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MEETinLEEDS shows how to run a sustainable conference

Conference organisers are rightly constantly looking to provide the ultimate experience for delegates and the University of Leeds’ conference and events arm, MEETinLEEDS is no exception.  
When the European Society for Ecological Economics (ESEE) chose to hold its 11th International Conference at the University, MEETinLEEDS worked with its Business School, School of Earth and Environment and the School of Geography to organise the four-day event with sustainability at the heart of everything they did.

MEETinLEEDS’ Event Manager Anthony Lowe said: “It was a fully-managed conference which meant we took care of everything from the very beginning through to post-conference activity. Work on the conference started 18 months before and from the very beginning sustainability was our watchword. We researched how we could make it as sustainable as possible and then set about making it all happen. It’s fair to say that this approach impacted on not only the conference but in the way the whole team worked in the run-up.”  

The focus for the ESEE 2015 Conference was Transformation and explored the transformation to a sustainable society through a series of spoken and poster presentations, keynote lectures from prominent scholars and lively formal and informal discussions.  

An organising committee was established which included academics from the three different University departments together with other non University Committee Members who were running the Conference, with MEETinLEEDS. “Our role was to understand the requirements of the committee, go away and heavily research the different options, present them to the committee and then implement them,” said Anthony  

The challenge for MEETinLEEDS was to accommodate 500 delegates from 34 different countries presenting 700 papers in the most sustainable way possible with a target of recycling 95% of all waste.  

Technology was key. One of the first things MEETinLEEDS did was to create a bespoke Conference website so that delegates could access all the information they needed online to cut-down the need to send out too much information on paper.  

Running alongside this was a specially-designed Conference app which enabled delegates to integrate the timetable on their phones or laptops, as well as incorporate all relevant events and talks into their own calendars, eliminating the need for paper as well as linking to chats with other delegates on social media. They also used online survey and questionnaire site, Survey Monkey to ask people which lectures and events they were attending to get an idea of numbers to try and eliminate any waste from over-catering or other resources.  

As part of the registration process, delegates were offered the opportunity to offset part of their travel by buying permits to help prevent pollution under the Sandbag scheme* and bike hire was also organised for delegates.  

More than 300 delegates stayed on campus with most of the delegates eating on site being treated to menus of locally-sourced and regional produce, cutting down on food miles. “There were no fast fixes, no paper plates, everything was washed up and delegates were encouraged to bring their own reusable cups. The pinnacle of the Conference was a vegan buffet for 500 in the magnificent Parkinson Building lobby. It’s the first time we’d done this kind of catering on such a scale and it was a great success,” said Executive Chef Simon Wood  

The menu included vegan delights such as Courgette, Garden Pea and Broad Bean Salad with Pomegranate Pearls;  Spiced Sweet Potato, Chickpea & Chilli Cakes with Homemade Ketchup and Coconut & Sticky Rice Pudding Pots with Raspberries & Lime.  

There were a number of activities to add theatre to the Conference. At registration the Parkinson Building lobby was filled with the sound of birds gently chirpy as part of a specially-commissioned soundscape to help relax delegates who may have had a stressful journey. There was also an art installation featuring the word TRANSFORMATION which delegates were encouraged to decorate it throughout the Conference, as well as a conference dinner at Leeds Town Hall with a student dance band and a specially-created dance piece about sustainability.  

At the start of the conference, delegates were invited on tour of environmental projects and initiatives in the local area hosted by Leeds City Council as well as a tour of the sustainability projects at the University. And one evening there was even an informal cycle-powered film show, with three people cycling away to create enough energy to show films about sustainability while delegates drank beer and ate pizza.  

“From the most ethical conference bags possible to the locally-sourced food, environmental tours and a focus on recycling and technology to prevent waste, this was a truly sustainable conference,” said MEETinLEEDS Event Assistant, Corin Nanton.  

“We learnt so much and we’ll be sharing this with other organisers as part of our commitment to knowledge transfer. The more we worked on it, the more we picked up the spirit of the conference and became more and more environmentally aware as time went on and as a result we will be looking to offer sustainable packages to  what might be considered more mainstream conferences.”

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