Virtual Conference and sustainability

6 factors to consider when hosting a sustainable conference

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With the rise in concern for global warming, it makes sense that when hosting a virtual or hybrid conference you would want to promote it as sustainable and climate-friendly. Creating a sustainable conference takes a lot of time and organization, but it is well worth the effort to reduce the impact that the events industry has on climate change. Sustainability isn’t always about environmental impact and can also mean that your event can sustain economic, social, and political changes. As an event organizer, you may have to set aside time to source sustainable products, create sustainable goals, and put in place best practices for reaching these goals. This may require some negotiating when it comes to price, workflow and processes, partnerships, and preparation. If you’re keen to turn your event into a sustainable one, then you’re in the right place. Whether you are hosting a virtual event, a hybrid event, or an in-person event, you can take some steps to reduce your environmental impact and increase event sustainability.

Sustainability and Hosting Virtual or Hybrid Conferences

Before we dive in, it’s essential to recognize that the type of event you hold will determine the sustainability level you can reach. If you want to hit certain sustainability goals, you need to objectively look at the number of events you are holding and how many of those events will be hosted online.
If you plan to have 20 in-person conferences in one year, you will automatically be wracking up a high bill against climate impact. Switching some of the events to a virtual event format can improve the level of environmental impact. Virtual conferences also provide more chances for sustainability if you’re concerned about reaching the right audiences. However, some events thrive better in the in-person format, so you must consider a balance.When setting your ‘green goals,’ be sure to keep this consideration front of mind. If you want to be carbon neutral, for example, then it might improve your chances of achieving that goal by shifting some of your events, or aspects of the events, to the digital format. Make that pivot early to hit your carbon-neutral goal, then use that time to build up to being carbon-neutral even as you add in-person and hybrid events back to the schedule. By shifting the event type to all online or partly online, you will already find that your environmental impact has lessened. With virtual events or the option of attending a hybrid event online, you might find that fewer attendees are flying in for the event. This drastically reduces the amount of carbon in the air, reducing your event’s incalculable carbon footprint.

Environmental Impacts of In-Person Conferences and Events

The environmental impact of your event will depend on the location and the size of the event. However, for the most part, all in-person events negatively impact the environment in some way. Even hosting virtual conferences will harm the environment; however, the amount will be far less.According to the Director of Sustainability at MeetGreen, Eric Wallinger, “Large convention center-based events are reporting waste volumes well above 500,000 pounds over a 5-6 day period on a regular basis.” When we think about the frequency of in-person events and the amount of event waste produced regularly (especially at events that don’t consider sustainability), we can see how damaging the event industry can be.Looking at the following numbers, we can see how impactful an event can be:

  • The typical conference attendee produces 1.89 kg of discarded waste per day, 1.16 kg of which is landfill, and 176.67 kg of CO2e emissions per day.
  • Approximately 41% of typical waste at an event is landfill. Only 35% can be recycled. 3% is donated, and 21% is organic.
  • Air travel contributes by far the most (70%) carbon footprint out of any aspect of event attendance.

In support of these numbers, research from the early 2000s argued that travel was the most dominant form of the environmental impact that an international conference might experience. The average 1,000 in-person event produces around 530 metric tons of CO2e emissions due to the average amount of air travel, energy usage, and excess food each person uses. Therefore, events should take steps to reduce the waste produced at the physical event and minimize air travel. Sustainability in terms of environmental impact is well-known, but sustainability also refers to the commercial and productive value of the event, which has social and economic effects.

How to Convert Your Virtual or Hybrid Conference Into a Sustainable One

Sustainability mostly involves reducing the amount of waste that the event produces. Whether this is waste in the physical form or waste like carbon output, there are several ways events can contribute to more earth-conscious methods.Easy steps to take when hosting a virtual conference or hybrid event include:

  • Providing virtual or hybrid options for attendees
  • Choosing locations near participants to reduce travel time (to at least car travel)
  • Selecting venues and hotels with emission reduction programs, including green energy purchasing
  • Providing incentives to attendees who take transit
  • Eliminating ground shuttles with a walkable event neighborhood

Also, calculate your event’s carbon footprint so you can see the potential impact of your event and how easy incentives minimize this impact.

1. How to Choose Venues for Sustainable Virtual and Hybrid Conferences

The ability to be more environmentally friendly will largely depend on the capabilities of the venue.
Having a limited choice of venue might make sustainability difficult. If this is the case, and the venue cannot hit certain standards, you’ll have to try to offset this by focusing on some other items on this list.Here are some things to consider when looking for the right venue:

  • Find out if your virtual or hybrid conference vendor embraces ISO 20121 and ISO 14001, which are industry standards for sustainable best practices. If a venue boasts of being sustainable or environmentally friendly, they need to show proof that they follow through with sustainable management systems.
  • Look for transparency in reporting and past reports of hosted events. These reports should be in line with major reporting practices, like the Global Reporting Initiative, or might be evident in a singular footprint report.
  • See if the venue is working with an operational strategist to improve venue environmental impact by collaborating with building managers and engineers.
  • Venues for hybrid conferences should also focus on social responsibility, including opportunities for service, community engagement, and philanthropy.
  • More responsibility might emerge with an independent certification for going green. Certificates like the LEED standards or Green Key mean that third-parties have assessed the building’s operations and agree that they are running efficiently.
  • Identify if the hybrid event venue is part of any sustainability efforts like renewable energy.
    You could even go so far as to look into the company’s primary stakeholders to determine their likelihood of going green in the near future. This is especially important if you are looking to have a long-term business relationship with them.

