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The Need for Sustainable Practices in Conference Planning

Published: 2020-03-24T20:10:19+0000 Author: Jason Miller

Survey Finds That a Majority of Conference-Goers Prefer Conference Planners Incorporate Sustainable Practices into Their Event Planning

The Need for Sustainable Practices in Conference Planning

Recently, PromoLeaf enlisted the firm CensusWide to survey various conference attendees to determine their preference for sustainable practices when it came to the conferences they attend. 

Over 1,000 participants were surveyed and asked a series of questions about their conference attendance, what kind of items they both preferred and received, whether they preferred sustainable and practical items, and even what they would do with items they received but didn’t want or use. 

The results were not unexpected. With sustainability such a large corporate focus, it is not surprising that those attending conferences share similar concerns. 

The Preference for Sustainable Practices in the Conference Space

The primary takeaway from the survey is that 60% of respondents prefer attending conferences hosted using sustainable practices, with over 25% strongly preferring such conferences. 

Preference for Sustainably Hosted Conferences:
We asked: To what extent would you prefer or disfavor attending a conference that is hosted in a sustainable fashion?

What does this mean to conference organizers? While many employees are “sent” to conferences, and have little choice when it comes to which conferences they attend, they can pressure their employers, who are also embracing sustainability, to send them only to conferences that also adhere to these practices. 

Thus operating conferences with sustainability in mind will only become more important over time. “The agenda on sustainability is finally being taken seriously. We have heard mostly lip service from past generations,” says David Adler, Chairman and Founder of BizBash. “This generation knows the consequences of inaction and vote with their influence on just about everything.” 

One of the primary reasons for this is illustrated by a simple breakdown of the study by age group. 68% of those respondents 16-24 years of age prefer or strongly prefer conferences hosted sustainably and 69% of those 25-34 share this preference. 

The next generation of conference attendees will be even more concerned with the environmental impact of the conferences they attend. Of those who felt indifferent toward sustainability, nearly half were 55 and older.

When it comes to sustainable practices, what matters the most?

Let Them Eat Sustainably

One of the key findings is that for more than half of the survey participants, sustainable dining practices matter. They include various things like compostable or reusable dish-ware and locally sourced menu items.

Again, age makes a huge difference in the results, as shown below. Younger people under the age of 34, the future of conference-goers, have an extremely strong preference for sustainable dining practices. 

Preference for Sustainable Dining Practices:
We asked: When attending a business conference, does it matter to you if the conference organizers incorporated eco-friendly dining practices?

However, it is not just age that plays a factor in this particular preference. Geography plays a role as well. The southeastern United States is the only region where less than half of the respondents are in favor of more sustainable dining practices. 

The region that most favors these practices is the Northeast followed closely by the West and the Southwestern United States.

Geographic Preference for Sustainable Dining Practices
> 61% > 59% > 54% > 51% > 44%

This means that almost regardless of where you are hosting a conference, as an event organizer, it is vital to know and understand the preferences of your conference attendees when planning the dining menu and services for your event. 

Sustainable, Practical, and Responsible Swag

While the study was revealing in the area of dining practices, it also revealed that conference-goers expect not only sustainable swag, but things that are practical and useful as well. Pens, water bottles, notebooks, and reusable totes topped the list of desirable swag. 

That means that these items, especially those made with recyclable materials or created sustainably will resonate well with most conference attendees. Lip balm, hand sanitizer, and masks were also included in that list. 

The other thing that makes sustainability more practical? “Key is that the vendors are being the innovators and rather than an added expense, [sustainable items are] a “need to have” so the cost is not as excessive as [it has been] in the past,” says Adler. Sustainable options are more affordable than ever, and in some cases cost the same or are more affordable than less sustainable ones. 

On the list of the least coveted items? Things like koozies, keychains, reusable straws, stress balls, and drawstring backpacks top the list. This may be because, while useful at the conference itself, many of these items are over-gifted or less practical for frequent reuse.

For example, while drawstring backpacks may be an item that can be used at the conference to carry swag and other items, they are less useful for trips to the grocery store than a reusable tote, and they are less frequently made of recycled or sustainable materials. 

This doesn’t mean that such items should be ignored as conference swag. Instead, it means that if you are going to offer these items, employing creative thinking and making them more practical and sustainable is key. 

Beyond Tossing It

At nearly every conference, you end up with some things you don’t need or want. When it comes to getting rid of these items, the majority of study respondents would either donate or re-gift those items. However, between 10-20% of them will still simply throw those items away. What does that mean for sustainability and conference organizers?

  • Offer recycling areas for unwanted items
  • Encourage “responsible taking.” Let participants know it is okay to say “No, thanks,” when offered swag.
  • Encourage sustainability and recycling on the part of vendors.
  • Have a plan for “leftovers.”

For example, leftover drawstring bags often make great donations to homeless shelters and non-profits who can often put them to use where others can’t or won’t. Consider donating leftover items, creating swag that can be used from year to year, and talk to the venue about recycling options throughout the conference. 

The Future of Conference and Event Planning

Most survey respondents attended 3 or more conferences, the mean being just over 7. Each of those people received between 2-4 swag items per conference. That’s a lot of conference swag.

There are also a huge number of resources involved with putting on every single conference, and with current trends moving toward less business travel, more virtual, local, or regional conferences, sustainability matters more than ever to event planners. 

The incredible propensity for more young people to care about sustainability is certainly a factor in future planning as well. “Attendees have their B.S. meters working better than ever,” David Adler says. “[They] tune in to authentic sustainability rather than a PR ploy.” Sustainability must be much more than a buzz-word and begins with authenticity.

Tomorrow’s conference won’t look the same as conferences do today, and while we can’t predict everything that may change, it is certain that sustainable practices will take center stage regardless of who conference attendees are, where the conference is held, and what topic the event centers around. 


The research was conducted for PromoLeaf by Censuswide, with 1,030 US respondents who have attended a business conference. The survey fieldwork took place between 26.02.2020 - 27.02.2020. Censuswide abide by and employ members of the Market Research Society which is based on the ESOMAR principles.


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