How did Covid change sustainability events?

Covid-19 didn’t kill events, but it did change them. Teymoor Nabili and Veemal Gungadin tell the Eco-Business Podcast how a pandemic transformed the way sustainability events are conceived and organised.

Every conceivable type of event that tackles sustainability topics, from the World Economic Forum in Davos to Green Drinks at the local bar, was wiped out or forced online by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The shift to virtual events provided a silver lining in cost savings and environmental benefits – digital event platforms cut out air travel, airconditioned conference rooms and catering – but audiences missed out on the networking opportunities and coffee break gossip that virtual events have struggled to reproduce.

Now that in-person events are back as the pandemic eases, event organisers are having to think more carefully about how they can limit the environmental footprint of events – particularly sustainability events which audiences scrutinise closely for taboo practices like overly airconditioned conference halls and water served in single-use plastic bottles.

Digital tools make it so much easier for tough questions to get moderated.

Veemal Gungadin, CEO, GEVME

Veemal Gungadin and Teymoor Nabili

Veemal Gungadin and Teymoor Nabili. Images: LinkedIn

So how are event organisers managing sustainability events differently in the post-Covid era, and what’s being done to reduce their environmental footprint? And how are digital tools changing the nature of content at sustainability events?

Joining the Eco-Business podcast are Veemal Gungadin, founder and CEO of events technology company, which is behind the digital events platform GEVME, and Teymoor Nabili, chief executive and publisher at Tech for Impact, a sustainability innovation publication.

Tune in as we discuss:

  • How did Covid affect the sustainability of events?
  • How did Covid change sustainability event content?
  • Are sustainability events tamed by digital tools?
  • What’s the secret to being a good moderator?
  • What makes a great sustainability event?

The full transcript:

This is the Eco Business Podcast. I’m Robin Hicks.

Covid didn’t kill events, but it did change them. How has the pandemic reshaped sustainability events and how contentious topics like climate and diversity are tackled in public fora?

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, big sustainability events like Ecosperity and Asia Climate Forum either took a break or hurriedly went digital. In one fell swoop, the human interaction, coffee break gossip and free food for which people flocked to events were gone.

The events industry was faced with its Napster moment as online video platforms replaced hotel rooms and exhibition halls.

There were environmental benefits as out went airconditioned rooms, lavish catering and business travel flights.

But now that in-person events are coming back as the pandemic eases, how are they different? What do audiences expect of sustainability events in the post-Covid era?

If we can get Bill Gates to not turn up in his private jet, that’s going to do much more than everybody not bringing a business card.

Teymoor Nabili

Joining today’s podcast is Veemal Gungadin, founder and CEO of events technology company (which produced the digital events platform GEVME) and Teymoor Nabili, a broadcaster and anchor for the likes of CNBC and Al Jazeera. Teymoor is currently CEO and publisher of Tech for Impact, a sustainability innovation publication backed by Asian Development Bank.

Welcome to the podcast, chaps.

Veemal, how have you seen events change over the past few years from the sustainability perspective?

Veemal Gungadin [1.45]

Pre-Covid, sustainability was already becoming a big thing in the events industry. Then Covid hit and everything went virtual. Nobody liked it. But everyone was forced to do it – to the point where today kids and their grandparents all know how to use some kind of digital meeting or even or have even participated in some kind of digital event.

Events have been heavily hit from a revenue perspective and people have been leaving the industry. Many thought that when events came back, sustainability would be off the table; it would just about making ends meet and profitability.

But surprisingly, now that the world is opening up again and events are coming back again, they are coming back primarily in-person, as opposed to digital or even hybrid, and sustainability is back at the forefront.

Behaviour has changed though. Events have become more digital. We’re now used to, for example, scanning QR codes instead of using name cards, and exhibition brochures are going digital too. Badges are being printed on-site, on-demand to minimise the waste of those who don’t show up. Covid has helped accelerate all of this.

Teymoor Nabili [5.23]

I’m fascinated to know what is going to happen in the coming months and years. I think right now we’re definitely in that phase of ‘revenge activity’ — everybody wants to get back in front of each other, because we’re heartily sick of sitting here on virtual platforms.

But having said that, a lot has changed because the awareness of sustainability right now is an all-time high, isn’t it? The awareness of the damage that we’re doing [to the planet] is an all-time high. And I think everybody now is in a position where they’re going, “Is that flight necessary?” How’s it going to help me to actually fly 2,000 km just so I can give a 45-minute keynote and go and shake a few customers’ hands.

[The question of] whether we are settling down into a post-Covid hybrid world, or going back into [a world where] everybody travels is fascinating to me.

