Climate change: why the meetings industry was slow to respond

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The looming threat of climate change poses huge questions for the international meetings industry. But does it have the answers? By James Lancaster

The environmental harm caused by international meetings is something that tends to escape scrutiny, unless the meeting itself is about the environment. At this point the Twittersphere lights up with accusations of hypocrisy, usually centred on the amount of air travel involved in staging such events. The message is a simple, some would argue simplistic, one: delegate heal thyself!

It happened recently during COP24, the UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, and again, during the World Economic Forum (WEF), in Davos, where Sir David Attenborough described to the world’s high-earning movers and shakers how mankind is laying waste to the planet.

Because the media’s gaze is so intense, meetings like this take steps to ‘neutralise’ their carbon footprint. The organisers of COP24 pledged to plant six million trees, for example, while the WEF said it would ‘fully off-set’ the emissions pumped into the atmosphere by the hundreds of private jets (media estimates range from 250-1,500) that flew delegates to and from Switzerland specifically for the gathering.

The off-setting mechanism is controversial, however. Proving effectiveness and ‘additionality’ – the projects you are funding wouldn’t have happened anyway – is difficult, no matter how many checks and balances are put in place. Some have compared off-setting to the selling of indulgences carried out by the Catholic Church in the middle-ages. Allowing people, or organisations, to buy themselves a clean conscience, in other words, while someone else attempts to undo the damage they have already done.

Air travel is not the only aspect of meetings under scrutiny. The meat-laden menu at COP24 drew criticism because of the huge C02 emissions associated with the agricultural sector and the rearing of livestock.

“We can’t afford to be serving up cheeseburgers at climate conferences if we’re going to have an honest conversation about the role of food in the climate crisis,” Stephanie Feldstein, from the Center for Biological Diversity, told Huffington Post, adding her voice to numerous complaints.

But what of the thousands of other meetings that take place every year? According to statistics from suppliers’ association ICCA, the average international association meeting attracts around 250 delegates – but many attract thousands, if not tens of thousands, of overseas visitors. Are the owners and organisers of these events taking their environmental responsibilities seriously? And are the destinations and venues who cater for these events taking their responsibilities seriously, too?


Environmental consultants to the meetings industry say things are moving in the right direction, but much too slowly.

From 2006 to 2018, Guy Bigwood was the Sustainability Director of MCI, the world’s largest association management and events agency. He now runs his own consultancy and is the founder of the Global Destination Sustainability Index (GDS-Index), which measures the performance of cities in relation to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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Guy Bigwood[/caption]

He recognises a shift in attitudes towards climate change with ‘real anger’ coming to the surface. People, he says, are, ‘starting to understand that the world has reached a tipping point’. And on the meetings industry’s sluggish response to the threat, he is not scared to apportion blame.

“Agencies and their clients are definitely not doing enough,” he says. “They have left it to the destinations and the suppliers to do the work – but it requires everyone to get involved. The organisers are the enablers, the catalyst, they’re the client after all! If they don’t put the pressure on, who will? They are still not demanding change. They are not making it contractual.”

According to a recent survey by the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), only 11 per cent of organisers currently include sustainability clauses in their RFPs (requests for proposals), a number that goes down to 7 per cent for associations. Perhaps of more concern, 41 per cent of associations still did not factor sustainability into the design of their event at all.

So if organisers are lagging behind, what about the cities that host meetings? Many own or have a stake in convention centres, so can influence policy in that direction. They can offer delegates free public transport, for example, or use taxes to change supplier behaviour or alleviate some of the problems associated with large numbers of visitors. Others, like Copenhagen, are rethinking their entire tourism strategies, including business events, to make them more sustainable. Bigwood says cities still have a ‘long way to go’, with even the best ‘not there yet’, but are key to change.

“There is pressure on cities right now to respond to public concerns, not just around the environment, but around tourism and the tension between visitors and locals. You’re seeing that where I live in Barcelona. If you can get the mayors of these cities and the policy-makers on board and then introduce an element of competition, as we are trying to do with the Index, then you can start to see changes that will permeate through to the meetings industry.”

Nancy Zavada, co-founder of the Green Meetings Industry Council, and owner of US-based environmental consultancy MeetGreen, describes the industry’s response to climate change as ‘slow’ and ‘depressing’, and one which, after 20 years, has often left her feeling disheartened.

“I thought by now I would have worked myself out of a job,” she says wryly. “But that hasn’t happened. I’m still teaching the introductory courses. I did a webinar for the Events Industry Council recently and 1,000 people attended. That sounds great, but it was basically a how-to guide to getting started! So that’s where we’re at."

