How to run a sustainable event

Running a sustainable event is now a concern for every event manager. We have no option now but to run more sustainable and green events.

Owing to the climate crisis and a greater understanding of the scope of sustainability, we have dealt with the “why do we need to run sustainable events” so in this extended post I want to cover the most important question that follows for those who organise events……..

How to run a sustainable event?

If you have landed on this post then it is likely you have been challenged to run a more sustainable event. Perhaps it has been a client, your boss or perhaps the challenge has been self motivated.

Whatever the reason for your desire to run more sustainable events, I say welcome, and we are glad to have you here.

Within this article we are going to answer all of your questions. So if you have one or more of these questions you will find the answers in this post:

  • What is sustainability in the events industry and how does it apply to my role as an event planner?
  • Can you help me get over the barriers that others have in supporting me to run a sustainable event?
  • Do you have sustainable event examples by providing case studies and examples that will help me take others with me on my sustainable journey?
  • What practical guidance can you give me to help me to run a sustainable event?
  • Can you help me to run my next event as a much more sustainable event?

This article will help you run your next event as a much more sustainable event

My approach has been to structure this article to lead you to the practical ways in which you can run more sustainable events.

We have some small steps and little ideas and we also have some BIG leaps and some BIG grand ideas.

So if you have the desire to run a more successful event we have some guidance for you.

Let’s get started.

What does sustainable event management mean to you?

Running a sustainable event will mean different things to different event organisers. How do you run a sustainable event when you don’t really know what sustainability means?

Here’s what WiKipedia says it is. In summary (although do read what is a very useful article):

It is a holistic approach to running an event and “involves including sustainable development principles and practices in all levels of event organisation” 

This is a great definition. But let’s get practical. You can start to run a sustainable event without involving “all levels of event organisation”

I would like to think that this “holistic approach” is the end game, your final destination as an event organiser.

We shouldn’t start here. We have to start from somewhere and aim for this all encompassing sustainable event.

It may seem like a long journey, but if your event tries to be sustainable, you are more than half way there!

Breaking down sustainable event management

The idea that we can all run events that have no negative impact and actually have a positive impact is, to say the least, a challenge beyond most events.

As I have stated controversially, physical events, almost by design are not sustainable.

how to run a sustainable event

the events industry by design in not sustainable

However there is much that we can do to minimise our negative impact and maximise our positive impact.

Where to start when thinking about running a more sustainable event

One of the issues many event organisers have with sustainability is that it is so big. The UN have created seventeen global goals for sustainable development.

These “global goals” provide a very good backdrop to the changes that we must make to our events and they are very useful for expanding the scope of sustainability in our events.

I put some of these goals into perspective during a sustainability talk I did in Gothenburg in 2019.

Put simply, sustainable events are much more than removing paper and plastics!

To get practical, I have grouped together a whole host of ways in which we can run more sustainable events to come up with these five areas PUUMP:

  1. Promote the role that planners and the wider industry can play in a more sustainable world.
  2. Use local suppliers who are sustainable and who ‘green’ their own supply chain.
  3. Use less resources in planning and delivering the event.
  4. Minimise waste / pollution
  5. Positive impact in the community in which the event is held.

If you set up your event with PUUMP in mind you are likely to run a very sustainable event.

We will come back to PUUMP later but by using this we have brought down those 17 goals to six areas where we can make a difference.

A small change can make a big difference

Planners are in a very fortunate and I would argue powerful position when it comes to sustainability.

Every Event Planner makes decisions that impact hundreds and sometimes thousands of people.

And this is where the power and the responsibility lies. Here is a simple example.

If on a personal level you decide to stop drinking bottled water, that may across a year reduce total consumption by a couple of hundred bottles. Well done!

However, if you as an event planner decide to replace bottled water at all of your events, you may reduce consumption by thousands of bottles. We have power. Let’s use it for good.

The five main barriers to running a sustainable event according to event planners

To fully understand the barriers that event organisers see when trying to run more sustainable events, Gallus Events brought together a group of experienced event organisers at an event in London.

From our discussions we found the five main barriers that they experienced when trying to run a sustainable event.

