9 Ways to Encourage Exhibitors to Go Green

Consider these strategies to make it easy—and advantageous—for your stakeholders to embrace sustainability.

By Mitra Sorrells May 28, 2015, 7:45 AM EDT

S&C Electric Company was one of 22 “Green Team” exhibitors at the American Wind Energy Association’s Windpower 2015 conference in Orlando. The association provided a counter sign and recognition in event materials to exhibitors that voluntarily abide by at least two of its sustainability guidelines, such as reusing booth display elements and carpeting from one year to the next. This was the second year for the program, and organizers say they will increase the requirements each year.

Photo: Mitra Sorrells/BizBash

As vice president of sustainability for Freeman, Jeff Chase says he is seeing a steady increase in the number of clients looking to incorporate green strategies into their trade shows and events. “Three years ago I had 20 clients at Freeman that were identified and really working really hard. Now I have 85 clients. I literally get a call almost every week about clients wanting to be more environmentally friendly,” he says. Show organizers often deal with a large group of partners—exhibitors, vendors, and sponsors—to produce their events, and the path toward sustainability requires participation at all levels. “But often they are so busy going from show to show, and sustainability is a very small part of their world until they go to a show that pushes them in that direction,” Chase says.

Here are nine ideas to encourage green practices at your next event.

1. Use a variety of communication strategies. Oracle OpenWorld has been at the forefront of the green meeting movement since it first implemented a sustainability strategy in 2007. Paul Salinger, Oracle’s vice president of marketing, says education is critical. “In every partner newsletter we talk about sustainability. There are sustainability practices and requests built into the exhibitor manual. There’s information on the OpenWorld website. At the event we build education into the mobile app and into signage at water stations and food and beverage areas. We are constantly trying to communicate to all of the stakeholders … that we are taking the sustainability path very, very seriously,” Salinger says.

2. Set specific goals. Consultant Tom Bowman chairs the Sustainable Exhibit Leadership Committee for the Exhibit Designers and Producers Association. He suggests planners provide clear expectations. “Maybe it’s ‘Please don’t bring any literature to our show because 95 percent will go in the trash before people get home.’ Or ‘No disposable packing materials, please.’ That’s better than just providing information. When you ask them to do something in particular, people are much more receptive,” he says.

3. Start with voluntary guidelines. “The exhibitors are paying to support your show, so make sure you build consensus,” says Kate Hurst, vice president for community advancement, conferences, and events for the U.S. Green Building Council. “We created an exhibitor advisory working group at the beginning. We also involved vendors and others working on the show floor to make sure what we were introducing was a process that could be implemented.” The council began with a voluntary sustainability program at its Greenbuild International Conference & Expo in 2009.

4. Make sustainability the default. Bowman says this is what is known as “choice architecture”—present choices to your exhibitors and partners in a way that puts the green options at the forefront. For example, on an order form list “rent carpet” as the first choice and “ship carpet” second. MeetGreen director of sustainability Shawna McKinley says making green selections the norm can lead to higher participation because planners are in effect forcing exhibitors to “opt out of green consciously.” Salinger says for this year’s OpenWorld conference they will offer a green booth as the standard option. “The booth automatically gets recycling bins, recycled carpet, materials that are recycled and reusable. So then our exhibitors don’t have to think about whether they’ll have to pay extra for it, or have to sign up differently. It’s just what’s delivered,” he says.

5. Recognize participation. If you create voluntary guidelines for exhibitors and other partners, acknowledge those who participate on the event website, in the mobile app, in social media posts, or on signage at the event. Afterward, share case studies of those who participated in marketing materials for the next event. “There has been an unfortunate feeling that business and sustainability are at odds. By publicizing the heroes it creates social signals that sustainability is something to do in business and the companies that are doing it are benefiting,” Bowman says. Help exhibitors gain more exposure for their environmentally friendly behavior by providing tips and materials that they can share through their company’s communication channels.

6. Create financial incentives. “There are a few shows that actually say that if you follow all the steps the price for your booth space doesn’t get increased or you get a percentage off. This makes sense because you are alleviating costs for the show manager by not leaving waste behind,” Chase says. Another option: tie those rewards to a contest for the greenest exhibit. “Those kinds of things work because marketers and brand managers and designers are competitive people,“ Bowman says. “Having an opportunity to compete and win builds camaraderie and buy-in.”  

7. Connect sponsorships to sustainability. As more companies make sustainability a priority, McKinley says she is seeing events that are offering new sponsorship opportunities such as car pool rebates and mobile coffee shops on bicycles.

8. Consider transitioning to a mandatory program. After one year of voluntary guidelines, the U.S. Green Building Council established a mandatory program for the more than 500 exhibitors at its annual Greenbuild event. As part of their application, exhibitors sign an agreement to adhere to minimum sustainability practices in the areas of material use, flooring, air quality, signage and collateral, shipping, packaging, and water use. Organizers randomly select 10 percent of exhibitors to audit at the event, and there are penalties for non-compliance. They also recognize and reward exhibitors that exceed the mandatory guidelines. “We have had exhibitors tell us it’s really helped them rethink their strategy and they incorporate the strategies they’ve implemented at Greenbuild across their exhibition experience at other shows. So the majority of the response has been really positive,” Hurst says.

9. Gather feedback and share results. Survey exhibitors and stakeholders to find out what parts of the sustainability strategy are working for them and what may need to change for future events. Compile data about participation and environmental impact and share the results with everyone as well. “We’ve been doing sustainability reports since the inception of the show,” Hurst says of Greenbuild. “You can see how we’ve grown our sustainability plan. And there’s an education component to help exhibitors understand how much of an impact they can have.”

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