Sunday, 11 September 2011

To boldly go where no event has gone before!

Where does one go when they boldly go? I mean, really?

I've watched every single episode of Star Trek and its spin-offs since it launched onto the airwaves 45 years ago this week. All 726 of them. More than once. I know, I know - that's weeks of productive time I'll never get back.

But on this auspicious anniversary where we pay homage to the landing of Captain Kirk and his crew in our television galaxy, it just so happens this Trekkie read another article in the New York Times: 'Going Green and Getting Nowhere'. And like a wormhole boring into the Delta Quadrant it dawned on me: If we're going nowhere with individual actions to reduce the footprint of the events we plan, what do we need to do to boldly go? To boldly make a meaningful difference to create more sustainable events?

Some thoughts:

Firstly, we need to remind ourselves who we, as event designers, serve. I'm sure all of us can relate to the push and pull of different stakeholder groups who participate in our events, attendees and sponsors being key among them. Inevitably, we need to decide whose needs are penultimate, and design experiences accordingly. We also need to be courageous and stand by our decisions where we've decided to put someone's needs at the top of the pile, especially if it forces us to consider new models for funding. Where this is the case we need to be open to new populations we may not be serving, to consider how we might.

Second, we need to accept we are continuing with business as usual at our own peril. As other more capable writers such as Mitchell Beer and Elizabeth Henderson have pointed out: a new reality is coming. A reality where we have to accept our resilience as an industry is threatened by environmental factors that include food scarcity, unsustainable energy use and rising prices for both. We have a choice: anticipate and respond proactively, or adjust as crises such as the economic recession arrive at our front door.

If you can't see the need for change it's probably best to stop reading now. Because only by admitting there is a need to evolve can we be open to new and perhaps controversial ways to innovate. Ideas like:

Accounting for carbon impacts in our event budgets. That means consistently calculating a carbon footprint for our event(s) and translating that into a dollar value that reflects the environmental cost of planning and staging it (Related post). By articulating our climate impact as a financial cost we become compelled to have a conversation about how to offset that cost. And I don't mean through a carbon offset that pays for our sins while we continue to do what we've always done. I mean offset the environmental cost by taking real steps to develop new solutions that enable us to achieve our event-related goals like networking, education and marketing, without the emissions impact. Only when we know what our footprint is and acknowledge the financial cost of it can we meaningfully reduce and eliminate our impact.

Challenging event branding norms. Does a strong event brand really need ten floor to ceiling banners at registration? Or the event name, date and city on every single kick panel? A sidewalk decal every 100 meters around the convention center? A prop that flashes and spins in the convention center lobby all day and night? Alright, alright. A look and feel is often desirable for an event. But does that really let your attendees know you're here for them, and invested in giving them the best experience? When they leave they may remember your logo, but what did they really take away about your brand? I recently attended an event where instead of investing in a lot of signage some of the event budget was used to hire local staff ambassadors instead. Sure, ambassadors wore branded t-shirts and sometimes held small signs that had a material impact (incidentally, both were reused). But wow - what a different experience of the event I had: a smiling, friendly knowledgeable person always within reach to answer a question, or just say 'hello'. The feeling I took home? Warmth, accessibility, personal connection. Now that's a powerful brand, no plastics included.

Thinking like a product designer. Good product designers are always looking for ways to reduce waste and maximize the usefulness of their product in ways that serve customers better and hopefully save money. Are event professionals doing the same? Do we have to accept a plastic name badge inserted in a badge holder as our credentialing method? Do we have to have a bag (or 5) for the exhibit hall or can we propose a better virtual solution for collecting exhibit materials or giving cool incentives away? Or maybe a completely new way of holding the exhibit entirely? Can we rediscover and make attractive the incentive opportunities in our beneficiaries' backyards, rather than taking them to an exotic location? Let's not be afraid to question the current model. To reach out and ask others with fresh perspectives who may be completely outside of our industry to take a look at what we do, and re-imagine something different, something better.

Rewarding the right behaviors. In the past we've assumed people would like to get more stuff from our events: gadgets, giveaways, swag. Because of this we assume reducing or eliminating these things may be perceived by attendees as providing a lesser experience. But what if we were to reward those attendees who choose to reduce with a higher quality, more unique or luxurious experience? Something that did not involve a material giveaway? So by choosing to take the virtual option to attend, or bring their own name badge, water bottle and bag they might be rewarded? Perhaps with a free song download, a 15 minute massage in the relaxation lounge in the exhibit hall, a special opportunity to engage with a VIP or maybe a discounted price to register. And although it is a scary thought, what if we were to make the virtual option the most attractive option for those who can achieve the outcome they want without face to face contact?

And lastly, we need to talk and coordinate action. To boldly go where no one has gone in the realm of event sustainability will require a deep and empathetic conversation about what is necessary for our mutual prosperity, within and outside the event industry. It requires leadership by organizations to stand up and say it's time to have a different conversation about the future of events. A conversation that really steps out of the box to accept we are at risk of becoming the newspaper of the future, which for those papers still alive, is not a 'paper' at all, really. Change will be tough for some, especially where it cuts into traditional sources money. But if radical, collective change is the only answer, we have to first and foremost be willing to open up to new ideas, and see what it may mean to shatter the mold.

Who among our event associations is going to provide a safe and fertile place to talk about radical innovation and preparedness? What is your association doing to provide this space? Are they, and are we, courageous enough to boldly go where no one has gone before?


YiShun said...

Shawna, thanks for this terrific post. Your last point is of particular concern to us: A quick Google search for "meetings industry green standards" comes up with two major movements, one spearheaded by the EPA and MPI, and the other by APEX/CIC. It doesn't seem as if the two are talking to one another. Likewise, the two movements are so covered up with acronyms of various involved parties and news releases of baby steps that there's no telling when either set of standards will actually come to light. We're left wondering if we should take a cue from the hotel industry, which answers to a not-for-profit body called CERES. At this point, we're not sure what to expect, but we're eager--and waiting--for the next step, to see how we as a green facility can help, and how we can improve and learn from others.

Shawna McKinley said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I do agree, the example of what is going on related to sustainable/green event standards could be used to illustrate the fragmentation on this issue. I fear the confusion over which standard to follow will make it confusing (and maybe paralyzing) for well-intentioned planners and facilities to know what to do. And even then these standards don't necessarily reflect which kinds of things that have the most material impact, like evaluating the relative carbon impacts of traveling to different destinations, hybrid formats and the issue of event brand. At least not in their current form or directly and with the emphasis that should be directed to these aspects. In the meantime much gratitude to those individuals, companies and venues like your own who aren't waiting and trying to make progress!