The meetings industry experienced an important moment of truth November 29 when Rod Cameron, director of programming and international development with the International Association of Congress Centres (AIPC), addressed a facility operations summit just before the EIBTM show in Barcelona.
Speaking to a gathering of about 50 convention center executives, Cameron cited sustainability as a major threat facing meetings and events. The problem, he told MeetingsNet Extra in a follow-up interview, is one of degree. If you take green initiatives to the extreme, “the only real solution is not to have the meeting at all, which is not exactly a great business development strategy.”
Cameron said sustainability in convention center operations “has become an expectation rather than something that is really a distinguishing feature,” with 90 percent of AIPC members reporting some degree of green activity. But meetings still carry a carbon footprint that is beyond facilities’ control: He cited a study of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference that showed that Copenhagen’s Bella Center generated five percent of that meeting’s carbon footprint. Air travel accounted for 92 percent.
Which means “we shouldn’t be obsessing over sustainability to the exclusion of making our arguments about the overall importance of meetings,” Cameron said. All human activity has some impact, but “you’ve got to weigh the impact associated with travel against the benefits and the outputs.”
Cameron’s comments at EIBTM didn’t sit well with Pedro Rocha of Portugal’s Estoril Convention Centre, who attended the session. “People in positions of responsibility, who have the ability to lead opinion in our sector, have to be wise enough and smart enough to inspire real change," he said. "Now is the time to build a new and better future for all of us, and our industry leaders have to play their part."
Rocha is right that the industry has a long way to go to make its operations more sustainable. But I think Cameron has done us all an important service—by raising the issue, and by pointing to air travel as the Achilles’ heel of face-to-face meetings. The question is what we do about it.
- Meetings can reduce carbon emissions associated with air travel by combining live and virtual formats, then buying carbon offsets for anyone who travels by air. Not all offsets are legitimate, but online resources are available to help meeting professionals better understand the players.
- Nobody expects meetings to be 100 percent carbon neutral, now or in the foreseeable future. Eliminating 80 percent of the industry’s carbon footprint by 2030 or 2050 will be tough enough. But there’s time and scope to set realistic targets and get started.
- Anyone who really thinks sustainability efforts are a threat to the meetings industry, rather than a shining opportunity, should think again. A truly sustainable economy will mean change for every industry, ours included, but a failure to adapt is far riskier.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.