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Seeing green: Making money from eco-friendly trade shows

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An increasing number of event organizers are following suit. Over the past two years, the number of events boasting green initiatives has been on the rise. Organizers have discovered a new conservatism: “If we were to have brought this up 18 to 20 months ago, people would have scoffed at us,” said David Myers, VP-event operations at 1105 Media, as he explained ways the company is scaling back the excess. “We're talking about cutting muffins in half at conferences.”

Getting a firm grasp on the environmental impact of details like half versus whole muffins poses a challenge for an industry known for its overstuffed buffets, branded tchotchkes and print collateral-by-the-pound, but there are payoffs to changing the way trade show producers and marketers do business. As more organizers implement small changes, it becomes easier to realize larger possibilities.

First, an environmental review can spur new revenue opportunities and better allocation of the event budget.

“A lot of things that end up being green help push along changes that we've been dragging our feet on,” said Lenny Heymann, general manager of TechWeb's Interop trade show and conference. He has in mind such elements as electronic signs that replace single-exhibitor, one-use banners with multisponsor, reuseable video opportunities.

Or the pocket guides that Interop plans to roll out, providing a two-sided, sponsored map in place of the traditional bulk of a printed show guide. “If we get out from under that, we can do more interesting marketing,” he said. “We've shifted resources away from print.”

The transition to green practices likely will take place slowly, he said, because sponsorships, budgets and other business concerns must be adapted, but a green agenda is an asset. “We want to be a leader in this area.”

Show guides—expensive to produce and transport—have proved a common target. The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, for example, stopped printing the directory for Pack Expo International and redirected more than $250,000 to the development of an online event map with sponsorships targeted to the interests of specific attendees.

“Out of that process have come new revenue opportunities,” said Matt Croson, VP-member services at the association, “but that wasn't the primary driver. We used to throw away 10 pallets of directories. It was a complete waste. We're going to take a good look at the end of the show and see what kind of waste is there. We see it as a continuous improvement process.”

The Nielsen sports group has found its exhibitors interested in sponsorships that align their companies with green initiatives such as recycling or carbon offsets. “It gives them an opportunity to brand,” Sample said. “It helps us cover the cost.”

Not all show organizers agree with that particular strategy. “People are looking at getting sponsors to underwrite greening,” said Peter Eelman, VP-exhibitions for the Association for Manufacturing Technology. “It's more solid to look at green operations that make sense.”

This year's expenses can become next year's savings, he said.

“The first time, you're undergoing a lot of organizational changes,” he said. He saw costs for the International Manufacturing Technology Show exhibitor manual jump 10% to 15% when it became a digital file on a memory stick rather than a 260-page print item. “I expect [the cost] to go down next time.”

Moreover, as green practices gain momentum in the industry, the increased buying power drives down the line item cost of purchases like biodegradable concessionware, organizers said. The upfront time investment in researching possibilities also drops, as vendors and venues learn to cater to new industry demands and green practices become the norm rather than the exception.

Greenbuild, for example, works with venues, cities and vendors to establish sustainable options that hadn't previously been available at the sites, leaving a sort of template in its wake. “People coming after us should not have to reinvent the wheel,” Lewis said.

Greening events, however, is far from an exact science, a fact evidenced by debates over elements like washable cutlery and china, which some organizers trumpet and others shun in favor of disposable, biodegradable products that eliminate the need for the energy involved in washing.

The natural evolution of printed material to the digital space and the movement toward electronic signs and portable devices may help eliminate tangible waste on the event site, but it does not address the increase in energy use that accompanies the shift.

“There is a great deal of intention and desire to be green, and there is a lot of confusion about what to do first,” said Sue Tinnish, director of the Convention Industry Council's Accepted Practices Exchange initiative, which is working with interested industry partners, the Environmental Protection Agency and standards developer ASTM International to establish voluntary criteria—a way to gauge how well a show is greening its operations.

“We're really trying to establish a baseline,” she said. “As the industry continues to evolve, we will continue to make more green guidelines.”

Some organizers welcome the clarification as a way of highlighting the strength of a company's commitment to creating sustainable event practices. But others raise an eyebrow to the possibility of establishing a set of standards that addresses every show.

“Developing green practices as an industry is important,” said Amy Allen, associate show director at Hanley Wood Exhibitions. “But I also feel that this is something that each organizer needs to establish on their own. Each and every event will have a different impact and a different solution than the next event.”

Evidence: Hanley Wood organizes shows like World of Concrete, where it faces the unusual challenge of finding a vendor to recycle concrete into materials like road pavement. This year, the show recycled 81% of its waste, she said.

There is little debate that event organizers must review each event in their stable and create customized plans, even if some green practices can be rolled out across the board. “We took a look at each event and asked what areas generate the most waste and what we could do to lower the negative impact,” Allen said.

Educating exhibitors and attendees about the issues can yield positive results. For example, encouraging exhibitors to leave print collateral at home in favor of distributing electronic files cuts waste and also helps them save printing and shipping costs.

Organizers recommend planning green initiatives early and making sure goals make it into the language of the requests for proposals, as well as developing relationships with suppliers. “The only way you can do it is to start the process early,” said Greenbuild's Lewis. “Send out RFPs with two or three things, then work to make that happen. Ask for measurables, and find cities willing to work with you.”

Also be willing to work with the city, she said, and with vendors and venues to understand regional concerns. “It's not about throwing demands out there, but working with the facility. [Suppliers] are having a frustrating time with people who don't have an understanding of what they are requiring. At the end of the day I preach communication.”

Then stick to the plan, she said. “The only way you will see the savings: Do it for more than one show. Build on it every year.”

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