The pandemic forced people to slow down, reconnect with nature, and appreciate the environment. Event planners are keenly aware that people don’t want to lose sight of that mindset.
To organizers planning events for people who haven’t seen the inside of a conference room in over a year, sustainability has become a higher priority. Planners are exploring ways they can promote sustainability through their events’ food and beverage options, venues, materials, and environments. That may come in the form of eco-friendly bags, hotels with sustainable practices, caterers that use compostable packaging, and meeting spaces that incorporate natural elements.
“We cannot return to the ‘normal’ of the past and the linear systems of extraction and disposal,” said Guy Bigwood, managing director and chief changemaker for the Global Destination Sustainability Movement, which works with destination management professionals to develop more resilient places to visit. “We need to rethink, reimagine, and redesign a new restorative, resilient, inclusive, and zero-carbon model. By doing so, we can restore and rejuvenate the planet and its people, and create a healthier economy, rather than seeking to sustain what no longer functions.”
“The Regenerative Revolution,” a 2020 report in the #natureworks research series by GDS, The IMEX Group, and Marriott International Inc., measured an increase in interest in sustainability after the pandemic had taken hold. When organizers were first surveyed in January 2020, 90 percent agreed that an increasing focus on sustainability was important for the events industry. When asked the same question again in May 2020, 95 percent said their organizations were committed to developing more sustainable practices, and 92 percent said it was important that sustainability was integrated into the industry’s recovery plans.
Interest in sustainability was gaining strength even before the pandemic. The report showed 97 percent of 1,500 event organizers and suppliers surveyed in January 2020 indicated they had implemented some form of event sustainability initiative. Sustainability standards and certifications help guide those actions.
“We are seeing very strong growth in hotel, venue, and destination certifications,” said Bigwood, who authored the report.
Hotels have taken steps toward meeting sustainability goals and have made strides in decreasing their carbon footprint in recent years. According to the 2020 Cornell Hotel Sustainability Benchmarking Index, U.S. hotels lowered their carbon footprint by 12.1 percent between 2015 and 2018.
One hotel chain aligned with the trend is Hilton, which has committed to cut its environmental footprint in half and double its social impact by 2030. Throughout its hotel properties, Hilton has implemented multiple sustainability initiatives with an eye to event planning. “We know that meetings and events present a significant opportunity for positive environmental and social impact,” said Caitrin O’Brien, director of corporate responsibility for Hilton.
Hilton’s new meetings and events program, Event Ready, set new standards for lower-waste meetings and requirements for hotels to source locally, seasonally, and sustainably. The program requires hotels to donate any surplus food to local community organizations where legally permitted. Organizers can use Hilton’s LightStay Meeting Impact Calculator to run a report on the estimated energy, carbon, water, and waste associated with a meeting or event.
There are also sustainability elements that are unique to individual Hilton properties. In Louisiana, Hilton New Orleans Riverside and Drago’s Restaurant—an outpost of the local eatery famous for its charbroiled oysters—has partnered with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana to participate in the nation’s largest shell recycling program, which has provided more than 700 tons of oyster shells to rebuild reefs in the Gulf of Mexico. On its own, the hotel and restaurant recycle more than 300 lbs. of oyster
Farther south in the Florida Keys, Baker’s Cay Resort Key Largo—part of the Curio Collection by Hilton—incorporates sustainable and locally sourced materials into its design and in-room amenities and products. The resort partners with vendors that focus on conservation and upcycling and uses compostable items such as avocado-pit straws and rice-paper-wrapped food items in lieu of single-use plastics for meeting setups.
A sizeable amount of waste at events comes from food and beverage products, and more catering companies are standardizing the use of sustainable goods and packaging.
Food and beverage provider Sodexo is continuing to work toward an ambitious goal to reduce their carbon footprint by 34 percent between 2011 and 2025. “It all comes back to innovative and future-facing packaging and recycling solutions,” said Paul Pettas, spokesman for Centerplate/Sodexo Sports & Leisure North America. “We are seeing an appetite from our venue partners and teams to invest more in eliminating single-use plastics.”
That can be a tall order in a post-pandemic world, in which single-serve containers have become customary. But single-use options are feasible when using non-plastic alternatives, Pettas said. “We’ve seen our partner venues work closely with us to bring to life this non-plastic approach, and I think it really just goes back to more bamboo, more paper—different sustainable materials that are more eco-friendly,” he said.
At the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., Sodexo subsidiary Centerplate has introduced bento box-style breakfasts and other pre-packaged gourmet goodies to meet event planners’ demands for more upscale single-serve meals, Pettas said.
“Previously, boxed lunches and dinners were not as luxurious. But now, we’re making these boxed options feel more high-end,” said Pettas. “We are certainly using sustainable products throughout those. Using more bamboo and alternatively-sourced silverware, for example, just adds sophistication and a nice touch to those offerings.”
Those changes take on greater significance given the value event organizers place on their food and beverage options. For its 2020 report on event food and beverage trends, Sodexo and Centerplate surveyed 202 event and meeting planners on their perceptions of food and beverage in the COVID-19 environment.
Some aspects of the survey remained consistent with findings from 2018; in both years, 83 percent of respondents said food and beverage is very or extremely important to the success of their event. But when it comes to the reputation of the food and beverage provider, 49 percent of the 2020 respondents said reputation was very or extremely important, up from 41 percent in 2018.
