Monday, 30 July 2012

Confessions of an Event Standards Junkie Chapter 1: ISO 20121

Three sustainable event standards have been launched within the last year. If you're confused about how they're different, wondering if they have value to your work or think it all sounds too complicated to bother my guess is you are not alone.

In brief the standards are:
Today, in the still-early stages of roll out, we've heard a lot about how standards are needed. And their potential value. But is the fuss really worth it?

I've recently survived the transition to an ISO 20121 management system for a small event planning company, helping earn certification for MeetGreen's event management processes under this new standard. In the spirit of ISO 20121--which stresses the need for review and evaluation--I thought I would brainstorm what I've learnt in the process to answer for myself: what worked, what didn't and is it worth it? My takeaways thus far:

The timeline is not weeks or months. It's years. The journey that led to ISO 20121 actually started in 2008, when we first considered implementing BS 8901, the precursor to ISO 20121. Initially we didn't log how much time tasks related to the process were taking. Mistake! Part-way through time spent on the system was tracked and now there is a better sense of the resources required to start and administer the system. I'd encourage anyone who starts down this path to log the time it takes from the beginning. And a heads up: the work never really ends for an organisational-scoped system. Even today I spend a few hours a month performing upkeep on the system, in addition to daily use staff make of the processes put in place under it.

Outside support helped but it's better if you do the work yourself. Without a formal background in management system standards, I found I needed help to really understand what was meant by certain clauses in the ISO 20121 standard. Having an outside mentor to talk to helped immensely. However, do not expect an outside party to do the work for you. Even if they indicate they can, consider this: you know your staff, resources, culture, values, goals and company best. If you really want an effective system you need to do it yourself. Outside mentors and consultants can help with guides, resources, templates, gap analyses and auditing, but the heavy lifting is best done by you and your team.

Scope it right. Your ISO system really is what you make it. You dictate what it applies to and the objectives you want. It can apply to one event, certain kinds of events, or certain aspects of services you provide. Or you can choose what MeetGreen did: have it apply to everything.This choice made sense for us, but it may not make sense for everyone. So be really clear what you want to bite off, especially if you're not yet sure about the amount of work involved or if you are uncertain that you have the resources sustain the system itself. It can help to test drive the standard on a single event project first, before deciding to dive in all the way.

The promotional benefits are marginal at best. Don't get me wrong. It's nice to be able to say you're ISO 20121-compliant. But when you have to explain more often than not what ISO 20121 means to prospects it's doubtful they've contacted you because of the standard. Does it help? Maybe a very little bit. Once prospects learn what the standard is they may look at it as a differentiator. But if it's the only perk you're looking for from ISO I wouldn't bank on it.

It has helped enable a virtual office model. Over half of our company workforce is remote. ISO 20121 has helped create project planning tools that improve the ability of these geographically dispersed teams to seamlessly work together. And I should know - I'm one of the few who have experienced the before and after!

The ability to orient and train staff has improved. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it is much better. Online project plans have been standardised and detailed instructions developed. This includes steps to take during all stages of a project, from start up through design, planning, execution and debrief. An online operations manual also provides staff with on-demand templates and training. Where staff find they need additional training a mechanism has been developed to enable that as well.

The ability to cope with staff turnover has improved. As a small company MeetGreen doesn't experience a lot of turnover. In the past, however, loss of a single project manager led to major internal disruptions which could impact client service delivery. With ISO this transitioning process is much smoother, and documentation is vastly improved, enabling new project managers to more seamlessly take over project work when staff move on to other opportunities.

Bureaucracy still sucks. I confess: the thing I don't like about ISO 20121 is it can increase organisational bureaucracy. For example, some staff now have additional review processes. Reviews take time away from other things and are more administrative. It's accepted as a necessary evil and the team tries to adopt a "Goldilocks Principle" with each potential layer of bureaucracy. Meaning, just enough documentation is needed to improve a process and overcome an issue, but not so much that event managers revolt. Ahh just right.

People struggle with setting integrated objectives. This has been the biggest pain-point in my experience. While overall company objectives for sustainability are required under ISO 20121 and are technically not difficult to set, translation of these into projects and tasks can be difficult. This may be less of an issue if your system is only scoped for one event. But if you're trying to adopt ISO 20121 as a company you may want to anticipate that it will take time to integrate company with project objectives and tasks. Plan for multiple employee consultations and be prepared to adjust. Challenges also emerge if client objectives for sustainability vary from your own, and across projects. The lesson? In theory objective and target-setting can and should work very smoothly. In practise it's a very different story.

It can help structure your approach to pro-bono work. We all get them: requests to do a free student project, write an article or donate time for a presentation or webinar. In previous years our approach to this was very ad hoc. Requests were dealt with one at time as they came in and with only loose attention to informal criteria. Today pro-bono hours are prioritised and targeted each year to keep the company's involvement in important, community-driven projects sustainable. The costs and benefits of these are also tracked in consistent ways.

