July 14, 2024 1:53 PM
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Are We Barking Up the Wrong Tree About Sustainability?

by Liz Lathan, CMP


This issue of Exhibit City News is chock full of sustainability ideas and perspectives, but what’s the real situation in corporate events and why are we not seeing greater leaps of innovation in this arena of our event and experiential programs?

The short answer, there’s not enough pain yet to make it worth the cost.

As Cindy Lo, Owner of Red Velvet Events and Strong Events told me, “It takes green to go green.”

The quick-win trends that most everyone has embraced (sort of):

  • Water bubblers for the reusable water bottles — But how many reusable bottles are they giving out as swag and are they sustainably produced? Impact: Questionable.
  • Attempting to (or pretending to attempt to) recycle badges/lanyards — Although of the event marketers we asked about this one none of them said they actually reuse the badges, they just toss them into the recycle bin. Impact: Highly questionable.
  • Cutting back on swag — But most still let their exhibitors bring swag, so the impact is limited to only the host company. The biggest change in swag has been selecting items with more meaning that aren’t just cheap, disposable trinkets. Selecting giveaways that attendees want to keep, are consumable, or are shareable are winning. Impact: Moderate.
  • Eliminating paper — Most companies have removed paper programs in favor of apps and large signs or digital signage with the agenda on them. Impact: Successful.

Bigger wins that are tougher to tackle:

  • Using more sustainable exhibit booths — Everyone’s working together to make booths lighter, but the reason isn’t saving the planet, it’s shipping costs.
  • Carbon footprint — We couldn’t find many companies that offered carbon footprint offsets as a registration add-on other than Informa and Dell Technologies World. Lots of associations are beginning to offer this, but it’s not prevalent in B2B yet.
  • Virtual participation options — Companies are broadcasting content, but it’s not about providing a comparable attendee experience to reduce the carbon footprint of travel; it’s just to expand their audience reach.
  • Venue selection — Despite options that are LEED Certified or architected to be environmentally friendly, choosing a venue is still driven by dates, space, and rates.

Considerations to Make

Many of our corporate event professional respondents felt like they didn’t have the decision-making power to push more sustainable choices. The location of the event venue, for example, is driven by factors other than environmental considerations, so sustainability is rarely even brought up.

One event marketer shared the frustration of turn-key booths and kiosks as a barrier to making more sustainable choices. “I think when shows force people into pre-fabbed ‘turnkey’ booths, it almost completely kills the ability to be truly sustainable AND creative,” he said. “It also ruins the attendees’ experience because all the booths look the same.”

Rentals are actually a sustainable choice when designing a space, but most of our respondents agreed that they are unnecessarily price-gouged 100% of the time at trade shows. Paying $1300 to rent seating in a trade show booth when you can purchase it from Walmart and throw it away at the end of the show for $600 drives many exhibitors to make detrimental environmental choices.

However, many in our industry believe they do have the power make key decisions in the event management process that make a difference.

From the agency side, “Believing that the environmental impact of an event is our collective responsibility, we launched a rental division, DISCO To Go (Décor Inspiring Sustainable Celebrations and Occasions) ‘to save our planet, one event at a time,’” said Heidi Hiller, CEO & Creative Director of Innovative Party Planners. “Created with both sustainability and affordability in mind, DISCO To Go makes it convenient and simple for clients to rent, style and return event essentials such as: centerpieces, curated décor, theme tabletop props, signs, easels, frames, candles, lamps, lanterns, LED lighting, vases, and containers.”

Hiller believes that if you make these choices affordable and accessible, then designing a space can be beautiful and sustainable.

Former IBM event marketer Cissy Sanders agrees. “There are things that you can do at no cost to lower the carbon footprint—use local vendors for giveaways so the items(s) are not being shipped in from some other city; thereby, reducing transportation,” she said.

“Meet with a venue before contracting to discuss the usage of recycling and composting on-site at the event, no single use plastics, use regular plates and silverware, discuss menu items that are from local farms as well as donating the surplus of food from the event to a local area food organization thereby, reducing waste.”

As for tradeshow booths, Sanders believes event marketers can ask their agency partners to make different choices. “Booths and signage should be designed in such a way that the vendor is incorporating sustainable elements and then the booth and signage should be repurposed for future events,” she said.

While most event marketers and agencies we talked to about sustainability believe that we can make an impact with smart choices, none thought that we as an industry are doing enough to make a seismic shift happen.

Until green solutions become the obvious cost-effective option (like with lighter shipments reducing costs and solar energy paying YOU for electricity), it looks like our corporate event decision-making will continue to be driven by the other green.


This story originally appeared in the Q2 2024 issue of Exhibit City News, p. 36. For original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecn_q1_2024.

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