Travel is resuming as the restraints of the pandemic start to ease up across the globe. A lot has been spoken about how our planet had a “moment to breathe” and how ecosystems have recovered from over exploitation. It has also been a “moment to think” for destinations about how to resume the important economic activity of tourism while reducing the impact on the environment, society and culture.
A number of public and private initiatives in Porto & The North of Portugal contribute to that goal on a local and regional level, in alignment with global movements.
Meetings and Events, as important generators of international travel, have traditionally left a rather negative footprint on the environment. While there has been a considerable evolution to change this trend during recent years, we wondered: What is the state of the MICE industry in terms of sustainability today and what practices do its players globally need to reinforce in order to become part of the solution?
We have asked Benoit Sauvage, DMCP, CMP, CITP, the founder and CEO of Connect DMC, a leading Destination Management Company in the Dominican Republic and Mexico as well as the founder and CEO of Hospitality Sustainability Revolution (HSR), a leading consulting firm for hospitality stakeholders worldwide. He is an International Director for SITE Global and proud Chair and member of the Site Global and EIC Sustainability Committees.
You are an internationally renowned sustainability expert within the hospitality industry. When did you decide to become active in this field?
I was born in Paris, France and have lived and worked in 3 continents over the last 25 years. Father of two amazing boys, loving husband, and visionary entrepreneur, I have seen the world and our industry change and face urgent challenges on the economical, societal, and environmental fronts; being greatly affected by our over consumption, over contamination and climate change. My personal and professional journey led naturally to my sustainability journey. When both my boys were born, I simply made the decision to be part of the solution and not the problem anymore.
We have spoken to the coordinator of the Portuguese Plastics Pact, Pedro São Simão, about the ambitious goals they have for 2025, aiming at a fully circular economy where plastics never become waste. Pedro also shared his recommendation for more sustainable events, based on the 3 R hierarchy of waste (Reduce - Reuse - Recycle). As an expert in Sustainable Tourism and Sustainable Events Professional, what is your view on where the events industry stands now in terms of sustainable practices?
The travel and tourism industry represent 10% of the world’s employment and 10% of the world’s GDP. It is a $1.6 trillion global industry of which according to the Industry Council’s Global Economic Impact study the Incentive travel industry is worth around $75 billion globally.
Our industry has a large impact on the economy, the society, and the environment but it also has a large voice. As we know that business cannot drive a society that fails, we understand as an industry that we need to lead by example and walk the talk.
Sustainability as we knew it is dead. Doing less harm is no longer enough. As highlighted and endorsed by most of the sustainability actors and actions, such as the Plastic Pact, our future now lies in circularity and regeneration. We need to seek to restore and replenish what we have lost to build economies and communities that thrive and to allow the planet to thrive and flourish too.
To achieve this goal the events industry needs to play a key part in the global transition to a zero-carbon economy, and to work to reduce its emissions by approximately 45% by 2030, reaching net zero by 2050.
We also need to address very important issues such as food and single use plastics waste while planning our events. We must recognize that plastic has many valuable uses, but through time we have become addicted to single-use and that has tremendous consequences on the environment.
Around the world, 1 million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year. Half of all plastic produced worldwide is designed to be used only once and then thrown away.
90% of everything that floats in the oceans is plastic! After about 1 year of floating this plastic disintegrates into fine particles, penetrates the lower oceans, and is consumed by the fish that we then consume ourselves. So, we can say that somehow, we are eating our own plastic waste.
Reducing our water usage by encouraging attendees to carry a reusable water bottle and facilitate water stations allows us to better control the water consumption and reduce the plastic waste in landfills and oceans!
Our very resilient industry is fully aware that in order to reach a sustainable circular and regenerative economy we need to: Rethink, Redesign, Reduce, Repurpose, Reuse and Recycle. We now have the complete understanding of the challenge ahead and the changes we need to operate in our events planning and execution and are working very hard to restore and rejuvenate the planet, its people. We need to create a healthier economy and no longer seek to sustain what no longer functions.
In addition to the objectives set by the global movement of the Ellen Mac Arthur foundation, the Portuguese Plastics pact has incorporated another objective, focusing on consumer education as an important pillar of achieving a circular economy. Do you agree that we tend to forget good habits when we travel and how do you think we can increase consciousness among event participants?
Education and communication are key.
I have dedicated a good part of my career in educating our peers and colleagues on the importance of sustainability. In that sense I founded Hospitality Sustainability Revolution (HSR) last year, a consulting firm specializing in sustainability and circular economy assessments for all hospitality stakeholders.
Our first recommendation to increase consciousness among event participants is to engage them from the pre planning stage of the event at the same time as the representative of every other involved party. To do so, it is key to incorporate sustainability at the RFP stage and to survey the participants before, during and after the event. By doing so you will raise awareness, address issues and solutions, get momentum and direct concrete sustainable actions.
In 2019 a study was made prior to the pandemic, 1,500 event organizers and suppliers responded to our industry survey. The results in January 2020 (pre-pandemic) showed that 90% of respondents agreed that an increasing focus on sustainability was important for the events industry. 79% of respondents stated that they had increased their focus on making events more sustainable and a staggering 97% of organizations had implemented some form of event sustainability initiative.