Veemal Gungadin [6.30]

The pendulum has swung from one end to the other. But it’s going to normalise somewhere in the middle. Revenge travel or revenge meeting — that for sure is what’s driving the sentiment towards ‘let’s do an event, and let’s do it all in-person’ because everybody’s just excited about that…

Teymoor Nabili [6.55]

Veemal, forgive me for telling you how to run your business… but I think it’s incumbent upon companies like yours to discourage people from getting on planes, because let’s face it, the plane is the issue, travel is the issue, and all the resources that go into bringing people to a certain part of the world. 

The COP [United Nations Climate Change Conference] conferences are a case in point. I remember COP18 in Doha back in 2012. It was awful. I don’t know if you guys have ever been to Doha, but the place is an absolute furnace. They brought God knows how many hundreds or even thousands of people to the desert, to the Doha Convention Center, and created this extraordinary layout of air-conditioned desert luxury. The amount of carbon we must have pumped into the atmosphere over the course of that four or five days was exorbitantly stupid. That stuff has got to stop.

Robin Hicks [7.59]

Travel is a big piece of it, isn’t it? Also food, food wastes, hotel expenses, that sort of thing.

Personally, I’ve really wanted to get back to physical events. Even an introvert like myself has to meet people, right? It’s my job as a journalist. You need to. It’s not just the events themselves. To be frank, I think some of the speeches and seminars often miss the mark — it’s the coffee breaks, the interaction, the networking that I think people really value.

Veemal, you mentioned business cards and that side of thing going virtual and using QR codes instead. I just wondered in places like Japan, where the business card is such an important part of making a [business] connection, will we ever lose the business card? Do you think?

Veemal Gungadin [8.54]

First, Teymoor did make a really good point. People are starting to ask themselves the question: Was it really meaningful to fly 2,000 miles to attend a conference or to go to a board meeting, when this could just have been done online?

There is room for just pure online interactions and room for just in-person interactions.

Going back to business cards… China is another country where giving out business cards has been a big part of the [business] tradition. But it’s almost gone now. Now, nobody gives out a business card anymore in China. They just use their WeChat QR code to exchange contacts. Covid is also a factor, because people don’t want to touch something that somebody else has just touched.

Event organisers by nature are busy… there are so many breaking points… putting in the right measuring tools and tracking things are not their top priorities. 

Veemal Gungadin

We’ve seen a big shift in behaviour. Name cards have not necessarily disappeared altogether, but they’re diminishing at a rapid rate. 

Teymoor Nabili [11.30]

I’m going to be a little intransigent on this. I think the business card argument is like the drinking straw argument. Yes, it’s a nice thing to do. And it says okay, this is my demonstrative effort to recognise what’s going on. But it’s the planes that matter. If we can get Bill Gates to not turn up in his private jet, that’s going to do much more than everybody not bringing a business card. 

Robin Hicks [12.03]

I do get funny looks, though, when I offer someone a business card, and they then offer me their mobile phone and give me a sort of a disapproving frown. But point taken — air travel is definitely the biggest part of it.

So, let’s talk about content now. What are the dominant sustainability themes of the moment? What is sexy and what isn’t?

Teymoor Nabili [12.40]

Allow me to expand into a macro-perspective for a second. The content should speak to the event itself. If we’re going to gather a lot of people around a table and say, we’ve brought you here specifically so you can get together face-to-face because that’s where the value lies, then the content is absolutely vital to that process.

Very often, people are arranging conferences and award ceremonies as a marketing gimmick. They’re not bringing people together to have a substantive discussion. They’re not bringing people together to drive action, or to create impact. They’re just bringing people together so that they can do the bit that you find value in, Robin, which is to have the coffees afterwards.

What you end up with in content terms at the end of the day is a few random people from the sponsors sitting on a panel and chatting about random things and waiting to the point where they can go and have a drink together and do some proper business afterwards. I think even organisers need to rethink that whole model. 

So, in a business conference, that there is always a sustainability panel that is relevant to that business, and it’s the relevance to the business that matters. Sorry, a bit of a rant there…

To your specific question, what are the themes of the moment… That’s a really fascinating question, and you’re probably better place to answer it, Robin, given that you’re in the in the daily news business of creating this stuff.

But in the post-Covid, post-heatwave, post-Arctic melting conversations, everybody is now looking to understand the real impact of the climate conversation. And I think that offers us an opportunity to raise subjects that resonate with the ordinary public and conference attendees doing business in their own environments, rather than sit there and show them pictures of skinny polar bears and try and make them feel guilty.

Robin Hicks [15.19]

Yes, a lot of sustainability events are marketing-driven. Often as a journalist, I’m sat there waiting for someone to say something interesting, so that I can write a story, but often I’m left wanting. My question to you both is, what is the secret to unlocking a sustainability event to get content that people find really valuable — that actually challenges a tough topic, like say, decarbonisation, or climate? Are we using the right format to tackle these really complex topics?

