The Big Read: Does sustainability really matter – and why?

Across APAC, a growing interest in sustainability is taking business meetings to the next level. But that's just the starting point.

While sustainability used to be viewed as a competitive advantage or an add-on, this is no longer tenable in the business events industry.
While sustainability used to be viewed as a competitive advantage or an add-on, this is no longer tenable in the business events industry. Photo Credit: GettyImages/inkoly

Extreme weather conditions. An energy crisis fuelled by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The rising risk of a global food crisis. Given the daunting challenges facing the world today, providing sustainable solutions for the meeting and event industry has never been more urgent.

Amid a backdrop of heightened economic uncertainty, the very concept of sustainability has itself transformed from one that was almost entirely environmentally-centred to one that addresses the broader issues of the impact of events on individuals, communities, and society at large.

Gone are the days too where energy-saving practices such as resetting meeting room temperatures by a degree or two or using refillable bottles and water stations and are enough to tick off the sustainability criteria boxes for business events.

While sustainability used to be viewed as a competitive advantage or an add-on, this is no longer tenable. Buyers, suppliers, venues and destinations are holding each other to higher standards than before.

Event professionals in Asia Pacific are now seeing a sea change in the expectations from their clients for more advanced and sophisticated sustainability programmes.

Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay's urban rooftop farm is home to more than 60 varieties of edible herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables.
Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay's urban rooftop farm is home to more than 60 varieties of edible herbs, flowers, fruits and vegetables.

So, what are the forces driving this innovation in sustainability?

A major driving force is the stricter demands of clients themselves, notes Michelle Sargent, director, Australia & New Zealand, CWT Meetings & Events, who tells M&C Asia that every major RFP and tender that her team now handles comes with sustainability questions from the client.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that sustainability comes down to the issue of responsibility, and that this is a three-way street between the venue, whether a hotel or conference centre, the events company and the client,” she says.

As buyers become much more knowledgeable about sustainability practices than before, increasingly it is they who dictate the terms to both venues and organisers, setting the standards they expect. Venues and suppliers need to meet ever more stringent expectations.”

We’ve come to the conclusion that sustainability comes down to the issue of responsibility, and that this is a three-way street between the venue, whether a hotel or conference centre, the events company and the client.
Michelle Sargent, director, Australia & New Zealand, CWT Meetings & Events
Michelle Sargent, director, Australia & New Zealand, CWT Meetings & Events

“The main driver is buyers,” says Jackson Ferguson, vice president – global commerce, S Hotels & Resorts, which owns and manages properties in Thailand, the Maldives, Fiji, Mauritius and the UK. “As organisers and end-users become more focused on sustainability, these requirements will become the key factor for selecting venues.”

In Thailand, Ferguson notes that the government is proactively driving sustainability through the Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau (TCEB), which includes creating a certification programme for venues with sustainability as a criterion.

Clearly, the introduction of guidelines from international bodies and government priorities are helping to drive the sustainability agenda and awareness in the travel and business event sectors.

Elsewhere in the region, Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has adopted a wide-ranging Tourism Sustainability Programme which offers grants, training programmes and incentives to businesses in the tourism and MICE sectors. The STB works with other government agencies and ministries to promote best practices, including a 3R Toolkit of the MICE Industry in conjunction with the National Environment Agency and trade body SACEOS, as well as promoting a Best Practice Guide to organising Environmentally Friendly Events published by the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment.

Food waste from catering events at Marina Bay Sands are donated to The Food Bank Singapore.
Food waste from catering events at Marina Bay Sands are donated to The Food Bank Singapore.

A third factor is cleaner, greener technology. Technological change often means a shorter shelf-life for what were once cutting-edge solutions.

Using recycled paper was a real boon for meetings more than a decade ago but has become antiquated in an era of digital documents. Online delegate registration, scanning QR codes to identify delegates and using personal mobiles and apps to exchange business contacts are turning plastic lanyards and printed business cards into less favourable practices.

