Remember last spring, when TV ads were all tinkling pianos and “We’re all in this together, yet apart” and we still could stand the word “unprecedented”? I can’t find the link now, but I remember an article about how the worldwide shutdown was actually doing some good things for the environment getting slammed for being insensitive for pointing out that anything good could come from something so horrifying.
Sure, I think we all got a lift by seeing animals taking advantage of human-free cities as we were all hunkered down at home, with reports of peacocks wandering the streets in Spain and coyotes padding the pavement in San Francisco, but at that point we weren’t ready to talk, for example, about how NASA found air quality rising as air traffic plummeted, and New York City’s carbon emissions fell almost by half as the city went into lockdown. It just was unseemly, given the death and destruction of our ways of life to even talk about any possible environmental benefits back then.
But now I think we’re in a different place emotionally, even though COVID-19 remains the evil anti-gift that keeps on giving, having killed more than a million people worldwide and more than 200,000 in the U.S. It’s still devastating the world economy with production slowdowns, supply-chain and market disruptions, business shutdowns, and unemployment levels not seen in the U.S. since the Depression. And, of course, the meetings and events industry has been hit harder than most. According to US Travel, more than half of the 15.8 million pre-pandemic, travel-supported jobs in the U.S. (51%) disappeared between March and May 1, and the U.S. economy is on pace to lose more than $505 billion in travel spending this year.
But the environmental benefits of the shutdowns are beginning to wane as businesses begin to stir back to life. Air travel is coming back, albeit in dribs and drabs. Traffic is getting more congested as work-from-homers start venturing back into the office. Even some meetings are starting to take place in person again, albeit in mostly in small, socially distanced ways. Pollution levels are rising again, and we are still contending with rising garbage levels as grocery stores stopped allowing customers to bring in their own reusable bags, and I don’t know about you, but the level of discarded masks and gloves I see littering even the most remote hiking trails has been pretty disheartening, and all that take-out food and all those disposable containers have bumped up the trash level as well.
So is it too soon to talk about the greening of meetings that so many of us were passionate about just seven months ago? While the pandemic-induced plastic-wrapped, individually portioned everything is likely to be with us, even at meetings, for a long time to come, there’s no reason to believe we’ll backslide on things like digital handouts and brochures, and touchless electronic registration seems like an even better idea mid-pandemic. And, now that we know just how much going digital can extend the reach of an event around the world, will anyone not include a hybrid piece moving forward?
So here are my (cautiously optimistic) predictions/wish list for the eco-friendliness of future meetings and events ecosystem, in no particular order:
Hotels and convention centers have invested too much in new infrastructure, technology and practices to go back to where we were 10 or 20 years ago, so my prediction is that they will continue with projects already underway. Case in point: New York’s Javits Center’s adding solar arrays that will generate about 2.5 megawatts of electricity and its two megawatt battery storage unit that’s built into its new transformer building, which will allow it to both be more sustainable in terms of energy generation, and also enable it to go independent of the grid should the need arise.
As Javits President and CEO Alan Steel said during a panel on advancing sustainability in events during the Nest Summit, held in conjunction with Climate Week NYC, September 21-25, “I think sustainability for us will only become more important because there is no doubt our customers are suddenly seeing this as something that their customers are expecting from them.”
While I’d like to think that sentiment is widely held — and it may very well be — the reality is that, with meeting and event venues reeling from the economic fallout of COVID-19’s travel restrictions and the heebie-jeebies so many have about staying anywhere other than home or an RV, unfortunately I don’t think a lot of venues will be launching new eco-projects in the near future. The emphasis likely will be more on getting heads in beds again so their people can get back to work, at least for the next few years.
If any industry is hurting worse than hotels right now, it may well be the airlines, which are predicting massive layoffs — more than 75,000 in the U.S. alone, as of now — if they don’t get more relief from the government, which already supplied $25 billion in payroll support earlier this year. Again, my guess is that they’re going to be more focused on survival than anything else for the next couple of years, given that they’re dealing with a 70% decline in capacity right now.
Still, they’ve done a lot of work in recent years to make planes lighter, more aerodynamic and fuel efficient, though air travel remains one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions. There has been some movement in recent years, including a global market-based measure, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), adopted in 2016 by the countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization to limit carbon emissions of international flights between participating countries from 2021 to 2035.