Teymoor Nabili [15.59]

One of the questions we have to consider is the sustainability conference in itself. Does that have a shelf life? Or does sustainability eventually become a part of every other conference and disappear as subject matter in itself? Because it’s like digitalisation, once upon a time, you had companies with digital specialists. And now everybody has to be a digital specialist. It’s not a specialist field. Everybody has to engage with digital. At some point, every conference is going to have a sustainability element. So it’s not a matter of sustainability conferences so much as getting the right sustainability content into every conference.

Robin Hicks [16.49]

We’ve talked about digital, in-person and other ways to bring content to life… Are there any ways that you’ve noticed that are particularly effective in tackling tough subjects, for instance, I’m sometimes frustrated that I find the Q&A part of an event quite curated, even censored. The awkward questions that panelists are asked at the end, are carefully selected to avoid embarrassment, or avoid an awkward question, or someone looking a bit silly. But for me those questions are crucial for bringing out or tackling tough subjects.

Veemal Gungadin [17.32]

The use of digital tools for the question-and-answer section definitely doesn’t help [tackling tough subjects]. Posting a question on a [digital] tool actually makes it so much easier to get moderated. And that’s what’s been happening in many events to avoid tough questions.

But what I’m looking forward to — which I think doesn’t really happen yet — is for events in general to be sustainable themselves. There’s so much talk about it, but less really happening.

The problem is… there’s this dirty secret about events…. we tend to favour more in-person interactions. But with in-person interactions, people travel by plane, by private jets in the worst of cases — and this is the biggest carbon footprint of events. And even the biggest, most popular events shy away from from tackling that.

There are other ways to make events more sustainable. One of the easiest ways is to book a venue that is certified sustainable. But what about food wastage? And what about bringing in food that is sustainable, or using sustainable materials rather than plastic bottle water bottles? 

So there are a whole range of things that we can do to make physical events more sustainable, but currently not much is being done.

Digital events are a no-brainer [to make events more sustainable]. For example, if you bring about 500 people to talk on a certain topic all online as opposed to bring them all together physically, you can save 75 per cent or 80 per cent of the carbon. 

Robin Hicks [21.13]

Event organisers are being asked to go green, but measuring the environmental footprint of an event is difficult, right? How are event organisers going about it, and are they getting it right?

Veemal Gungadin [21.31]

I think event organisers by nature are just busy. Their main goal is to organise and run the event and that in itself is a big job. There are so many breaking points, so many things to look at. And that’s why putting in the right measuring tools and then tracking things well are not their top priorities. 

What’s going to help are government policies that require corporate events to meet sustainability targets. And we’re starting to see that here in Singapore. 

I’ll give you one example. Let’s say an exhibition has 200 exhibitors each with their own booth. The materials that are used are in most cases discarded once the event is over. There’s talk about using reusable components for exhibitions.

Often, people are arranging events as a marketing gimmick. They’re not bringing people together to have a substantive discussion. They’re not bringing people together to drive action or create impact. 

Teymoor Nabili

But I was just speaking with an organiser just last week, a huge one for that matter. They are looking for contractors who can use these reusable components, but they just can’t find them. It’s as if the materials are not here, the technology is not here. Unless there is top-down pressure, it’ll be difficult to change mindsets.

Robin Hicks [23.56]

It’s frustrating. It is amazing to me that at the biggest sustainability event in Singapore a few weeks ago, they were still serving water in plastic bottles. And in discussions on diversity, we’re still seeing “manels” dominated by white men or men at least. So these mistakes are still being made at sustainability events.

Teymoor, what’s secret to unlocking a really interesting panel discussion?

Teymoor Nabili [24.40]

If I told you my secrets, I’d have to kill you!

To your earlier point about moderation and censorship, this ties back into my previous comments about the genesis of the event itself, because so many of them are just marketing exercises and to a large extent that leads to a certain greenwashing procedure, which is the censorship that you talked about.

I happen to think that the digital tools for Q&As are very valuable, particularly in Asia, where some people are very reticent to get up in front of a microphone. And when they do, they don’t want to put the panelists on the spot by asking tough questions. So the moderation is absolutely key.

And if the moderator can be involved, to a large extent, with the way the event is run, [he or she can be] making the points that need to be made in the most effective way possible.

Some of these tools that allow people to send in anonymous questions are really good, so long as the moderator is up to coping with it and is allowed to manage the questions.

It comes back to the organisation, because half the time moderators are members of the sponsorship team or somebody who’s involved in the event, and they’re part of the attempt to market the event rather than to get to the truth.

So if one starts a sustainability event, or any event from the proposition that we are here to make an impact, we’re here to drive action, then you’re beginning a whole different set of circumstances and setting in motion a whole different way of approaching the process.

