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Meetings West, June 2008

Becoming Good Corporate Citizens

by Maria Lenhart

"The only reason to hold a meeting is to save the world.”

That was the audacious gauntlet thrown down by Tim Sanders at the end of his keynote address at MPI’s Professional Education Conference–North America in Houston last February. The former Yahoo! executive, now a motivational speaker, author and CSR (corporate social responsibility) advocate, challenged the audience to start taking a leadership role in their organizations by initiating platforms for social and environmental change.

Similarly, CSR has been a hot topic at other industry conferences, including the recent SITE Executive Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where 143 incentive professionals gathered to discuss global trends.

“CSR is like the ROI of 2008—everyone is focused on it,” commented SITE President Padraic Gilligan after the summit. “While it has been a growing item of discussion for the past few years, it has moved to a point where you can’t be willing to take a risk and not have a company position on it.”

At PCMA’s annual meeting in Seattle last January, the Convention Industry Council (CIC) Task Force on Sustainability and Responsibility convened for the first time to determine how CIC member organizations can serve as resources on issues concerning the environment and social responsibility. Shortly afterward, MPI created its own task force comprised of CSR experts who will help the organization develop resources for members over the coming year.

Defining CSR

So what is CSR all about and why is it gathering so much momentum in the meetings industry?

Although it includes environmental issues, green initiatives are only one aspect of CSR. According to its “CSR: Where We Stand” statement, MPI defines it as encompassing a “triple bottom line” of “people, planet and profit,” a broad spectrum of social, economic and environmental concerns.

“The triple bottom line behind CSR also looks at social responsibility—the economic and social equity of business choices,” says Marge Anderson, assistant director of the Energy Center of Wisconsin and head of MPI’s CSR Task Force. “Meetings are perfectly positioned to contribute to social responsibility by integrating community service projects into their programming so the impact they leave behind is positive. We can also have a positive impact by contributing to the local economy.”

While CSR may seem to be most relevant to corporate meeting planners, Elizabeth Henderson, CMM, MPI’s director of Canadian development and staff liaison for the CSR Task Force, says it has significance for all meeting planners.

“Associations, including MPI, are very concerned with CSR,” she says. “And independent planners are working with both association and corporate clients who have an increasing CSR focus. It’s important for them to know how to fit in with this.”

For Sanders, author of Saving the World at Work, which will be published by Doubleday in September, CSR is no mere fad, but a “revolution” that is not going to go away.

“CSR is the biggest social trend of my lifetime and it will continue to be important,” he says. “After all, you’re never going to see headlines that say “Eco concerns are dead” or “Communities no longer need help.”

Sanders believes it is the emergence of a new generation of corporate employees that is making it essential for companies to have CSR policies and practices. He also maintains that companies who don’t have acceptable CSR practices will not be able to attract top talent.

“This is very important to young people and it strongly influences where they want to work,” he says. “Research shows that compensation is no longer the biggest factor—a company’s social commitment has more impact than anything else. This generation, the children of the Baby Boomers, has been strongly influenced by horrific events such as Hurricane Katrina and the media coverage, and corporate scandals such as Enron have also had an impact.”

According to Sanders, there are three main criteria that determine whether or not a company is being a good corporate citizen: how it treats its employees, how it gives back to the community and its ecological and sustainability practices.

“The first is the most important,” he says. “You can be as green as you want, but if you’re not good to your employees, it doesn’t matter.”

Sanders is optimistic that corporations have the ability and even the will to have a positive impact on issues such as global warming and poverty.

“I’ve always believed that companies can change the world for good, even though a lot of environmentalists believe that corporations are evil,” he says. “I don’t. Corporations are made up of people and people want to do good.”

Not everyone in the meetings industry is as optimistic, including longtime educator, consultant and independent planner Joan Eisenstodt, CMM, head of Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt & Associates.

“I do not agree with Tim Sanders on this one—because I do not think that most companies and organizations are embracing the deed versus the words of CSR, and because customers and staff and members are not shouting for it,” she says. “Moreover, when it is shouted out, most organization find a way around the actions.”

The Planner’s Role

Where Eisenstodt, Sanders and others do agree is that meeting planners can and should play a crucial role in influencing their companies to implement CSR practices.

“Meeting planners have a lot of power for change,” Sanders says. “They are the ones who pick the sites, the vendors, the speakers. They are the movie producers of their companies. Meetings are the only time in which people sit and think about the company’s goals and objectives—so they are the time when the message can be delivered.”

Angie Pfeifer, CMM, MPI’s chairwoman of the board, advocates that planners take the initiative on CSR matters in their companies, something she says she has done in her role as vice president–corporate meetings, travel and incentives for Investors Group Financial Services in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“I heard from my boss that we were starting a CSR task force and I said that I wanted to get involved,” she says. “Since I manage both meetings and travel at the company, I knew there was a lot I could do. My team and I took a lot of time to research how we could implement CSR. It’s not easy and it takes time.”

