The Year of Experiential Sustainability

The Year of Experiential Sustainability
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In this guest post, Felippe Diaz (main photo) business director at GPJ Australia, says its time to think of the climate and emission effects of a lot of adland’s activations…

As a business director at experiential agency George P. Johnson (GPJ) Australia for the last 4 years, I’ve seen an incredible amount of change in how we plan, build and deliver experiences for our clients. One of the biggest changes during that time has been the increased focus on sustainable event practices.

For too long, sustainability has ranked low on the list of event priorities, with traditional business objectives such as number of attendees and number of leads the priority and focus. Today, those KPI’s are being flipped on their head – with sustainability now a key consideration during the planning phase for our clients and ourselves.

According to Eventbrite’s 2020 Event Trends Report, 72 per cent of Australian event planners are focusing on sustainability at their events, up from only 11 per cent in 2019.

It is not uncommon today to receive briefs with calls to action such as “make an impact on the market, not on the planet”. But how do we as experiential marketers help our clients live up to these aspirations?

Why is sustainability important for businesses creating experiences?

As an industry, the creation of experiences such as tradeshows and conferences requires a lot of infrastructure. A lot of build. And, if not managed properly, results in a lot of waste. Consider these stats from meetgreen.com:

A typical conference produces 1.89kg of waste per day, 1.16kg of which will go straight to landfill. For a three-day conference with 1,000 delegates you can expect 560kg of waste, which is equivalent to 4 small cars. Multiply this by the number of conferences one company hosts in a year and you might expect 2,240kg of waste per year from a single company’s conference events alone, let alone workshops, parties and private dining.

As individuals, we expect more from the businesses we deal with – and have the choice to only engage with those businesses actively trying to reduce their impact on the environment. If a business can show they are working hard to make positive change in order for their events to be more sustainable, then they are more likely to retain existing clients and attract new ones.

So how can we create more sustainable experiences?

The planning and implementation of sustainable event practices may seem daunting at first, but we can start small and work our way up. Minor changes such as going paperless and removing plastic water bottles from events are easy wins in reducing your carbon footprint. Below is a 5-step plan that may help efforts to create a sustainable experience.

Step # 1 – What is the goal?

I find it best to plan with the end goal in mind. Picture what success looks like. Set realistic goals that you can measure and improve on. I’ve worked with clients who set overly ambitious goals, and I’ve worked with others who don’t push themselves hard enough for fear of failure.

Below is a recent example of a sustainability goal GPJ helped a client develop as part of their annual signature event experience.

  1. Tread lightly & choose wisely. Don’t just talk about it – do it.
  2. Document where we are Recycling, Re-purposing and Re-using.
  3. Implement programs that enable our partners, staff and delegates to participate in our effort.

This type of focus provides a reference point to keep coming back to, as well as being measurable. It is not lofty, and it is not overwhelming. I would argue that the creation of a sustainability goal such as the one above should be an integral part of any experiential campaign.

Step # 2 – Venue

In today’s highly competitive hotel conferencing and convention centre landscape, venues are pushing their sustainability credentials as a key differentiator to attract the corporate sector.  Choosing an environmentally progressive venue will go a long way towards helping you meet your sustainability goals. Venues like the ICC Sydney are leading the way in pioneering initiatives around minimising greenhouse gas emissions, eliminating food wastage and reducing water usage. Venues with a robust sustainability plan might identify new sustainability opportunities you hadn’t thought of yet.

Step # 3 – Catering

Leftover food and beverage is another unfortunate by-product of large events. Oversupply and under-consumption combined can result in significant wastage if not managed properly.  Simple measures to mitigate this risk include partnering with food salvage providers such as OzHarvest and Foodbank to ensure leftover food is distributed to those who need it. Also check if venues have an arrangement with a local homeless shelter or charity. Other things to consider:

  • Sourcing locally roasted coffee
  • Compostable food service packaging
  • Providing tap water instead of plastic bottled water
  • Use washable crockery and cutlery instead of single-use plastic

These are all elements that most well established hotels and restaurants should already have in place. If they don’t, it is our responsibility to challenge them to do so.

Step # 4 – Minimising Waste

Events can require a lot of materials to bring the vision to life. Big builds for tradeshow booths, signage for branding purposes, lanyards and name badges – without proper management, most of these elements will end up in landfill. By recycling, reusing and reducing the waste from our events, we actively reduce the amount of rubbish we create. Some key areas to examine:

  • Partner with builders and fabricators with a sustainability plan in place. Make sure they can recommend eco-friendly options for materials used, as well as a plan for how those materials are disposed of. Better yet, can they build something that can be used across multiple future events?
  • Make it easy for attendees to recycle what they use while at your event. Provide information on recycling throughout the venue and take the opportunity to educate them about, and encourage participation in, your waste reduction efforts.

Step # 5 – Measuring and sharing the results

All the initiatives outlined above can be easily tracked. How many meals were rescued? How many lanyards were handed back to be recycled? How much of the build or pieces of furniture were re-purposed? Make sure you revisit the goals set in step # 1 and make an honest assessment of how you measured against them.

I encourage clients not to be afraid to announce the sustainability initiatives they are putting in place. Humans want to deal with organisations that are actively trying to improve their sustainability efforts – so it is crucial we meet those demands. At your event, ensure your goals are clearly displayed, and let attendees know what they can do to help.

Post-event, make sure you communicate your achievements to the audience in relation to delivering a sustainable event – and how their actions on the day helped to make a positive impact.

So there you have it – an easy to follow five-point plan that addresses all the big-hitters when it comes to minimising your event’s environmental impact. The most important part of the process is a shared commitment to do better. In my role as the conduit between client and agency, I constantly self-audit each event for ways we can improve each time – across every aspect. Sustainability is a big part of this. If we reduced our carbon footprint by 15 per cent this year, how do we reduce it by 20 per cent next year? It is this introspective reflection that will help us look after the one planet we have for generations to come.

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