A Sustainability Pulse Check for Events

How does sustainability figure in the work of event organizers today? Three recent studies reveal some insights.

Author: Michelle Russell       

garden on rooftop with highrises in background

A rooftop farm and orchard at New York City’s Javits Convention Center produces fruits, vegetables, and honey used at events there. Recent events industry surveys suggest organizers are counting heavily on their suppliers to help their events leave a smaller environmental footprint.

For a sense of how the business events industry is — or isn’t — embracing sustainability, let’s take a look at three different surveys.

We’ll start with whether climate change is being incorporated in the program content. According to the “2024 Speaking Industry Benchmark Report,” sustainability comes in tenth on a list of 17 relevant speaking topics — between technology and human rights — that organizers are planning their events around this year. Only 17 percent of 340 organizers, who plan corporate, nonprofit, academic, and other kinds of events, said they are featuring sustainability in their program content. Topping the topic list in the survey, conducted by AAE Speakers, a speakers bureau and talent agency, is leadership and motivation, cited by two out of five planner respondents. Rounding out the top three are diversity, equity, and inclusion, and artificial intelligence, mentioned by 38 percent and 36 percent of planners, respectively.

Another recent research report, Knowland’s “2024 State of the Meetings Industry,” which the events industry sales intelligence company produced in partnership with global meetings solution company ConferenceDirect, sheds more light on how sustainability is viewed — and practiced — by event professionals. Forty-five percent of 326 event professional respondents, 63 percent of whom work for associations and 31 percent of whom book events on behalf of corporations, said sustainability is a relevant meeting trend, coming in third after DEI and attendee wellbeing and of almost equal importance as digital engagement.

While planners may see sustainability as something they need to take into consideration, almost half in the Knowland study indicated that their meetings have zero sustainability requirements. More than one-third of planners say they have implemented some sustainability protocols, and 13 percent said they have goals but aren’t doing carbon-neutral events. Only 3 percent said they have sustainability goals and are doing carbon-neutral events.

The results of Convene’s 30th Meetings Market Survey, in which nearly 790 event professionals participated between late July and early September 2023, are somewhat more positive in terms of the progress we are making on the sustainability front. Three out of five planners said they are more intentional about designing events with green initiatives than before the pandemic. Further evidence of this shift: Only 14 percent of planners in 2019 said they included sustainability elements in their RFPs; 31 percent do so today. Twenty-eight percent of Convene’s survey respondents have created an internal sustainability policy, which suggests more structure than the 35 percent in Knowland’s study who said they have put some sustainability protocols into practice. And nearly the same percentage (27 percent) have increased sustainability reporting internally and/or to attendees.

But the largest percentage of respondents answered “non-applicable” to the Meetings Market Survey question, “In which event phase do you start to actively design with sustainability in mind?” — 28 percent. On the flip side, 26 percent of respondents said they start planning with sustainability in mind at the time of sales/concept generation, as part of all contracts. The percentage of those who set out to include sustainability objectives in the goals of the event, at around eight months out, drops down to 17 percent.

Taken together, the emphasis on sustainability as part of RFPs and contracts in the responses to the Meetings Market Survey questions suggests that organizers are counting heavily on their suppliers to help their events leave a smaller environmental footprint.

The main takeaway from all three studies? Perhaps the Knowland survey said it best: Sustainability is an area in which “the meetings industry will need to up its game in the coming year.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

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