In May, whilst the world grappled with the impacts of COVID-19 these questions were asked again during #PlanetIMEX. This time, 95% said their organizations were committed to developing more sustainable practices (an increase of 5%). 92% said it was important that sustainability was integrated into the industry reboot and recovery plans.
It is clear that sustainability is in every participant’s conscience and mind, and it is our job as buyers and suppliers to get all attendees on board by communication and educating them on the industry best practices.
When looking at pre-pandemic trends, there was already a strong tendency towards more authentic experiences that would at the same time give back to a destination and the local community. In the heart of Porto (in Vila Nova de Gaia) there is a very unique project of organic urban farming called Cantinho das Aromáticas, led by Luis Alves, a professional farmer and agronomic engineer. The project has an open concept and integrates a diverse local population as well as volunteers from all over the world in its farm to table concept. He shared with us that during the pandemic they experienced an increased demand for his products (teas, infusions, herbs, and other natural, local products) and related this to the fact that people want to consume in a more conscious way and are more mindful. Do you think that these trends (positive impact & well-being) will still be important in the post-pandemic event design?
Definitely! My favorite definition of CSR is a business model in which companies make a concerted effort to operate in ways that enhance society and the environment, instead of contributing negatively to them.
My favorite definition of Sustainability is an enduring and balanced approach to social progress, environmental responsibility and economic activity. It is a set of processes, standards and actions that helps all types of lives to thrive and flourish on hearth.
As you can see, they are very close and almost embedded one with the other.
The implementation of CSR concepts and actions in companies strengthens competitive advantage, improves reputation, reduces employee turnover, ensures customer and investor friendliness, and brings economic benefits that can positively affect the company’s financial condition and market value.
By engaging your employees in your philanthropic initiatives and culture, you foster a culture of inclusion, you improve your recruitment and staff advancement processes, and you better attract and retain talents.
Companies must not only pursue their main goal—to maximize profits, but also contribute to the well-being of society through voluntary efforts. The importance of CSR in today's global world is growing. It is becoming mandatory for companies to engage in socially responsible activities to support the growth of their business. It is argued that companies pursuing CSR initiatives can gain a competitive advantage over other competitors due to the creation of a good public image or reputation and generate higher profits and a return on investment. There is no doubt that the long-term success of a business depends on the company's ability to integrate successfully into its environment.
CSR is becoming a part of a successful business strategy and it is even a necessity today. The impact of CSR on the financial results of an organization is a relevant part of the management processes of modern organizations.
Authenticity is key in all of this. Stay away from greenwashing. Today’s most admired brands do not rely on preaching to persuade; they live and breathe their values!
80% of people expect brands to solve society’s problems and 88% say that they would purchase products or services from a purpose driven company. Finally 70% confirm they would want to work for such a company.
Employees, customers, and investors all expect companies to act on social issues. There has been a 175% increase in brand value over 12 years for brands perceived to have a high positive impact.
CSR has an amazing positive financial and well-being impact on our local communities. It promotes and enhances education, health, well-being, more sustainable business practices and it creates a bridge between our traveler and the destinations’ local communities.
According to the SITE index Benchmark Study, 7 out of 10 incentive programs include at least one CSR activity.
It is in my opinion very important to integrate the local communities into your event, to give them a voice and help them receive a better education.
One of these actions is to create a bridge between our travelers and local communities and work towards interaction and integration by providing a better and sustainable education.
As we emerge from this terrible pandemic, wellness is the new CSR. Companies are tending to directly reward their employees through wellbeing programs as well as individual incentives.
During the last months, "hybrid" has been an almost overused word when speaking about the future of work and the future of events. In your opinion, will "hybrid" prevail? And is the "virtual" part of an event actually more sustainable (taking digital pollution into account)?
As our industry is so resilient, during the pandemic we saw amazing initiatives of virtual site visits, team building, hybrid meetings among others. Many companies pivoted towards virtual meetings and rapidly acquired the technical know-how and material to professionally deliver these services.
As local experts and boots on the ground in our destinations our DMC (Connect DMC) also kept its clients and partners active and engaged through community engagements with food donations for orphanages and neglected schools in poor rural communities.
As an association SITE did outstanding work under the leadership of Jenn Glynn (2020 President) and Aoife Delaney (2021 President) together with the International Board of Directors and the Foundation’s Trustees in maintaining our members informed on the latest industry’s trends and worldwide constantly evolving protocols. Education was also at the forefront of the association where all members could acquire renown certifications and attend relevant webinars at both an international and local level.
We must agree that after these very long months of virtual meetings there is a very real “zoom fatigue” among all industries worldwide. We all have spent countless hours in front of our screens keeping in touch with our peers and colleagues.
On the other hand, all these virtual activities have put a lot of stress on all servers worldwide and increased their amount and overall consumption leading to a drastic increase of energy consumption and impact that unfortunately put coal again at the forefront of the energy resources for many countries.
This over consumption has a very negative impact that was too often undermined during the pandemic. The United Nation Climate Change Secretariat is currently working on a calculator that will help meetings and events stakeholders to better understand their virtual impact as well as solutions to offset it by purchasing UN Certified Emission Reductions (CERs).
With this said and as grateful I personally am to have had this amazing technology to help us cope during the pandemic and despite all the virtual activities we organized and participated in; I still did not find the virtual way of experiencing the sound of the wind in the palm trees while the sun sets on the Caribbean Ocean…