An Eco-focused Event Industry Roundtable - Event Marketer

An Eco-focused Event Industry Roundtable

Green means many things to many different people. For some it’s a mission; for others a mantra. Whichever shade of green your event department is adopting eco is something that will impact the entire industry. We convened a roundtable to discuss and the topline appears here.

Brands:
Glenda Brungardt Trade Show and Event Manager Hewlett-Packard
Kimberley Gardiner National Marketing Manager Scion
Letitia Ferrier Webster Director Corporate Sustainability & Communications The North Face
Bobbie Parisi Vice President of Marketing Keen
Gina Broel Senior Event Marketing Manager Microsoft
Francois Ajenstat Director Environmental Sustainability Microsoft

Agencies:
Mike Hersom President Ignition
Jessica Ludders Senior Project Manager Sound Planning
Michael Fragnoli Marketing Director Ethos Design
Steve Mapes Vice President-Creative Services Impact Unlimited
Katja Asaro Managing Director Henry V
Alan Van De Kamp Grau Co-founder & Vice President Sevent Star
Britta Couris Creative Director George P. Johnson

EM: What is the state of green in event marketing today? How far have we come?
GLENDA BRUNGARDT: I think people are realizing that it’s here to stay and it’s reality. I have to say that [eco-friendly] services and offerings are lagging where we need to be. But it’s gaining momentum. Out of all the things that have ever happened to the industry I have a feeling this is probably one that will become mainstream in our industry [faster] than we’ve adopted anything else.

KIMBERLEY GARDINER: It’s in its infancy. Certainly green has become more mainstream in some ways—how we plan for events and execute events as more products and more options have become available. Why I say infancy is because we still have I think a long way to go. At Scion where I am now we’re on a tiny budget and the events we do are very small in comparison to our sister companies Lexus and Toyota so we’re forced by dollars to keep things really smart effective and efficient which leads us to ask Do we really need this? No OK then we’ll pass on that. Maybe we don’t need 10 signs so maybe we’ll just do five. Now is a great time for marketers to explore and ask the questions of suppliers and really challenge them. It’s the only way I think we’re going to move from where we are now and make it more mainstream. It shouldn’t be something that’s separate. I like to hear that people are interested in eco and green but at the same time it shouldn’t be a separate exercise it should be something as common as thinking about the cost or quality. Think about it in the very beginning. How do you make that part of the way you make a decision?

GINA BROEL: We still have a ways to go before it becomes standard operating procedure but people are looking at it more than they had in the past. I also think that event attendees are starting to expect greater accountability and responsibility from companies doing the event. The feedback we receive from our attendees shows they are definitely receptive to what we’re doing with our events.

ALAN VAN DE KAMP GRAU: There are a very small percentage of green event experts. Green is a huge opportunity and change has and will come because of the pressure that’s being applied by the attendees. We’ve made tremendous strides [because] of those who are making this a priority but we still have not come far enough.

BOBBIE PARISI: In the past we would do events and not really think about it. Now [we think about] everything from how we are getting [to the event] and whether we’re encouraging people coming to the event to take mass transit or their bikes.

EM: What are the challenges for companies trying to green their events?
LETITIA FERRIER WEBSTER: One is that you’re working with a lot of different vendors and you have to get all of them on the same page and set clear guidelines for how you want those vendors to work and operate. Two is that there are really not best practices or a perfect event model out there. Another is there are a lot of moving parts and event planners have a lot on their plates just to pull off an event let alone try to make it more sustainable.
But there are a lot of opportunities for making really unique events and making events that cut down on waste and save dollars. I think what we haven’t really seen yet in the event world is how sustainability can really save dollars and improve the event’s look and feel all at the same time.

BRUNGARDT: Costs. It’s a huge investment to go from all of the things we do today that are not green to reinvest recycle and redo to become more green. But remember our industry isn’t just about us. All of the other pieces we interact with also need to become green. There are a lot of other influences in our industry that have an effect on how green we become. The products to make our booth our trade show structures the venues—they need to go green as well. We can’t just say Oh we recycled paper today we’re green. It’s got to be everybody not only talking the talk but also walking the walk.