I think content needs to be at the heart of the process for these events, and not the afterthought.

Events are big business these days, but events are not about driving action, they’re just about bringing people to a place in order to generate revenue. I’m sorry to be so cynical about this, but we see it every time.

To the point about [the value in] shaking hands and stuff… I am desperately waiting for a time when companies like GEVME develop the next generation of digital interactive tools. Because shaking hands with people and having engaged in-person conversations can to a certain extent be achieved online as well. But we just don’t have a proper tool to do it. The little additive bits that we have on many of these platforms just aren’t up to the task.

Someone with a really good sense of user experience and user interaction software needs to build a platform that allows people to engage with each other in a really intuitive way. People do this on Facebook all the time. Why can’t they do it on some kind of conference platform? 

Veemal Gungadin [27.41]

This has been pretty much been the Holy Grail of networking online. You’re spot on – companies like Facebook, have nailed it. But in the case of events, which are ephemeral communities built around certain topics, the traction has not really happened. As an industry, and not just our platform, there are so many different ways of interacting and engaging online that are being tried.

Robin Hicks [28.58]

Yes, I’ve had a few awkward conversations in virtual breakout rooms. Some conversations have been quite good, but some have been quite stilted…

I would disagree that all events aren’t worth turning up to, because I mentioned that physical interaction, that coffee break moment – not necessarily the speeches and the presentations – and talking to people is absolutely crucial.

I wants to finish by asking what the secret is to a really engaging events and how can we avoid boring, overly curated sustainability events.

Also, I wanted to ask about the best event that you guys have ever been to.

For me, it was an event called Plasticity at the United Nations in Bangkok.

There’s so much talk about it [sustainable events], but less really happening.

Veemal Gungadin

At the end of the event, they had a role-play segment. Different parts of the audience played the role of the government, an NGO and business. They had to present their take on the introduction of a plastic ban.

It was really interesting, fun way to tackle a really difficult subject – and in a lighter way.

So chaps, what’s the secret to a great event? And what’s the best event you’ve been to?

Veemal Gungadin [30.36]

There’s an association called SACEOS (Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers). We held an event in January 2020 for their 40th anniversary. Sustainability was a big topic there. The idea was to make it as experiential as possible. That’s what really made it special for me, because rather than talking about sustainability, it was more about showing the things that can be done practically and how things can be measured.

Starting from the venue, we spoke about [how to manage] food wastage, sustainable food – vegetables were being grown in the compounds of the venue itself – all the way to what contractors were doing with regards to using modular components that could be set up, dismantled and used again.

We also looked at airconditioning and moderating temperature at an optimal level to be able to reduce electricity usage. Also, we looked at reducing no plastic with, for example, plastic pouches for badges, water bottles, spoons, you name it. So the whole experience was pretty cool.

Robin Hicks [32.30]

As you mentioned earlier, the elephant in the room is that events are a high-footprint activity. So Teymoor, the secret to an engaging event and the best one you’ve been to…”

Teymoor Nability [32.49]

That’s a really tough question, isn’t it? Everyone has different assessments of what success is. It’s also a very intangible area, isn’t it? It’s like movies. Some people spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a movie and produce a complete turkey. And some spend very little produce a really good film. Events are the same.

The issue is that there are so many moving parts. And sometimes getting them all together in the same place is alchemy rather than planning.

Having said that, I think there are a few things that are very relevant. All the stuff that Veemal just said about metrics around the event itself, and being able to prove that the event itself has made an effort to be sustainable. That’s valuable in terms of sending a message and achieving sustainable impact.

But at the heart of it, for me a good event is an event from which I have learned something and in which I think I have been empowered to do something meaningful. Otherwise there’s no point.

To your point, Robin, it may just be meeting somebody really important, but so long as that meeting leads to action. Because for me, a successful event is an event that drives action and that leads to some kind of outcome.

Going to a place and sitting there and talking away and meeting a few people and having some drinks maybe fun, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

So making a good event depends on a couple of things.

Firstly, the organiser needs to make a point to say: “We’re going to drive action rather than just operate a marketing exercise.”

Secondly, the content is absolutely key, the content is always the king.

And if you don’t bring together people on a panel who are addressing a specific topic, a specific problem and proposing solutions, then I think you’re wasting everybody’s time.

Just general chitchat is not particularly interesting.

The moderator has to be able to drive that conversation and bring it to a conclusion from which people can walk away thinking we’ve learnt something, and we can do something here.

So: create the content around specific problems to be solved, bring to the table people who can speak to that problem very directly, and have a moderator who can organise that conversation in a way that leads to meaningful outcomes.

That for me is a successful event.

Production by Benjamin Wong

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