Proving the concept of safer, more sustainable events

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Picture by Fabian Smith Photography.

On 22 July 2020, the Southern African Association for the Conference Industry (SAACI) hosted a ‘Proof of Concept’ hybrid event, on behalf of the South African Events Council. Its purpose was to prove that the new Re-opening Guidelines make it possible to hold events safely and responsibly.

Glenton De Kock, SAACI CEO, explains, “The Proof of Concept event presented a viable opportunity to evaluate the feasibility of the additional Covid-19 requirements. In successfully delivering the event, SAACI hopes this will encourage further activation of the business events and exhibition sector.”

The event was held in five different venues around South Africa, which were: Century City Conference Centre (Cape Town), Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani (Durban), Focus Rooms (Johannesburg), Running Waters Exclusive Venue (Port Elizabeth) and the CSIR International Convention Centre (Pretoria). Most speakers were at the Johannesburg event and live streamed to the other venues, excluding one who was off-site.

In line with current regulations which allow up to 50 people to attend a business event, this enabled a total of 250 people to attend in-person. An additional 305 attendees tuned in online, courtesy of Magnetic Storm. One of these virtual delegates was in Austria, with the rest tuning in from Gauteng, Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Northern Cape. The audience is expected to keep growing, since a recording is now available (you can watch it here).

“We would like to congratulate SAACI for a successful event,” says Greg McManus, Chair of the Event Greening Forum (EGF).

“It was successful in the most critical way, in that the health and safety of all guests were protected throughout. It really did prove the concept. We believe it was an important milestone in our sector’s recovery journey.”

The EGF is a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainable event practices. In recent months, it has been assessing our ‘new normal’ and what sustainability impact this has on our industry. SAACI’s event presented a unique opportunity to start to understand these better. It turns out there are both inherent benefits and challenges.

Increasing feet, reducing footprints

One significant opportunity is the ability to reduce the carbon footprint of events. According to MeetGreen, for a national conference in the US with 1 000 delegates, air travel can account for as much as 90% of an event’s carbon footprint.

US-based 500 Speakers estimates the following as the biggest carbon contributing activities at an event: travel (approx. 73%), food/beverage (approx. 12%), accommodations (approx. 11%), venue (approx. 3%) and waste (approx. 1%).

Taking an event online, in part or whole, eliminates the travel, catering and accommodation related impacts for virtual attendees. In the case of SAACI’s Proof of Concept event, 200 people did not need to catch a flight to another city to attend it, while 305 did not have to travel at all!

Virtual and hybrid events can also scale up easily with little-to-no impact on logistics or carbon footprints. Scaling up is also easier, as factors such as geography, time-constraints, budget-constraints or disabilities are not necessarily barriers anymore.

Of course, the EGF’s stance is that face-to-face events are a powerful and much-needed medium. However, not all events need to be in-person. “We support face-to-face events as a vital business tool for all sectors,” says McManus.

“But it’s about finding the format that makes sense to your business objectives. Conference or workshop? In-person or virtual, or both? These are the questions we need to start asking ourselves.”

Technology presents other opportunities to both limit transmission and promote sustainability. Online registration (as used at the SAACI event) and event apps both leverage existing hardware that delegates have (cellphones) and eliminate the need for printed material such as tickets or information boards and agendas. Its expected more solutions like these will emerge, driven by our shifting priorities.

Resource inefficiencies

Some of the new safety requirements also have less sustainable impacts than the ‘old’ way of doing things. For example, carpooling is no longer encouraged, and social distancing means venues are operating at a lower capacity while still using the same amount of electricity for lights, air-conditioning and general operations. This reduces their resource efficiency per head – so we encourage venues to consistently refine their operations to be increasingly resource (and cost) efficient.

Single-use plastic makes a comeback

Another sustainability challenge is the increase in single-use plastics for pre-package goods, and especially food. While this can be visually reassuring, plastic packaging is not necessarily safer than other options.

Based on the limited research that has been done, it is believed the virus lasts slightly longer on plastic than on most other tested materials (Read this for more on the results of these tests).

The safety benefit with single-use plastics is that they are handled less than re-usable items. However, you could consider single-use alternatives to plastic, such as cardboard or compostable products. Compostable packaging is especially ideal for food service, as if done properly, all catering waste can be safely disposed together and composted.

If plastic is the best option for your event, and quite likely budget, you can find ways to minimise the amount used. You can also investigate ways to safely recycle it – as long as it is not deemed medical waste.

Alternatively, don’t dismiss reusable items. These can still be safely used if handled responsibly. It’s worth mentioning that our industry already operates to high hygiene standards, so this is unlikely to be too much of a stretch. It could also be a more cost-effective route.

Looking to the future

Justin Hawes, EGF Treasurer, attended the Proof of Concept event at the Focus Rooms in Johannesburg, and reports that it was a phenomenal experience.

“After more than four months in lockdown and being unable to attend events in-person, it was an amazing experience to be able to see my colleagues and reconnect face-to-face. I was very inspired, and left feeling positive about the future of our industry.”

As a result of this, the EGF is now planning to host its conference in November – which means the purpose of the Proof of Concept event worked. Watch this space for more details.