Asia is catching up with Western Europe and North America when it comes to the demand for sustainable events.
According to the Sustainable Events Guide published by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2012, a sustainable or “green” meeting displays a number of traits. These include an accessible and inclusive setting, a safe and secure atmosphere, having minimal negative impacts on the environment, promoting responsible sources, and encouraging more sustainable behaviour. Staging a green meeting is clearly a commendable endeavour, one laden with financial benefits and beneficial corporate image. But beyond these obvious advantages, is this a growing trend, and is it taken seriously in Asia?
“Asia is still catching up with Western Europe and North America in terms of knowledge and demand for green meetings, but we have seen a quantum leap in awareness and emphasis on sustainability in recent years,” said Mike Lee, vice president of sales at Marina Bay Sands (MBS) Singapore. “The MICE industry is seeing an increasing number of meeting planners looking to partner with venues capable of helping them achieve their sustainability goals, creating programmes to give back to the community, or designing carbon-neutral meetings.” MBS implemented a Sands ECO360 green meetings programme in 2013, and bookings for green meetings have soared from five in 2013 to more than 140 last year.
Likewise, Joe Rizzo, director of sustainability services at US auditing firm BPA Worldwide, has seen an increased interest in sustainable events in the past few years. “Olympic events in Pyeongchang, Tokyo, and Beijing have and will add visibility to the ISO 20121 standard for sustainable events management. We see more venues are interested in being certified for their sustainability practices, whether they are holding meetings, conferences, or exhibitions. We see investors wanting to partake in funds which specialise in socially responsible companies.” BPA has performed certifications for the APEX/ASTM Green Meeting Standards for the Hong Kong Conference & Exhibition Centre and Incheon South Korea Convention & Visitors Bureau.
There are many factors to consider in a green meeting. The event should aim to minimise greenhouse gas emissions, lessen resource consumption, protect the local environment, help the local economy, and increase general awareness of sustainability among delegates. There are numerous ways of employing green practices during an event, from using electronic documentation and memos instead of paper, utilising china plates rather than disposable products, incorporating activities that give back to the community, and encouraging simple steps such as recycling and food donation.
Beyond the meeting itself, planners need to carefully study the hotel where delegates will be staying: Does it have low-flow taps and showerheads as well as eco-friendly amenities? Is it close to public transportation? Does it have a strong CSR programme in place? These considerations play out throughout Asia every day, but not evenly.
“Similar to other markets, Asia has a range of performance — some early adopters, others with a solid understanding of the business case for sustainable events, and leaders with programmes and initiatives that are transforming the way they do business,” Rizzo said. According to BPA, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand (particularly under the leadership of the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau, TCEB), are doing well on the sustainable-meetings front.
Although the company does not work in Australia, Rizzo said that based on all the sustainability professionals BPA meets from the country, “we know it is advanced in the practice of sustainability.”
In China, the situation is hit-and-miss — some events score high marks, viewing themselves as world-renowned for their sustainability, while others are just doing it for the PR effect, if at all, he said.
Frontrunners in Asia include Hilton. As part of its Clean Air Program, it calculates the carbon emissions of events held at more than 70 of its resorts in Asia Pacific and purchases carbon credits from its partner Climate Friendly to fund projects in the region. MBS was the first MICE facility in Southeast Asia to obtain the ISO 20121 certification, and across all meetings it implements green measures such as the default use of reusable glassware instead of plastic bottles, and the sustainable disposal of leftover food and materials. The resort has attracted reputable green events such as the Responsible Business Forum (RBF) on Sustainable Development, which returned there for a fifth consecutive year in November 2017. At that event, RBF set the goal of being a zero-waste, zero-emissions and zero single-use-plastic event. The Singapore Tourism Board has also published sustainability guidelines for the MICE industry in the Lion City, and details in-depth practices that should be followed by audiovisual providers, hotels, venues, and food-and-beverage caterers.
Despite the obvious benefits, misconceptions about sustainable meetings persist. “Some planners perceive green meetings cost more than conventional meetings, with cumbersome setups and arrangements required,” Lee said. “On the other hand, clients sometimes avoid opting for green meetings for fear of being seen as ‘cheap’ — as they would be cutting back on the provision of paper and plastic bottles, for example. In some instances, meeting planners may even perceive the quality of locally sourced ingredients as being less superior to imported ingredients.” The resort is also able to help event organisers introduce CSR into events. “As clients look for deeper engagement with their delegates, we believe that more clients will continue to see the value of meetings that incorporate both environmentally friendly elements and impactful community activities,” he added.
And when it comes to ROI, planners shouldn’t underestimate the “added value” of a green meeting. “As green events become standard practice, versus being optional at the present time, there can be additional expenses related to planning a green meeting, but these usually pay dividends in the long term,” Rizzo said. “[This can be] in the form of being a partner of choice and therefore growing market share whether that is measured as more events in your facility, or more customers if you are a vendor, or more attendees if you are the organiser.”
And to any planner, organiser, vendor, or company that feels green meetings shouldn’t be taken seriously, Rizzo’s words are a sobering postscript: “For companies that choose to take it seriously, it can be a real differentiator and have positive results on the bottom line. Those who do it for PR usually return to their brown practices and are seen for what they are. You do not want to be on the bad side of PR when your claims and practices are found to be untrue.”