Behind the Scenes

Cabin Pressure

I’ve flown on three different airline in the last week to attend several meetings – so air travel is on my mind.

The environmentalist David Suzuki told Convene more than five years ago that he was going to stop flying to meetings because air travel left too heavy a carbon footprint. The meetings industry model is built on delegates taking to the skies, so his comment stuck with me.

“In the long run, I’m just not going to be able to travel by plane,” Dr. Suzuki told us back then. “I’m now turning down invitations to speak just because I don’t want to get into a plane and fly; it just doesn’t make sense tome. There ought to be ways to use teleconferencing much more.”

I thought of Dr. Suzuki when I came across an article in the February issue of Forbes magazine about the World Economic Forum (WEF), held in Davos, Switzerland, in January. I can imagine Dr. Suzuki nodding vigorously at the part of the story pointing out that 90 percent of the carbon emissions associated with the conference were related to travel to Switzerland. But this renowned scientist might scratch his head at other environmental-impact findings from the event.

Before WEF, according to the article, analyzers were installed “to measure the expected spike in greenhouse-gas emissions from a week of helicoptering, limousine riding, and bloviating about environmental sustainability.” More people, more heating, and more traffic should have resulted in more emissions, but emissions actually fell 40 percent, and then rose five percent after WEF ended.

Kenneth Davis, a Penn State professor of meteorology interviewed in the story, offered one possible explanation: Tight security kept cars off the roads and participants inside conference halls. When they did venture outdoors, many boarded low-polluting vans arranged by WEF organizers in an effort to minimize the event’s environmental impact.

While there is no getting around the fact that air travel is environmentally expensive, it would seem that sustainability efforts at least can mitigate a meeting’s overall carbon footprint.

Rebecca Rothney believes that airline passengers can have a positive effect on the world, if not on the environment. While she has focused on how leisure travelers can help those in need around the globe, she’s got particularly high hopes that meeting attendees will start to Pack for a Purpose.

In the years since Dr. Suzuki questioned why there weren’t more teleconferences, the meetings industry has begun to embrace virtual and hybrid meetings in earnest as a component of— rather than a replacement for—live meetings. And we’re starting to get serious about making them a valuable experience for participants. In June, the Virtual Edge Institute will roll out the first-ever Digital Events Strategist (DES) certification program.

Certainly the DES program is tapping into a growing market. Whether it’s for economic or environmental reasons—or simply to better meet their constituents’ needs—more than one quarter of respondents to our annual Meetings Market Survey said that their use of virtual meetings and events has increased in the past year.

Overall, results from this year’s survey offer a picture of an industry that continues to climb out of the recession. Do planners think better times are on the horizon? It depends on whether they see the plane as half-empty or half-full.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.