Beyond Sustainability Show and Tell

How a venue tour can be used as a tool to create more collaboration between meeting organizers and suppliers around creating more sustainable events.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

group of people in lobby

Carolina Goradesky (right), PCMA’s former head of global sustainability, and Amanda Simons (white pants), a founder and principal at Honeycomb Strategies, speak to participants of a behind-the-scenes sustainability tour at PCMA Convening Leaders 2024 in January at the San Diego Convention Center. (Whatever Media Group)

A behind-the-scenes sustainability tour gave 35 PCMA Convening Leaders 2024 attendees a closer look at many of the San Diego Convention Center’s operations in January, including a visit to the kitchen where Executive Chef Sufi Karaien explained the center’s practices to reduce food waste and source local food and beverage products. From the loading docks, they saw how the 2.6-million-square-foot center manages the waste streams from events, including recycling carpet, cardboard, and plastic collected from exhibit halls.

Chef Sufi Karaien

Chef Sufi Karaien

And there was something else going on behind the scenes, Carolina Goradesky, PCMA’s former head of global sustainability, told Magdalina Atanassova, Convene’s digital media editor and podcast host. The tour also made strategic stops where participants could talk with suppliers and vendors who spoke about their own practices and strategies — a move engineered, Goradesky said, “to encourage discussion between meeting organizers and suppliers.”

The informal structure of the sold-out session, which got participants moving together as they traveled through the center, helped break down barriers to interaction, she said. Goradesky co-led the tour with Amanda Simons, a founder and principal at Honeycomb Strategies, which specializes in consulting on sustainable operations for sport, hospitality, and event industry clients, including PCMA. “Once you get out of a meeting room, people feel more comfortable to talk and to ask questions in a different way,” Goradesky said. “When you’re relaxed, it stimulates conversation.”

During the tour, at the same moments when Goradesky and Simons were showcasing the center’s “very operational, technical aspects of sustainability uptake,” the conversation often turned to more human questions around sustainable practices, and participants shared their “doubts, roadblocks, problems, and lack of motivation,” Goradesky said. “That’s the thing that I think is the biggest benefit of participating in this kind of session — you’re going to go beyond what you’re seeing, and not be afraid of asking questions. And I think this puts everybody” — planners and suppliers — “in a more vulnerable space, and it was very productive in that way.”

One of the reasons that it’s important that such discussions take place is because there has been a “huge change” in the way that meeting planners communicate to suppliers about sustainability, Goradesky told Atanassova. Many planners are changing their RFPs to include sustainability — adding sustainability questions or requirements when they are selecting partners, she said. The more that meeting organizers ask destinations and suppliers about sustainability, “the more we know that we can advance,” Goradesky added, “because that’s how business works. We know [sustainability] investments will be taken seriously if there is demand.”

But “if all the questions and the requirements are coming from one way only” — from meeting organizers to suppliers — “it’s going to be very difficult for destinations, venues, and suppliers to adapt by themselves,” she said. “There is a lot of work that can be done from the [meeting] design perspective and the planning perspective to ease certain areas of sustainability and work in a different way. I think there is a shared responsibility from every single part of this value chain to ask: ‘What can I do on of top of asking the other to deliver?’” From there, “we start to create a more equal collaboration from both sides.”

Hour-long sustainability tours will be offered at PCMA edUcon at Huntington Place in Detroit on Monday, June 23, and Tuesday, June 24, and will take participants up to the roof to learn about the convention center’s participation in the local Bees in the D project and to the kitchen for a Q&A with the executive chef, said Kristi Casey, PCMA education strategist. “En route, they will be accompanied by members of the engineering and housekeeping teams, who will tell them about the other sustainable aspects of the building and its operations,” Casey said.

This interview excerpt has been edited and condensed. You can hear the entire conversation below or on the Convene Podcast.

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