The first edition of Expo Experts Explain features Liz Bothwell, Head of Content and Marketing Informa in conversation with Matt Snodgrass, Director of Marketing at Swapcard.
In this session, Liz breaks down how she built events (and an entire community) around the concept of sustainability while embedding those same concepts into her day-to-day event operations.
Read on to learn how one of the biggest names in the event world is tackling the sustainability issue, and how you can get started too!
Liz, could you give us a little bit of background about you—who you are, what you do, and how you got into the world of events?
I'm thrilled to be here today, and sustainability is a topic that's very close to my heart.
My career in events began after working at an advertising agency, where I joined Reed, one of the largest trade show groups. I worked there for several years and gained a lot of valuable experience before moving on to work for a dot-com and a publishing company.
However, I found my way back to events because of its remarkable and supportive community. Since then, I've been working in this field and consulting with some of the world's top companies, doing what I love. Currently, I oversee marketing and content for the Waste360 Group at Informa.
What is Waste360 from a big-picture standpoint?
Waste360 is our umbrella brand. We provide news, information, and resources to the waste, recycling, and sustainability industry; all in the digital format.
We interact with our audience through webinars, newsletters, online events, and education on a regular basis throughout the year. Our WasteExpo is a vital component of this comprehensive approach. Over the years, we have made an effort to integrate and demonstrate the value of Waste360, so that our audience can fully appreciate its significance.
Tell us a little bit about Waste360, and how you have been able to build an entire brand and activate communities around garbage and refuse.
Waste360 is part of Informa Markets North America, and our group is within the industry of waste, recycling, organics, and sustainability. Although it may not be the sexiest market to many of you, I believe that you can still identify with it because if you can establish a successful brand in this area, you can create a successful brand in any field.
One of the remarkable things about this industry is how tightly knit it is, encompassing everyone from small mom-and-pop operations with just a truck or two, all the way up to the world's biggest publicly traded corporations. In between, there are inventors, bright young professionals, and a whole range of other individuals. It's been an absolute pleasure for me to work in this field and industry.
Based on what you're seeing and working on, how do you think the event industry has been changing lately? Obviously, COVID-19 has had a huge impact, but looking beyond that, what are your thoughts on the direction in which things are headed?
Nowadays we're talking about sustainability, which is huge and goes beyond just the environmental piece. There's a big social piece as well. Many of us in the industry are embracing that and bringing voices forward that need and deserve to be heard, and giving their story the limelight.
When I first started, it was all about the cash cow of events and great margins. But this world is not based on transactions. We need to dig deeper to build bigger. We need to really get into our communities and understand what they need and what they're looking for. Only then can you become part of the community and shed the “label” of being yet another person selling booth space or a high-end ticket to a conference.
The COVID crisis has brought to light the significance of content and diversification, and it's crucial that we don't lose sight of this as we return to normalcy. Fortunately, our events are performing exceptionally well, and we're achieving the same (or better) attendance figures we aimed for prior to 2019.
“Remain focused on creating valuable content that we can share with our audience all year round, enabling us to connect with them deeply and engage them more effectively.”
Moving forward, I believe it's vital to remain focused on creating valuable content that we can share with our audience all year round, enabling us to connect with them deeply and engage them more effectively.
Who has the main role in sustainability at events?
At Informa, we have an incredible sustainability group led by a person based in London who developed the sustainability fundamentals that we all follow. These fundamentals have grown over the years and continue to do so. I love that they hold us accountable and bring everyone together.
In my position, I have access to the community and its sustainability concerns, which makes it easier for me to tell the sustainability story. However, not all groups have this privilege, so the accountability fundamentals serve as benchmarks for everyone to improve upon year after year.
“Accountability fundamentals serve as benchmarks for everyone to improve upon year after year. This helps us think about sustainability on a daily basis, and we try to incorporate it more into our brand and experience.”
Do these directives apply to all your in-person events or are they global guidelines for the entire organization?
Informa has implemented a sustainability program that started with a few hundred events and has grown to thousands globally.
This program measures sustainability efforts from carbon and waste reduction to community building and partnerships. The London office initiated the program, and it has been successful in measuring the organization's progress.
This (sustainability) program acts as a checklist to ensure the organization is doing all it can to promote sustainability.
The audience must be informed about these efforts, and have the opportunity to engage.
“The sustainability program is more than just a box to check—it is a holistic approach embraced by everyone in the organization.”
The sustainability report for WasteExpo includes metrics such as waste diversion, recycled materials, and food waste reduction. The organization works with partners to engage in sustainability efforts such as the Zero Waste Lunch and the Blender Bikes program.
Could you tell us more about the Zero Waste Lunch and the Blender Bikes Program?
We put together a lunch within a dumpster that's donated, usually from one of our exhibitors. It's a clean dumpster, and then the chef creates this amazing gourmet meal. We invite top names from the Food Recovery Forum so that they can enjoy this lunch together, and they see that it was created out of food that would've otherwise gone wasted.
On the other hand, Blender Bikes use ugly fruit that would've otherwise gone wasted. These bikes are similar to the ones that charge your phone while you're riding them. Except these bikes are fitted with a blender on top and create smoothies.
“Our goal is to create fun experiences around sustainability so it is educational and enjoyable for people.”
