Seeing the Bigger Picture?

In the first of our guest contributions, Hugo Kimber, CEO of the Carbon Consultancy gives us an external view to sustainability in the meetings industry, and how this is indeed more important in these tough economic times.

Seeing the Bigger Picture?

The meetings and events industry comprises some of the hottest global talent in communications and marketing. The industry makes a great economic contribution and is a core part of the marcoms mix. I can see this, as I work with the industry and have plenty of experience of what it actually does. Unfortunately those without this window on the industry, who comprise the majority of business professionals and consumers around the world, don’t get this picture. For many the industry is a glorified party planning business, flying people around the world to great locations to have a great time. This view has not been a problem until recently, as perceptions of waste either financial or resources play very badly in a recession and for the industry this is compounded by the lack of external understanding of its real value. The industry is an easy target.

What has this got to do with sustainability you might think?

Well everything right now. The issue of federal funding for failing companies in the USA and recent press attention focused on money spent by these companies on events, has prompted a wave of industry self justification in response to adverse press coverage. The fact that it needs to do this speaks volumes about its historic ability to convey its importance and relevance to the world at large. This focus on economics is relevant and important, but risks missing the bigger picture on sustainability.

The industry has been very vocal and active on sustainability issues, but there is a risk that this impetus may be derailed with serious consequences for the industry. The grim economic outlook focuses attention on business survival and short term decision making, which is an understandable response, but not always best for longer term success. Mutterings are heard that sustainability is a luxury that cannot be afforded and should be put on the back burner until things improve. In the meantime companies and industry associations focus on communicating the economic importance and other self-sustaining commercial messages.

Here’s the problem.

If sustainability is abandoned at this point, the industry becomes very vulnerable. Today’s press exposure of large amounts spent on corporate events will turn seamlessly into a focus on waste of non financial resources. You can see the headlines: “Giant Company ABC wastes 10,000 tons of Co2 and creates 2,000 tons of rubbish in three days at a luxury event in the Caribbean.” At this point the industry has no reasonable response, unlike its current arguments on its economic value.

Sounds far fetched? – not really.

President Obama expects to bring in revenue of $78.6 billion in the next three years from his carbon permits, the tip of the sustainability iceberg in terms of financial impact. This will have real consequences for high emitters, including the travel and hospitality sector, which the meetings industry is so reliant upon, are already moving into government sights on both sides of the Atlantic. Our collective failure to voluntarily achieve significant reduction of emissions and waste leaves no room for dithering given the climate change impact and makes regulation a certainty. For regulation read increased costs.

To head off this problem the industry needs to get active on sustainability, across the board, following the companies and associations who have made sustainability a priority and deliver substantive action – fast. Activity does not include limited action with an over reliance upon communication. Action on sustainability will not only support long term survival, but will deliver cost savings in the interim. It is estimated that European hotels waste Euro 260 million each year on power, that’s quite a sum to return to businesses who are short of cash. In addition, a recent survey by AT Kearney shows that sustainable businesses are outperforming overall business in the recession – who says sustainability was a luxury we cant afford? More like a necessity we have lost sight and grasp of over the last decade or so and can’t afford not to have.

A focus on the industry’s economic relevance without addressing sustainability now is not a solution. The unfortunate coincidence of global recession and emerging sustainability adoption could trigger a massive failure of strategic thinking by the industry. The adverse consequences of such a failure will seriously affect the climate and communities, at the same time profits and commercial sustainability of the industry will suffer.

Hugo Kimber 9 March 2009

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