Measurement of the impact of education and outreach can improve. Related to the above, our ISO system has evolved better ways to measure the impact of marketing and communications. From social media to webinars and presentations, our ISO system has helped improve tracking of the legacy the company provides in terms of education and awareness-building. 

Communication with clients and client satisfaction improve. It may be hard to believe but prior to the adoption of BS 8901 we didn't really have a formal process for project owners to ensure work was evaluated. It wasn't that client communication didn't happen, but it was approached differently by each project manager, and there was no formal, consistent type of evaluation post-event.  This is now more formalised, includes discussion of sustainability issues and is tracked as a project objective with clear targets for staff.

..and a note on certification. Compliance with ISO 20121 may or may not be third-party certified. It's your choice. I've found that third-party certification has had value. The surveillance processes put in place by our certifier cost money, but in turn keeps improvements on-track. This has worked because we've cultivated a productive, long-term relationship with a certifier, who in addition to being knowledgeable in the system, understands the event industry as well. It's critically important to choose someone that has both if you opt to certify.

So, has ISO 20121 been worth it? All considered I think so. I can point to numerous examples of how a systematic approach to sustainability has helped us improve management practises. Three things make a strong impression in these first few years of using a sustainable event management system for events:

First, I feel we've benefited in many ways that don't involve 'greening', as the list above I hope illustrates. Sure there have been environmental and social responsibility improvements, and these have also translated into business benefits that stretch beyond 'green'.

Second, the value is more internal, and less external than I expected it to be. It's done because it helps stakeholders within the company do things better and in more consistent, measurable ways. It's also helped teams more effectively engage in their projects and the company, while improving their ability to be more proactive about sustainability and anticipate projects risks and issues in ways I didn't expect.

And third, while the system does ensure sustainability is actively considered, it has not guaranteed that projects produce more environmentally or socially responsible outcomes by default. Sure it enables conditions where this can happen and staff are often successful. But the system alone does not guarantee performance that reduces impacts and ensures risks are eliminated, for example. It's your commitment to honouring the system that ensures it works.

Lastly, a note on client value. My observation is that clients appear happy and according to debrief comments appreciate that staff can take care of their projects using a system that is verified to an external standard. Would they pay more and does it earn additional business? I'm less convinced of this and look forward to learning how to better harness it for business development purposes.

Welcome insights others who are using the standard may have, or if you're considering ISO 20121 for your event company or event!

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Using event powers for good: How one small community event influences attendees about sustainability

Over the last few months myself and the lovely Judy Kucharuk have talked about the power of event organisers to influence environmental change. I had another example of this today when I took in a little event in my own back yard.

Party at the Pier is a small, family-oriented weekend event that celebrates the maritime history of my neighbourhood in North Vancouver. Taking a stroll trough the site today I stumbled upon some cool examples of event planners using their powers for good: providing opportunities for attendees to learn about and engage in sustainability. How?

Events as EDUCATION about sustainability:

Port Metro Vancouver shares some of their sustainability initiatives through interpretive signage.

Events as CONVERSATION about sustainability:

BC Hydro's interactive games and displays encourage discussion about how families can be Power Smart.

Events as PLEDGE about sustainability:

Burrard Inlet's Environmental Action Program's Ambassador's Pledge to help improve city water quality.

Events as ACTION about sustainability:

Metro Vancouver's water refill stations help to reduce use of individual bottled water at events.

Nice work! How are you using your influential powers for good at your events?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Taking sustainable events a mile further in the Mile-High City

Last month, the Colorado Convention Center in Denver announced the creation of a new urban garden  that will provide 2,000 lbs of food per year to their on site caterer, Centerplate. This move is just the latest step in a multi-year effort to push this destination forward in providing a more integrated, sustainable event product. In this blog post Tiffany Hoambrecker, Associate Director, Convention Services for VISIT DENVER, shares her insights on the origins, current state and future direction of sustainable events for Denver, including what planners can do to help destinations go further.

What started Denver on the path to being a more sustainable event destination?

In 2005, Mayor John Hickenlooper committed Denver to reducing its emissions of greenhouse gases by 10 percent per capita by 2012 as part of the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement. He was one of the first 49 mayors to sign this historic document, which is now signed by over 1000 mayors. In order to reach this commitment, the Mayor created Greenprint Denver, Denver’s action plan for sustainability. A group of 33 civic, business and government leaders were appointed to form the Greenprint Advisory Council and study best practices from around the country that could help Denver reach its greenhouse gas reduction goal. The result of the Greenprint Advisory Council’s efforts was Denver’s first Climate Action Plan in October 2007. Since then, Greenprint Denver has begun implementing the many programs needed to reach the goals of the Climate Action Plan. Coloradoans have been eco-conscious for a long time, but Mayor Hickenlooper’s Greenprint initiative became the platform in which the City of Denver and Greenprint Denver can engage with City agencies and business leaders to provide services that allow for continued improvement in our quality of life. Since the inception of Greenprint Denver, Denver continues to be recognized nationally as a green destination, by both meeting planners and national sustainable organizations.