Essentially you've built a community around waste, garbage, and recycling. How big would you estimate this community is?
Most of our readers come from North America just because the nature of the market waste is very regional. So we do cover and look for inspiration globally, but a lot of it is in North America. Our universe is probably about 75,000 to 80,000 people at WasteExpo.
Our coverage ranges from real news to my podcast, NothingWasted! which serves as a platform to discuss sustainability with people in the consumer packaged goods industry and waste generators.
This extends beyond our usual focus on haulers and recyclers, and includes individuals who are working to address broader sustainability issues such as plastics, food waste, and textile waste—topics that are on everyone's minds.
As a lean startup with a small team juggling many roles, where should one start? What would be the best one or two initiatives to undertake that deliver the most impact at the least cost?
Start small. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was during an interview with one of our designers on the podcast. He uses recycled materials in his designs and always emphasizes the importance of striving for progress over perfection. So, I believe that taking small steps toward sustainability is key.
“Progress over perfection. Take small steps towards sustainability.”
Take a look at what your venues are currently doing and try to contribute to their efforts, while also finding ways to increase your own contributions. While costs are certainly a factor, it's important to remember that there are also cost savings associated with sustainability. For example, consider offering a virtual option for attendees, which can help reduce carbon emissions and travel expenses.
The concept is similar to how we behave as consumers in our households. Initially, you can evaluate your existing behavior and identify areas where you can reduce consumption or refrain from purchasing certain items. Apply this same approach to your business practices.
Organizers want to attract an audience to their booth in a way that encourages them to engage with them. However, how can one achieve this in an environmentally conscious way?
One way to attract visitors to your booth is to get creative. For example, at WasteExpo, we are introducing a new feature called Sketch Bots, where a little robot will draw visitors' pictures. It's a sustainable option because the drawing can be obtained digitally, or on recycled paper that will be recycled again.
“To attract visitors to your booth, get creative.”
We also have a branded Waste360 booth at the expo, where we're offering retro video games. Additionally, we've upgraded our swag to include nice t-shirts, and for our 40 under 40 awards program, we're giving away branded speakers instead of reusable water bottles.
Many of these experiences can be offered digitally, including a photo booth where pictures can be emailed or texted to visitors. There are many ways to reduce the impact of your event on the environment.
While we often discuss the environmental impact, it's also crucial to consider the social and societal impact. Can you walk us through how you approach this aspect?
I previously mentioned our 40 under 40 program, which is an awards program for young sustainability professionals. This program aims to highlight the amazing work these individuals are doing in various areas, from recycling to battery technology.
“We believe it's essential to empower and elevate the voices of these change-makers to the forefront of the sustainability industry.”
One of our winners, Terrell, started as a sanitation worker during the pandemic and realized that the public didn't fully understand how hard this job was. He used his Instagram account to showcase the behind-the-scenes work of sanitation workers, which gained a large following. Terrell's efforts led him to write a book called "Recycling is Cool", and we have supported him in his mission by purchasing his books and following him during his cleanups and pickups. Terrell is just one example of the many inspiring individuals we've highlighted through our program.
Our commitment to social impact goes beyond the 40 under 40 program. We've employed WasteExpo insiders to showcase their unique perspectives of the event. By doing so, we hope to further promote diversity and inclusivity in the sustainability industry.
How are you using content to keep your audience engaged year-round?
The quality of your content may be excellent, but if you're not promoting it effectively, it loses its value. This also applies to live events.
As I mentioned earlier about the 40 under 40 awards program, I can provide you with a specific example of how we generate content around it throughout the year.
Firstly, we start with the nomination process, where we select the winners and invite them to the show where they receive their awards. We conduct interviews with them and organize a session where they can share their experiences. Throughout the year, we continue to cover their achievements, backgrounds, priorities, and vision for the industry through written articles or podcasts.
What's even better is that they become part of our community, and we engage with them throughout the year. Some of them even write for us, and we have a LinkedIn group where we follow their promotions and invite them to speak at other events. We also work to recommend them to other events and even help other groups find speakers from our pool of 40 under 40 winners.
In addition to that, we also create session previews, conduct Q&A sessions with speakers, encourage them to share on social media, and organize webinars with them. The possibilities for generating content based on the brilliance of these individuals are endless. Therefore, I encourage everyone to think in an integrated fashion to showcase the talents of these industry leaders.
All this to say, launching an award program is not necessary to achieve this. You can spotlight a speaker every Tuesday or choose a different approach that suits your resources and team.
“Starting small and elevating your community is important because third-party objective expertise is highly valued within the industry.”
How can we consciously increase sustainability efforts in the events that we organize?
Consider it as a narrative. Rather than simply presenting statistics, it's more effective to illustrate how your donations positively affected a community or organization. To achieve this, ensure that everyone is on the same page, whether it's through team calls or reaching out.
“Rather than simply presenting statistics, it's more effective to illustrate how your donations positively affected a community or organization”
You can become a sustainability advocate and ask how you can tell your sustainability story. If your operations person doesn't have the answer, ask for permission to contact the convention center, hotel, or food provider to find out what they're doing. By keeping up your curiosity, you will discover fascinating impacts and be able to tell a great story.
Looking for more actionable tips on how to organize sustainable events? Check out this article with 6 tips on how to go green at your next trade show.