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  • Maggie Pearson

(Re)Focus on Sustainability

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

(Re)Focus on Sustainability

Pre-pandemic, sustainability was one of the trending topics for the meetings industry. It was covered at nearly all educational events held for planners. Property partners and destination organizations pumped time and resources into studies, focus groups, and reports to create methods and standards to make events less wasteful and more conscious of their impact.

Even before the Pandemic, meetings tended to generate a lot of single-use items. So many items are created for an individual year to harness the new theme or design for that meeting. Everything from tote bags and lanyards to signage and décor. Part of the allure of meetings is to keep impressing participants over and over each year by outdoing the last event. As we board our gas-guzzling, carbon-heavy flights home, all of the single-use items are being tossed in the landfill.

Right as we were starting to dive into new processes for waste reduction COVID-19 hit and upended the meeting and hospitality industry. Everything was put on hold as we slowly tried to figure out how to bring meetings back safely. In the midst of things needing to be safe, properties and vendors were working with a quarter of the staff and nearly no revenue.

Properties went from reusable china to single-use boxes and food containers that could be tossed after each food function. It wasn’t safe to set food out amongst attendees and there weren’t enough servers to keep people from touching the buffets. Food had to be boxed and served grab-and-go style. Plastic was king. It was durable, prepackaged, and was disposable.

Now that we are learning how to live with COVID-19, it is time to refocus and look back at those pre-pandemic findings of ways to leave a smaller mark on the earth while we safely hold events. Finding ways to reduce waste can seem daunting. The suggestion here is to start small and add things for each event. Ask your vendors and partners to help and create your own adventure in waste reduction.

This list below is not exhaustive. More and more could and should be added as you review what works for you. Each group is unique, so the footprints of our meetings are all different. This is just a simple list of items to consider:

  • Lanyards:

    • Swap out your synthetic lanyards for cotton ones. If they end up in the trash, they will mostly all break down over time.

  • Badge Stock:

    • Find durable badge stock paper that can be used without a plastic badge holder. Yes, you may have more reprints at your event but you will be keeping countless pieces of plastic from being left around after the event.

  • Tote bags:

    • If you must still have a tote bag at your event, try cutting the number down to the lowest possible number of attendees who can have them and then offer a build-your-own tote bag station. Lay all the items out on the table as you would for typical tote bag stuffing and let attendees take what they want. This gives them the opportunity to take what they want. For COVID safety, place out signs that read “Touch only what you take”. As a bonus, you can upload these items into your conference platform or app and sponsors can get double the exposure. This will save you money, time, and resources as a bonus!

    • You won’t have to stuff the bags yourself - this is COVID and staffing-friendly, and you can have fewer inserts, saving waste.

    • You can also request that the items sent for stuffing be recyclable or reusable.

  • Printing:

    • Cut back on your printing. Focus your attention on keeping your apps and conference platforms up to date. Cut things like seat drops, and handouts at registration and in the exhibit hall. Email info packets out onsite and cut the printed program if possible. Tip: If you cannot cut printing the program, consider offering a pre-order. Then, you will know exactly who is purchasing the program and print only that amount.

    • Eliminate mailed marketing or at least reduce it to a postcard. Direct people to your website or platform for more information.

      • Printing anything has a manufacturing cost, design cost, mailing cost, staff time cost, and environmental cost.

  • Posters:

    • If you offer poster presentations at your meeting, require them to be printed on fabric to be reused or require them to be printed on non-coated paper. Then, work with your facility to have recycle bins placed and marked for poster recycling at the meeting.

  • Food and Beverage Service:

    • Eliminate single-use, plastic and Styrofoam wherever you can.

    • Ask for your drink stations to only have china or reusable options for participants. Tip: this will also help your F&B budget. Typically, take-away or to-go cup sizes are larger than the coffee cups. This means more attendees can have access to drinks with lesser amounts.

    • Ask that all stir sticks be replaced with metal spoons.

    • If you must do a boxed item, make sure it isn’t in Styrofoam. Ask if there are natural options that are biodegradable or, at the very least, recyclable. Then, ask your venue to set up recycling stations in your meal locations.

    • Ask your venue what service options you can do instead of individual condiment/seasoning packets.

    • Discuss water service options with your venues. Try and eliminate carafes of water on each individual table and opt for water stations around the room that can be left until consumed. Tip: be sure to have reusable glasses at these stations or corn-based cups. At the least, have recycling stations placed next to the cups, if plastic is the only option. Tip: Encourage attendees to bring their water bottles from home to reuse.

    • The same goes for pre-poured drinks on banquet rounds for meals. Ask that attendants wait to serve drinks like iced tea and water only when requested.

  • Food and Beverage Meal Options:

    • Consider your food source locations. Ask your venue to label the menu options with locally sourced food and use that information to help build your menus.

