How Low-Carbon Meeting Design Can (Still) Save Live Events

Originally posted on The Content Roundtable by Mitchell Beer

If you rely on live events for education, marketing, professional networking, or organizational development, you might need a quick primer in low-carbon meeting design to weather the next economic and energy crunch.

That's right--the next crunch. It may be coming sooner than you think, and most organizations are entirely unprepared for the impact on face-to-face meeting programs that may be essential to their success.

Last February, The Content Roundtable carried two posts (here and here) on a hub-and-spoke approach to hybrid meetings that combines small meeting design in multiple locations with targeted use of technology to link the "nodes" together. Nearly a year later, there's little evidence that very many association executives, event marketers, or meeting organizers are embracing a set of techniques that could help them:

  • Spread larger conferences across multiple locations
  • Drastically reduce their need for air travel
  • Attack the single most difficult part of their meetings' carbon footprint,
  • Insulate themselves from climate- and weather-related flight delays that already cost U.S. airlines and passengers billions of dollars per year
  • Attract a whole new audience of potential participants who lack the time, budget, permission, or inclination to travel outside their province, state, or region.

Why Low-Carbon Meeting Design?

Low-carbon meeting design is a term we coined a few months ago to fuse the benefits of a well-run hybrid meeting with the overlapping threats of climate changepeak oil, and unpredictable fuel prices. In a Google search a few days ago, "low-carbon meeting design" yielded about two dozen hits. All but two led back to Smarter Shift.

Which makes for interesting in-house discussions. I love the term because it quite clearly belongs to us. Our social media strategist Jenise Fryatt hates it because it's pretty much useless for organic search. I think we're both right, but the more useful conclusion is that it isn't about us: low-carbon design is an important discussion for meetings, and time is running out for organizations to get onboard.

If low-carbon meeting design matters at all, and if the idea eventually catches on, it'll be because:

  • Even as virtual platforms become more sophisticated, and some of them become more user-friendly, there are still times and places when there's no substitute for a face-to-face meeting--to share sensitive information, communicate across cultures, build trust, or seal a deal.
  • Meetings carry a high environmental and carbon footprint that can't be corrected with incremental fixes. There's a common tendency to tie a green bow around meetings sustainability, often because host organizations have no idea how to introduce deeper improvements. Low-carbon design runs a big circle around the profligate waste in many big meeting facilities and destinations, and it may be the only way to reduce air travel without sacrificing the benefits of face-to-face interaction.
  • Most important, low-carbon meeting design delivers resilience. Very few meeting organizers have the time, resources, or information to address their over-reliance on long supply chains, international travel, and the brittle energy and climate systems that make both possible. But if one large meeting is broken down into three, five, or 10 smaller nodes, even a storm the size of Hurricane Sandy or the 2012 North American derecho will only keep a small percentage of participants home.

Don't Expect the Airlines to Help

This is an issue that host organizations are going to have to figure out on their own, with little or no help from the usual suspects on their vendor lists.

Technology providers might be able to sell you a virtual meeting platform and help you operate it, but it isn't their job to design the minute-to-minute program that will make best use of the gear.

Convention service managers at meeting properties can tell you what space and in-house technology they have available, but only very rarely are they trained to help clients design the programs that take place in the rooms they book.

And the airlines certainly aren't going to help their customers reduce the carbon footprint of flying. Many of them are operating on razor-thin margins, their international association's response to climate change is to spin a myth about carbon-neutral air travel, and their global regulator recently postponed meaningful action on greenhouse gas emissions for another six years.

There's still a lot to be learned about the cost, benefits, and challenges of low-carbon meeting design. That's all the more reason to start generating some experience, whenever and wherever we can, and sharing what we know as widely as possible. When do you plan to join the conversation?

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