Soaring ambition: meetings, air travel, and Net Zero

The international meetings industry took a giant step towards recovery this week when the United States reopened to air travellers from 33 countries, including China, India, and most of Europe.

Given the USA is the biggest meetings market in the world, it was a significant moment.

That it coincides with the Joint Meetings Industry Council presenting a Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge at COP26, in Glasgow, should focus the attention of those who have taken on the challenge of improving the industry’s environmental credentials.

A sobering statistic. A delegate flies 5,000 miles to attend a conference and in one round-trip produces roughly 5 tonnes of carbon – three times the amount the average Indian generates in a year and two-and-a-half times the amount scientists say each person can afford to produce over a year by 2050.

So long-haul flights are the biggest problem facing the meetings industry as it figures out how to stick to its pledge to reach Net Zero by 2050 and cut emissions by half by the decade’s end? Maybe. Maybe not.

Because everything will depend on how the associations and organisations who have signed the pledge define the sector – and consequently the emissions they are willing to claim as their own.

Several economic impact surveys for the industry have included ‘travel spend’ in their calculations – including the landmark 2018 Global Economic Significance of Business Events by Oxford Economics, which calculated that the sector was worth a staggering $1.7 trillion to the global economy.

This gargantuan sum was hailed by industry leaders as proof of the central role meetings and events play in developing economies. For the sake of consistency, therefore, you might expect the meetings industry, which organises and facilitates meetings, to include air travel in its carbon emissions target.

But would this be fair – or even sensible?

The meetings industry is part of the service sector. It exists to bring the aspirations of its clients to fruition. Ultimately, however, it is those clients who choose to meet in the first place.

By taking responsibility for the emissions produced by delegates travelling to events, the meetings industry – destination marketing organisations (DMOs), convention centres etc – is positioning itself as the reason for that travel, which even for an industry adept at blowing its own trumpet sounds a little far-fetched.

Through their marketing and bidding activities, DMOs can influence where international associations meet, but only in comparatively few cases – where the destination or venue owns the event for example – will the industry determine whether a meeting is held in the first place. In the main, if the meetings industry takes responsibility for flight emissions it will do so on behalf of every industry on the planet that holds international meetings – from fashion to sport, life sciences to agriculture!

Does this get the industry off the hook?

Well, no. If the meetings industry is unwilling to make the case for long-haul travel and claim at least some ownership of the aviation emissions problem, then it shouldn’t expect its clients to, either. Organisations who don’t feel supported by the meetings industry might decide it’s not worth the hassle and convene their members virtually instead. After all, they have their own Net Zero targets to reach.

That’s why the sutainable future of in-person events must be based on partnership: meeting ‘owners’, organisers, and hosts agreeing a way forward that doesn’t leave anyone feeling short-changed. Over the next two years JMIC must sit down with other sector leaders and thrash all this out before publishing its ‘pathway’ to achieving its targets. AMI promises to keep you posted on its progress.

Away from aviation, the events industry carbon footprint will likely be calculated in terms of what it can directly influence. Another area of contention will be accommodation. Will delegate stays in hotels – another key contributor to the ‘delegate spend’ quoted in those economic impact surveys – be attributed to the meetings industry or the hotel and accommodation sector?

The process of working all this out could see a leaner definition of the ‘meeting industry’ emerge, which means the industry no longer being able to quote enormous economic impact figures. But then savvy DMOs already understand that the true value of meetings is not calculated in bed nights and tourism receipts, but their wider social impact and positive legacy.


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