If you think your sustainable event practices are under a microscope, consider the responsibility Pamela Schwartz shoulders as she designs and executes the annual BSR Conference, one of the world’s largest and most influential corporate responsibility events hosted by Business for Social Responsibility, a global nonprofit business network and consultancy dedicated to sustainability. As the head of the external and internal conference planning teams, she manages the content, logistics and financial aspects of the event which draws more than 1,000 attendees, all experts in social and environmental responsibility.
Not only does Pamela accomplish this feat, but she does it with a flair unsurpassed by other similar events. The conference is fresh and sensational—not always words associated with sustainability. We asked her to share her insights with us and our readers.
Has your industry or organization changed dramatically in the past five years?
The primary challenge of the 21st century is to build a prosperous, sustainable future for generations to come. BSR believes that a just and sustainable world will result when the unique skills and resources of all sectors—business, civil society, and government—are aligned toward that goal. While sustainability was once only a side note in business discussions, today it has been fully integrated into the day-to-day operations of many corporations and organizations. As a result, I’ve experienced an incredibly exciting time to work in this field.
What changes do you anticipate in the next five years? Are there any trends that concern you?
The question is no longer where should we be heading and why, but how we can build systemic solutions that will enable us to achieve this change. Even with all of the progress we have made, our planet continues to warm, deforestation proceeds, and the number of water-stressed regions in the world grows annually.
How does your event stay relevant for key stakeholders while reflecting the values and vision of the organization?
As a Conference with a 22 year history, this is one of our biggest challenges. Each year, we wipe the slate clean and aim to address the planning process with fresh eyes. As an organization on the front line of sustainable business, we work year round with our globally minded staff to create cutting-edge content and programming. We also try to be as inclusive as possible by including key stakeholders, partners, and member companies whenever possible. On the logistics side, we have made huge strides in producing a sustainable event since I joined BSR in 2007. Some of the achievements I am most of proud of include our commitment to serve only locally sourced, sustainable, and often organic menu items; the elimination of bottled water, a traditional exhibit hall, and all giveaways; a Conference mobile app that replaced our 100+ page printed program; and the 100% carbon offset purchases used to offset Conference travel and energy use.
What new initiatives are you now including in your events?
We are always working to reinvigorate the Conference for today’s audience. Breakout sessions with talking heads are a thing of the past. Today’s participants want interactive learning and networking experiences with tangible outcomes. This year, we are using non-traditional spaces (with windows and open areas!) for breakout sessions, and meal functions in open spaces to encourage movement and networking. We are also eliminating all traditional screens, projectors, and head speaker tables. We want our participants to be active contributors in the conversation. In addition, we are focusing on trainings and sessions that encourage personal development while getting participants out of the hotel and into the surrounding city — including a public speaking training and a sustainable food and wine tour. Another new initiative that we are developing is an interactive Conference hub that will include a newsroom broadcasting live. I’m unbelievably excited about this year’s event!
What have you learned from this process?
Regardless of how many times I have planned our flagship annual Conference, I find that I am able to develop creative solutions to traditional issues or ways of doing things. Just when I think we have pushed the envelope to its limit, we forge ahead with renewed enthusiasm that consistently results in original ideas – and a superior event.
What is the biggest obstacle still to be overcome?
We have seen a lot of competition in the sustainability event arena over the past few years, and participants have many options with only limited time and resources. We know that we need to stay ahead of the curve with innovative programming and unique experiences to keep our participants coming back for more.
What do you wish you knew when you first started in this role?
I wish I knew just how strategic and mainstream business sustainability and “being green” would become. It has permeated every aspect of business and society.
What inspires you?
My colleagues at BSR are the most educated, enthusiastic, and committed group of professionals I have ever worked with. Their ability to translate ideas into real outcomes delivering value for business and society is truly inspirational.
Thank you, Pamela, for inspiring our MeetGreen team and the entire sustainable events industry through your willingness to be transparent and share your Event Sustainability Report each year. We look forward to learning from you and the leaders at BSR.