Sustainability in the MICE industry
AT THE BELLA CENTRE COPENHAGEN – Scandinavia’s largest exhibition venue – trees sprout from large pots stationed in rows along the white, polished floor. Water is packaged in cardboard cartons rather than plastic bottles and, at lunchtime, a fresh sandwich and fruit are handed to me in a brown paper bag.
When it comes to meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), Copenhagen’s green credentials are gleaming. Some 58% of the energy used at the Bella Centre is renewable, and the Copenhagen Convention Bureau (CCB) incorporates sustainability into each event that it hosts. Its #Bee Sustain campaign ( aims to share the lessons it has learned from its experience running sustainable events with other professionals in the MICE industry.
Bee Sustain also works with Bybi (bybi. dk), a social enterprise in Copenhagen that enables local organisations to set up their own apiaries, produce bespoke honey and boost the population of bees – companies involved include Copenhagen airport and Carlsberg. Bybi also employs and trains Syrian refugees as beekeepers to better integrate them into society.
However, while the Danish capital places sustainability at the heart of its MICE operations, elsewhere, championing eco-friendly events is often dismissed as ‘greenwashing’, met with resistance or not seen as a priority. And, according to the 2016 Meetings Today Trends Survey, the number of corporate event planners who think they’ll plan a green meeting this year actually decreased by 8.5 per cent compared with 2015.
While most companies would agree that an environmentally friendly outlook is important, this doesn’t necessarily translate into the way they conduct their events and conferences. “We hosted the Sustainable Brands conference in September, a global community for CSR [corporate social responsibility] and sustainability professionals,” says Ulrika Martensson, head of communications for the CCB. “I attended the same conference in London last year, and spoke with the top 50 CSR managers, and asked them if they work with sustainable event management. Not one person said yes.
“If you see conferences as an extension of your brand, and a platform to communicate what you stand for, it should be totally natural to implement sustainability, but that’s often not the case.”
So, why is there such a disconnect between what event buyers know is right, and what we actually do? A survey of MICE management specialist MCI’s largest 50 clients showed that although 100 per cent wanted to implement more sustainability to their events, they were stopped by either a lack of knowledge, a failure of the suppliers to communicate their sustainability offering, or the perception (or reality) of sustainable events being more expensive.
Martensson believes it’s also partly down to a lack of accountability. “Sustainability is not a KPI [key performance indicator] for event planners. It’s only a few pioneers and enthusiasts who will suggest it to their client, and have the courage to actually do it. Also, a lot of people think that somebody else is taking care of it. As long as people see sustainability as someone else’s responsibility, it’s going to be very hard to implement.”
One barrier for event planners is not knowing where to start. How many changes have to be made before an event constitutes as ‘green’? And how much time, cost and obstacles are these changes going to create – and can they be justified if a client hasn’t even asked for an eco-friendly event in the first place? And finally, how do you get your client on board?
Some might argue that we can’t afford not to make these changes at a time when the world is currently throwing away half the food it produces every year. But it’s more common for people to see things from a short-term perspective, and feel overwhelmed by the challenge at hand.
Martensson says: “Most people think it’s limiting to have sustainable barriers when planning an event. But actually, it makes things more efficient when deciding which suppliers and venues to use. It makes you think outside the box, and not go with typical solutions for everything. This is also a great way to inspire delegates, because they can see you’ve made an effort, and it’s not necessarily more time-consuming.”
Freelance event director Hannah Luffman is a huge advocate of sustainable events. “Sustainability for me is not just about the environment,” she says. “It’s about creating an event that supports the local land, people and small businesses. This includes avoiding taking all your UK suppliers abroad, and using local staffing. Accreditation in sustainability can be expensive and time-consuming, but just because someone isn’t accredited, it doesn’t mean they can’t help make small changes. It’s about opening up the conversation.” 
It may not always be possible to go green with every element of an event, and local idiosyncrasies will always apply. But by asking the right questions, event buyers may find sustainability to be more attainable and affordable than they think.
“What we see is that when you ask a supplier to deliver food, for example, that is organic or locally produced at the same price level as the regular stuff, they actually come up with solutions,” says Martensson. “You, as a meeting planner, have the power to change behaviour – you have this buying power due to the amount of food you purchase, and can make a real difference.”
There’s also the added value of being seen to be green, conveying the message that a company is conscientious, innovative and forward-thinking. If buyers can make the case for eco-friendly events to their clients, citing reputational value might be a way to persuade them – not to mention meeting CSR requirements. “Communicating to clients and delegates about these small but impactful policies will get them on board, plus do wonders for the brand’s reputation – even more so when it is the smaller companies making a stand and doing it because they care.”

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