IMEX Group has been championing sustainable exhibitions for more than 20 years. With two huge global events generating zero waste and powered by renewable energy, they have now set their sights on zero carbon.
CEO Carina Bauer told EN editor Emily Wallin that the exhibitions industry needs to become more sustainable to survive.
Both IMEX America and Frankfurt are zero waste events. They are run off entirely renewable energy. IMEX’s next goal is reaching net zero carbon.
Running two of the world’s biggest global incentive travel, meetings and events industry trade shows without creating a huge hole in the ozone layer is no mean feat.
More than 13,500 participants flying from 155 countries to the middle of a desert for IMEX America makes the challenge of staying green even tougher.
With their sole aim of uniting and advancing the meetings industry, IMEX CEO Carina Bauer is convinced that the exhibitions sector needs to demonstrate their sustainable credentials to survive.
Bauer admits that with the huge and daunting prospect of planetary destruction facing us it can be hard to find a place to start. Or how far to keep measuring their impact.
She says: “The reality is we’ve being measuring different kinds of sustainability targets for over a decade.
“If you look at IMEX America which we’ve been measuring our output for 10 years, we’re looking at our water usage, waste diversion, plastic, paper. Now it’s about transferring that to carbon because that’s what the world is looking at. But there are a lot of different elements to being a sustainable event.
“You can’t just look at carbon, there’s no point looking at zero carbon then sending your waste to landfill.
“We started by looking at our own industry. Representing the global meetings and events industry we could initially have an impact just through education. We were giving sustainability awards 22 years ago.
“Then came walking the talk. There are so many different elements to considering your impact. Looking at your operations as a business, then the events you produce, working with venues and suppliers, and then after that it’s about engaging exhibitors and stand constructors and visitors to engage them in that process.
“Ideally, you do go that far, but maybe not on day one. We’re not perfect, but over time we’ve managed to layer those things.”
Bauer says some small changes can make a big difference.
“There are lots of little things people can do. Just having multi-stream bins on stands instead of one general bin, helps them sort the waste behind the scenes and prevent it going to landfill. Really simple things.
“Then you can work to have compostable serviceware. If you take one step then the next becomes clear. Swapping plastic water bottles for cans at IMEX America diverted 14,000 from going to landfill.
“It’s not that there’s no work involved, but they’re not impossible. Looking at the menu choices to reduce water consumption. If you make a burger half turkey half beef it halves the water consumption. It’s about asking the right questions and that’s where some professionals can give the right help.
“The impact of just little things can be amazing. But don’t be scared of it.”
In Germany sending waste to landfill is illegal and Bauer accepts that the restrictions at Messe Frankfurt forced them to think more closely about sustainability from the start.
When they launched IMEX America in Las Vegas, they were determined to meet the same standard – without the state infrastructure to support them.
“We were inspired to be better,” says Bauer.
They brought on board sustainability consultants MeetGreen to monitor every aspect. Professional help meant they were able to raise the bar even higher, Bauer says, and makes her proud of the wider impact of their work.
“We’ve seen a real shift in Vegas, “ she says. “The hotels have made massive strides to become more sustainable, to build massive solar arrays in desert, roof gardens, wormeries. Being somewhere like Vegas makes you especially focus on water usage.”
In Frankfurt any waste unable to be recycled or reused is incinerated to generate electricity for the local grid. But the same efficient incineration facilities were not available in Las Vegas.
IMEX America is now powered by 30% solar energy – generated at venue Mandalay Bay’s solar array in the Nevada desert. The remaining 70% is offset, making their consumption 100% renewable.
Leading the individual changes that build up to the business’s overall sustainability strategy is the IMEX Green Squad.
Senior operations manager Roger Lehner started the Green Squad to encourage IMEX staff who were passionate about sustainability.
Working together with the venues, contractors and key suppliers was crucial to making the big changes.
One of the first adjustments was offering exhibitors water refill stations on their stands, saving 12,000 plastic bottles from landfill. The Green Squad’s incremental changes have led to wider improvements.
Lehner says: “For many years IMEX purchased renewable energy for our own consumption, then a few years ago we mandated that only renewable electricity was offered to our exhibitors. We decided we don’t want to give them the option. We haven’t had a single negative comment. Fast forward two years and Messe Frankfurt has now switched to renewable electricity throughout.
“We can’t claim it was all down to us, but it’s definitely been a signal. It’s about 10% more expensive for exhibitors, so that must have given them confidence.
“Rigid signage is normally made from plastic-based foam core and not traditionally recycled, but there’s a material called Re-board, they didn’t offer it until we asked for it. It is paper based so it can go into the normal paper waste. They offer it to everyone now.
“One thing that is very wasteful is carpet. There are sustainable products available but not widely used just yet. We have been able to make significant changes. This year at IMEX Frankfurt we will use carpet that is made from recycled materials and then made into new carpet after the show.”
Consultants MeetGreen will be working for the first time at this year’s IMEX Frankfurt – meaning the company will be able to make a like for like comparison between their two shows, as well as measuring themselves against EIC Sustainable Events Standards.
Bauer says there is still more to do.
“We’ve gone quite far down the line in reduction of plastic, but there’s a lot more to do. It’s about getting exhibitors and stand constructors on board. There are a lot of event materials like tables and chairs left behind. We have given away 10,000kg of furniture to charities. But the biggest thing for us is reduction of carbon.
“Being a show with a lot of international travel, you do come to the question of how far you can go? We’re not in charge of the travel ecosystem. You can control what you can’t impact, but we can look at offsetting and encouraging people to take different modes of transport.
“But for example if a planner goes to IMEX Frankfurt and meets 10 different destinations, that might be 10 less trips. Co-locating and building more efficiency into the week has an impact.”
Measuring our carbon imprint is going to be a significant issue for the exhibitions sector moving forwards, Bauer says.
“As an industry we are going to have to show clients how it benefits their triple bottom line. Showing them how to operate at our events more sustainably, demonstrating what we are doing, but also how to calculate the offsetting.
“If you don’t want to be altruistic and simply business focused, if you cannot help your clients do this; you will lose business. Big corporations are all looking at their ESG and it’s not coherent to be outstanding on one side of the business and run events in a different way.
“In just the same way as people strike a line through events if they don’t understand the business benefits of attending, they will be cancelled as carbon centres. You will have to show why it is worth using your carbon credits on that event rather than something else.
“Businesses if they’re forward thinking need to start thinking about that now. Every tonne of carbon makes a difference but you have to look at that if you care about our future.
“What I would say to people in the industry today is don’t have your head in the sand about it. Whether it’s for altruistic reasons or hard-nosed business reasons, this is coming down the line.”
The bottom line for Bauer is we have no choice but to act and work together.
“It is so important,” she concludes. “If you believe climate change is happening, then ultimately we all have a responsibility to make an impact. Each of us individually is not going to solve that.”