2. Promote a ‘Sustainability’ Focus

Even if you have limited control over your conference venue's environmental focus, you can promote the event’s particular direction. If your venue allows for the external use of products, consider reusing furniture, fittings, or equipment from previous vendors, composting, and contributing zero waste in similar ways that the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games did. While Glasgow had the benefit of being partnered with Olympic organizers, and the ability to reuse items from a previous event, you could still consider promoting the event as a Zero Waste Event and getting more organizations on board to help. Another idea is the CIBJO, which became the first event in the jewelry industry to be carbon neutral. CIBJO purchased carbon credits to offset the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that were associated with their congress. The money is then donated to projects like wind farms and methane capture systems to reduce carbon emissions for the future. Since a portion of sales contributed to this donation, attendees felt good about their contribution, boosting sales. You could potentially offer a tax incentive for their ticket purchase as well. Consider proposing these ideas with your venue or sourcing outside vendors to help in making this a reality.

3. Partner with Local Initiatives for Hosting Sustainable Virtual or Hybrid Conferences

If your venue allows outside caterers, consider sourcing local caters to support local farmers and reduce greenhouse gas emitting in food transport. When hosting a hybrid conference, you would also want to partner with a local community center that promotes the waste reduction of leftover food. Some caterers or local community initiatives have these connections available. Therefore, all you would need to do is source these individuals. If your venue wants to be involved, tell them that you are interested in only green food programs or programs that support donating extra food, compostable plates, minimizing water waste, using compostable, recycled, or recyclable cutlery, and food composting. We highly recommend partnering with any one of these organizations and offsetting the price for a sponsorship spot.
As sustainability would be a major focus of your marketing efforts, this will pay off for the partner.

4. Digitize Where Applicable

Hosting a virtual conference is one of the best ways to reduce your event’s carbon footprint. If you can’t go fully hybrid, then be sure to digitize where you can. When hosting a virtual conference, you will be printing fewer registration packets, tickets, booklets, and maybe even cutting back on the plastics on nametags.The calendar and abstracts of all your meetings can be available on your mobile app through your event hosting platform. You could also promote the use of mobile devices by placing charging kiosks (nifty meet-and-greet spots) throughout the conference venue.

5. Cut Back on Plastics

If you use plastic materials for any of your marketing materials, then you’ll need to ensure that these plastics are recyclable. If not, you’ll need to source a different vendor for these items. Find products approved to be recycled with TerraCycle or can be committed to a local recycling program. Plastics used by your event (and not for meals) should be promoted to your audience as recyclable. Ask that your event attendees drop the recyclables in a bin at the end of the conference or post recycling pods or trash cans throughout the venue.

6. Condense Physical Events Into Larger Summits

Since travel contributes greatly to your event’s impacts, consider how you can reduce travel. Hybridizing or going towards hosting a virtual conference is one way, but as we mentioned earlier, this is not always possible. Consider hosting fewer events throughout the year and instead shifting your focus to a major summit. By hosting a major summit, you will likely get more interest from big-name attendees, and you will probably see a better turnout! Prominent summits are great for networking and making connections.
As well, they will allow more time for remote businesses or industries to convene.

Hosting a Sustainable Virtual or Hybrid Conference in 2021

Hosting a virtual conference in 2021 might be easier, considering that most events will occur either online or in a hybrid format. However, if you are hosting an in-person conference this year, you may find it challenging to secure sustainable vendors at short notice.If you’re looking to host a sustainable virtual conference in 2021, implement best practices incrementally so that you can lessen the strain of going fully green.The UN Sustainable Development Goals are an excellent place to start when considering the who, what, and how around what can be made sustainable.All of the 17 goals and actionable steps can be implemented when creating a hybrid conference. Here are some things to focus on:

  • Donate what you don’t use
  • Waste less and support local farmers
  • Avoid wasting water
  • Use only energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs
  • Support the marginalized and disadvantaged
  • Bike, walk, or use public transportation
  • Recycle paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum
  • Focus on climate action
  • Avoid plastic bags to keep the oceans clean
  • Plant a tree and help protect the environment
  • Stand up for human rights
  • Lobby for local development and financing (partnerships)

Not every event can focus on all of the goals or actionable items laid out above and by the UN; however, they can be implemented in an event in feasible ways to promote these sustainable goals.Looking to host your next virtual or hybrid conference? Get in touch today and learn about our award-winning all-in-one virtual events platform solution that can help you scale your brand efforts.

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