PARISI: It’s finding partners who have the same values we do. It takes a little bit more work but if it’s reflective of your brand and your values then it’s worth the effort. The thing is you have to be honest about what you’re doing at your level and how you’re moving your company toward sustainability. Our consumers recognize it’s not an out-of-the-gate thing so we’re very honest in saying that we’re not 100 percent sustainable but we’re challenging ourselves to think about it whether it’s in developing new products or doing a trade show booth.

JESSICA LUDDERS: One is that there is not a widely accepted standard yet. There are these various efforts in place but no standard is developed and fully accepted by the industry. So when you say you want to be green you don’t really have any guidance to go by. You really have to not make it up—decide what it means for you and then execute that. The risk that comes with that which is another challenge is that you can very easily green-wash an event. You can do a handful of things and say you have a green meeting but there’s no real definition of what a green meeting is. So people are catching a lot of flak for producing events that they say are green but maybe aren’t.
Another challenge is that there’s a lot of [misunderstanding] out there around carbon. Some people don’t have a very strong understanding of what counting carbon means. So it’s hard for the event industry to incorporate that into our work because you’re always kind of grasping a moving target.

EM: Jessica mentioned the potential for marketers to “green-wash” their events. Is that really a negative? How do you avoid it?
BROEL: In our messaging to our event attendees we try to be careful about how we talk about our sustainability efforts. We talk about how we’re taking steps to be more environmentally friendly and responsible and we encourage attendees to partner with us by using recycling receptacles or turning in their name badges at the end of an event so they can be reused or donated. We try to be transparent with our efforts and focus on how we’re trying to reduce our environmental impact. But we don’t say we’re holding green events because you can’t make that claim.

PARISI: It goes back to the values of the brand. You have to be honest with consumers. There are companies out there that are green-washing and making claims that aren’t realistic. But consumers identify that and can see through it.

KATJA ASARO: Anything you do is a good thing whether you call it green-washing or not. As long as it’s moving the dial in the right direction it’s a positive.
We have clients that are really [focused on] the environment so we have to be careful in being completely pure in everything that we do. The way we make sure we do not fall into a green-washing situation is that we’ve partnered with the Office of Sustainable Development  in Portland OR and we bring sustainability coordinators from the city to our events. They know how to measure impact on the environment. Sometimes we are advised that there are better ways to do things that we thought would have been good for the environment.

EM: What are your strategies for greening events?
WEBSTER: Within our events that we run and produce we are looking at all of the recycling and composting. We are looking at more mass transit for getting participants to our events. If we have power sources like generators we’re trying to use biodiesel. We’re also looking at being able to transport small solar panels and solar chargers.
One of our big goals is trying to cut down the amount of swag that’s handed out. So a lot of times we’re planting trees for participants instead of giving them some random thing—we’re trying to make it more meaningful so it actually has a benefit. For the bags we give our participants at sporting events we’re looking at post-consumer industrial recycled bags or canvas bags they can use [again].

GARDINER: We work closely with our partners and designers to create something unique. We could be creating all sorts of posters to promote our events but we’re going to find locations that are willing to work with us to keep costs down and keep resource use down. We’re not creating events that are resource-intensive and bringing in lots of lighting and things like that. We let the content speak for itself.
The gifts we give away are very small—if there’s an artist it might be postcard-size collections of his work. We’re into promotional pieces [like that] so consumers get something that can be used as a postcard and double as a nice collection of someone’s artwork. So by design there’s really not much waste in the system. We even look at whether we need extra food because depending on the time of day we might just need light food and a nice bar. That can also help minimize the waste we create in the first place.

BROEL: A lot of what we have done for the past year was to tackle some of the easy-to-implement things like replacing bottled water with reusable stainless steel bottles printing more materials on 100 percent post-consumer paper or just reducing the amount of paper [we use]. We encourage attendees to reuse their water bottles. If they don’t want a bag or a giveaway we make it easy for them to donate it at the end of the event.
As we move forward we want to take that to the next level and make these practices standard operating procedure across our events.

MICHAEL FARGNOLI: Looking at materials is one of the first major steps we can take. There are a lot of green materials out there that have been available for 20 or 30 years that haven’t been adopted or are not the typical materials that event planners or event designers utilize. Materials like recycled newsprint vegetable-based foam organic upholstery and cotton are readily available but their adoption isn’t where it needs to be at this point.

