Guy Bigwood on MICE, Place Marketing and Sustainability

Guy Bigwood, Sustainability Director for MCI – the world’s largest events and associations management company, in this interview shares his thoughts on how the meeting and event industry can begin to think about sustainability strategies and how it can support the brand positioning of places hosting meetings, incentives, conferences or expositions. 

Learn about:

  • How the global meetings and events industry impacts the environment in terms of resource consumption, waste and carbon;
  • The main benefits of incorporating sustainability into meetings and events;
  • How Al Gore influenced MCI’s commitment to sustainability;
  • Key lessons learned as President of the Green Meeting Industry Council;
  • The Global Destination Sustainability (GDS) Index program – its purpose and how it works;
  • How sustainable MICE support the brand positioning and competitiveness of a destination.

Guy, do you remember the first time you thought about sustainability in connection with Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events (MICE) and event management? What – or who – got you interested?

About 15 years ago, I started to include social activities into the events we organized as a form of team building with a mission. Then in 2005, as the Managing Director of MCI Spain, I organized an event for Europe’s top 500 Entrepreneurs and we invited former U.S. Vice President Al Gore to be our keynote. This was before his now famous book and film, An Inconvenient Truth. However, his presentation affected me deeply in the heart and mind, so I decided that it was time for me to do something about the environmental impact of our events.

Following the event, I confronted the CEO of MCI and asked him what were we going to do about it. He replied, “you are now the Director of Sustainability – go fix it.” As a result, I started a joint tenure running both the Spanish operations of MCI as the Managing Director, as well as starting up the MCI Corporate Responsibility program.

Your main insights from being President of the Green Meeting Industry Council 2010-2011?

There were two key learnings:

  • A well-directed association can make a big impact and leave a strong legacy in an industry. During my tenure, we were involved in developing three international standards.
  • Running a volunteer-based organization can be quite difficult at times.

What does sustainability within the MICE sector mean to you personally?

The Global Meetings and Events Industry impacts the environment in terms of resource consumption, waste and carbon.

Meetings and events play an important role in terms of stimulating economic development, employment, and knowledge-based economies.

If you put the two together, event organizers have opportunities to implement more sustainable events  and to bring people together in order to create more sustainable and healthier economies, while at the same time leaving positive social and environmental legacies in the communities where the events are held.

Sustainability can mean better events: better quality, more engaged audiences and staff, and better results.

You also founded the Global Destination Sustainability Index (GDS-Index) some years ago, which now includes over 40 cities around the world. What was the main motivation to create such an index?

In 2010 I was supporting Copenhagen and Gothenburg to develop their sustainability strategy, and in true Scandinavian collaborative form, we decided to organize a workshop to share our learnings and gain new insights from/with their competitors. At this workshop the 50+ destinations and stakeholders co-created a vision to create a sustainable meetings region for the whole of Scandinavia.

Within this project, we realized we needed a way to measure the destinations to understand how sustainable they were as event destinations, and to share best practices. As such in 2012 we developed and launched the Scandinavia Destinations Sustainability Index. In 2015 – we decided it was time to make this a global program.

How does the GDS-Index help MICE destinations?

Launched by MCI, IMEX. ICCA and the ICCA Scandinavian Chapter, the Global Destination Sustainability Index program is a benchmarking system which allows destinations to compare their environmental and social performance, and then share best practice and performance. Its goal is to advance responsible business practices within the MICE industry. The GDS-Index assesses destinations across four main areas:

  1. Environmental Performance – the action plans and infrastructure in place to minimize the destination’s impact on the planet;
  2. Social Performance – a destination’s human rights and ethics commitments and performance;
  3. Supplier Performance – the sustainability commitments, plans and actions of key MICE suppliers such as hotels, caterers and agencies, (percentage of suppliers with sustainability policy and certifications)
  4. CVB Performance – the destination’s sustainability management strategy, the extent of support CVBs provide clients around sustainability, and the capability building initiatives implemented to promote sustainability in the local MICE industry.

As the only MICE industry-specific sustainability benchmarking system, the GDS-Index is designed to save destinations time and money, while providing a pathway towards advanced GSTC [Global Sustainable Tourism Council] and ISO 20121 certification. The process is also structured to drive stakeholder engagement and industry collaboration on top of sustainability performance.

Much of your work involves advising on sustainability practices. From your experience, which aspect is the most challenging in terms of implementing the GDS-Index program at MICE destinations?

Getting started is the hardest thing. The actual process is not difficult, as long the person leading the work is able to involve other key stakeholders, such as the city environment department, hotel association etc. The majority of the information required is already available, so it’s a task of pulling together the data from different sources, and then collecting a bit more data from industry suppliers.

How can sustainable MICE support the brand positioning and competitiveness of a destination?

Nearly every city or destination has some form of overall sustainability strategy and programme. A sustainable MICE industry has the potential to catalyze businesses and the community to support this vision and to help make it a reality. This could include:

  • Implementing zero waste to landfill initiatives
  • Local and sustainable food programs
  • Circular economy pilot programs to rethink how trade show booths are built and reused
  • Community engagement and legacy
  • Economic development strategies to attract and bring large events to the destination about sustainable development (ie. recycling, renewables, climate change). These events can then attract investment, bring tourists, share knowledge and create jobs.

Which MICE destinations around the world are leading the sustainability race?

The Scandinavians and Germans are doing great. Looking at the Index I would recommend Copenhagen, Gothenburg, and Stuttgart as great examples to follow. Further afield Sydney. Then there are cities doing some great stuff in specific areas, such as Barcelona with accessibility, Reykjavik with renewable energy.

Thank you, Guy.

Connect with Guy Bigwood on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter. More about the Global Destination Sustainability Index here.

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