Our biggest challenge – the lack of a joined up approach

Without ‘joined up thinking’ across all key stakeholders, organisers, clients, sub-contractors and venues, suppliers and other parties the event organisers concluded that the event can never truly be classed as green or sustainable.

We identified the 5 most commonly faced barriers when trying to run a sustainable event:

The five barriers to a sustainable event:

  1. There is a belief from organisers or clients that it costs too much to ‘go green’
  2. Managers and stakeholders just don’t see the benefit or the value of running sustainable events
  3. Supplier challenges. It’s sometimes just too difficult to ‘green’ the whole supply chain for events
  4. Clients, organisers and stakeholders are not prepared to alter the format of events to support for more sustainable targets
  5. Meeting logistics. Delegates and organisers prefer mainstream locations and traditional travel options

I am sure as you read this you will identify with one or more of these issues.

So how to we address these barriers to running more sustainable events?

1. The belief that it costs too much to run sustainable events

This is a commonly held perception amongst stakeholders.

Our planners advice was to start with the end in mind. Make it clear from the start this running a sustainable event is an objective for the event.

Thinking of creative ways to demonstrate the value of running sustainable events as a way to really have an impact. If this is a concern for stakeholders it was suggested that this should be at least identified at the planning stage.

Examples how to overcome this barrier.

  • Green Sponsorship – Look for opportunities to sell ‘sponsorship for green activities’. One participant sold a sponsorship package which paid for the hire of a fleet of electric vehicles to get delegates around London.
  • Crowdfunding – We had another event organiser who had successfully used a crowdfunding site to get delegates to opt in to pay for ‘extras’ and support green transport and the provision of local foodstuffs which ultimately supported local communities.

2. Managers and Stakeholders just don’t see the value of going green

The discussion often seems to come down to return on investment and reducing the overall costs of running events and increasing margins.

To make progress in this area you need to think of ways to convince senior stakeholders of the monetary value of going green.

Examples how to overcome

  • Sell the benefits! One great example was a presentation to stakeholders where the emphasis was on the positive impact on the company brand by delivering green events. By aligning the company’s brand with the delivery of sustainable events ­­­this could help differentiate the company.
  • Stick to the principles of being green or sustainable and do what you can! Achieve small wins possible as a step towards a fully sustainable event. Printing and packaging are common examples, simple steps such as insisting on using recycled paper, double sided printing and printing locally rather than shipping van loads of paper around the globe.
Sustainable Event

Reused floppy discs for badges.

3. Supplier Challenges. It’s sometimes just too difficult to ‘green’ the whole supply chain for events

This might be the case in the short term but many event organisers shared the ‘steps towards’ greening the whole supply chain as best you can.

Examples how to overcome

  • Crowdfunding was used as an example here too. At one event they publicised a ‘premium’ for using a local caterer rather than the standard hotel or large corporate caterer team for an evening meal. As a consequence a crowdfunding site available to delegates generated the additional funds necessary to source the catering locally.
  • Offering different priced sustainable options re travel and carbon footprint ‘taxes’ to offset global travel and similar are all recognisable tools. By offering delegates to click an ‘add a carbon footprint’ offset contribution generates funds to support the impact of the event

4. Clients, organisers and stakeholders are not prepared to alter the format of events to support for more sustainable targets

This barrier was seen as one where there are challenges on all sides, not only from presenters comfortable with the format of sessions and generation of their materials through to event directors who were keen to go to well proven and ‘safe’ locations.

Participants also reported the challenges of getting delegates to consider different options based on a green or sustainability platform.

Examples how to overcome

  • Be creative and offer a range of solutions. Offer Kindles or their equivalent with different apps preloaded with event content and materials. You can use interactive event apps such as MiThoughts (an interactive iPad based solution) where delegates can take notes against presentations and send them by home by email. You can run evaluation forms on delegate apps and similar.
  • Printing again was raised here as a real opportunity. Delegates suggested that in many cases there is an assumption about the best way to deliver which can be challenged and overcome by agreement or by stealth. You can reduce the brochure size, setting up recycling bins at the exits to the conference hall and always plan to recycle name badges and lanyards.

