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EN Roundtable: Is sustainability just a line in your P&L?

by Joe Gallop

During an EN sustainability roundtable, exhibition organisers discussed in depth how the industry can work together to achieve Net Zero.

Sustainability could not be a hotter topic for event professionals right now. While it is certainly nothing new, sustainable action is no longer something that is advised for venues and companies but is now a necessity. Venues and organisers are having major discussions on how the industry can increase its sustainable commitment and help save the planet from what many believe to be a serious climate emergency. An example of such a discussion was the recent EN roundtable in association with Olympia London, which took place in Mayfair on 4 November, while the world’s eyes were focused on COP26 in Glasgow.

Chaired by EN publishing director Duncan Siegle, the event, titled ‘Sustainability: Is It just a line in your P&L?’, saw 10 representatives from companies such as Hyve Group and Clarion Events chew over some of the steps that the industry can take to accelerate the transition to Net Zero. Here is some of what they had to say…

Should businesses commit to becoming more sustainable?

While the answer may seem obvious, there is of course the unavoidable issue of cost for venues and event organisers, which was not overlooked by the roundtable group. Olympia London commercial director Anna Golden says it would cost £50,000 to work with a consultant to analyse and research what a company is currently doing and to implement a plan to get to Net Zero by 2050; which she also says is a realistic target and could happen sooner.

“We have to invest, and we’ve got to change that mindset to ‘it’s an investment for the business, not a cost’,” she says. “You only have to do a bit of research to see how much more investable businesses are when they have environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) embedded in their culture and they have a plan that’s deliverable.”

Clarion Events managing director Daniel Nwaokolo raises the point that establishing a roadmap for Net Zero will cost businesses proportionately and not every business can afford it: “I think we have a responsibility to try and find a way to get a system in place that can be affordable that is an investment for the whole market,” he says.

Hyve Group UK regional director and Association of Event Organisers (AEO) deputy chair Julie Driscoll suggests that groups such as the AEO, the Events Industry Alliance (EIA) and the Association of Event Venues (AEV) are a great way for smaller organiers to benefit, by creating easy guidelines and pledges for them to follow.

Unity53 founder Paul Macdonald suggests that the “old fashioned” business model of the events industry may need to change as people from all around the world travel to the same venue having a negative environmental impact. However, Driscoll suggests that instead of getting on many international flights for business meetings, events can be used as the one time in a year where face-to-face meetings with supply chains and customers can take place, therefore reducing a carbon footprint.

Rob Fredrickson, managing director of catering company Gather & Gather, says there is tension between what he wants to do as a caterer, such as taking out single use cups, and what he can afford to do, as this may result in him losing contracts or making less money with existing contracts.

“If you take single use cups out of an operation that relies on a huge amount of tea and coffee, the sales have dropped by 25%. No business in a commercial catering operation can afford to lose that volume of high margin sales, because
the whole model just falls over if you do that.”

Fredrickson adds that action is needed more than words, while other members of the group acknowledge that businesses may begin to be called out if action is not taken.

“People are now asking for words to actually translate into meaningful action and that you’re measuring and reporting to make a world a better place,” he says. “Words are going to start to run out of value and that’s the challenge for every business in the UK, whether that’s an exhibitor or a caterer.”

Driscoll agrees, saying that one of Hyve’s strategies this year is to build in measurability, and to make sure that every person measures what they are doing to make a more positive impact. Similarly, Nwaokolo suggests that governance, while being less “sexy” to talk about, is vital with regards to sustainability as it can provide the “guardrails to get cadence within your business.” Driscoll says investing in ESG involves making sacrifices and difficult decisions: “The old world was about driving above normal profit, while the new world is about considering that story. Your profits might dip a bit but we’re in it to drive for a better world.

“You’ve got to accept that the reason businesses exist may pivot and change.”

Responsibility 

The group were asked where responsibility lies in the exhibitions industry, including what role the media plays. Driscoll says the industry reaches millions of people every year, so there is a responsibility to create a debate around sustainability. 

“We’re taking a view that we should be brave and lead industries to facilitate the debate,” she says. “I don’t think it is about necessarily saying we’re going to fix the problem, but at least you’re creating the debate.” 

Golden says this should be the case across the board, adding that 60% of the scope for Net Zero is reliant on third parties being on the same trajectory. “We can’t sign a pledge for Net Zero unless we’re confident that our organisers and suppliers are on that same route.” Golden adds that organisers should be reporting statistics on what their carbon footprint is after every event, and that the industry should be more robust in this area: “We need to get that momentum back up and running, because it’s a real opportunity for teams to set their own goals.”

How to make sustainability count 

The general feeling around the table was that businesses simply cannot afford not to invest in sustainable action, but how hard are businesses actually looking at sustainability plans? It has “rocketed up the agenda”, says Oliver Gardiner, development director at Olympia London’s owners Deutsche Finance International. “For our investor base,
if we’re not demonstrating an ESG agenda and we’re not delivering on that agenda then our investment credentials fall apart.” 

Closerstill managing director Matthew Butler says businesses need to focus on what work is going into local communities. “It’s not necessarily about what we do as an industry to reduce our carbon footprint, it’s about the personal interaction they have with sustainability, and how that is affected,” he says.  

Citing the example of reducing carpet use on the show floor, Siegle asks how much of a role sustainability is playing in terms of the brand of events, as well as how to find the right balance between sustainable methods and ensuring customers are given a new, exciting experience. 

Nwaokolo suggests this is not something to be looked at in black or white and is instead a case of “horses for courses” and understanding your customer and “where they are on that journey”. 

As for the industry-wide efforts for striving towards Net Zero, Golden says cross-industry alliance is vital to ensure everyone is heading down the same path to make such goals achievable. “ESG needs a voice at the planning table in every organisation and show, because if that happens, then change will come,” adds Driscoll. 

Collaboration 

Another key theme was how the industry can effectively work together to strive towards Net Zero, with the word ‘collaboration’ emerging as a particular buzzword. Golden says, “Discussions in the last 18 months have been less about individual shows and more about what the industry can do. I think there has been a real shift in how we understand how we have to collaborate with suppliers and organisers, and everybody needs to work together.” 

Fredrickson says being brave is important. At Boardmasters Festival in 2017, Gather & Gather scrapped single use cups for the first time. Driscoll says sharing case studies like this can “inspire the bravery and decision making” from an AEO perspective. Fredrickson adds: “That’s where partnerships comes into it, and a pioneering spirit is needed to make these partnerships work.”

Following the cushy closing remarks on being collaborative and having pioneering spirit, Macdonald asks the group what Greta Thunberg would say if she was sat the table, adding that “progress happens when you are challenged and when you’re uncomfortable, if the industry is not uncomfortable then it’s not being challenged hard enough.”  

The point was then raised that a couple of CFOs chose not to turn up to the roundtable, with one apparently saying sustainability is not even a line in their P&L. It sounds as if the work is only just beginning, doesn’t it? 

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