“Suppliers are doing it, and getting a lot better at it,” she adds, “But for them, it’s about their bottom line. They are saving money on energy, on water, so there are obvious cost-savings for them. And they have another ‘value-added’ product for their customers. Should organisers be pushing suppliers further? Sure! But should organisers be doing it themselves. Well, yes please!”


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Nancy Zavada[/caption]

Zavada says a lack of ambition, driven by a lack of knowledge, is checking progress.

“A lot of organisers will give up individual water bottles, or paper, for example, and then check it (the environment) off their list. That’s the frustration. I understand they have a lot on their plate. Event planning is a difficult job, with many different factors and they don’t want to add one more. The environment is a complicated issue, it’s a big issue, and sometimes they’re scared to even dip their little toe in.”

According to MeetGreen’s statistics, the average three-day, 1,000-person national conference generates about 530 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions, the equivalent of 1,233 barrels of oil consumed. Of those, 70 per cent is likely to come from air travel. Waste is the other big issue. A typical national conference attendee produces more than 1.89 kg of waste a day, the bulk of which ends up in landfill. Anyone who has ever attended a conference or exhibition can see where the waste comes from: massive oversupplies of food, reams of printed material, goodie bags full of marketing materials, show floors built from scratch etc.


Even before Attenborough’s Blue Planet series aired, venues were starting to cut back on waste, including plastics. ICC Sydney claims to have cut back on more than 1,000,000 plastic bottles since it introduced a tap-water scheme at the beginning of 2017, for example. Yet waste remains a huge problem for the meetings industry. For Zavada, the issue points to a hurdle that has to be overcome before real progress is made – the persisting notion that business travel has to be ‘glamorous’.

“Baby boomers are holding fast to what hospitality looks like. A prime example is these buffets where there is a ridiculous amount of food whether you’re first or last in the queue, because the venues think it looks good if the last person still sees huge mounds of shrimp or potato! If you’re the last person through then you should be getting the last pork chop and that’s what it should look like.”

With around 28,000 delegates, the European Radiology Congress is one of the biggest medical conferences in Europe, having had a permanent residency in Vienna for 25 years. Organiser the European Society of Radiology says it recognises calls for ‘new approaches’.

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Peter Baierl[/caption]

“We make the most of the available resources, using them optimally while keeping the environmental impact to a minimum,” says executive director Peter Baierl. “Unlike other events, a conventional poster presentation format has not been used since 2003 thanks to specially developed software. It is not appropriate to fill up halls with printed materials and posters, just to dispose of them when the congress is over. This is a waste of resources and places a burden on infrastructure.”

Mathias Posch, president of the International Association of Professional Congress Organisers, insists his members are now encouraging their clients to embrace greener practices.

“Venues and destinations were possibly the first to act,” he concedes. “After all, it is good to say that your venue or destination is plastic-free, sustainable and leaving an environmental legacy. Now it goes further, with clients, generally driven by the PCOs, requiring sustainable meetings.”

And he says client awareness has increased, too. “Many organisations are now creating their own environmental policies, which they are including in their request for proposals, and really showing commitment to making measurable changes.”

Dennis Speet, acting CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), says meeting planners have a ‘critical’ role to play in helping the industry clean up its act.

“When organisations start to take into consideration the importance of sustainability, by making it a criteria in the selection process, destinations, venues and other suppliers will look into these demands. When sustainable destinations win more congresses, others will follow their example.”

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Copyright MeetGreen[/caption]

Meanwhile ICCA president, and ExCeL London executive director, James Rees, says there has been a ‘substantial reduction’ in the use of paper and single-use plastics, and an upsurge in the use of public transport and sustainable menu designs but ‘we must strive to do more so that our industry becomes more environmentally sustainable’.

“Venues are seeing an increase in the environment being part of RFPs and must react to that demand. It is important for planners and venues to share their knowledge so that meetings can be planned in the most sustainable way,” he says.


As laudable as waste-reduction schemes are, fears have been raised that tackling waste might become a distraction from the more pressing problem of climate change.

Bigwood says the two often go hand in hand.

“A good chunk of C02 emissions from meetings and events can come from waste, anything from 10 to 40 per cent. That’s stuff going to landfill and breaking down into methane or else getting burnt. The issue is more that our industry is so faddish. We have had ‘low carbon’ meetings. That’s done. We’ve ‘done’off-setting, even though only two per cent are off-setting. And last year, 2018, was the year of Blue Planet and waste. It’s not a bad thing that we are concentrating on waste, but yes, we have to think about the balance for sure.”