Moving delegates from hotels to venues using shuttle buses rather than taxis was always a more fuel-efficient option but today, event organisers want to know if the bus fleet is diesel or electric-powered.

In short, sustainability is no longer thought of as a left-field issue but has moved into the mainstream thinking within the meetings sector.

Making green investments count

Not only have meetings professionals in Asia, from venues to suppliers, broadened their vision of sustainability, they have also updated their programmes and practices in order to deliver it.

Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay, Singapore is a prime example. Coming out from a S$45 million (US$33 million) rebrand and transformation in 2020, the 583-room hotel is redesigned with care for the environment, boasting such eco-conscious features as UV-treated glass to reduce electricity use by allowing natural light to spill in, while 210 rooftop solar panels generate more than 350kwh of electricity daily to run the hotel’s 12 lifts.

Sustainability is not a question of competition for us. We’re not saying we have done this first, or that we are faster or have more features. It’s just our responsibility to act this way.
Melvin Lim, general manager, Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay, Singapore
Melvin Lim, general manager, Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay, Singapore

The hotel is emblematic of a new mindset that has taken root in the hospitality sector, according to Melvin Lim, general manager at Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay, Singapore. “Sustainability isn’t a question of competition for us. We’re not saying we have done this first, or that we are faster or we have more features. It’s just our responsibility to act this way,” says Lim.

Major MICE venues in the region, too, have well established programmes in place to reduce waste.

Ferry Tjahjono, executive assistant manager – rooms/sales, Centara Grand & Bangkok Convention Centre, stresses: “We take a range of actions, including avoiding all single-use plastics and decorations, reusing all name badge holders, minimising printed materials, creating natural centrepieces from fresh fruits, vegetables and pot plants, using locally produced organic vegetables and promoting food with less packaging.

“We also focus on raising awareness among delegates about our zero waste policy, encouraging guests to carpool or use public transport, highlighting our recycling and organic containers at each event,” he adds.

Sands Expo and Convention Centre became Singapore’s first carbon-neutral MICE venue in 2020 by investing in Renewable Energy Certificates. Marina Bay Sands, meanwhile, also invested S$50 million on an Intelligent Building Management System that monitors lighting, heating, air-conditioning, and other power-hungry facilities. Since 2012, it has helped save over 7.4 million kWh of energy annually.

We play a key role in the market to advocate for these practices among our clients, who can, in turn, create a butterfly effect among their delegates to adopt positive behaviour too.
Ong Wee Min, vice president of sales & MICE, Marina Bay Sands
Ong Wee Min, vice president of sales & MICE, Marina Bay Sands

“Creating a more welcoming, eco-conscious and mindful event industry is an ongoing collaborative process between venues and organisers,” says Ong Wee Min, vice president of sales & MICE, Marina Bay Sands. “We play a key role in the market to advocate for these practices among our clients, who can, in turn, create a butterfly effect among their delegates to adopt positive behaviour too.”

In Malaysia, Setia SPICE in Penang embraces sustainability as one of its core tenets. “Setia SPICE is the world’s first hybrid solar-powered convention centre. We’ve had solar panels installed on our rooftop since 2017, and based on past records, we can sustain 20-30% of our power requirement from the solar panel,” said Francis Teo, head of convention centres at SP Setia, which owns Setia SPICE Convention Centre in Penang.

All power generation data from the hybrid solar panel is available real-time on the centre’s website, thus enabling meeting planners to have the relevant information at hand to calculate their carbon footprint towards net zero events. The convention centre is also Green Building Index certified, according to Teo.

Solar energy is tapped to power Setia SPICE Convention Centre in Penang, Malaysia
Solar energy is tapped to power Setia SPICE Convention Centre in Penang, Malaysia

Think globally, source locally

Meetings, by their very nature, are short-term events while sustainability demands a long-term perspective. A narrow focus, without considering the cumulative effects on destinations and communities, is no longer acceptable.

Whether it’s a “farm-to-fork” menu or supporting the work of local communities, finding local suppliers, from food items to delegates’ gifts, is not only sustainable but often cost effective.

