July 5, 2023   |   Aprilynne Pike

8 Ways Event Planners Can Integrate Sustainability Into Their In-person Events

Okay, listen, we all knew in-person events were super-wasteful. But as the years went by, we got used to that. So used to it that we kind of … forgot about it.

Then came 2020-2022.

When in-person events seriously went away, and then came screaming back again, all the things we were used to suddenly became glaringly obvious. Especially when we were able to compare them to how green digital events are. 

The answer isn’t to stop holding in-person events; they’re super important for the mental wellbeing of humans in general! (Check out our blog about the sociology behind in-person events.)

So what do we need to do? We need to have better in-person events. 

But how? Here are eight steps we’ve seen event planners (including our customers) take to support sustainability and reduce the carbon footprint of their in-person events.

1. Venue selection

Look for a venue that has a green certification or is committed to sustainability practices such as using renewable energy, reducing waste and water usage, and supporting local vendors. If the venue you traditionally use doesn’t do any of that, shop around. You might be surprised at the fun atmospheres you encounter simply by looking at some of the local venues that might be a bit off the beaten path. 

For example, we found an amazing venue, The Redd on Salmon Street, in Portland for our customer summit, Unconventional IRL. It was fantastic! It was not, however, the first venue we looked at. We definitely did some shopping around (in multiple cities) and in the end, we were very happy with the results.

2. Go digital

You’re probably already doing a lot of this already. Instead of printing and mailing paper invitations or promo materials, use digital communication like email and social media. In addition, look for ways to take traditionally printed materials—like programs and posters—and replace them with digital alternatives. For example, refer attendees to your website with a QR code, or go for a mobile event app. You can also check out using screens for advertisements at your venue instead of flyers, posters, and banners. (In fact, your venue might already have them available.)

3. Implement waste reduction measures

Provide recycling bins throughout the event space, and encourage exhibitors to have less printed material in general.You can even offer incentives for the most green-friendly booths. Harness your exhibitors’ creativity for sustainability! 

When it comes to food, encourage your venue’s caterers to use compostable or reusable plates, cups, and utensils. (Or bring in vendors who will.) Try to use a food vendor who can be flexible about numbers of servings, to reduce food waste. Especially if it’s a large event, where it can be difficult to accurately estimate how many people you will be feeding.

4. Support eco-friendly transportation

Encourage attendees to use public transportation, or to carpool to the event. If possible, consider providing shuttle buses or bikes between the venue and your preferred hotels to make it easier for attendees to travel sustainably. If your attendees are within walking distance, go ahead and encourage that, and don’t be shy about saying why. We all forget to focus on our carbon footprint sometimes, and a friendly reminder may be all it takes.

5. Choose sustainable food options

Use locally sourced and/or organic food, avoid single-use packaging, and offer vegetarian or vegan options to reduce the carbon footprint of the event. If you have to use pre-packaged food, do your best to use one package per meal, not six packages of individually wrapped meal pieces per person. 

Another plug for going local: a local food vendor will know the best seasonal choices for your venue, especially if you engage them months ahead. They’ll know the local prices, seasonal produce, and best wholesalers. Tap into their knowledge.

6. Minimize energy use

Use energy-efficient lighting, reduce the use of air conditioning and heating, and encourage attendees to turn off lights and unplug electronics when not in use. We’ve all been to those extremely chilly trade show floors. Does it really need to be 65 degrees? Do we need tons of lights and noise? 

Work with your venue (who you’ve hopefully selected carefully!) to discuss which comforts are necessities, and which are just excesses. No one needs to be sweaty and hungry at a company event, but there are lots of ways to enhance sustainability without robbing from hospitality.

7. Partner with sustainable sponsors and vendors

Partner with sponsors and vendors who share the same sustainability values and practices. Make sustainability a big part of your sponsorship messaging. Offer more visibility, or a larger space, to vendors who are willing to either conform to sustainability practices, or who will put eco-friendly massaging in their sponsorship content. 

Watch for companies who practice what they preach and reach out to them. Studies show that carrots work better than sticks, so reward efforts and practices that you admire with a whole different kind of green—your business!

8. Incorporate sustainability education

Educate attendees about sustainability practices, including the environmental impact of their actions, and how to adopt more sustainable habits in their daily lives. (That’s exactly what this blog is doing! We won’t recommend actions we’re not willing to take.)

That doesn’t mean every event turns into a sustainability lecture—we all have different business models, and events are a huge part of company growth. But subtle messaging here and there, or simply informing attendees why you made the decisions you made, help boost both awareness and education among our industry.

Bonus 5 tips

Maybe you’re a smaller event planner, or you’re just getting into events. Some of the suggestions up there might feel a little daunting. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with a bonus five! Here are five simple steps that small event planners can take to make their events more earth-friendly. (Simple enough that some of them might be things you’re already doing. If that’s the case, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. You’re helping!)

1. Opt for digital invitations and communications

This is a big one that everyone is leaning toward. (It’s one of the eight above too, because it’s worth mentioning twice!) Instead of printing and mailing paper invitations, utilize digital platforms like email or social media to send out event invitations and communicate with attendees. It’s a super-easy first step.

2. Embrace sustainable decor

Choose eco-friendly and reusable decor options. For example, use potted plants (reuseable!) instead of cut flowers, opt for biodegradable or reusable banners and signage, and incorporate natural materials like bamboo or recycled materials into the event design. If you find just one or two things to swap out each event, you’ll soon find yourself well along your way to more sustainable events.

3. Reduce single-use items

Avoid single-use items as much as possible. Use reusable plates, cups, and utensils instead of disposable ones. If disposable items are necessary, opt for recyclable or biodegradable choices. A good rule of thumb is simply to ask yourself, “Is this [fill in the blank] going right into the garbage?” If the answer is yes, look for potential alternatives.

4. Encourage waste management

Put out recycling bins!  Visible recycling throughout the event space encourages attendees to properly dispose of their waste, but it has the bonus of giving all of your attendees that visual reminder to simply be mindful. A blue recycling bin next to a coffee bar might make an attendee decide to hang on to their plastic spoon to stir their second cup of coffee, instead of using two. We all know how impactful keeping something top of mind can be, you event marketers out there.

5. Go local

Local, local, local! Anyone can do this—big events or small. Choose vendors who prioritize sustainability and eco-friendly practices. Look for local suppliers and caterers who source their products locally, and use seasonal, local produce. Not only does this win you excellent local karma, but the locals know the best way to do things. This is a suggestion that helps everyone.

Don’t let the number of options overwhelm you. You do not have to do everything! (Especially all at once.) The numbers are to give you lots of choices, and to inspire you to ask yourself questions. What works best with your business model? Which steps match up with your budget? What steps can you take now to get buy-in to do more later? And, quite frankly, which options are just not a match for your events? 

None of us can do everything—especially when it comes to sustainability. But all of us can do something. It’s okay to start small. The point is to start.