5. Meeting Logistics. Delegates and organisers prefer mainstream locations and traditional travel options

There is a belief amongst many organisers that you can never tempt delegates to attend locations and facilities that are not seen as ‘mainstream’

One has only to consider the recent rise of ‘interesting’ locations for event such as Peru or the Baltic States or the way in which personal holiday travel locations have expanded to include ‘developing’ nations.

If heading to Peru is seem as too risky in the short term then it is possible to ‘move towards’ locations where there is a change to offer sustainable events.

Examples how to overcome

  • Look for green venues even in your tried and tested locations. There has been a significant increase in locations, venues and conference chains that are choosing to become green
  • Ask about green transport especially in cities where public transport could for example be run on biofuels
  • Offer incentives to organisations and delegates to stay ‘local’ rather than travel to long haul destinations
  • Source the bulk of event staff locally rather than take a team of staff ex-UK

Identifying the barriers both real and perceived which stop organisers in their tracks is certainly a useful first step.

The one tip which came through loud and clear from all participant is to start small and build from event to event. Don’t try and go from ‘nothing’ to a sustainable event as your first attempt.

Delivering a fully sustainable event is a great leap forward for all of us but as is said frequently “the longest journeys start with the smallest steps”

However I believe that things are looking up for those planners who want to make a positive impact at their events without making a negative environmental one.

Sustainability is not a step in your event management process it is a defining characteristic

Is being green the new black I thought? But for every up there is a down. At IBTM World in November last year we used a real life case study as part of a meeting design session. Our guinea pig planner was asked to place the twelve key elements of their next client event in order of importance. Guess where “Sustainable” ended up? Yup, in twelfth place!

The Meeting Design Game.

But I am sure that things are getting better. Well I must admit this is more of a hope than an expectation. But even before we hope that our industry runs more sustainable events we first have to understand what sustainable event management really means.

How to run a sustainable event – let’s get practical

Sustainability is slowly creeping back on event planners radar. It’s been posted missing for the last few years. It’s not a great thing to admit but as an industry (I speak only about the events industry in most European countries) running sustainable events has not been at the top of many companies or event organisers list of priorities.

Sustainable events don’t need to be expensive events

As we outlined above. One of the barriers to running more sustainable events is that sustainable events are expensive events.

The rationale for this is that when times are financially tough we ONLY concentrate on the bottom line. Everything else is secondary.

As a consultant I see this all the time and I am sure you have been in this position when nothing else matters than the money that is left over.

The thing is I don’t really see this play off between sustainability and profit. It doesn’t make sense. At the hear of sustainability is the idea of using less and reusing what you use.

So surely you can reduce your environmental impact while increasing the bottom line.

My hope is that that by using some of the ideas below event organisers can really move sustainability up the corporate agenda: demonstrate that you can make less of an environmental impact while positively impacting your bottom line.

So here are x ways to encourage your organisations to run more sustainable events by concentrating on the positive profit from sustainable events.

Go green to earn more green

So with this in mind here are some of my tried and tested ways to earn while you lessen the negative impact of your event.

1. Really, truly, go paperless on site

Removing paper in its many forms from your event makes a very positive environmental statement.

So that’s removing copies of paper presentations, paper questionnaires, paper badges, notepads, flyers and other promotional material.

We really have to move away from the, all too common, dreaded delegate bag!

With the power, quality and low price of mobile apps, and the proliferation of smart phones, laptops and tablets you have never had a more secure footing to take your event totally on line.

Remove paper and see your high print costs disappear. I first went paperless in 2004. And I have never looked back.

As the event managers at our sustainable events get together highlighted, start small and move on from there. Going paperless is one of the best ways to start a journey to sustainability.

*****BONUS****** 

And here’s how to frame that message:

“We’ve gone mobile to help run a more sustainable event. We have an aim for this event to be paperless. This means that you won’t see paper programmes, flyers or inserts, feedback forms, packs or notepads.

