MONTEREY, CALIF.—When it comes to pillars of corporate social responsibility (CSR), it’s not just about talking the talk. Whether referring to an LEED-certified venue, sustainable trade show, or philanthropic independent event planner, you’re expected to also walk the walk.
Take it from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a nonprofit public aquarium located on Cannery Row of the Californian coastline that prides itself on being a leader in inspiring ocean conservation and sustainability.
It’s ever-present in the aquarium’s corporate events program, said the venue’s vice president of sales, John Abrahamson, in an interview with BizBash. The program intends to serve two purposes, he explained: “The first is to help generate revenue to help offset the operational costs of the aquarium. The second is to inspire conservation of the ocean in as close to the same way as guests experience during a daytime visit.”
While the aquarium welcomes approximately 2 million annual visitors from all walks of life, not just anyone is welcome to enjoy an after-hours affair on the property. “We take our mission very seriously,” Abrahamson said, noting that about five years ago, “we decided to stop hosting all social events. No birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and the like.” The reason? “Simple,” Abrahamson responded—"if the Monterey Bay Aquarium opens its doors after hours, the purpose should align with our mission. The focus of social events is the celebration and not the experience of the aquarium itself.”
He continued: “Although we may not be unique to this, our sales team has established guidelines in terms of industries that we avoid.” For example, one of the aquarium’s CSR initiatives is reducing plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Outside of addressing the problem head-on by eliminating single-use plastic products in the aquarium’s restaurants, cafes, and retail stores (the aquarium also supported plastic-reducing legislation in 2015, 2016, and 2018), Abrahamson and his team analyze Break Free From Plastic’s annual brand audit. “Based on that, we [have] declined an event opportunity because the company has been consistently ranked [on the audit],” he explained. “We look at it like this: If we wouldn’t want our brand associated with a company, why would we do business with them?”
Abrahamson noted that the strict parameters “makes [hosting events] more difficult for us; but then again, we are not an ordinary venue,” he said. Thus, corporate events became a natural fit, because they serve “as a chance to inspire hundreds of companies, their employees, and their clients every year.”
And every touch point ties back to Abrahamson’s two deliverables, mission and revenue, “in equal share,” he emphasized. Clients can expect the initiative to permeate every aspect of an event, from “sustainable local sourcing of food and drink” to the “hand-sorting of all waste from our events to ensure that items are properly directed for recycling, composting, and landfill.” Post-event, planners will receive a sustainability report that documents all of the actions taken to be more sustainable and conserve oceans.
The aquarium is no stranger to hosting “forward-thinking companies whose employees expect their corporate culture to support conservation efforts like those at the Monterey Bay Aquarium,” Abrahamson said, pointing to “top Silicon Valley companies, attendees at regional and national conferences, [as well as] ocean scientists and conservation organizations” as clients frequently hosted in the 320,000-square-foot facility.
One option for corporate clients looking to get a taste (literally) of what it’s like to make an environmental impact is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s after-hours “Chef’s Table” dinner program, where executive chef Matthew Beaudin “crafts an explosion of color, texture, flavors, and scents from the bounty of Monterey County,” Abrahamson described. He “sources sustainable products from local farms, seafood from the local fisherman, and even hand-harvested sea salt from the Big Sur” in order to walk the walk when it comes to sustainability. Dinners are customized, seven-course affairs, each paired with a Monterey County wine, which guests enjoy “in front of our 1-million-gallon Open Sea exhibit beside a viewing window as large as a movie screen,” Abrahamson explained.
The goal? For guests to “leave with a deeper appreciation for Monterey Country, the beautiful bay right off our back deck, and the animals that inhabit this special place,” Abrahamson said.
But just because the aquarium already prevents the use of 40,000-plus single-use plastic bottles each year, is powered entirely by renewable electricity, and has helped enact laws to block offshore oil and gas development doesn’t mean they’re done. The Monterey Bay Aquarium also partners with the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau (MCCVB) on an “entertainment strategy program to help entice film production throughout our county in collaboration with out MCCVB and local film commission” to create educational content that will “promote and draw awareness not only to the Monterey Bay Aquarium but our amazing surrounding areas as well,” Abrahamson said.
Looking for more inspiration on how to put CSR pillars into action? View the aquarium’s collaboration with BLUEVIEW shoes to create a 100% biodegradable show, or with TCHO to release the Deep, Dark & Salty chocolate bar, made with locally sourced ingredients and Big Sur sea salt. And in the spirit of greater accessibility, the venue debuted its first-ever fully bilingual exhibit, titled Into the Deep: Exploring Our Undiscovered Ocean (En lo Profundo: Explorando Nuestro Océano Desconocido).