 How did you become involved and why is it important to you?

Greening the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC) was a major focus of the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC). The DNCC wanted the 2008 Convention to be the greenest political convention to date. I worked in partnership with the DNCC Green team to provide education to our local community members that were engaged with the DNC. In particular, I worked closely with the 94 convention hotels on their greening efforts. From that point forward, we realized that we needed a green champion within VISIT DENVER to act as a consultant to our meeting planners and to oversee the sustainable movement in Denver- so I raised my hand. In my personal life, I have always been mindful of the environment and my sustainable footprint. It seemed like a natural fit to also apply that passion to my professional life as well.  

Are there certain challenges and opportunities that you've prioritized for the destination to address in the area of sustainable events?

Overseeing the sustainability for VISIT DENVER is not my full-time job. One of my biggest challenges is just trying to keep up with what is going on in hospitality community, not only locally but globally. Becoming a member of the Green Meeting Industry Council has proved to be a very beneficial way to network both locally and globally with like-minded people.

Is there a certain sustainable event program you're particularly proud of at VISITDENVER? A convention service, product or case study?

One of the many legacies of the DNC was VISIT DENVER’s Travel and Event CO2 Emission Calculators. These calculators were designed to be simple to use for both the individual traveler as well as our meeting and event planners. Upon completing the calculators, the user is encouraged to make a donation to the Colorado Carbon Fund, an organization that helps support new energy efficiency and renewable energy projects geared toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Denver is also proud to be the 1st convention center in the United States to have a Full-Time Sustainable Programs Manager on staff to assist our meeting planners with their green events and to oversee and evaluate the internal practices of the Colorado Convention Center. Since the implementation of this position, several other convention centers in the United States have followed suit. Without this position, it’s likely that the Colorado Convention Center would not have been able to undergo the infrastructure changes to become a LEED Certified Building in Operations and Maintenance. Most recently, The Colorado Convention Center, in collaboration with exclusive caterer Centerplate, has taken local sustainability to the next level by creating fully operational, on-property farm. The Blue Bear Farm, will provide produce vegetables, herbs and honey for food service operation at the Colorado Convention Center and the Blue Bear Food Truck. This will be the largest scale garden operation for a convention center. The farm is yet another way in which the Colorado Convention Center is continuing to re-evaluate their sustainability practices and determine what they can do next to help drive business to Denver.

Event planners often have wish lists of what we would love destinations, hotels and venues to do for us to make greener events easier, which often ignores that planners could do things better too! What can planners do to better support your work to 'green' Denver?

Continue to ask! It goes back to basic economics- supply and demand. The more our meeting planners are asking for sustainable option, the more likely our venues and hotels are apt to start making some changes. Fortunately for Denver, many of our hotels and venues have already jumped on the sustainability bandwagon and have made some significant strides in their internal practices and continue to improve and build upon their existing sustainable practices. However, there is always room for improvement.  

You've been involved in the development of new green destination standards for quite some time. How do you anticipate things might change or Denver might be impacted by these standards now that they're in play?

 The APEX/ASTM standards are finally a way for meeting planners and suppliers to evaluate the different sectors on an even playing field. The challenge is awareness and implementation of the standards. More often than not, when I discuss the standards with either clients or our members, they are not aware of the standards. If a meeting planner was just starting to dip their toes into sustainability and wanted to use the standards as a guide, they could very easily get overwhelmed and intimidated by the standards. For those of us who are more familiar with the standards, its our job to help educate our planners and suppliers that they are not the bible for a green meeting but merely tools to help you look at your meeting from a different perspective and hopefully start to gradually incorporate some of the practices into your operation.  

Making sustainable choices is not easy. Lots of tradeoffs involved. How do you approach the greyer areas of sustainability where there isn't a perfect decision?

Sometimes you just have to weigh all of your options, look at what is most important to you and/or your client, focus those one or two aspects and do the best that you can with the assets you are dealing with. Nobody ever said sustainability was easy. It takes work but in the end, every little bit helps.  

Denver has been paying attention to this issue for a long time while other destinations are just starting the sustainability adventure. What's your advice to professionals in your field just starting to create a sustainability program for their destination?

Unfortunately, CVB’s don’t “own” anything. You rely on your City and your partners (venues, hotels, restaurants, transportation partners, etc.) to help sell your city as a green destination. They provide the menu, it’s your job to sell their products and bring clients to your destination. The most important thing is to make sure that your leadership is on board. Without their support and buy-in, you will constantly be facing brick walls. CVB’s are leaders and influencers of our members and/or partner organizations. Once your leadership determines that becoming a green destination is a brand pillar for your city, they will professional development for you and your local partners.