The challenges of delivering an event with sustainability at its heart

At inVOYAGE 2019 in Monaco, a panel discussion debated sustainability/CSR at length and there was a strong consensus that there needs to be less talk, more action. There was also a call for better communication and sharing of best practices and case studies, which is why we dedicated a section of our Annual Report to the topic and invited several senior industry leaders to contribute.

Here, Top Banana Client and Commercial Director, Jemma Peers shares the key challenges, insights and learnings from delivering a with sustainability at its heart…

“Plastic has been a driving force behind messages of sustainability throughout the events and incentives industry, with more importance than ever being placed on reducing waste from items like straws, cups and bottles over the past 12 to 18 months. But plastic is merely a drop in the ocean when it comes to lowering the environmental footprint of events. Without a doubt, our marine life and oceans are being massively affected by plastic, but if we’re looking at sustainability as a whole – it’s only a small part of the problem.

As an agency, we have been incorporating sustainable elements into our client events for many years – mostly focused on reducing, reusing and recycling. But true sustainability is so much more than that, as we discovered when delivering a recent celebration event for one of their clients which challenged us to incorporate diversity and inclusiveness into their programme.

Perhaps rather naively, I didn’t realise how closely the diversity issue was linked to sustainability. But when you look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, two of the 17 goals – Gender Equality and Reduced Inequality – both deal with diversity.

The annual celebration and awards event is usually just an evening celebration, but for the first time in 2019, the client wanted to include a business element that focused on its internal CSR programme. The programme has three themes – Opportunity, Community and Responsibility, and it was important to both us and the client that the event itself was complementary to the topics that were being discussed. So, we set about making the event itself as sustainable as we could within the budget and the time constraints – we had eight weeks from the kick-off meeting to delivery!

Going gender neutral

Opportunity is all about access to work, and giving everybody from working mums and single dads, to people with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community the ability to work. To ensure the event played into that – we gender neutralised the whole event. Having not done this before, the process was quite eye-opening and challenging.

For a start, we had to change the way we registered people as we couldn’t ask for their gender at registration, which made rooming lists incredibly difficult especially when delegates were sharing rooms. The language we used for the entire event, in everything from the pre-event communications to the script, had to be gender neutralised. We worked closely with PI&R’s LGBTQ+ committee to make sure we weren’t offending anyone by the language we used – for example, the host couldn’t say “hey guys”, or “good afternoon ladies and gentlemen”. We also knew we had someone in the audience who was transitioning, so we had to be mindful of that.

We obviously had to provide bathrooms that were gender neutral, but we had a duty to provide women’s, men’s and disabled toilets as well so that people had a choice if they weren’t comfortable with using gender neutral facilities. This meant building additional gender-neutral bathrooms on site. We needed to be mindful of our signage and think about braille for people with sight issues, access for anyone with disabilities (we had a Down Syndrome choir performing), make provisions for Muslim guests and provide catering stalls for all the different dietary requirements from Halal to gluten free to vegan. We ensured that every single demographic who might be attending the event had been thought about and their needs catered for.

Responsible sourcing

The Responsibility element of the programme is more around the traditional sustainability, so we looked a responsible sourcing at an incredibly detailed level. This meant making sure everything from the cotton in the hotel beds to every ingredient on the menu was sourced in a sustainable way and had no links to anything improper, which took time and added an extra challenge.

Naturally for an event that was trying to be sustainable, the ideal would have been to not have plastic onsite. However, this was a celebration event for 5,000 people with alcohol being served so from a safety perspective, we didn’t want thousands of glass beer bottles. We made the decision to have plastic bottles, but we brought in our own people to handle the rubbish on site. There were no plastic straws or food dishes – those were all cardboard, and all waste was sorted on-site and taken away in separate vehicles, so we disposed of as much as we could in the right way, even using biodegradable balloons..

We looked at transport and tried as much as possible to minimise the number of vehicles on-site to reduce carbon impact. All delegates who lived outside of a 20m radius from the venue were put up in accommodation and bused in – so we made sure we each bus did multiple stops and was full before leaving. We grouped crew together as well – at one point we had over 150 crew on site – and brought them in on coaches as opposed to having hundreds of cars. We also looked into options for offsetting carbon for the transport, and entire event, but it was too costly.

The main challenge we found was how much more expensive it can be to run a sustainable event. We learned a lot from the experience but feel like we only scratched the surface in terms of what could be done. I would love to be able to have the budget to go fully out – but we did what we could in the short time we had.

But if for every event, every agency and every client took just some of these elements in to consideration, the results could be enormous. As an industry we have a huge responsibility for creating a more sustainable world and we need to make sure we’re working together with our clients, step by step, to make a change.”

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