Don’t let a return to live be at the expense of sustainability

Don’t let a return to live be at the expense of sustainability

A recent ICCA survey of its Association Community reveals a welcome return to large in-person global congresses. However, with an apparent fatigue for virtual event elements and not enough interest in making events more sustainable, how will these trade bodies balance the return to ‘live’ with a Net Zero future?

Associations that rely heavily on large-scale events as their main revenue generator are turning away from virtual and returning to in-person congresses, according to a survey carried out by the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA).

Association Meeting Needs, an ICCA 2022 Association Survey conducted in March this year, spoke with 171 trade bodies – a majority of which are based in Europe, Africa, Asia Pacific, North America and Latin America.

Just under half (42.5%) said that meetings, trade exhibitions and other forms of events were still their main revenue stream, despite the lockdown restrictions of the past two years. Common challenges in staging these commercially important events included the cost of hybrid and the impact of Covid on travel.


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That said, 52% of the associations surveyed said they’d been able to run at least one in-person meeting since the start of the pandemic and 41% said they were still planning their largest meeting for 2022 as a face-to-face format.

However, when asked: ‘How important (if at all) is it to your organisation to reduce the environmental impact of your events’, only 35.8% said it was ‘very important’. That was practically the same percentage as those who collectively opted for either ‘somewhat important’ (26.6%), ‘not very important’ (5.8%) or ‘not important at all’ (3.5%).

The remaining 28.3% thought it was ‘fairly important’ to reduce the environmental impact of their events but little was shown to support this sentiment through action.

For example, respondents confirmed that fully virtual association events are on the wane, from 56% in 2021 to just 12% this year, indicating a clear appetite for bringing delegates back together from all parts of the globe.

A shift back to large international meetings is also supported by a declared reduction in the number of regional meetings planned for 2022 (37% compared with 51% in 2021).

The general consensus from associations about the need for meeting face-to-face is that in-person events just can’t be fully replicated with digital alternatives, especially in areas such as networking and building a community amongst members.

The incorporation of a digital component to reduce travel requirements was a common ‘struggle’ reported by associations when asked specifically about making their events more sustainable, along with ‘working with sustainable suppliers’, ‘sustainable catering’ and ‘carbon measurement tools’.

And yet, when asked: ‘What areas do you need more support with or want to learn more about’, only 30% chose ‘Event Technology’ (compared with 57% in 2021) and a mere 21% chose ‘Virtual Event ROI’ (compared with 43% in 2021).

Some 52% selected ‘How to organise hybrid events’ (compared with 65% in 2021), while under half (43%) had ‘Sustainable Events’ in their top three options (it wasn’t a comparable survey question option in 2021).

It appears therefore that many worldwide associations are happy to return to how things were pre-pandemic, again evidenced by the 40% that have not made any alterations to their RFPs in either 2021 or 2022 to incorporate elements such as sustainability requirements or hybrid technology.

In fact, sustainability doesn’t even feature in the top three overall challenges for associations as they focus on recovery, with factors such as membership growth and retention, global disruptions (war in Ukraine, new Covid variants etc), plus the financial challenges they currently face taking priority.

For many associations, strategic priorities have shifted with a stronger focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Some associations have also taken the opportunity to expand into regions they have not previously had a presence, or to specifically engage with previously overseen market segments including young members.

However, taking their first event planning steps on the road towards a carbon-neutral future seems still to be a long way off for many global associations.


Here at IBTM World, we’re looking to help move the needle on sustainability for association congresses by offering a dedicated education programme in Barcelona during this year’s event.

We’ll also shortly be announcing IBTM World’s sustainability partner, along with other climate-positive initiatives that will help to inspire and inform for a Net Zero future for all types of meetings and events everywhere.

To register your interest in IBTM World, staged in Barcelona from 29 November to 1 December, visit our website here.


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Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for over 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor. He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.

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