

And for Stainton, sustainability is wrapped up in the age-old problem of data measurement, something event organisers have long struggled with. “We have a job on our hands to get a lot more robust on the reporting and effectiveness and measurement of physical events coming back,” he says. “We as an industry have never been able to clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of what we deliver.

“We’ll be under more scrutiny than ever going forward because a new habit has been formed of a more digital solution.

“I do think that sustainability is way up the agenda. A lot of large organisations have actually used this period to launch large scale, net-zero targets.

“As well as the Greta and the David effect, there is a lot of prevalence across the corporate sector and communities of feeling a lot more in touch with the frailty of our eco-system. We need to be aligned with that as an industry. All of those stakeholders are using the benchmark of reporting to demonstrate the value of change.”

So there’s an acceptance that we have to do things differently; but how?

For Guy Bigwood, managing director of the Global Destination Sustainability Movement, the answer is straightforward. For the industry to recover post-pandemic, event professionals need to redesign the event model, using principles from nature to become more inclusive and sustainable.

Bigwood puts forward his case in IMEX’s Nature Research Report: The Regenerative Revolution, a white paper that powerfully states the business case for the events sector to take immediate action on sustainability.

Guy Bigwood

Guy Bigwood

He says, “We are facing a series of waves; recession, Covid-19, climate change, biodiversity collapse – we have to learn how to flatten those waves, and that’s about building up resilience. Sustaining the old way is no longer good enough. We’ve done amazing work doing less bad, but that’s just not enough.

“We have to go to a whole different level of action. We now need to recover, rejuvenate and regenerate. We have to move to a circular economy. It’s an amazing business opportunity.”

Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group, agrees: “This natural world, the planet we all call home, is not an endless source of supply.

“Now is the time to change our relationship to nature. To think differently about what we take, what we make, what we use and what we do, or don’t, throw away.

“We believe the global meetings and events industry has an important part to play in making these changes.

Carina Bauer

Carina Bauer

“Our industry is full of people who care about people and who care deeply about making event and meeting experiences memorable, valuable and innovative.

“The leading edge of change is available to all of us and it can start with a few small tweaks in our behaviour, our processes and, above all, our thinking.”

The question for event planners is, how do you persuade clients and delegates to come on your sustainability journey? Because without sufficient buy-in from stakeholders, where does that leave the sustainable events movement? How much will sustainability depend on the willingness of clients and delegates to come on board?

For Ken Kelling, of Sense of Purpose coaching, the need to go to a different level of action, with all stakeholders on board, is also clear.

“Unless all of us are getting engaged in the issues around sustainability in the events industry we’re not going to be able to change in the way that we want to,” he says.

Ken Kelling

Ken Kelling

“This has to be about all of us, it doesn’t matter who we are, the conversation is now about us all as human beings and the changes that we can make to reducing climate change and making the industry more sustainable.”

In his keynote appearance at The Meetings Show, event planner Andy King said: “My feeling is that the event world is broken and it really needs change as we’re coming out of Covid.

Andy King

Andy King

“I want to see the world get to a place where events should be as close to zero waste as possible. My father had nine children, and he used to tell us that we could have as many friends over as we wanted, but the theme was ‘without a trace’. I think that’s the way it’s got to be.

“Let’s have those large events, let’s not destroy the planet, that’s going to be the future. We want our events to inspire young people to make better choices and be really cool, but they’ve got to be climate friendly. The events world is going to explode in a cool way as we come out of this.”

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