The results soon paid off, however, with the company able to save many thousands of dollars by taking such steps as not supplying bottled water at meetings, but reusable bottles instead.

“The myth is that CSR is costly, but it’s not,” Pfeifer says. “It was very emotional for me to see how we’d saved by doing the right thing. And, of course, CSR is not just about green meetings. I’m at the table at my company in regards to all sorts of CSR.”

Even companies that already have extensive CSR policies and practices in place may still need action on the part of planners to make sure these extend to meetings. Such was the case at Timberland, a Stratham, N.H.-based shoe manufacturer whose CSR practices include giving each employee 40 paid time-off hours a year to do volunteer work.

“When I joined Timberland a few years ago they had not yet integrated their CSR practices into meetings,” says Michelle Johnson, a former in-house planner for Timberland who is now a partner in a planning firm, Creative Community Communications, whose clients include Timberland.

She says the chief reason behind this is that Timberland did not have a centralized meetings policy, something she recommends to all corporate clients who want to implement CSR meetings practices.

“We had many different departments doing things, so we put together a meetings policy that reflected Timberland’s CSR focus,” she says.

“A centralized policy allows you to look at where you are spending the money. Then you can look at what should be asked for in every hotel contract in regards to CSR.”

Community Giving

One of the most visible ways that planners are implementing CSR is by scheduling a day or partial day devoted to a community project, endeavors that range from rebuilding hurricane-ravaged structures in New Orleans to assembling bicycles for needy children and other projects that can take place in a hotel ballroom.

Just as green practices can be good for a company’s bottom line, community volunteer efforts have

proven to be a benefit for those who give as well as for those who receive, according to Sanders.

“When executives are involved in things like Habitat for Humanity, they feel better about their jobs,” he says. “They have a commitment and they are less likely to leave the company. Endorphins are affected and energy goes up. When salespeople are involved in good works, they get energized and can do more sales calls. There is an actual impact on productivity.”

A dramatic and successful example of community giving occurred during Timberland’s December 2005 global sales meeting held in New Orleans, a little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. After a day of participating in rebuilding efforts, the 350 attendees requested the opportunity to tour the Ninth Ward, where the worst devastation had occurred.

“So we got 15 busses and brought people from the community on board,” recalls Michelle Johnson. “One of the things we saw was an old house with a blue tarp that was serving as a makeshift community center. One of our guys got off the bus and asked the man there what was most needed. He said shoes. So the sales rep took off his boots and gave them to him. Soon everyone followed suit and there was a pile of at least 200 boots and sneakers. Word got back to the hotel about this and there was a crowd of people greeting the bus with applause when we got back. It was very emotional.”

Along with being a memorable day for the company, the experience has forged a continuing relationship between Timberland employees and recovery efforts in New Orleans.

“Salespeople have gone back there to work with the Boys and Girls clubs and to continue with rebuilding,” Johnson says. “It started a lasting commitment.”

Site Decisions

While the most visible CSR aspects of meetings are green measures and time allotted for community volunteer work, Eisenstodt believes that one of the most effective ways planners can practice CSR is in site selection. When making site decisions, she recommends adhering to the 10 principles outlined in the United Nations Global Compact (see sidebar), which MPI and other organizations have signed as a first step in implementing CSR policies.

Referring to the compact’s statements on human rights and labor standards, Eisenstodt says planners should look at such things as a country’s human rights record or a venue’s position on labor practices, including the right to organize, before making a site decision.

“If a meeting goes to a country that Human Rights Watch or others say is complicit in human rights abuses, then [the planners] are not supporting CSR,” she says. “Or if one chooses to hold a meeting in a county that has been shown to be abusive, there should be a statement on why they are going and what they going to do to help others hear a different message.”

While choosing a hotel with green practices is desirable, there are effective steps planners can take when such a selection is not feasible, according to Anderson of MPI’s CSR Task Force and the Wisconsin Energy Center.

“[Hotels’] hearts are in the right place, but it [green practices] is a big challenge for them,” she says. “There are franchise agreements and owners as well as operating companies in the mix. The best opportunity is to work through the sales and marketing department. You can be proactive in making certain practices part of the contract.”

Anderson adds that the Wisconsin Energy Center has been able to exert a positive influence over its hotel partners.

“We have used properties that don’t have green practices, but who were interested in learning more about it,” she says. “When we were meeting at a large waterpark resort, one of our attendees suggested they change their lighting system and also put a slow-moving fan at the top of the waterpark ceiling to disperse the heat. The resort did and they were delighted to see how much money they could save.”

Similarly, Johnson took a proactive stance when negotiating with the Orlando Omni for a Timberland sales meeting held last year.

“Our contract contained several dictates about green requirements such as not pre-pouring drinks like iced tea and putting cards in the guest rooms about reusing towels,” she says. “This was a new step. We hadn’t looked at suppliers before.”

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