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Sustainable Events: futureproofing your business model

Creating sustainable events is no longer a bonus – it’s a must.

That’s the opinion of experts and world-leading organisers who have spoken to ExpoPlatform as part of our latest series on the future of our industry.

But this isn’t just about cutting emissions – it’s about securing a business model fit for the future. The threat of the climate crisis, changing attitudes and an increasingly unstable political environment have all reaffirmed the need to limit risks.

Events have immense potential for driving innovation and success. This deep dive from ExpoPlatform has worked with industry leaders to provide organisers with insights on making events more sustainable and profitable.

Here’s what we will cover:

What is a sustainable event?

A sustainable event places emphasis on three areas: protecting the environment, accessibility and economics.

The aim is to create a lasting balance which makes all of these components a priority when planning a show.

In doing this you can bring in a wider audience, improve your brand identity and reduce the carbon footprint of your event.

Many experts in this field have told ExpoPlatform this can be a win-win situation for organisers – they can cut costs and drive up revenue in different areas.

Here are some of the benefits:

  • Increasing your income through new channels
  • Reducing costs caused by travel or space taken up
  • Cut back on spending by limiting waste
  • Improving the branding of an event
  • Reach a wider audience and grow access to sponsors

Sustainable events as a growth strategy

We spoke to two industry experts about how sustainable events can be a growth strategy for your reach and revenue.

Robyn Duda, founder of advisory agency RDC, told ExpoPlatform why planners need to futureproof their business models with a strong value system and adoption of digital capabilities.

She has worked with some of the most recognised brands in the world including Coca-Cola, Spotify and IBM.

Her focus is on advising brands, agencies and organisers on the foundations of successful offline experiences to maximise engagement and online reach both now and in the future.

She said: “Sustainability can mean different things. In events it should include three main areas of focus: society – diversity, equity and inclusion – economic growth and environmental protection. 

“By focusing on these areas the industry not only considers how people are impacted today, but how they are impacted tomorrow too – it’s also a growth strategy.

“The newer faces and voices you have on stages create new voices and members and people in your audiences and in your community.”

Cameron Little, an environmental scientist, sustainability consultant and educator with more than 20 years experience in our industry, also believes sustainability is a growth strategy.

The vice president of the Sustainable Event Alliance sees the digital transformation our sector has witnessed as offering great opportunities to reduce waste and increase revenue.

But first he believes event planners need to recognise this model is “not rocket science” and is more than just about being greener.

He said: “A lot of people don’t understand the differences between an environmental focus and a sustainability focus – that’s a key issue, because sustainability looks at economic and social considerations as well.

“That puts them on a much better footing than solely looking at environmental issues, because one of the complaints or criticisms or objections that some people put forward about environmental considerations is that they cost more.

“But sustainability looks at the economic impacts and social considerations of those initiatives as well – and factors that into the design or decision making process. 

“Inevitably I find that you can do it for the same costs or usually save money. 

“When you roll everything up, look at short, medium and long term benefits, you end up with more for less.”

Mariela McIlwraith, Events Industry Council (EIC) vice president of sustainability, believes there needs to be a “holistic” approach to creating live shows where digital components work as an enhancement.

EIC has carried out its own research among members which highlighted three main challenges for professionals in our industry: cost, education and difficulty in measuring.

This federation has more than 30 member organisations and represents over 103,500 individuals and 19,500 firms and properties.

Mariela told ExpoPlatform how sustainability should not be seen only as a challenge, but also an opportunity which is “good business”.

She said: “This is a key moment for our industry to focus on driving results for people, planet and prosperity. 

“We need to ensure that events are designed as exceptional experiences and that we continually improve our impact for those that attend, as well as for our workforce and for the communities and natural environments where we meet. 

“Sustainability is also good business. 

“Our survey also showed that event organisers want to see information about sustainability in proposals, and that often suppliers are waiting to be asked, resulting in a gap of expectations. 

“If you’re a supplier, promoting your sustainable practices up front is a great way to help improve your proposals. 

“For event organisers, sustainability and social impact practices can also help you financially. 

“In addition to the cost savings that come from the more efficient use of resources, designing your events to be more inclusive and accessible can help you grow your audience and improve the quality of your events.”

Net Zero Carbon Events initiative – a Paris Accord for events?

Our industry is well aware of the importance of reshaping to a more sustainable business s model.

That’s why a scheme has been launched with the aim of moving the sector towards net zero carbon emissions globally by 2050.

The Net Zero Carbon Events initiative – hosted by the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) – hopes to bring together a wide range of industry stakeholders to tackle the issue.

It comes ahead of Cop26 where world leaders gather to present how their countries will reach the 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

This is with the aim of delivering on the Paris Accord.

