With 2021's COP26 bringing more visibility to sustainability in the UK, there's a growing awareness in the events industry of the need to reduce the emissions of events. Event agencies have a real opportunity to advocate for this, but promoting sustainable practices alongside meeting client demands can be a tricky balance to strike.
At the inaugural Reset Connect event in June, Hire Space hosted a panel in collaboration with London & Partners on how event agencies in the UK are responding to the need and demand for sustainability guidance in events. We were joined by Abena Fairweather, Founder and Managing Director of Legacy Events , Shelley Fletcher-Bryant, Senior Director of Client Relationship Management at Advito and BCD, Manuela Cadarso, Head of Projects UK at Cheerful Twentyfirst, and Keith O’Loughlin, CEO of Smyle.
Read on to find out how UK event agencies are working to bring their clients on the journey and spur on progress when it comes to sustainability in the industry.
What are the key difficulties around getting clients on board?
There’s often a disconnect between companies' mouths and money in the field of sustainability; for some it can be a matter of doing the minimum to pass without scrutiny, rather than investing in really reducing their impact. It's up to agencies to communicate the value of sustainability in ways that resonate with each individual business and make them care about the issue as more than a tick-box exercise.
It's crucial to make it as easy as possible for all clients to come along on the journey, starting with communicating why it's important to be collecting data on event emissions, and helping them to make commitments they can follow through on. Agencies often have access to a wider spread of information than individual companies - for instance, comparisons between the sustainability of different suppliers and venues - and by sharing this information in a straightforward and actionable way, they have the potential to really influence their clients' decisions.
Agencies could try providing measuring and reporting free of charge initially; this may encourage more uptake on the service, and is likely to bring repeat business in future.
How can agencies communicate sustainable principles with clients and delegates?
Decarbonisation is a daunting topic, and bombarding your clients and delegates with too much information can lead them to disengage altogether. To avoid this, the panellists advise keeping your messaging very simple. Give your clients a straightforward, actionable framework for what they should be doing to measure and report on their events, and show them that they can make a positive difference without overwhelming their time or resources.
When it comes to delegates, you'll need to provide clear instructions in the pre-event comms that leave no room for confusion. What do you want people to do, and when and how do you want them to do it? Make sure that the language you use in communications is accessible to all, regardless of background and prior knowledge of sustainability.
Use the right channels to communicate your event requirements - for instance, asking exhibitors through direct emails to avoid bringing giveaway swag - and keep your advice or instructions clear and separate for exhibitors compared to attendees, as this helps to keep the instructions abundantly clear.
"Begin with pre-event calculations on what the impact of the event could be, and use that as a starting point for communications." Shelley Fletcher-Bryant
What does the future of sustainability look like for the events industry?
We need to have an eye on three areas: what goes into the sky, what goes into the ground, and how we can use our influence to shift the industry to a less damaging model. Here are four key areas that our speakers identified as being key stages on the path to a sustainable future for the industry.
1. Getting buy-in from all levels of your team
Change starts with a culture shift in our organisations where the conversation around sustainability starts becoming more amplified. Once our own workforces are on board with measuring and reporting on sustainability, we can influence what goes on in other organisations. Communicate the reasons behind measuring and reporting on emissions with your team, and encourage uptake on initiatives like recycling and energy saving in-house.
2. Communicating and sharing with others in the industry
We also need to start to see consistency across events working towards a Net Zero goal. This starts with benchmarking our events now, evaluating where we can improve, and looking at how we can get more people and businesses involved in the shift. This all comes down to communication and transparency, with collaboration being the key to the industry's success. We all need to keep learning from each other, and encouraging others in the events sector to come on the same journey to awareness and making practical changes.
3. Educating clients and stakeholders
Education is also vital in an outwards-facing direction if we're going to work together towards the unified goal of Net Zero by 2050. For example, agencies have a role to play in educating brands that a brand experience isn’t just about having their logos plastered across graphics and swag; it’s about connecting with attendees, which doesn’t have to cost the planet - check out our guide to experiential events for tips on doing this well.
"Creativity is key to making sure that engagement around sustainability is really exciting." Keith O'Loughlin
4. Cutting down on travel
Finally, we have to be looking at cutting down emissions in areas like travel, and using virtual and hybrid events to reduce transport emissions, as well as keeping locations as close to public transport links as possible. If your event can't be close to public transport, look into ways to provide more efficient transport options, such as ordering taxis to collect groups of attendees from a central location.
"Ultimately, events are to connect people and travel is always going to be necessary to some degree. There are things we can do to reduce our impact, but we need to see innovation from the travel industry as well." Manuela Cadarso
Where do virtual events come in?
Virtual events have an important role to play in reducing the impact of event emissions by cutting down on the necessity for travel. They also have several other key benefits, such as improving accessibility and promoting live inclusion with subtitling and an environment that’s easier to navigate for diverse audiences.
Used in the right situations, virtual and hybrid events can have huge potential to move the events industry towards a more sustainable model, but companies really need to evaluate whether the format is right for their events. For more guidance on this, check out our write-up of a panel on the crossover between event tech and sustainability from Reset Connect.
Bear in mind, however, that although virtual events generally have a lower impact than in-person events, they aren't entirely free of emissions so shouldn't be treated as a zero-carbon solution.
How can we balance events with Net Zero targets?
Events are hugely important for businesses, and for exchanging ideas, so they play a role in fostering awareness and commitment to sustainability. However, they can be high emitters of carbon, and it's important to make sure that we're pushing for positive change through our event choices. We can’t fix everything at once but we need to start making small changes that cumulatively make a big impact across the events sector.
One key takeaway is that we need to work together with other industries, such as logistics, travel, and recycling, to come up with solutions that unite the industry. In isolation there’s only so much we can do, but working with our supply chains we can create a meaningful impact. If we can centralise the data that we collect from events, we'll have far more visibility on what we can do to get to Net Zero as an industry.
Practical advice for event agencies looking to be more sustainable
- Don’t feel overwhelmed. This only holds you back from making any changes. We all have to start somewhere.
- Remember that it’s not a competition. Talk to experts, work with others in the industry, discuss what you’re doing and give support where you can.
- Start small - for instance by recommending that clients remove single-use plastic cutlery or carpets from their event, and showing them how much it reduces their impact. Once people see they can make a difference, they’ll be more motivated to keep making improvements.
- Be flexible. We need to be creative so we can adapt to meet not only clients’ demands but those of our clients’ clients.
Event agencies have a real opportunity to position sustainability at the fore of clients' events, and there's never been a more urgent or inspiring time to do it. We hope that the advice from the panellists provides a useful starting point for making the leap in your own business - remember, change doesn't happen overnight, and collaboration is key.
If you'd like to learn more about investing in sustainability as an agency, read our other panel write-ups from Reset Connect or head to our sustainability content below for advice and guidance across all areas of the industry.