Sustainability and cultural diversity are more than trendy buzz words on a mission statement — they represent the strong desire to improve best practices in the events industry, impacting meetings, host destinations and the venues we gather in. As suppliers discover that initiating sustainable practices is as good for their bottom lines as it is for the planet, more are hoping to create a unique competitive advantage to attract groups. Planners, in turn, are making demands to ensure their meetings and conferences embrace environmental stewardship.
We asked meeting professionals how producing environmentally responsible conferences and choosing host destinations that offer cultural diversity and community-based programs can enhance attendee experiences, elevate the perception of the organization and drive results.
Meeting the growing demand
By producing an environmentally responsible event, planners send a powerful message to their key stakeholders, showcasing that their organization is a good corporate citizen, says Nancy Zavada, president of MeetGreen, a sustainable event agency in Portland, Oregon.
“Sustainability just has so many common-sense elements; people often think that sustainable events look like granola on a burlap bag, and that's absolutely the opposite of what's true. I think it’s here to stay and it's a fabulous way to treat our guests,” says Zavada, whose team has seen a 116 percent increase in sustainability minded clients since the pandemic.
During the pandemic, face-to-face meetings came to a halt for a while, Zavada explains. "We were able to see the carbon savings and lower expenses as a result." When the demand for in-person meetings resumed, she observed that "planners then wanted to see how they could keep reducing their carbon impact for events because everybody's chasing net zero. So, we’re setting up carbon accounting systems, as well as doing playbooks for meeting planners so they can minimize their event carbon footprint.”
Begin by brainstorming
Since planners experience a challenging workload when organizing events for thousands of delegates, Zavada suggests breaking down organizational objectives into smaller, achievable parts.
“I always tell people: Start from where you are. Take on one sustainable initiative this year, then measure it and build on it. You don't have to do everything at once — that would be daunting,” she explains, adding that since ThinkGreen began measuring the impact of going green in 2008, they’ve saved their clients $5.3 million — a huge driver for planners to adopt more sustainable initiatives.
Starting with not using single-use plastic water bottles, for example, then moving on to other goals makes the transition easier, notes Zavada.
“Maybe attendees don’t recycle at home, but what if they learn to recycle at an event? See if you can get food donated instead of having leftovers and save money by ordering more accurately,” she adds.
Work smarter, not harder
The right destination and venue you choose can make planners’ jobs much easier, says Zavada.
“Pick a central location and then a destination with mass transit from the airport to the hotel or the venue. Make sure it’s walkable, so attendees can get to shops and restaurants. Check that the city has an infrastructure that recycles and donates to community food banks. Ask the hotel if they have low flow showers.”
Bryan Wood, chief learning and events officer with the Hospitality Financial Technology Professionals (HFTP) association in Austin, Texas, plans three to four in-person international conferences each year for up to 6,500 attendees. HFTP’s most recent event was held in Orlando, Florida, where the Orange County Convention Center boasts one of the most innovative, large-scale sustainability programs in the United States.
“While it’s not our primary decision factor, we do look at what the venue or the city do to help with sustainability aspects. Our industry has a big sustainability goal, especially with water usage in hotels, for example. And when we have an event with a buffet, we like to donate any leftover packaged food to the community,” says Wood, adding that his team appreciated the OCCC’s offerings, which include five solar energy programs, energy-efficient buildings and donating more than 25,000 pounds of food annually to local community organizations.
Wood’s team also donates furniture purchased for the trade show component of their event to local charities, rather than tossing it into a bin.
“As event organizers, we try to make sure the venues and hotels are using recyclable materials as much as possible, so nothing hits the landfill. Orlando does a really good job of that and so does Dallas. We try to recycle, repurpose or reuse as much as we can. In our exhibit halls, we often have leftover carpet, so we make sure it’s distributed to the community. We want to do our part.”
Wood’s team has also eliminated conference bags in favor of digital versions and has gone paperless except for printed badges.
A blueprint for the future
Sustainability has moved beyond aspiration and multiple LEED certifications straight into practicality for many industries, including automotive. With technology moving at breakneck speed, DMOs and hotels must keep up by gaining sustainability expertise that meets client needs, says Gwen Moore, chief operating officer for the Guru Team in Detroit, Michigan, which works with various automotive clients.
For a 2024 event, Moore’s client wants to offer attendees test drives with their electric and autonomous vehicles, so her first question to venues involves being able to charge them. To her dismay, many suppliers had very little knowledge of details such as number of charging stations, and most weren’t aware of state driving rules regarding self-driving vehicles.
“From a meeting standpoint, if I want to do a consumer ride and drive or media ride and drive using electric vehicles, where would I charge those vehicles?” says Moore.
“It changes the dynamics and scope of what you’re able to do for a meeting, because we don't yet have the infrastructure for electric vehicle use. And when I ask whether I'll get a charge in two hours or if I have to plug it in overnight, they typically don't know. These are things automotive industry planners are interested in.”