“That’s one data point that really stood out,” Pettas said.
To that end, Pettas said planners shouldn’t be afraid to ask their food and beverage provider for exactly what they want, whether that means dietary preferences or compostable packaging.
“I think we’re more flexible and customizable than ever before for what we can do and plan for events,” he said.
Another food and beverage provider with a sustainability focus is Wolfgang Puck, which has been incorporating recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable materials into its products and packaging. One of the company’s major clients is the Georgia Aquarium, where Wolfgang Puck has been the exclusive caterer since the facility opened in 2005. Since the aquarium is a conservation-focused institution, the venue primarily uses eco-friendly products, including at special events that take place there.
“All of our disposables have to be compostable. And it’s been that way since the doors opened,” said Mary Cline, Atlanta-based regional director for Wolfgang Puck catering sales.
Wolfgang Puck offers options such as greenware cups, straw-free drinks, bamboo flatware, and plates made of sugar cane, pressed palm, and bamboo.
“There are a lot of great products out there now,” Cline said. “It used to be pretty limited if you went back even five years. But now it’s such a hot item in higher-volume retail settings, they’re plant-based.”
Although Cline said organizers are still concerned, first and foremost, with getting people together in person safely, she anticipates the industry will turn its attention to sustainability as normalcy resumes.
“I think the first focus of the moment is getting people together and getting business to resume,” Cline said. “But in that light, there are still those of us who are mindful about doing right by the environment.”
For organizers who want to be mindful of responsible gift giving, one company offering them an alternative is Ethical Swag, a certified B Corp that provides sustainable promotional products.
Organizers can choose from branded products ranging from a 100 percent recycled journal made of apple peels, to branded bamboo cutlery, to custom message cards made of seed paper that attendees can plant to grow wildflowers after the event is over.
“You don’t want stuff. You want things that you use. And I think organizations are embracing that,” said founder and CEO Tara Milburn.
Ethical Swag works only with socially conscious and sustainability-minded product suppliers that must pass an audit and sign a code of conduct that covers their treatment of employees and their business practices. One company manufacturer makes branded socks and donates a pair to a homeless shelter for every pair sold.
Ethical Swag factors its carbon footprint into shipping and looks for products with recycled, organic, and biodegradable materials. Special consideration goes into packaging, with products nested in recycled crinkle-cut shredding and marked with environmentally friendly stickers.
“Everyone can jump on the bandwagon of sustainability. It’s easy to say it; it’s very difficult to do it. So, we’re trying to make it easier and a lot more accessible,” Milburn said.
Another company putting a creative spin on sustainable merchandise is Treedom, an Italy-based online platform that makes it possible for individuals and organizations to participate in reforestation projects around the world.
Also a certified B Corp, Treedom enables companies to create a branded forest in a part of the world best suited to their business goals, and then gift a tree from their forest to attendees at their corporate events. Each person receives a link to their own “tree diary” page, which provides regular updates on the tree’s growth, the country where it’s planted, and the farmer who takes care of it. The trees also serve as brand ambassadors, with each diary page bearing the company’s logo.
“Some used the tree as a teaser to increase event registrations—one tree for every registration; others to tell the nice story of a forest-borne thanks for the event,” said Susanna Finardi, partner and head of corporate sales for Treedom.
Since Treedom’s founding in 2010, Finardi said the importance of sustainability has only continued to grow, and corporate events have factored into that growth.
Of Treedom’s 6,000 corporate customers worldwide, more than 500 have gifted trees to guests at their events.
“It took us 10 years to plant our first million trees. It took us just over a year to plant our second million,” Finardi said. “The increase in public attention to green issues has been exponential. Everyone has to deal with it, including those who organize events.”
IMEX Group’s 2021 “Nature of Space” report, another installment in the #natureworks research series, suggests organizers can create more impactful events simply by creating meeting spaces that help individuals connect to nature. Janet Sperstad, CMP, director of the event management program for Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, co-authored the report, which details how incorporating natural elements into event spaces can help attendees stress less and learn more.
“We have an innate affinity for the natural world. We are just drawn to it, even though we’ve extracted ourselves from it over time,” Sperstad said.
For so long, professionals were rewarded for efficiency and rewarded for becoming “workload warriors,” Sperstad said. Now, that focus is shifting. “People have turned to nature for their physical and mental health,” she said. “As we come out of COVID, we’re so much more aware of the natural world.”
The use of diffused light, for example, can help improve attendee engagement and cognitive performance, according to the report. By comparison, bright lights and big sounds create sensory overload and wear out attendees, Sperstad said.
“Our show floors are lit up with this exhibitor lighting, and it’s just shouting to our eyes,” she said. “If we look at moments where there’s diffused lighting, our eyes become dilated; our shoulders come down.”
Meeting professionals can also appeal to the sense of smell and boost people’s moods by bringing in natural scents like citrus or pine, or by placing lavender herbs or cedar shavings in bowls throughout the space. “We have an intimate connection with smells that we love. And it’s proven to improve people’s health,” Sperstad said.
Incorporating natural elements like wood and water can further enhance the experience, but even adding artificial trees in walkways can help people remember more from the event, the report shows.
What people don’t want, Sperstad said, is to go back to doing what they were doing in 2019 and at the pace they were doing it. “I think people will want to take time to reconnect with others in meaningful ways,” she said. “And nature holds a lot of solutions for us to learn from.”