In 2007, Michael Luehrs left the hotel industry to focus on a topic quickly becoming a key component of meetings and events: sustainability. He’s now the 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 his job’s meaning to his company and the meetings industry.
Collaborate: What does a sustainability services manager do?
Michael Luehrs: I’m charged with two main tasks: internal and external. Internally, I work to help shape and support MCI’s commitment to being a better, more responsible business. That can include refining policies, tracking our performance to objectives, training our project teams, or developing 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 offer training workshops to understand sustainability for their businesses better, 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 critical 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, sustainable event management means better events. Done correctly and integrated as part of the more extensive management system, sustainability provides a vital filter that guides smarter decisions. 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 compelling for most people and is a critical reason sustainable events continue to grow in importance and cause for study.
What common elements do you see planners and corporate executives asking for in terms of sustainability?
They ask for documented CSR or sustainability policies and proof of responsible purchasing practices. Many ask for third-party certifications, which can provide insight into the level of engagement an organization shows in sustainability. I’d like to see more planners asking questions that invite collaboration and innovation through partner approaches. Proposal requests often need to be more 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 vision of success for the outcome of an event and invite potential suppliers to share ways they can help deliver on that. Regarding sustainability, regional differences are significant 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 supply chain management, transparent reporting of sustainability commitments and measurements, and incorporating 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 an essential and valuable process and continued building on the system it created.
Oracle has earned praise for completing some great sustainable event reports for Oracle Open World. These reports are a great way to share the company’s journey toward more sustainable events and put a bit of positive pressure on the planning teams to pursue improvements on past performance and learn from what worked and didn’t work. Reports show that 77 percent of the 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 are necessary. Open World has started to innovate ideas like a virtual collateral rack to reduce printing and encourage exhibitors to reuse booth materials and carpets. 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 group, 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 overhaul and renovate an orphanage in Spain completely. This project is being run in collaboration with the charity, which, while it sounds obvious, is actually a step many corporate events need to consider more closely. These projects must be carefully considered from the very outset to ensure they result in a tangible 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 mainly to the level of leadership engagement. Suppose leadership is educated in the definition and principles of sustainable development and understands them as fundamental to the business’s success over time. In that case, the reward they will reap from sustainability will be transformative for the organization.
Many benefits are easy to measure and can encourage one to continue the journey. Examples include energy savings, better relationships with suppliers, and accurate measurements to use during goal setting. Some of the most valuable benefits take more work 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 more significant innovation. Conversely, if leadership chases only short-term outcomes for short-term profits, it will fail to create a corporate culture that brings more profound 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?
Social media channels are the most effective for trending discussions, great articles, and insights on sustainability-related topics. I followed 30 LinkedIn group discussions and created three different 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 an excellent 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. The green movement has advanced so far, so fast, that it is now the sustainability revolution. With an increasing population and reduced availability of natural resources, costs for those natural resources will undoubtedly increase. This demands businesses to think differently about product design and wasteful operational practices.