But travel enables personal connection – and events need visitors, so what’s the answer?
We have a unique set of challenges in front of us, when it comes to planning and hosting truly sustainable events. Globalisation has made traveling and connecting with people from all over the world easier than ever before and with that the need for travel has increased, with conferences, trade shows, product launches and festivals are now being held on a global basis. However, while travel is necessary for events, it’s also one of the biggest barriers to producing more sustainable events.
As everyone becomes more conscious of the impact of our human activities on the planet, the need to solve the problem of achieving sustainable travel becomes more urgent. Events have a significant impact on the environment, and the event industry needs to explore every available option to make them more sustainable. At event:decision we’ve been deep-diving into the relationship between travel and sustainable events, and all the ways event organisers can encourage sustainable travel.
Travel is required for an event
Travel is an essential part of any event, whether it’s a conference, a trade show, or a festival – and events are an integral part of almost every brand’s engagement and partnership strategy. Attendees, exhibitors, and speakers travel from different parts of the world to attend the event. And the larger and more successful the event gets, the larger the travel footprint associated with it.
The Glastonbury festival, for example, has grown from just 1,500 revellers in 1970 to over 200,000 who travelled to Somerset in 2022. But only 40% of Glastonbury’s 2022 visitors travelled by public transport – leaving 120,000 people who chose less sustainable options. Glastonbury is making huge efforts to become a more sustainable event but the largest element of its carbon footprint remains its visitor travel and, as for many in the events industry, it’s a difficult problem to crack.
Is travel incompatible with sustainable events?
The impact of all this travel on the environment is immense. According to a study, air travel accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions. The same study also found that business travel accounts for 12% of all air travel emissions. As event:decision’s own Matt Grey says;
“Travel is the enemy of sustainability”
Air travel, in particular has a significant impact on the environment. The impact of air travel on the environment is so significant that it is estimated that a single round-trip flight from New York to Europe generates the same amount of carbon emissions as an average American household produces in an entire year. If we carry on as normal, the aviation industry will need to spend $1 trillion in carbon offsets by 2050 to achieve net-zero climate impacts – unless both the industry and frequent fliers abandon the business-as-usual approach.
To address the air travel problem, there are moves to create a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). But at current rates of development, it seems unlikely to be our lifetime. Paul Stein, chief technology officer at Rolls-Royce PLC thinks it’s an effort that is going to require global cooperation on a scale similar to the Covid vaccine;
“Just have a look at the current vaccination crisis around the world and just how much the world has re-industrialised to produce billions of doses of vaccine. It’s that sort of spirit that’s going to be required to get the scale into sustainable aviation fuels, and I think it’s entirely possible.”
But even when developed a SAF will create exactly the same emissions in flights, it will simply cut out the oil extraction and transportation elements – so it’s hardly a fully sustainable solution even if it is achieved.
And, even if air travel isn’t involved, other forms of transportation to events also have a significant impact on the environment. Cars and buses emit greenhouse gases and contribute to air pollution. As more people attend events, the impact of transport on the environment only increases.
What about virtual events?
Virtual events may seem to be an easy alternative to the sustainable travel headache. If an event is virtual there’s zero travel. The pandemic certainly saw a huge boost for fully virtual events, with predictions that they could even completely remove the need for travel to physical events in the future.
Virtual events have definite advantages where sustainability is concerned. They provide a platform for people to connect and exchange ideas, without the need for physical presence. They eliminate the need for travel and they also reduce the amount of waste generated, with no need for physical printed materials, such as brochures and flyers and no need for food and drink. They can also be more accessible. Attendees can participate from anywhere in the world, as long as they have an internet connection. Meaning that people who may not have been able to attend a physical event in the past due to its location can now participate.
Travel enables personal connection
Despite this, it is difficult to imagine an event without travel. Events provide a platform for people to connect and exchange ideas, and this requires physical presence. If you want to launch a car to the media for example, the media has to be there to see and experience the car. If you want to build a global community, consider that Salesforce’s Dreamforce used to be attended by 40,000 from around the world.
Physical presence is essential to build trust and establish relationships. Remember British Airways’ famous 2002 campaign, ‘It’s better to be there?’ “If you won’t fly to your customers, someone else will.”
Physical events provide that opportunity for personal connection, essential in building trust and establishing relationships. Virtual events simply cannot replicate the experience of meeting someone in person, shaking their hand, and having a face-to-face conversation. In the sales industry, face-to-face meetings are 34 times more effective in closing deals than phone calls or emails. It’s difficult to argue in favour of fully virtual events in the face of evidence like that.
How to encourage sustainable travel
So, event organisers are left battling with travel as potentially the biggest barrier to creating sustainable events. What are some ways everyone in events can encourage sustainable travel?
- Location, location, Location – choose sustainable event locations: The location of any event has one of the biggest impacts on its sustainability. Choose event locations that are easily accessible by public transportation and have a low carbon footprint. Events in hub cities like London, Brussels, New York, San Francisco, Paris and Madrid have a huge advantage as public transport options are plentiful. It’s far harder to host a sustainable event if you’re in a remote or rural location where public transport is more of a challenge. And yet, the remote or rural location may be an intrinsic part of the identity of the event. It’s a challenge to imagine Glastonbury having the same appeal if it was held at the O2. So, consider locations that have renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, and those that have a commitment to sustainability. This can help reduce the need for travel and lower the overall carbon footprint of the event.
- Promote public transportation: Encourage attendees to use public transportation such as trains, buses, and subways to reach the event venue. Provide information on public transportation options and promote their use through event websites, emails, and social media. event:decision is partnered with You.Smart.Thing. a travel demand management platform which will help visitors generate personalised low-carbon travel plans to any event.
- Incentivise sustainable travel choices: Offer incentives for attendees who use sustainable modes of transportation to reach the event venue. For example, offer discounted registration fees or VIP access to attendees who use public transportation or bike to the event.
- Encourage carpooling: Encourage attendees to carpool to the event venue. Provide information on carpooling options and facilitate ride-sharing through various channels such as event websites, emails, and social media.
- Offset carbon emissions: Consider offsetting the carbon emissions generated by attendees’ travel to the event venue. This can be done by supporting carbon offset projects such as reforestation or renewable energy projects. Provide information on the carbon offsetting process and encourage attendees to participate.
To find out more about our carbon footprint and sustainability tool track, and how it can help plan and execute fully sustainable events, please get in touch. And find out more about our partnership with ‘You. Smart. Thing.’ too.