The initiative, which was announced by UFI, aims to:

  • Jointly communicate our industry’s commitment to tackling climate change and driving towards net zero by 2050
  • Develop common methodologies for measuring the industry’s direct, indirect and supply chain greenhouse gas emissions
  • Construct an industry-wide roadmap towards net zero by 2050, and emissions reductions by 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement, with support and guidance on key issues
  • Foster collaboration with suppliers and customers to ensure alignment and common approaches
  • Establish common mechanisms for reporting progress and sharing best practice

Ellie Ashton-Melia, community lead for isla, told ExpoPlatform event professionals know the business “better than anybody else” so should drive innovation for a sustainable future without waiting for policymakers.

It was claimed that our sector mustn’t “shy away” from the issue even though it can be complicated and believes sustainability will soon become “intrinsic” to how businesses will shape up in future.

Ellie said: “There’s been some extremely bold ambitions that have been set out by governments and businesses to drastically reduce our emissions in line with global goals for net-zero by 2050.

“Unfortunately since the Paris Agreement they’ve  actually fallen short in delivering strategies to achieve a lot of these targets.

“We rapidly need to take action which is going to fundamentally affect businesses and society at large. 

“Within our industry, we need to make sure that we’re adapting and innovating ahead of that policy and legislation being implemented and enforced. 

“We know our industry better than anybody else, so we should have the solutions and innovation to drive that change.”

How can we improve sustainability?

When thinking about how to create more sustainable events it is important to consider the three main goals: the environment, accessibility and economics.

The first and third of these areas can largely be tackled in tandem –  findings ways to reduce your carbon footprint and limit waste.

A typical in-person show creates a massive amount of excess and tonnes of emissions over the course of a few days.

This can be through leftover food, goody bags, single-use plastics, transportation, energy used at the venue, resources to build the event, magazines and many more.

Research from MeetGreen shows the average conference attendee produces 1.89kg of waste per day – that’s 5,670kg created by a 1,000-person event over three days.

Thankfully much of this waste can be cut back or done in a different way – which means less money spent on unneeded outgoings.

Cutting down transport emissions

The biggest contributor to the carbon footprint of events by far is through international travel.

Findings by MeetGreen estimate air transport makes up about 70% of the emissions created by a largescale professional gathering.

A further 10% is through car journeys, 8% on guest room energy, 4% on venue energy, 4% by train travel, 3% on food and 1% on freight.

The organisation estimates one two-day event avoided producing almost 1.8 million kg of CO2 emission to just over 8,420kg by switching to fully virtual format. That’s less than one percentage of the original figure.

However, it is clear that in-person events are the highlight of a planner’s calendar and can’t be replaced by a purely digital format.

ExpoPlatform has heard from numerous high-profile organisers that it is looking increasingly likely these live shows could become more localised.

That means event professionals are less willing to spend on international travel to attend a show when other options are available to them.

This can be done through on-demand content, streaming or virtual networking opportunities and many more avenues.

Making the most of online options

The digital transformation of our industry was forced by pandemic restrictions which needed to be overcome to allow business to continue.

It is estimated that by moving 10% of attendees online – made up of those who travel the furthest – emissions could be cut by almost 90%.

This world-leading research was carried out by Sebastian Jäckle, of the University of Freiburg, after he noticed a contradiction with academics talking about reducing emissions while still attending international largescale events.

He told ExpoPlatform: “Many conference organisers say they are doing something – no printed programmes, vegan foods – lots of these things.

“You can do this and it helps, but compared to flying to the US for example it is just marginal – that’s the big thing.

“We have to think about to what extent it is really necessary to always meet in person.

“It’s also about climate justice in that way. Those that come from Europe for the European conferences can go there quite easily by train.

“That’s not perfect – but those coming from Australia, the US and Canada are about 10% of the participants.

“If these people joined virtually we could really reduce the footprint enormously.

“It’s not necessary to switch all conferences to a completely digital design, but switching parts of them at least to a hybrid would help a lot.”

Hybrid events can accommodate both in-person attendees and a virtual audience of those who can’t travel to the venue or are still unsure about attending face-to-face meetups.

This format allows organisers to offer new avenues for content sharing, exhibiting, sponsorship, creating new revenue streams and lead generation opportunities.

But importantly for sustainability, it allows those who face challenges in attending in-person to take part.

Sebastian added: “It’s also about improving accessibility for people – particularly those from the global south.

“For them it’s much more difficult to fly somewhere because they may not have the money, or they have families and it’s difficult to cope with the children.

“It’s not just a thing in terms of carbon footprint, it’s also about more justice in the way we have these meetings.”

Driving your digital revenue growth

Spending on pure tradeshow activities is predicted to decline, with exhibitors anticipated to increase investment in digital content, Smart Events and training of their teams.

Research suggests planners will be shifting their budget model to place more emphasis on monetisation of online features.