Corporate buyers are increasingly mindful. CWT’s Sargent says: “We see that many of our clients now expect food on their menus to be sourced from within a 50km radius.”

A number of hotels are even developing their own food supplies. While the 150sqm urban farm at Parkroyal Collection Marina Bay, Singapore accounts for 20% of the hotel’s overall needs, Lim believes one of its great advantages is that, with sufficient notice, the kitchens can pre-order specific vegetables, spices and herbs for event banquets and gala dinners months ahead of time. This ensures the reliability of supplies and freshness of ingredients.

He says that this works for planning menus: “If the chef knows that he’s going to be making Thai food in six months, our urban farmers will actually start preparing the vegetables and herbs that we need and then transplant them to the urban farm when we are ready. So, this reduces food waste because we only plant what we need and we only harvest when we need them.”

Likewise, the JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa in Thailand is developing an in-house farm featuring local fruits of Phang Nga for small meetings and incentive groups meeting there.

“We work closely with event organisers and do our best to cater to their sustainability requests, which can range from sourcing ingredients locally to incorporating CSR elements such as environmentally friendly team-building activities into programmes,” says Abhimanyu Singh, general manager at JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa.

Sourcing ingredients locally is becoming a staple request among planners looking to organise sustainable events.
Sourcing ingredients locally is becoming a staple request among planners looking to organise sustainable events. Photo Credit: GettyImages/jacoblund

Making the intangible tangible

If the first stage of sustainability awareness was focused on the human impact on the environment, this second stage acknowledges the impact of the environment on people and the communities.

“The understanding of sustainability has evolved to include other social aspects, such as perspectives on well-being. Sustainability is more than just the health of the planet, but the well-being of people too,” says Ong of Marina Bay Sands.

A more recent management philosophy is Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria. Consumer awareness, as well as activist investors, have contributed to a major rethink in boardrooms worldwide, incorporating a whole series of non-financial metrics that exceed the old-style mandatory financial reports with their sole focus on the bottom line, and encompass human resources, diversity, equality, risk management and issues, such as labour and human rights.

S Hotels’ Ferguson says his group is “working on achieving Green Globe certification across all of our hotels, which demonstrates our commitment to sustainable sourcing, as well as other factors such as eliminating human trafficking and child labour”.

ESG has raised the ethical business practice bar, including in corporate events. Sustainability is now featured centre stage and acknowledged as a key part of the “future proofing” of the meetings and events industry.
Sargent notes that some of CWT’s clients have included teambuilding exercises that incorporate the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals to show their staff how they can make a difference.

Certifiably sustainable?

One of the remaining challenges for the meetings sector in Asia is the vexed issue of third-party certification and transparent auditing.

CWT’s Sargent believes that third-party certification is going to be standard in future, with clients seeking this accreditation from event companies before even getting to the stage of an RFP. However, she believes that the second element will be the reporting process demanded by corporate clients.

“Our clients are asking us for a carbon-footprint report after an event, say, at a hotel,” she says. This requires painstaking accuracy and collaboration between hotels and events companies.

For event organisers, the job of ensuring all procurement and sourcing standards are met can be quite tedious and protracted. A tool that utilises third-party auditing programmes would greatly reduce the workload for planners.
Jackson Ferguson, vice president - global commerce, S Hotels & Resorts

S Hotel’s Ferguson agrees: “For event organisers, the job of ensuring all procurement and sourcing standards are met can be quite tedious and protracted – especially in addition to the actual process of planning an event. A tool that utilises third-party auditing programmes would greatly reduce the planner’s workload.”

Industry organisations are looking at raising the skill set with specialist training and professional certification. For instance, Marina Bay Sands has teamed up with the Events Industry Council to equip its MICE team with the requisite Sustainable Event Professional Certificates.

With climate concerns and corporate scrutiny at all-time highs, trusted initiatives will clearly help to move the business events industry along in its goal to become more sustainable and open up opportunities for regeneration.

Additional reporting from Xinyi Liang-Pholsena



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