Behind a Revolution: Michael Luehrs
“Planners who have been bold enough to think of sustainability as a foundation rather than an accent have experienced cost savings, time savings and in some cases, the admiration of their peers.”
In 2007, Michael Luehrs left the hotel industry to focus on a topic that’s quickly becoming a key component of meetings and events: sustainability. He’s now sustainability services manager at MCI Group, an international event management company. In this role, he’s tasked with making his own company operate more efficiently and helping others improve corporate social responsibility and sustainability projects. We asked him to tell us more about what his job means to his company and the meetings industry.
Collaborate: What does a sustainability services manager do?
Michael Luehrs: I’m charged with two main tasks: one internal and one external. Internally, I work to help shape and support MCI’s commitment to being a better, more responsible business. That can include the refining of policies, the tracking of our performance to objectives, the training of our project teams, or the development of products (checklists for sustainable event management, measurement tools, reporting templates, training workshops) that make possible more sustainable events. Externally, I collaborate with clients to provide measurement support or strategic guidance designed to improve their commitments to CSR and sustainability, with a focus on sustainable event management. For these projects, we provide training workshops to better understand sustainability for their businesses, then provide support to take action through internal process improvements and practical, hands-on assessments of their suppliers and markets. Also, and perhaps because it’s still a new area that has a lot of industry interest, we are very active in sharing ideas in a variety of industry forums: industry associations (in particular GMIC), speaking engagements for both students and industry groups, and through social media (our blog lessconversationmoreaction.com, Twitter and LinkedIn groups).
Corporate social responsibility and sustainability are becoming more important at meetings. Why?
People from across the different sectors of the meetings industry have been following separate, if similar, journeys toward sustainable business practices, the learnings and results from which encourage continued action and innovation. Put simply, sustainable event management means better events. Done correctly, and integrated as part of the larger management system, sustainability provides an important filter, which guides smarter decisions. I think planners who have been bold enough to think of sustainability as a foundation rather than an accent have experienced cost savings, time savings, and in some cases, the admiration of their peers. That combination is a pretty compelling mix for most people and are important reasons why sustainable events continue to grow in importance and cause for study.
What are some common elements you see planners and corporate executives asking for in terms of sustainability?
They are asking for documented CSR or sustainability policies and proof of responsible purchasing practices. Many ask for third-party certifications, which can provide insight to the level of engagement an organization shows to sustainability. What I’d like to see more of: planners asking questions that invite collaboration and innovation through partner approaches. Requests for proposals are often too structured to invite potential suppliers to provide creative ideas for promoting sustainable solutions. As part of the selection process, planners and event owners should communicate their idea of success for the outcome of an event and invite potential suppliers to share ways they can help deliver on that. When it comes to sustainability, regional differences are great and local expertise can make the difference between success and failure.
Are any corporations doing anything innovative in terms of sustainability initiatives or CSR?
We’re seeing a lot of action in the areas of supply chain management, transparent reporting of sustainability commitments and measurements, and the incorporation of wellness initiatives and community action projects as part of events.
Microsoft was among the first large corporations to pursue the BS8901 specification (the British standard for green events) for a sustainable event management system. Its event management team found it to be an important and valuable process and continue to build on the system they created.
Oracle has earned deserved praise for completing some great sustainable event reports for Oracle Open World. These reports are not only a great way to share the company’s journey toward more sustainable events but put a bit of positive pressure on the planning teams to pursue improvements on past performance and to learn from what worked, and from what didn’t work. Reports show that 77 percent of food served came from an area just 100 miles from the event venue. This was shown to bring no additional cost. Efforts to engage exhibitors in green practices is an important action and Open World has started to innovate ideas like a virtual collateral rack to reduce printing and encourage exhibitors to reuse booth materials and carpet. The report includes an issues section that identifies challenges such as maintaining event team focus on sustainability once the low hanging fruit (creating policies, goal setting, switching away from bottled water, a focus on buying local products, etc) is addressed.
For the World Mobile Congress, Ericsson contracted with a team to offer chair massages during the conference. The same team, Inner Sense out of Barcelona, was asked by the big meetings industry trade show IMEX to lead sessions in yoga, Qi Gong and stress management.
SAP will include a project to completely overhaul and renovate an orphanage in Spain. This project is being run in collaboration with the charity, which, while it sounds like an obvious thing, is actually a step many corporate events don’t consider closely enough. These projects really need to be carefully considered from the very outset to ensure they result in real benefit for the charity in question and not a photo op for the corporation.
What returns do corporations get from engaging in sustainability practices? Public relations benefits? Monetary benefits? Internal company morale?
This is both a simple and complex question. Like the old Army recruiter who told potential inductees that “you get out of this exactly what you put into it,” the benefits that await organizations are real, but varied, due largely to the level of engagement of leadership. If leadership is educated in the definition and principles of sustainable development and understands them as fundamental to the success of the business over time, the reward they will reap from sustainability will be transformative for the organization.
There are many benefits that are easy to measure and can provide encouragement to continue the journey. Examples might include energy savings, better relationships with suppliers and accurate measurements to use during goal setting. Some of the most valuable benefits, though, are harder to measure. Well-integrated business commitments to sustainability create cultures with an engaged staff that responds positively to working for an organization whose values match their own. These cultures show higher productivity and greater innovation. Conversely, if leadership chases only short-term outcomes for short-term profits, it will fail to create a corporate culture that brings deeper rewards and brand value over a sustained period.
What resources do you recommend to those who want to stay up-to-date in this field?
I find social media channels to be the most effective for trending discussions, great articles and insights on different topics related to sustainability. I follow 30 different LinkedIn group discussions and I’ve created three distinct Twitter lists, each of which follows leading thinkers and content providers for CSR topics, sustainable events and social responsibility. Also, I’m very much invested in the GMIC as it is such a great concentration of passionate, experienced, professional thinkers on the many topics related to sustainability for organizations and event management.
Is the green movement here to stay?
Unquestionably. In fact, the green movement has advanced so far, so fast that it is now the sustainability revolution. With increasing population and reduced availability of natural resources, costs for those natural resources will certainly increase. This creates a demand on business to think differently about product design and wasteful operational practices.
Further, investors, CEOs, municipalities and buyers are, from their own spheres of influence and perspective, experiencing different incentives and pressures, which will continue to drive an expectation for effective integration of sustainable practices at every publicly traded company. For example, the financial crisis and the need to help investors avoid risk has resulted in an expectation that corporations will transparently report on their business, including the impact their business has on stakeholder communities and the natural environment. This need to report, coupled with the real benefits and profits that follow well-integrated sustainability plans, will result in continued investment, pursuit of innovation and focus on smart business practices in boardrooms across the world.