It is expected this digital component is going to rise from just 2% before the pandemic to 25% moving forward.

Missing these new opportunities is not an option in today’s uncertain economy. Corporate travel is predicted to be cut by around 20% of its pre-pandemic levels as the digital transformation of industries continues, according to research.

An organiser should see a sustainable future as an opportunity by cutting down costs on in-person show waste and placing more emphasis on generating revenue online.

Download our free Monetisation Blueprint for an in-depth guide on driving digital revenue growth.

Who wants a sustainable event?

Almost half of people in China, the US and the UK are doing their best to live sustainably, according to a poll.

Findings from the Statista survey show 46% of respondents in these countries were doing all they can, 48% believed they could do more while only 6% were not bothering.

This illustrates the weight of responsibility people are placing on themselves to secure a future for all by living sustainably.

Furthermore, another survey shows more than a quarter of Millennials and Gen Z rank environmental concerns as their top priority – and these are already the largest proportion of the workforce worldwide.

Findings from the Deloitte Global’s 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey show 26% of both generations ranked protecting the environment as their top personal concern.

This comes despite threats to health, family welfare and careers being closer to home and imminent in the current climate.

But why is this important for organisers? Well more than half of the global workforce will be made up of these cohorts by 2025 before rising to around three-quarters by 2030, according to ExpoPlatform analysis of UN population projections.

Around 60% of this demographic told the Deloitte survey they fear that businesses are less concerned about making a commitment to reversing climate change while leaders deal with challenges from the pandemic.

It is important for organisers – especially those in senior positions – to pay attention to how this will impact the sustainability of their businesses in future if not handled carefully.

A total of 44% of Millennials and 49% of Gen Zs said they have made choices in the last two years over where and the type of work they will do based on their personal ethics.

About 15% of those in the Deloitte survey this year said they had left their jobs or started new careers after reflecting on the pandemic and their values.

But it’s not just in their professional lives that their values hold more weight than previous generations – it’s when buying too.

Figures from NeilsenIQ show 90% of Millennials are willing to pay more for a sustainable product, 53% would switch brands to go greener and 75% said they would change their habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

That compares to 61%, 34% and 34% respectively for Baby Boomers – which is still a large proportion for each.

Rob Davidson, of MICE Knowledge, told ExpoPlatform how event experiences must now be built differently to cater for these new priorities.

He said: “Sustainability was important for previous generations as well, but for younger people it’s not just a nice-to-have thing it’s a really essential thing.

“They care much more, they have understood something important – which is this is the only planet that we have and we need to look after it in everything that we do.

“They understand that going to a conference is not a holiday from reality where you can consume what you want without thinking about the impact of your actions.

“They’re very attentive to things like energy consumption and recycling.”

Rob added: “But I would go further than that in my definition of sustainability and include the human environment as well.

“They have a very strong social conscience and they see the injustices and they see the inequalities in very sharp focus.

“So they care, they want to do something if they can as part of the event.”

Some more ideas for sustainable events

Here are a final few ideas for you as an event professional to consider when trying to create a more sustainable event:

  • Choose green event venues: these premises pursue sustainable practices by trying to meet guidelines and benchmarks. Think about finding one which includes sustainability certifications.
  • Make sure the location is accessible: try to choose a venue close to a transportation hub such as an airport or train station. Eco-friendly hybrid or electric vehicles could also be an option for transferring attendees to your venue.
  • Managing your waste: make sure the venue and caterers have a proper recycling system in place. Minimise the use of single-use materials and also think about how waste from the show can be composted.
  • Sustainable catering: this involves green-minded sourcing, preparing, serving and disposing of food and materials. Try to use local produce and providers when possible too. Think about donating good quality leftovers to charities to avoid waste.
  • Greener goody bags: these giveaways are at a wide range of events, generating goodwill and brand awareness. So why not choose something that can be re-used? Think about giving away items such as tote bags, branded travel mugs or pens with company logos.
  • Use event tech to reduce paper use: event technology providers offer a range of options to cut waste and improve the attendee experience. Try to include an online schedule and map, badging and registration using the app or digital tickets.


Responsibility to protect the environment, increase accessibility and futureproof budgets is coming in all directions for organisers.

But sustainable events also offer incredible opportunities to create green and prosperous business models for planners.

Increasing accessibility allows for a wider audience to be reached – driving attendee monetisation opportunities and extending the value of sponsorship deals.

Reducing carbon emissions can cut the amount of waste at in-person events, which means savings on costs.

Creating an economic model which embraces change and prepares for the future is an approach which is more likely to be lasting.

Sustainable events may at first sound like more hurdles for today’s organisers to deal with.

This guide shows how these challenges can be overcome – and turned into positives.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article and found it useful. At ExpoPlatform, we want to help you build better events and communities. Please get in touch and ask for a demo here. Thank you.