Could COVID Be a Catalyst for More Sustainable Events?

Sue Pelletier, Senior Editor
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Sustainability has taken a back seat to survival as COVID-19 has upended the on-site trade show industry, leaving canceled and postponed shows and multiple pivots to digital events in its wake. But this too shall, eventually, pass, and when it does, what impact will the pandemic have on the sustainability of future events?

As Stephen Carter, Group CEO of Informa, said during a panel on advancing the sustainability of events during The Nest Summit, organized by NXT Events Media Group, “There certainly won’t be a single answer, and it’s very challenging in the eye of the COVID storm to see how this is going to settle on the other side.” But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some thoughts to share, as did his co-panelists Carrie Freeman Parsons, Chair of the Board with Freeman, and Alan Steel, President and CEO of New York’s Javits Center. The summit was held in conjunction with Climate Week NYC, September 21-25.

Britton Jones, Founder & CEO of NXT Events Media Group (left) interviewing Stephen Carter, Group CEO of Informa

Among the ways the panelists envisioned the future of sustainability in events moving post-COVID:

• Increased scrutiny and transparency, especially when it comes to the true costs of trade show production. While there will still be scrutiny on energy consumption, for example, Carter predicts more organizations will do as Informa has with its FasterForward program and also consider sustainability in its energy sourcing choices. “We made a decision as a company to move to green energy suppliers as a means of contributing to our own carbon neutrality ambitions,” he said.

• A greater emphasis on quality over quantity. “The business will migrate more toward buyer and lead qualification than toward just absolute volumes,” Carter said. This also may be at least in part due to more scrutiny of the true costs of trade show attendance, including a hard look at when the value is worth the cost, environmental as well as financial, of attending. While measuring the success of an event by the number of participants it draws won’t disappear as a metric, “it will become a less important metric,” he added.

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Javits’ Steel agreed that future trade shows will focus on making sure the right people are attending, not just the maximum number possible. Post-COVID, “People are going to be more discriminate about what trips they choose to take, and companies are going to be considering what investments they want to make in order to market their product. Because it puts more pressure on event organizers to ensure they are providing value, “This is actually going to make events stronger,” he said. The move into digital during the pandemic has shown that going online can expand the reach, “but the live event is going to expand the depth.”

• Greater adoption of waste-reduction strategies as a systemic change, rather than one-off practices. Parsons said the pandemic may actually accelerate the adoption of technology such as touchless registration in a more systemic way. “It is encouraging to see that the ecosystem is working together to solve this specific issue related to sustainability … We need to keep pushing the accelerator on changing the system as opposed to addressing the specific issues. I’m encouraged that we’re starting to make more progress there.”

• An increased appreciation for the value of in-person events. Some shifts caused by the pandemic may end up being permanent: Some events that moved online may stay there, or at least maintain a hybrid strategy; others that had to split large national or international events into smaller and more regional affairs may find these work just as well; while some events that were struggling may end up merged into stronger competitors. However, all three panelists agreed that, while there may be some changes, being forced to refrain from face-to-face gatherings has only reinforced the value of physically getting together.

For more information, visit The Nest Summit at www.thenestsummit.com.