For Zavada, air travel is practically a taboo subject in the meetings industry, or as she puts it, ‘the elephant in the room’.

“Nobody wants to talk about it,” she says. “I’ve been on panels where everyone wants to pretend that air travel is not the worst part of the meeting. They will have none of it. It’s incredible to me. They’re talking about waste reduction, plastic straws or whatever, and at the same time everyone’s flying around, telling everyone how busy they are, how far they have to travel, like it’s a badge of honour.”

Certainly, the amount of international delegates attending a meeting is something destinations feel comfortable boasting about, whether it’s 20,000 Rotarians meeting in Melbourne or 100,000 telecoms professionals in Barcelona. The press release always mentions the number of international delegates and how many countries they represent, as though it were a competition.


According to Speet, that has to change. He says a paradigm shift is needed in the way the industry meaures the value of international meetings.

“Congresses should no longer be seen as a means to fill airline seats and hotel rooms,” he says. “The impact of meetings is key. When congresses attract delegates from around the world, the industry is contributing to pollution and global warning. Meanwhile organisers could play a bigger role by communicating this impact to their communities.”

Zavada says it is a mistake to think reducing the number of international meetings, and the number of people who attend them, should be seen as a threat to the meetings industry.

“Organisations could have more regional meetings with satellite link-ups perhaps and fewer international meetings. There could be better use of technology. If you’re an organiser, online meetings don’t put you out of work. You still have work to do, speakers to book, registration, just in a digital space. What can’t be right is hosting an international event without even thinking about the number of flights involved.”

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The European Radiology Congress at Austria Center Vienna[/caption]

Although one of the largest congresses out there, both in terms of delegate numbers and turnover, the ECR adopts a critical view of the trend towards ‘gigantism’ in the meetings industry. Baierl thinks a drop in numbers is inevitable, even if, as he believes, the change is not driven by environmental concerns but financial ones, with technology playing a big role.

“Future success will come from investment in modern meetings technology,” he says. “The number of people who will fly to Vienna for a congress at a total cost of several thousand euros is likely to fall, and employers will prefer their people to participate digitally. Congresses have to start futureproofing and putting measures in place to contend with falling numbers. Larger halls are definitely not the solution.”

He adds: “Our congress is streamed entirely over the internet and we also offer the option to collect CME credits while participating from home. We have been offering online participation for years now and this is what will define the future success of our congress. When you can offer alternatives to long-haul flights and onsite participation, delegates will follow and start to use those.”

In recent years the meetings industry has sought to distance itself from tourism and reposition itself under trade and industry or inward investment. In doing so it hopes to better articulate the value of meetings – particularly those of a medical or academic nature – in the spread of knowledge. But, as in other industries, there is a growing realisation that those who organise international conferences will have to prove the value of their 'product' in the face of climate change and its impact on the environment.

As Rees says: “The overall impact of the meetings industry is proven to drive economic and societal change and it is important that we articulate this message in language that people understand. It remains our duty to explore new ways of working so that where we can affect change, we are able to do so.”

How venues are shrinking their carbon footprint

In 2014, Viparis was the first events management firm to earn ISO 20121 certification for all of its venues. As part of this, the company is focusing on a specific set of issues, including energy efficiency, responsible sourcing and awareness-raising for visitors. Earlier this year Viparis chose the Paris Nord Villepinte exhibition complex to install the world's first organic solar advertising tarpaulin. The large tarp was installed on the glass facade of the complex's reception gallery. The energy it generates is fed into the grid, allowing visitors to charge their phones and run their laptops. In 2009 Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC) became the first venue in the world to be awarded a 6-star Green Star environmental rating by the Green Building Council and continues to build on its sustainability credentials. Last year the venue joined 13 other organisations to support the development of a wind farm in Victoria, which allowed it to offset the projected electricity use of our 20,000 square metre expansion space with renewable energy. The venue is on track to reduce its carbon emission by 30 per cent by 2021. Messe Frankfurt, which claims to be the ‘world’s largest’ event organiser and exhibition ground owner, will source all of its electricity from a renewable energy provider from next year. This includes the power supply for the stands and halls at the company’s various Frankfurt venues: Congress Centre Messe Frankfurt, Kap Europa, Forum Messe Frankfurt, and Festhalle. The company’s energy needs are comparable with those of a town of 40,000 people. The switch to renewable energy should eliminate 19,000 tonnes of C02 a year.

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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