EM: As green becomes more mainstream will it be easier to make events green?
WEBSTER: The important thing about looking at green is that it’s not a single focus. It’s not a line you check off your list. It’s a holistic systematic way of thinking about your program and what you want to accomplish.
I don’t think we have that thinking yet. A lot of people just want a checklist that they can check off and say they did it kind of like a LEED certification. So we just need to be very careful that we don’t get into a mindset of ‘We checked off the green list and now we’re done.’ That’s not what it’s about.

BROEL: It’s definitely getting easier. A lot of venues are much more proactive with their own environmental efforts and operations so it’s much easier to make [green] decisions during planning as well as on site. From a logistics perspective you’re starting to see a lot more options for utilizing recycled or recyclable materials as a part of an event like for giveaways.

BRUNGARDT: I think it will. We’re starting to see [green event] certifications out there and people are realizing that companies are looking [for environmentally conscious partners]. When we do a hotel contract or venue selection they know we’re looking for those types of things and you’re seeing that across the industry.
You’re starting to see more and more green conferences. And you’re starting to see big conferences [take steps] like CES which has green efforts and works closely with the convention center.

STEVE MAPES: I think in three years there will be some kind of standard we try to adhere to in green events. And I think it will be driven by clients’ mandates and the vendors’ responses to that. Because ultimately unless clients make it part of their RFPs and an integrated part of their day-to-day operations suppliers won’t react as strongly. It’s a market system. As vendors we have to meet the clients’ needs and if the clients’ needs include sustainability and green strategies we’re going to get very creative to make that happen.

EM: How do you feel about carbon offsets?
BRUNGARDT: What we need to do is come up with a set of standards. I don’t think there is a simple calculation out there for us to measure carbon emissions. If there’s one thing the industry needs it’s a simple formula to help people calculate that.

WEBSTER: There are different [calculations] out there and I think they can serve a purpose. We use two right now. We have a large climate-change strategy which begins with working with the EPA climate leaders measuring carbon emissions  and then reducing it. I think carbon offsets should be the very last option within your climate-change strategy. But they can prove to be beneficial in a couple of ways. We work with a partner Bonneville Environmental Foundation to do our offsets. Our North American operations are 100 percent offset with wind energy. [As a result we are investing] in building renewable energy resources. When you purchase an offset you need to make sure it’s actually going to be invested in a new resource like wind solar biofuel or geothermal.

BRITTA COURIS: You’re contributing a donation that directly improves somebody’s life in a green way. Some of our carbon offsets were for new technologies in wind power. So in that respect if it’s for something that’s going to benefit other human beings that’s all part of the improvement.

EM: Are more companies creating green-specific job titles for marketers?
WEBSTER: We’re definitely starting to see more of it. A lot of companies are trying to figure out what it means what it would look like and the responsibilities. So there are only a handful of us out there doing it and so we’re trying to set the tone and create best practices for this position.
Sustainability is really about setting the tone for a unique business strategy that considers environmental and social impacts and how to mitigate them but it also [requires] leveraging them in a very positive way so everyone can benefit. So when you look at some of the challenges in front of us—whether it’s around climate change water poverty or some social issues we face—a lot of companies look at those as massive risks and big challenges. In my position I’m trying to turn them on their head and look at them as opportunities and as ways to create a better world and develop a more prosperous business and a more prosperous community. So I think this position is more about long-term business strategy and how to maintain a sustainable business within challenging times.

FRANCOIS AJENSTAT: Microsoft has a chief environmental strategist my boss Rob Bernard. Across the board whether [the job is] vice president of sustainability or something else it’s really becoming commonplace for organizations to create such titles. We function as the thought leaders on the environment; we understand the trends and act as subject matter experts for the company.
[Our other role is] governance—making sure we have the right practices in place around sustainability and pushing the boundaries where needed in our operations whether it’s in recruiting or events.

BROEL: A lot of our event vendors are creating green teams and looking at a lot of the issues from an operational [standpoint] and in how they can best support our events. We’re seeing a lot more thought leaders from the partners and vendors we work with so that’s been great.

MIKE HERSOM: No question about it. Traditionally your meetings were [with] the brand manager and maybe the p.r. communications manager or somebody from operations. But now there’s always somebody who represents the corporate social responsibility [side]. EM -

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