Will CORSIA be more fully implemented, or joined by other of these types of environmental programs? We’ll have to wait and see if these types of measures, and airlines’ voluntary efforts to make planes more efficient, reduce delays and use more efficient flightpaths, use more sustainable, lower carbon alternative fuels, and/or invest in emissions offsets, will take a backseat to raw survival until and unless air travel gets back to its pre-COVID levels (if in fact that does happen).
Business and Meetings Travel
Now that businesses of all stripes, including hospitality and meetings/events, have figured out that some workers can actually be productive working from home, that’s likely to continue, at least in greater numbers than before. As President of Global Workplace Analytics Kate Lister said, “Our best estimate is that 25-30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.”
Part of that working from home entails, as we all are all-too-well-aware, so many Zoom meetings! I predict that smaller meetings, such as board meetings, will continue to stay in the digital realm now that we all have been forced to admit that, while not ideal, the benefits outweigh the costs (environmental, as well as time and expense) of flying people to meet face to face.
McKinsey is predicting a long road ahead for business travel — longer than for leisure travel — which will of course also impact recovery for hotels and airlines. Regional travel by car will come back first, they predict, which bodes well for smaller, more regional meetings. Domestic air and train travel will come back next, with international travel lagging.
Meetings and Events
For meetings, McKinsey predicts that vital in-person sales or client meetings will be the first to return, followed by internal meetings, training events, and other smaller gatherings. Larger events, such as trade shows, conferences and exhibitions, are going to take a bit longer, they think. But hybrid and hub-and-spoke models that don’t require much or any travel will be the rule, they say. However, big trade shows are already returning in areas where the coronavirus is at least somewhat in check at the moment, including China and South Korea, with mandatory health and safety requirements.
As for industry sectors, they predict that manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, and construction will be the first to rebound, followed by tech, real estate, finance, and energy. Slower to recover will be meetings related to healthcare, education and professional services.
In addition to more hybrid and digital events, some lasting environmentally friendly changes I think/hope we’ll see as we eventually creep back towards normalcy include:
• More efficient meeting schedules. Could that five-day meeting be reduced to two or three, maybe with some flipped education to get the parts that don’t need to be done face-to-face accomplished ahead of time?
• Smaller, better qualified attendance. While some mega shows will undoubtably bounce back eventually, I think there will be a greater emphasis on getting the right people to the show, not the largest number possible. This dovetails with what I think will be a continued reluctance on the part of Corporate America to send anyone and everyone possible to a show moving forward. The reduced carbon footprint of a reduced participant level could make a big difference. Of course, this means event organizers are going to have to be scrupulous in putting financial metrics around how their events generate value for their various constituents.
As Freeman Chair of the Board Carrie Freeman Parsons said during the Nest panel, “I think people are going to be more discriminate about what trips they choose to take, and companies are going to be considering what investments they want to make in order to market their product.”
• But don’t count out the big shows. The flip side of this is that there are economies of scale — including environmental economies — in large conventions and trade shows. While flying is not likely to go carbon-neutral any time soon, one trip to see 200 clients or vendors is a lot better for the environment than having to make a bunch of individual trips. I think this will become even more front and center moving forward.
• Digital partners will become even more important. As mentioned earlier, I think COVID-19 was a catalyst to push the industry full-force into the future of hybrid and digital events, and that will be having some sticking power. I also think we’ve discovered some cool tools along the way in terms of data capture, matchmaking, touchless registration, online networking and more that will only become more integrated into both in-person and digital events.
• We’ll start looking at all the products and services used by the industry on a supply-chain level, much like we’re starting to do with food and beverage with the farm-to-table movement. What are the environmental costs involved in producing pipe and drape, or show floor carpeting, or signage, from manufacturing through the life cycle of those products? I see it as something that can incorporated into the “design thinking” movement in events, not just what can we reduce, reuse, and recycle, though those are vital, but also how much energy went into making that product, and how much waste was generated during manufacturing, transport, etc.? Once we have all those facts in hand, we can better measure the environmental, and likely cost-saving, effects of putting environmental questions in all our RFPs.
So, to make what turned out to be a very long story short, I believe sustainable events are here to stay, and that we’ve learned a lot through this awful pandemic that can help catapult us into a greener future. Not that we don’t have some very real and intractable problems to face in the short term, but I believe the will is still there, perhaps even stronger than before, to play a greater role in the larger issues that affect our planet.
Going paperless is just the start.