My latest book and speech topic, The Big Pivot, offers practical advice for making deep changes in how business works – innovating in new ways, making smarter investment decisions, collaborating with unexpected partners, including competitors and customers. These strategies, aimed at helping companies build more resilient enterprises and a more prosperous world, apply to all businesses and sectors. We all have to play a new game, and meetings and exhibitions are no exception; in fact, the event business can offer a high-profile platform for all companies to showcase new, cleaner, innovative ways of operating.
Events are a big business, with 1.8 million meetings and over $250 billion in direct spending annually in the U.S. alone. A sector of this scale has real impacts. The energy used at meetings, the millions of flights and car trips for attendees, the tremendous waste of one-time use materials – it all adds up.
As awareness of environmental impacts rises across the business world, the pressure on the managers tasked with making events happen will rise. The footprint of an event will be a part of whether it’s considered a success (or not). But making decisions about what’s “green” can be a dizzying exercise.
Tom Bowman, author of The Green Edge (a book specifically written for meeting planners), says that it’s easy to get lost in the minutia, asking questions such as “is it more eco-efficient to print large format graphics for every show or use longer-lasting video displays?” Bowman points out that even though sustainability standards for events are emerging, they may not have all the answers. So he suggests two main strategies. First, “make green a part of every decision,” not some add on process that feels like a burden – it needs to be integrated.
But, second, when the decision isn’t instantly clear, don’t get too bogged down. Step back, he says: “when in doubt, zoom out.” The largest carbon impact for the meeting industry is not anything that happens at the event – it’s travel. The initiatives that help reduce energy use on site, or dramatically reduce waste, are still critical – those things will save money and make the event more relevant for increasingly green-minded buyers of services. But the bigger picture is that many companies are cutting back on employee travel, both to save money and also to tackle carbon emissions.
In the Big Pivot, one of the strategies I focus on is asking “heretical” questions that challenge deeply held beliefs. How can meetings tackle the travel issue? First, at the simplest level, make events carbon-neutral, including travel – or help attendees identify carbon offsets that are Green-e certified (or equivalent). Second, think even bigger and question the location of an event if possible – where could we hold it to shorten the distances for the most attendees. Or if you’re working on the corporate side, question which people from an organization should go – maybe the east coasters go to an event in DC this year, and the west coasters go to the San Francisco meeting next time.
Finally, the most heretical question could be about helping attendees not actually attend in person. As more companies want to cut back on travel that’s fiscally and environmentally expensive, are you ready? Are your meetings enabled for streaming and online interaction? As counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s possible a digital approach would make an event more exciting and cutting edge, and also keep it accessible to people all over the world.
This kind of thinking is just an example of Big Pivot strategy. In the end, the event business has an incredible opportunity to go beyond just greening operations and saving money. The real opportunity is in demonstrating to the millions of attendees how the business world can operate differently.