We have asked our exhibitors and our speakers to go paperless too and we are also asking you to do the same. You are of course more than welcome to bring along copies of the programme and a notepad if you wish.”

*****BONUS****** 

sustainable events use of technology

You will be amazed what technology can do for your event

2. Engage your stakeholders

As we outlined above running sustainable events has to be a team effort. You need to engage not only your attendees but all of your stakeholders. So let’s encourage:

– your exhibitors to travel light and to have simple builds

– your speakers and your attendees to travel by public transport (we will cover carbon footprints later)

– your speakers to upload material online rather than handing it out

– your venue to consider the environmental impact of your event and reduce it where possible

Ideas like these can reduce the amount of money that your stakeholders are paying to third parties allowing you, if you get creative, to earn that revenue for your event.

3. Embrace hybrid formats

Encouraging attendees to attend virtually, rather than physically, will allow you to reduce the overall environmental impact of your event.

A smaller number of physical attendees (without reducing the number of people your event touches) will allow you to make saving on your fixed costs like size of venue as well as you variables like food.

4. Source local produce

One thing I love when I attend an event or stay in a hotel is getting a real flavour and taste of the country in which I am staying.

I love seeing local fruits, confectionaries and alcohol (not necessarily in that order) supplied by the host.

Many hotels and venues are now providing locally sourced menu options. This may or may not actually save you money but it is something that will help your event to be memorable and this always generates good customer retention.

I have a whole section on sustainable food below. So check that out if you really want to make a BIG sustainable impact from the food you choose.

sustainable events

Locally sourced means great tasting local food

5. Tap water

In the vast majority of western countries the tap water, chilled, with a slice of lemon or lime is the simplest and best refreshment possible.

Remove the fancy bottled water from your conference. Iced tap water is much more sustainable and pity the venue that tries to charge you for it!

Also ask the hotel you are staying in what is there water bottle policy? Encourage them to remove bottled water and replace it with iced water.

6. Use a venue with everything under one room (or at least close by)

If you have, let’s say a conference with an exhibition which kicks off with a dinner, why not try your best to find a funky venue that can house everything under one roof?

If you plan for your attendees to play golf or visit the casino or a nightclub see if you can find everything in the vicinity. Bang goes your fleet of buses and taxis. Lower emissions and lower fees. Yes please.

7. Don’t post anything

Do everything digitally.

This aspect of running a sustainable event is very easy to do.

I’ve worked with some organisations who still send out thousands of mailings to their target market and some who still send out their delegate badges.

Thousands of flyers, envelopes and covering letters. Embrace the digital work (including email) and you will reduce your evil footprint and increase your bottom line.

8. Piggy back on other events

This one is so obvious that it is probably why we fail to do it.

But just think of the road miles you can save as well as the money. Most busy venues will have an organiser moving their gear out as you move in and when you are moving out there will be someone ready to move in.

So why not ask the venue for the details of the organisers who are sandwiching your event? Contact them and see if you can use the same suppliers. How simple and sustainable is this?

9. Recycle

Recycle and take it seriously.

We are not just talking about badges and lanyards but this alone can save you £2 a badge (which for your average size conference can save hundreds of pounds) think about the material and signage.

You shouldn’t be replacing all your banners for your annual event every year; not every one has to have “2020” on them. Think ahead. Reduce your waste and reduce the budget for next year.

10. Just ask!

If you are planning give aways why not ask your attendees if they want what you are giving away. That’s right, ask them personally and directly: “We are planning to include a canvas delegate bag for all of our attendees this year but in order to (achieve our sustainable targets / reduce waste etc) we need to know if you want one?”

Maybe only 10% of people will opt out but there you go, it’s a 10% smaller order.

A bedfellow of sustainability is cost reduction. You can be both sustainable and reduce your costs. So far from sustainability costing your organisation, it can SAVE you money.

Perhaps the best way that most events can make an immediate and significant difference to their sustainability is to take a fresh approach to the food they provide.

As I said, if you look at the sustainability of every aspect of your events you will become much more sustainable. So let’s take a detailed look at the impact that food can have on your push to run a sustainable event.

