Saturday, 15 October 2011

We are the 99%

Not the 99% occupying Wall Street, or sitting on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery this morning. But the 99% of sustainable event organizers that realizes 1% of sustainable events have it a lot different than the rest.

First let me define what I mean by "The 1%" and "The 99%". The 1% are mega-events: large-scale, city-wide and often globally significant events. The Olympic Games, FIFA's World Cup. The kinds of events that cities trip over themselves trying to win. The 99% are those events that event, meeting and marketing staff stage countless times a month, in ballrooms and small spaces at hotels. Half-day to all-day gatherings of 50-1000 people. The kind of events few CVBs will arm wrestle over, but none-the-less benefit from where these become permanent fixtures in their meeting landscape due to proximity to corporate or association headquarters. Some might say the bread to the mega-event butter.

We tout the cool achievements of mega-events. And so we should - they are able to do some pretty innovative and high profile things like create human-powered pedestrian malls. How awesome is that?

But we have to accept it's a bit different for the 99%.

Most different perhaps is the lack of sponsorship, budget and staffing to devote to sustainability. Mega-events can do great things. And they do it through the financial support of high-profile sponsors and boards that mandate money be spent and staff be hired to manage sustainability. And props to them for doing so. I can name many an event marketing department among the 99% that would love to have funds to hire a sustainability specialist for their department. And remember too, with increased capacity comes increased responsibility, so it's not all a bed of roses just because someone might be footing the bill. The expectations increase. You have to work harder. Do more. There are fewer excuses. You're held more accountable.

Acknowledging this difference, is it fair to expect the 99% will meet the expectations of things like the ISO 20121 standard? And the APEX-ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Event Standard? Or report against GRI Event Sector Supplement Guidelines? Things which seem more within the means and perhaps better suited to the 1%?

It is arguably more difficult for the 99% to fulfill the expectations of these standards. Difficult, but not impossible. Before setting the 99% up for failure I think we all need to acknowledge this; entertain the possibility. Because if the 99% moves down the path of trying to meet standards with unreasonable expectations and encounter consistent failure we could all potentially lose.

So with that in mind, some practical ideas on how to ease this process for the 99%, and why it's so important to do so:

Engage the procurement department.
It's a typical pattern for event sustainability initiatives to start from the event up. But when your buying power is limited to a 100 person event space, your event is next week and your plate is full, adding sustainability to the mix can be a non-starter for the 99%. The power to affect change across small meetings and field marketing activities often lies outside planning departments. Procurement departments typically have more power to leverage sustainability across the event supply chain, and need to be engaged in developing systematic requests and reporting about event sustainability in a centralized way.

Harnessing in-house corporate responsibility expertise. Many organizations already have policies and procedures for integrating sustainability into operations. Some are also going green with their events. So why is it that with only a few exceptions sustainable event work is non-existent in corporate reporting? The reality is, if you make widgets CSR tends to be more concerned with how you manufacture and distribute those widgets. Not necessarily how you hold meetings and stage events to allow manufacture and distribution of widgets to happen. Building an early bridge between CSR departments, procurement and event marketing ensures that there is alignment across the organization about what the material issues, common goals and metrics are.

Tapping agencies. In some situations the 99% rely on local agencies to execute events. It's therefore critical to bring hired agencies onside so they are contributing to sustainability. Cue procurement to assist in this process with RFP, contracting and supplier evaluation mechanisms that include sustainable event requirements.

Acknowledging global differences. When the 99% are planning events in Boston, Barcelona and Beijing one of the first things you realise is one sustainable event approach does not suit all. Each city is unique. The capacity of venues varies. The infrastructure and laws governing everything from recycling to smoking could be vastly different. Cultural acceptance of certain things diverges. In 2 months the 99% may be planning a road show across an entire continent, relying on different agencies to assist. This diversity adds a different kind of complexity not necessarily experienced by a 1-city mega-event: how to navigate different local issues while working toward universal best practices in a small event context? Preparing agencies and staff for this inevitability so they have agile tools to weigh sustainability tradeoffs on a daily basis is important.

Rethinking legacy. This is where the true power of the 99% emerges. For the 1% legacy may be measured in terms of sporting facilities built. Number of people educated about sustainability. Permanent changes in transit use in a host destination. All great stuff, but for the 99% these kinds of legacy metrics are impractical. They also fall short of the potential the 99% has to fundamentally change the way meetings are held to create what in my opinion could be the most exciting legacies of all:
  • Expanded supply chain analysis by organizations that plan events. Just this week Microsoft announced it will be requiring annual sustainability reporting by vendors. It remains to be seen if meeting vendors will be included, but this kind of expectation, which is also being put forward by Oracle, is significant for those who service corporate meetings and travel. It sends a message that the 99% expect sustainability to be integrated into events of all sizes, not just the showcase ones. And not just at the front end, but through back-end reporting as well.
  • Permanent changes in the way suppliers do business. So often requests of the 1% benefit the 1%, and then once the event is over, it's back to business as usual. Businesses make special allowances for high-profile events, then fall back to old behaviors. Standard business practice is more likely to change when the preferences and behavior of the 99% change.  As testament to this major hotel chains have created proprietary tools in recent years to make it easier to respond to the daily requests of the 99% for information about sustainable practices and performance.
  • Better industry-wide reporting. The uptake of tools such as Green Hotels Global provide proof that the industry is data-hungry. Would these tools be sustainable on the efforts of the 1%? Unlikely. Their use is being driven by groups like StarCite and American Express who are responsible for many of the meetings planned among the 99%.
So while we spend a lot of time building consensus around standards that will no doubt help frame sustainable event programs for all, it's important to remember that we should not always keep the 1% examples in mind. For much like sustainability is about enabling a shift in the behavior of the mainstream consumer, the needs, demands and actions of the 99% of small meeting planners are equally important for us to attend to, and arguably harbour the greatest potential for change.

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