Moore believes it’s time to raise awareness and create standards about the present and future sustainability needs convention centers and hotels must provide to attract groups and generate more business.
“Knowing that meeting planners typically plan two, three or four years in advance, it’s important that venues know what their strategic sustainability plan is for the coming year,” says Moore.
One solution Moore feels would drive results is having suppliers become advocates for future sustainability.
“It can be as simple as sending out a survey to their list of people concerning what their sustainability needs will be. Because that's going to give you an indication of what your demand is,” she explains.
“For the automotive industry, by 2025, there will be a significant increase in the electrification of vehicles. And if you’re unable to support these events, you’re going to lose business,” she says.
Moore hopes more planning and discussion take place within destinations and venues to understand this space. In the meantime, she’s working with venues to adjust her programming. But she insists it’s vital for planners to continue to push for their needs.
Global destinations leverage unique culture to inspire and elevate events
In addition to leading sustainability practices, planners are also seeking ways to maximize what a host city can offer delegates — from exciting discoveries to authentic local experiences.
Destinations ranked high for cultural diversity usually have their fair share of heritage sites, museums, art galleries, theaters, variety of restaurants and architectural buildings. While major metropolitan cities easily fall into that category, many second and third-level destinations are highlighting their own ethnically diverse opportunities that foster culture and connection.
“We have about a 25 percent international attendance at our HITEC show, so we try to pick venues in cities that have a lot of cultural diversity,” says Wood.
“For example, we're in Toronto in 2023, and there’s a melting pot of cultures, so attendees can choose from a wide variety of culinary options, for example.”
Wood’s team finds destination microsites especially helpful for delegates who enjoy discovering a new city.
“Visit Orlando provided a branded destination website for our event, which we promoted to our attendees so they could plan,” he says, noting that Orlando was an easy sell for his stakeholders.
“Orlando is the hospitality mecca of the United States, and since our show is a hospitality show, we look for venues that are high in hospitality service. Orlando has a unique convention district with many entertainment and nightlife options for attendees, and this makes a good package for the conference.”
Rising up to give back
In addition to being a popular destination that drives attendance, Orlando offers the chance for groups to give back to local communities through various programs. For example, Zavada’s team organized a successful partnership in Orlando recently with Clean the World, which recycles hotel amenities.
“We built over 4,000 hygiene kits onsite with our attendees and funded more than 6,000 kits for local charities in the Orlando area,” she recalls, noting that the program added value to the attendee experience.
“People want to know they're making an impact, and nothing builds camaraderie like working together to do good.”
One challenge Zavada often sees planners struggle with as they try to incorporate more sustainable or diverse initiatives involves getting past the ‘But we’ve always done it this way’ mindset.
“Instead, let’s ask how can we convene people moving forward: What can we do to make events interesting for people? How can we include diversity or a project that cares about the earth?” she says.
“Don't be daunted by it; just look at your organization's mission statement and link your efforts to that: Maybe there's something in there about diversity and inclusion, or water, or energy. How can we use this event to be a learning lab?
In other words, start small, but start somewhere.
Orlando Is a Sustainable Location for Eco-Conscious Groups
Sustainability can be defined as the balance between the environment, equity and economy. This balance is woven throughout Orlando, from an eco-friendly convention center to green hotels and resorts to conservation-minded theme parks. It’s only “natural” that sustainable meetings options are plentiful in Orlando.
Orlando was recognized for achieving the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by the U.S. Green Building Council for its citywide sustainability and resiliency efforts. So, whether a meeting planner wants to plan a gourmet farm-to-table experience or just needs peace of mind that a venue has sustainable business practices, Orlando has locations and experiences that will surpass an organization’s 'eco-expectations'.
Green efforts at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), Central Florida hotels and resorts, and other meeting venues, help planners and suppliers produce events in a more sustainable manner. For example, the Amway Center in downtown Orlando is the first NBA facility to earn gold LEED certification, and the OCCC is the largest convention center in the world with LEED certification. In addition, the Greater Orlando area has 136 Florida Green Lodging-designated properties out of a total of 689 in the entire state.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Is Part of the Orlando Meeting Experience
Orlando is committed to creating wondrous adventures for all visitors. The area strives to be the nation’s most inclusive travel destination, welcoming people from all over the planet to enjoy everything the city has to offer regardless of their gender, ethnicity, romantic preferences or life stage.
The destination’s openness can be traced to local residents and their fascinating histories, which represent a true melting pot of global cultures and customs. For meeting planners considering destinations of their next meeting, African American, Asian American, Hispanic and Latino, and LGBTQ+ history and influences in the Orlando area can be infused into their event.
There are also multicultural festivals, museums, galleries, restaurants and other locally owned businesses that can be included in their event’s official agenda or offered to attendees to experience on their own during their visit. Planners just need to visit www.orlandomeeting.com for more information.