Adopt a sustainable food policy

This may sound like a very grand new approach, so let’s break it down in to three parts.

The great thing about this list is that you don’t need to do them in any particular order, but you should definitely look to do all three of them.

If you do you will have a BIG and POSITIVE impact!

Step one: Go Vegetarian / Vegan at your Events

Events aren’t being very sustainable when they serve meat and or fish.

How many people have you fed at your events? A few years ago, I thought about it…. I don’t know the exact number, but maybe I have fed 10,000 people at the events I’ve run. Just tallying up that number really made me think.

I realised that the decisions I make as an event planner have an impact that goes way beyond my event.

So I thought, what can I do with the food at my events? Why is my default position to always serve a meat option during my events? The only answer that I could think of was, that it was just always what I had done. And I decided to change.

So I wanted to include in my how to run a sustainable event a portion about how easy it could be to go vegetarian or vegan at your events.

I’ve had vegetarian menus at my events since 2017

When I set my mind on doing something different at an event I am planning I often find it difficult to find any concrete evidence to back up my suggested changes.

As we identified when we looked at the barriers to running sustainable events it can be hard for our stakeholders to change.

I am sure many #EventProfs have the same feeling: “If only I had some evidence to back up my gut instinct that things NEED to change!” but unfortunately finding evidence to back a new way of doing things can be very difficult.

So here are a few examples, if you go vegan or vegetarian at your event, you will not be alone!

When this is the case the best we can hope for is some good anecdotal evidence.

You are not alone if you do go vegetarian at your events

I was given some confidence to go vegetarian after attending IBTM in Barcelona. Here’s the vegetarian selection from the hosted buyers lounge, where I am sure no one even noticed as it was a lip smacking, full vegetarian feast.

Healthy, tasty, transportable and vegetarian.

Healthy, tasty, transportable and vegetarian.

No need for meat

Thinking about our business events, a purely vegetarian menu is a perfectly viable option for a one or two day conference, training session, seminar or for an exhibition.

I would think long and hard about not providing a meat or fish course for a gala dinner type event, but of course it would depend on the audience. But a general / normal eating habit audience may struggle to support you on this. But maybe you are bolder than I am!

For all the other types of events you can thing of, from the family party to the festival, it is plain enough to say that the vast majority of people just want a tasty meal.

There’s really no need to have meat at any event.

So if you do want to go vegetarian, even if it’s just for one day, you can make an impact.

Just imagine if you are one of a few hundred #EventProfs choosing a few hundred meat or fish free menus or going the whole way and choosing a vegan menu. This that would lead to 10,000s or 100,000s of meat, fish or dairy free meals.

I first went meat and fish free at an one day conference in 2017.

We held a day long conference for 100 attendees and we had a full vegetarian menu. No meat and no fish. The first barrier to a change could be the anticipated negative response from your attendees.

But the thing is…..the thing that you might be surprised with….not only did no one complain, no one even seemed to notice.

The only feedback we received, regarding the food, was how good it was. Not one person questioned us before (we listed the menu on the website), during or after the event on why we had no meat or fish on the menu.

Since then we have removed fish and meat from the event EVEN when it went from a one day to a two day event.

Next year we are having a vegetarian first day and a vegan second day. We will have around 500 people attend the event. So that’s 250 meat and fish free meals and 250 plant based meals.

*****BONUS*****

So how did we go meat and fish free at our conference?

  1. We explained our desire to run sustainable events and the impact of going vegetarian to our client.
  2. We didn’t make a bit song and dance about it. We listed the menu on the website as we normally would.
  3. We made sure we had a choice (it wasn’t just one vegetarian dish) available on the day. We had two great main meals.
  4. We did all we could to ensure the food tasted and looked great! If it was bad we may have then noticed a few people comment on the lack of meat or fish.
  5. We had a response ready for any attendee: “This year we decided to have as sustainable a menu as possible. This meant we chose local and seasonal ingredients and opted to avoid meat or fish. The food is of the highest standard and cost us no less than the meat or fish options. The decision was made on a sustainability and environmental basis only and we hope you support our decision.”

