Hybrid meetings: The sustainability silver bullet?

In recent years the event industry has made great strides in support of sustainability. We have much to cheer about! More professionals than ever are engaging in sustainable events. Publishers like Corporate Meetings Network continue to share tips about the topic. Industry suppliers, including hotels, venues and general services contractors, have embedded environmental management systems that are achieving real waste and carbon reductions. Worldwide, event volunteer projects are having great social benefit.

While important, this cheerleading can lull us into a sense of security that we can lighten up on “green meetings” now. Yet I’ve had recent reminders that we still have a long way to go.

The first came at the foot of the Cambie Street bridge, in Downtown Vancouver, where on a late summer afternoon walking back from a client meeting I was met with a strong reminder of what climate change will be like to experience. A public art installation added a series of chromatic blue stripes that crept five meters up the pilings of the bridge and lampposts in the surrounding area. Five meters being the mid-point projection for sea level rise by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The artistic impact underlines the flooding that will occur to the nearby buildings and greenbelt I followed along the tidal creek.

Hybrid meetings: The sustainability silver bullet?

Photo courtesy of www.afalsecreek.ca

In the same week I calculated and shared an event carbon footprint with a client who has a very waste-conscious annual conference. In spite of her diligent efforts to address her event impacts, the event’s carbon profile underlined a fundamental challenge for many wanting to host more sustainable events: the face-to-face format has an inherent and significant carbon footprint we cannot avoid. In the case of this event, the footprint showed 81 per cent of carbon impacts stemmed from attendee travel to and from the event, while 13 per cent resulted from guest rooms. A mere six per cent of emissions were from event logistics the organizer could directly control: venue operations, waste, food, freight and shuttles.

A somewhat discouraging scenario to say the least. Leading to an important question for those planning more sustainable meetings: are our onsite efforts merely re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

Can a conference event be truly sustainable without attention to remote and hybrid formats?

The data would suggest no. For even if we could manage away all of our negative onsite impacts, we’re still left with the dilemma of what to do about attendee travel, the carbon elephant in the room. Yes, we can offset, but like Wimpy who will gladly pay you Tuesday for the hamburger of today, this practice permits carbon impact now with the promise of potential reduction in the future.

The carbon returns on hybrid events show significant potential benefits. Consider these case study event projects I’ve analyzed over the last few years:

Growing attendance more sustainably through hybrid approaches: A paid-registration technology tradeshow emits the carbon equivalent of 28,000 barrels of oil, or two barrels of oil per onsite participant. Developing a virtual participation option for this conference tradeshow has attracted 3,300 new participants, whose remote footprint is equal to 23 barrels of oil. That’s 2.5 Kg of carbon per virtual participant, or less than 0.01 per cent of a barrel of oil. Here, the virtual effort not only increases participation by 24 per cent, but does so much more sustainably by avoiding the carbon-equivalent of 17,500 barrels of oil that would result by having this new audience attend in person.

Using the best and most efficient media to achieve attendee outcomes: A free, invitation-only corporate event brings together 1,200 C-Level customers looking to network. The in-person event produces 2,300 MT of emissions, equal to those produced by 500 cars in a year. The same event provides a virtual experience for over 5,000 technical specialists looking to remotely access information, knowledge and skills from the onsite sessions. Their total remote carbon footprint is equal to 6 MT, or one car’s annual emissions. Here we see an experience tailor-made to each audience at the same event, based on the outcomes they’re looking for, in a most carbon and cost-efficient way.

Planner efforts to reduce onsite impacts are important and meaningful, especially in terms of waste management. However, it’s important to underline that paperless, bottle-free meetings with strong recycling programs only address a small portion of an event’s carbon impact, which is best minimized through hybrid formats.

The good news is hybrid formats are increasingly embraced by event attendees who want to engage in events without the added cost and inconvenience of travel. They are also a critical tool in improving event resiliency to weather-related incidents that may cause cancellation (Hurricane Sandy, anyone?). And the best news: we have the option to be proactive about adopting new technologies now, before carbon taxation forces more drastic action to combat rising cost. How can low-carbon, hybrid meetings enhance your event sustainability strategy? Comment below and let us know!

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