Thursday, 18 August 2011

Taking the Pain out of Policy

Pretty much everywhere you turn in the event industry these days someone wants to know: what's your policy when it comes to sustainability? How you consider the nexus of the environment, economy and society is becoming more important to getting a contract, keeping a client and communicating success.

This week I had the pleasure of participating in a webinar on how to create your event sustainability policy, hosted by the Green Meeting Industry Council. We discussed the process of researching, collaborating, writing and committing to sustainability for an event, or event-related organization by creating a policy. Although we're all refining our approaches to event sustainability, we proposed the following six items that should be considered in your policy, based on emerging standards:
  1. Vision
  2. Principles
  3. Important issues
  4. Ability and duty to act
  5. Objectives
  6. Commitment
Check out the GMIC's web site to access the recorded session and share your comments.

A number of good questions came in following the webinar which are shared below. Also check out the GMIC's Linkedin group for some sample policies you might want to refer to. More examples are welcome so please comment!

Question: If an organization plans many events, should they have a sustainability policy for each event?
My experience is it helps to keep it simple and consistent. So if you plan many events I’d try to avoid having a separate policy for each and take the time to create one policy that applies to all. The challenge in that is you have to decide what will work best across different kinds of events. That may take time, but is typically a better approach in a multiple event situation because it’s simpler, and gives a common touchstone for everyone. Now one policy doesn’t mean that you have to use the same tactics for every event. It’s okay to have different actions for each. So for example, your policy could state that because climate change is a critical issue your events are adopting an objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To implement that objective you might decide a different set of practices are needed for your annual conference compared to your monthly board meetings. Maybe for your conference you choose an energy efficient venue and a walk-able destination so you can eliminate shuttles and reduce building emissions. On the other hand you may decide to address this objective by having more virtual board meetings, cutting back on air travel. So you can see the policy is consistent for different events, even though your tactics are different.

Question: I know it varies, but is there a standard length for the policy?
I prefer to keep it brief and simple. I’ve seen some great policies come in under 2 or 3 pages. If your policy is a lot longer than that I’d start to ask if the content could be refined further, and simplified, or if you’re including too many operational or tactical aspects. Always try to remember that someone needs to be able to read it quickly and easily to grasp the overall intent of what you’re doing. It’s not a place for getting into detailed action plans. As suggested in the question, there are no hard rules and it varies, and keeping it simple and brief helps make it easier to engage in the policy.

Question: How long do you find the development of a good policy typically takes?
You need enough time to meaningfully engage people. To ensure you have representative information from important stakeholders. Knowing how hard that can be I advise people to plan for about 3 months. If it’s a complex event or a large organization it will take longer. If you’re not able to dedicate time to it consistently or if your stakeholders are dispersed it will take longer. If it’s a smaller event or company you may be able to finalize it more quickly. Also, be prepared you may not get it perfect the first time. It’s always a good idea to come back after a complete cycle of implementing and reporting against the policy and have a reality check. Ask if it’s working and accept it may need to be changed.

Question: Do you recommend a separate policy for organization and each event, when using a third party event management company?
I’d suggest the third party and the host of the event come to a clear understanding of what the sustainability policy will be for the event, or the many events the third party might be involved in. The policy should be in writing. The third party may have their own policy, and that’s great, a prudent move to be prepared on their part. The organization hosting the event may have one too. What’s important here is to ensure both align in the context of the event or events being planned. What’s also important is to clarify who is responsible for implementing the policy, or pieces of it. Once everyone is on the same page with a common foundation action planning can start.

Question: How long does the process to create a policy take?
Please see the answer above. I typically estimate three months to create a policy document. The longest process I've been involved with took five months.

Question: What policy examples are good to look at?
Check out the GMIC's Linkedin Group. There are some good examples there. Also you can use this template.

Question: What documents should be drawn on in the research phase?
Check and see if your organization has a sustainability policy. Many companies already do, but they haven't translated how it applies to meeting activities, or a certain event. A pre-existing company policy can give you a lot of help, especially with identifying objectives, principles and important issues. If you don't have a company policy don't worry, it just means you may have to do a bit more leg work crafting those kinds of things yourself. Some organizations look to the UN Global Compact for guidance on principles. Event standards - either national ones (CSA Z2010 or BS 8901) or proposed international ones like ISO 20121 - also include guidance on what a policy should include. Don't be afraid to poke around the event industry too, and ask for samples from members of the GMIC - there are good examples to draw from in this community.

Question: What are the costs to create a policy?
Policy creation requires time. That is the biggest cost. If you do it yourself it's important to track how much time it takes to get a sense of true costs. If you decide to hire an outside consultant that's an option, but adds to direct cost. If you track either, it's helpful to also consider if there are benefits or cost reductions to the exercise, once the policy is implemented. So for example, can you tie action to create the policy to acquisition of a new client? Or improved member or attendee satisfaction? If you're going to track costs, being mindful of the benefits is an important counter-balance.

Question: What are the benefits to creating a policy?
I favor policy creation because it gives order to the checklist chaos. There are so many competing pressures when it comes to 'greening' events that often leave you wondering: am I focusing on the right thing? Are all these actions having any benefit? To me a policy lets you get grounded in why you're doing what you're doing in a way that makes sense to everyone involved. It also gives you a focal point for action, and measurement. That helps you prioritize, and know what you can say yes to and what you might say no to when you run into a decision that has trade-offs. So for me, I like it because it keeps the work organized and strategic. And it keeps me a little less stressed! You have to also consider more and more customers are asking if you have a policy because they want to do business with groups that align with their values. A policy helps to substantiate that, along with proven practice.

Question: What is the minimum policy required in the standards?
The outline we provided in the webinar is a good start. Ensuring you have a vision (1) and principles (2). Grounding those in the issues (3) you think are most important, whether it be climate change, accessibility or health. These are things that should reflect stakeholder interests, so making sure you acknowledge who your stakeholders (4) are and your duty to act in their interest is important. Including your high level objectives (5) and commitment (6) is also key. Those are common ingredients, but remember the standards are in their draft form right now, so stay tuned. Things may change.

Question: How is a policy different from practices?
They're different things and should be aligned. Your policy is a high level thing, it typically doesn't contain specific practices. It gives direction to these practices. It's probably best to consider an example here. Let's say you have a high-level policy objective to reduce carbon emissions. That's a perfect thing to include in your policy. The next question is okay - how do we get there? Well, through practices. But how you practice carbon reduction when you are an exhibit manager for trade show booths may be different than how you practice it for a multi-venue festival. As a booth manager you might ensure you use SmartWay haulers for your logistics, and reduce your shipment weights. As a festival producer you might design a bike-to-festival program that cuts carbon. Policy is the same at a high level, but you tailor the practices to be relevant to the context. One thing to bear in mind when practices are different is it helps to try to use the same indicators to measure success (i.e. metric tons of carbon dioxide).

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