Imagine sitting down to a gala dinner and with just one bite you’ll discover more about the local community than you ever could from a presentation. With a single dish, you can not only tell the story of the city you’re meeting in, you can support it at the same time.
Text Lane Nieset
As farm-to-table and paddock-to-plate trends sweep through the dining scene across the globe, these concepts are also trickling into the meetings realm as participants become more interested in not only the story behind the cuisine, but the social and environmental impacts of catering as well. If food is flown in from across the continent or even the globe, the notion of sustainability is thrown completely out the window and the event overlooks one of the host city’s most rewarding resources.
“Food may be something that is more of an extra cost if you want it to be sustainable than if you take the cheapest alternatives, but how can you say you’re sustainable if none of your food comes from local suppliers?” asks Karl Pfalzgraf, Vice President of Sustainability Services at iCompli Sustainability.
ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) Europe’s Deputy Regional Director, Ruud Schuthof, also agrees that participants at conferences value locally grown food and are willing to experiment, looking for a variety of options when it comes to catering, making it a “great opportunity for a host to showcase the richness of the region whilst being creative with its cuisine.” A diverse menu not only keeps participants engaged throughout the event, its also leaves them with a positive impression by incorporating social projects such as working with caterers that promote job re-integration and social inclusion.
When ICLEI hosts its 8th European Conference on Sustainable Cities & Towns in the Basque Country in April, one of the many ways they are leaving a positive legacy for the host cities—Bilbao, San Sebastián and Vitoria-Gasteiz—is through catering, incorporating Basque Country’s famous flavors for a menu of local, seasonal and organic products that’s heavy on vegetarian items, and, of course, reduces waste by eliminating single-use plastics.
Sustainability from the City to the Suppliers
This so-called rise in the regionalisation of meetings grows out of more than just local cuisine. The process starts from the ground up working hand-in-hand with local CVBs and DMCs to bring elements of the community into the conference in any way possible, from the participant level to the supplier side, for a sustainable event from start to finish.
It’s also becoming increasingly common that venues are asked about their sustainability initiatives both by planners as well as corporations, so CVBs are working with local venues, hotels and suppliers honing in on three main areas—energy, waste and water—ensuring sustainability and making the planning process for green events even easier.
Partnering with a CVB is like getting handed the blueprint to a host city when it comes to navigating the best sustainable options for clients and budgets. Coming from a different destination, a convention bureau may be aware of information that you’re not, providing insight on everything from eco-certified hotels to mutually beneficial NGO partnerships that can help drive an event’s CSR component.
“The CVBs have the strongest understanding of the suppliers in the market and venues that are recognized with sustainability certifications that can provide local or organic food. They can also point out the local sustainability challenges in the cities you are going to,” explains Roger Simons, Group Sustainability Manager at MCI Group. “As planners we often tend to have an agenda that we want to plant trees or paint an orphanage but that may not be what is needed in the host destination.”
Some convention bureaus, such as Vienna, are taking this partnership concept one step further, creating an eco label like Austria’s ‘Green Meetings and Green Events,’ that outlines a set of sustainability standards in order to certify a meeting as ‘green.’ While planners are saving money on the expenditure side with this type of certification, they’re also supporting local and regional suppliers that are stamped with Vienna’s green seal of approval. The Vienna Convention Bureau also helps planners arrange community-minded CSR events and reduce meeting waste by coordinating delivery of leftover food to specific charities and hosting nights where groups can partner with grocery stores for supplies to cook dinner for the homeless.
When delegates come together for a meeting from different parts of the globe, one of the main interests is experiencing what’s taking place outside of the convention centre, venturing into the community and engaging with local organisations through volunteer options.
One word of caution, however, is to keep your CSR components consistent, targeting similar themes instead of throwing in a last-minute activity that just serves as a gap filler in the agenda. “People want to get their hands dirty versus giving funds but it’s important when you’re including a CSR activity in an event to be sure it’s not going to be more detrimental to that community than anything else,” says Pranav Sethaputra, Group Sustainability Consultant at MCI. “Focus on things that help the community but retain part of what your brand is really about.”
Conferences for sports brands promoting healthy lifestyles, for example, could replace these team bonding exercises with something like a hands-on bicycle building session that relates more closely to their brand image, producing items that will later get donated to a community that would otherwise have to walk a few hours to get to the nearest hospital.
Another CSR event trend along the same lines focuses on skill-based volunteering, bringing together the skills of the delegates and corporation to see how they can work to bring a lasting improvement to the host city. For example, a company like Microsoft might be looking at digital literacy and see how they can jumpstart a project in the local community.
The connotation of CSR as a token thing that companies do because they have to isn’t the right way to look at it. Instead, mapping out the ways that an event can be as sustainable as possible, which lends itself to plenty of CSR opportunities, is a lot more effective in the long run.
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