    • Consider cutting your protein portions or making some events vegetarian depending on your group. You can work with your venues to see what your options are. Most venues use the menus as suggestions, and they can work specifically with your budgets and needs to find a middle ground to help you achieve your goals. Just remember properties are still just as budget-conscious as you are after the pandemic.

    • Ask for ways your venue can help with food waste reduction.

      • Can food be donated? What is the process, and where does it go, or who does it help?

      • Can food be served in smaller portions? Can you cut bakery items into halves or quarters? Can you add in more build-your-own options so that people take only what they want? Do your attendees really drink decaf, or could they enjoy decaf hot tea instead?

      • Where does uneaten food go? Is it sent to a farm, broken down in an in-house biosystem, or worse, the landfill?

  • Vendors/Property General:

    • Ask your vendors for their waste reduction procedures. What are their current and future plans? Can they recommend new waste reduction tips? What are other groups doing? Get them engaged in the conversation from the beginning.

    • For trucking/bussing policies, ask your vendors what their engine idling policies are and if they can be improved. For instance, is your AV truck running while it is being loaded or unloaded? Or, is a bus picking up passengers and having its engine running when no one is on board (weather permitting)?

    • Ask your vendors what single-use items they make for your meeting and see what options there are and the costs for swapping to reusable options.

    • Find out what policies your vendors and properties already have for waste reduction.

    • Properties may or should have water reduction policies in place as well.

  • Audio Visual:

    • Ask your AV provider to power projectors down when they aren't used.

    • In the planning and budgeting process, ask your vendor about low-energy options for your event. Ask about lighting, sound, monitors, and other equipment that can be used on-site for less energy consumption.

    • Please work with the AV vendor and the property to recycle batteries from mics and other equipment to prevent them from heading to the landfill.

    • Consider options for making your meeting available to participants with a virtual component. Adding virtual options for meetings is a massive conversation, but knowing you can offer content to those who can’t travel is more inclusive and environmentally friendly.

  • General Service Contractor (GSC):

    • Most exhibition planners require carpeting in booths and aisles. Most GSCs reuse carpets, but sometimes. Check, it gets tossed after the meeting because of wear and tear. Work with your partners to see if there are other options for flooring. Some groups have decided to remove the carpet entirely from their halls. Tip: Be sure to check with your GSC and property before making decisions like this. You may be obligated to minimums in your contracts.

    • Signs are one of the most single-use items we see in the industry.

      • Eliminate foam core signs and exchange them for cardboard at a minimum. Cardboard signs can be recycled, and the foam core signs will live on forever. Tip: Check with your facility and partners to ensure signs can be recycled at their facility or if your GSC can recycle them at home.

      • If you can afford it, look into PVC-type signs that can be used over and over again for years with sleeves for new sign text each year. You can brand them for the organization versus the individual meetings. The downside is that these signs are still plastic, and they are heavy to ship but can last for 5-10 years if treated with care.

      • Lastly, talk to your AV vendor and property about using monitors for meeting rooms and directional signage. Some venues have come a long way in what the hotel can offer. These monitors will likely have fees, possibly character limits, and may take time to update on site but they will be your greenest option by far.

    • Along with signage, try getting reusable décor for your meetings. See what your options are from your venue first before you have to ship in external furniture. If you still need outside options, ask your GSC to work with local companies, so the furniture isn’t shipped for hundreds or thousands of miles.

    • Shipping and transportation are also areas you can focus on to help reduce emissions. Ask your GSC to use reusable packaging for shipping items to and from your events. Work with them to compress the total number of shipment deliveries to your meeting as they can. Tip: Also, be sure to remind exhibitors to ship to the warehouse instead of individual shipments elsewhere or to the hotel directly to help with your reduction efforts.

  • Travel:

    • Studies have shown as much as 80% of the carbon emissions created from a single meeting have been from the transportation options the attendees used to get to the meeting. The larger the meeting, the further the distance traveled by more attendees, the higher the carbon emissions.

      • Anytime attendees can use buses, trains, carpooling, or other options, the better for your event and the planet.

      • Consider only offering travel reimbursements for public transportation between the airport and hotel.

      • You could also consider discounts for attendees who take the train or bus to your meetings.

  • Carbon Offsets:

    • Consider investing in carbon offsets for your meeting. Offsets can quickly add to your budget, so ensure you have funding for options first. Check with your local destination organization because they may already have offset programs.

The best part about this is you can pick and choose the areas that work for you and your organization. Sustainability is not one size fits all. Some of these items are larger undertakings, and some require just a conversation with a partner. The choice is yours, and the benefits are endless.

The more you think about your meeting, ask yourself what you could do without or with a different material or process and see if it fits your needs and budget. Start small or go big. Start with something. You should consider adding these or similar items to your vendor RFPs for future meetings. Help control the narrative with your business.

Remember to track all you are doing. Use it in your marketing for the meeting. List out what your vendors are doing, too. Encourage your attendees to make good environmental decisions and help you and your meetings leave a smaller footprint behind.

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