*****BONUS*****

And that was it. No song or dance, no big announcement. We made it appear quite normal to have a vegetarian menu at a conference.

Why isn’t it normal? Perhaps if more of us to take this bold sustainable step, even the delegates who notice won’t find it peculiar.

And you never know, maybe we #EventProfs can show that we do know the true impact of our events and we are keen to do something positive.

Step two: Go local and seasonal

It’s worth noting that as well as going vegetarian / vegan we also asked our chef to only use local and seasonal ingredients.

The first iteration from our supplier had coconut rice (travel to London and see how many Palm trees you can see!) so depending on the caterer you may have to make a few attempts at a truly sustainable menu.

Using local and seasonal is a great extra step if you do want to go for a more sustainable menu.

Locally sourced means great tasting local food

Locally sourced means great tasting local food

Step three: Reduce the amount of food your use and order

Waste food is a huge issue for the events industry. Removing food waste should be one of the easiest ways to start your sustainable events journey.

The first approach to addressing this problem is to order less food. Sounds simple doesn’t it and it is.

However the best way to stay green with the greens is to make sure you do not over order food.

In my experience I would say that over 90% of the business events I have attended have over ordered food and this is especially true of conferences.

Often event professionals order for the number of attendees who have booked to attend.

Really we organisers should be ordering for the number of “expected shows” Not all of our attendees with show for every sitting. Work with your caterer and make sure they don’t cater for those attendees who were never going to show.

If you don’t meet your minimum numbers still make sure you tell your venue. Maybe you aren’t going to get your money back, but you will create less waste.

The same goes if your numbers are down in the morning and you don’t think you will match the order that you have placed: do all you can easily do to minimise food waste.

I want to take this one step further. Rather than guessing how many will show for each sitting, or given late notice why not ask your attendees.

Ask your attendees

I drafted this idea after attending a conference in the United States. I was nothing short of amazed at the amount of food that was left on every table at the end of the sitting (I couldn’t only imagine the pile still in the kitchen)

The amount of waste was something commented on by all of the European delegates I spoke to and after our meal I sat with two other attendees and we drafted the following:

*****BONUS*****

We are planning to run as sustainable event as we can. We know that sustainability will be as important to you as it is to us.

One area where we can have a HUGE positive impact on our sustainability is by reducing waste food.

So please tell us two things:

Would you class yourself as a small, medium or big eater?

Can you mark all of the following sittings where you are attending / unlikely / definitely not attending:

Breakfast day one 8.30 / 930

Refreshment snacks  10.30 / 11.00

etc, etc.

Thank you for your time. We will use this information to reduce the amount of food waste at our event.

PLEASE NOTE that you do not have to notify us if you have changed your mind.

And of course if you arrive at any sitting and there is not adequate food PLEASE SPEAK to our staff and they will ensure you are catered for.

*****BONUS*****

By including these two simple questions in on online form you can reduce your food order with confidence.

The second approach to addressing this problem is to do something positive with your left over food.

It’s not always possible to ethically deal with leftover food but it is possible.

At an event with the British Dietetic Association we worked with a local east London charity who collected some of our food from the event. We looked at our menu and decided on food that would have a shelf life if unused by our delegates.

We made sure very little food went to waste.

Our journey so far…..

I hoped that by concentrating a little bit on cost (as the barrier to running a sustainable event) I have shown you that we can overcome any (cost is often the biggest) barrier to running more sustainable events.

By looking at food which is a common and large area in many events, you can see that we can make a big impact without being too radical.

Just imagine if you went vegan, sourced locally and significantly reduced the waste food at your next event! You would have made a major step in increasing the sustainability of your event.

Sustainable events are the future

It is evident that many more events are looking to become more sustainable. However we all know that the vast majority of events are still running the same unsustainable course they have always run.

I believe that the events industry and individual event organisers, still have the time and opportunity to choose to run more sustainable events. But that choice will not be around for long.

Over the next five to ten years I have no doubt that we will be, firstly, gently encouraged by our attendees and our regulators, and then forced to run more sustainable events: there is no escaping the need for the events industry to become more sustainable.