How to Host a Safe and Sustainable In-Person Event

Six ways to make a gathering more green, while maintaining the highest levels of health and safety.

Once a top concern for event professionals, sustainability has since taken a backseat as planners grapple with how to safely return to face-to-face meetings in the era of Covid-19.

"When I take a moment to imagine what things might look like upon the return of events and convention center gatherings, I have total confidence that we will be able to do so safely," said Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability for Meet Green, in a recent webinar. "But I often wonder: Will we be able to do so sustainably?"

Meet Green, an environmentally focused conference management agency, recently reviewed its checklist of event sustainability practices against current CDC guidelines to assess the various risk levels. Fortunately, the agency found that a vast majority of its recommended sustainability practices do not impact safety. In fact, some might even reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. 

"Safety and sustainability are not mutually exclusive," said Wallinger. "They work together and support each other. When we really think through many of the things we were doing in our meetings and gatherings prior to 2020 and then walk through them step by step in a reopening scenario, a staggering amount of them are still possible."

Below are six ways to make your meetings more green, while also ensuring attendee safety.

1. Source Local, Sustainable Food

The food and beverage experience can make up a significant portion of an event's environmental impact. Sourcing local menu items is not only more sustainable, but can also help cut costs and reduce the number of contact points.

"Sourcing your food and produce locally is a preferred practice under almost all circumstances and especially now," said Wallinger. "By sourcing locally, you will reduce excess handling and travel-related carbon."

2. Eliminate Bottled Water

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus is most commonly spread through respiratory droplets transmitted during close contact with another person. The CDC notes that "touching surfaces is not thought to be a common way that Covid-19 spreads." In June, a group of 119 scientists from 18 countries issued a joint statement saying reusable cups and containers are safe as long as people employ basic hygiene. 

As such, Meet Green encourages planners to eliminate bottled water and instead request reusable glasses and serviceware. To decrease water waste, Wallinger says water glasses should not be pre-filled.

"When you walk through the number of touches and hand contact within the past 72 hours of a sealed bottle of water that reaches you, versus receiving water in a reusable cup from a water barista or filling your own bottle from a touchless system, reusable and refill systems can be at least equally as safe while being significantly more sustainable," said Wallinger. 

3. Switch to Electronic Signage

It's time to say goodbye to printed signage. Switching to electronic signage not only reduces material waste, but also reduces the risk for physical contact. Electronic signs can be posted around the venue to direct traffic and remind attendees of Covid-19 safety practices. In addition, meeting planners should consider cutting back on printed materials, and instead use a mobile app to house the event agenda and other important information.

4. Rethink Conference Swag

All too often, conference swag ends up being wasteful. Well-intended swag bags filled with pens, notebooks and T-shirts might get thrown away at the event, or end up collecting dust at an attendee's home. And in the age of Covid-19, participants are likely to think twice before accepting any gifts. Wallinger suggests replacing the traditional swag bag with alternative gifting options. This could include allowing attendees to donate a set amount to the charity of their choice, or using the money allocated for swag bags to purchase carbon offsets. 

"If a 1,000-person event eliminated its swag item like a nylon tote bag, it would be like eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions from a car driven almost 55,000 miles," said Wallinger. "There are a myriad of other ways to show attendee appreciation and gifting."

5. Conduct a Back-of-House Tour

Attending a back-of-house venue tour is always a good idea, says Wallinger. But in the midst of the pandemic, it has become all the more important. Meet Green suggests planners schedule a venue tour prior to the event to walk through the facility's health and safety protocols. During this time, meeting professionals can also verify that the venue is following through on its sustainability practices and collaborate on new ways to make the meeting more green.

6. Work With Hotel Partners

Planners should also consider partnering with their hotel to create a more sustainable event experience from beginning to end. Most hotels have developed eco-friendly programs that include optional housekeeping, reusing towels and the availability of sustainable transportation, including bikes and shuttles.

According to Meet Green, it takes 1.3 gallons of water to wash just one towel. Simple changes such as cutting down on housekeeping services and reusing towels can make a big difference and minimize unnecessary contact between attendees and others.