Many participants in conferences are uncomfortable with the type of ‘conspicuous consumption’ that often characterizes such events. This is particularly the case when luxurious meetings take place against a background of disadvantaged communities or in developing countries.

Consequently, there is a growing desire, particularly among younger, ‘Generation Y’, participants, to ‘make a difference’ and ‘give something back’ to the communities where their meetings take place. This is known as the ‘social legacy’ of conferences, and it is one of the key trends driving the design of events today.

Social legacy relates to the ‘People’ aspect of the ‘triple bottom line’ of Corporate Social Responsibility (‘People, Planet and Profit’) and goes beyond the simple ‘greening’ of conferences. Social legacy takes into account how meetings impact upon the people and economy of the community where they take place, and how they can bring real benefits to local people.

Social legacy initiatives

One of the most common ways in which conferences may leave a legacy in the destinations where they take place is through making donations to charities. Participants may be invited to donate to a local charity or another worthy cause at the time of registering for the event or at the conference gala dinner. From the point of view of the event organizer, the appeal in this approach to leaving a social legacy lies in its relative simplicity and its minimal impact on the time taken out of the principal focus of the conference.

For longer events, where there is less pressure on participants’ time, a more ‘hands-on’ approach to leaving a social legacy may be used, when participants take a day or half-day out of the conference to directly work on a project. This can range from landscaping the garden of a local retirement home to constructing a library in a village school.

However, many conferences participants are more motivated by activities, which give them the opportunity to meet and interact directly with local people. An example of this approach was seen in the 2008 ‘Greening the Hospitality Industry’ Conference, which was held in Vancouver. Attendees worked with the Vancouver Food Bank, sorting food and household items and putting goods into boxes for disbursement. In one hour, 31 attendee volunteers from around the globe assisted 1,600 people with meals in the Vancouver Metro area.

Another type of social legacy is when attendees take time out from their meeting to share their knowledge and skills with people in the local community. For example, medical conferences can offer a direct benefit to communities when visiting world-leading surgeons conduct Master-classes in local hospitals; or when eminent specialists in their field give free public lectures to complement their conference presentations.

Advantages of adding a social legacy dimension to conferences

When used effectively, this form of community investment can create a profound impact on the lives of people living and working in conference destinations. And this is clearly something that applies to all destinations where a section of the population suffers from some form of social or economic disadvantage – not only developing countries.

But including social legacy activities in meetings can also considerably enhance the image of individual companies and the conference industry as a whole, by demonstrating their social awareness and desire to ‘make a difference’. This is particularly important at a time like the present, when the economic context means that the media and company shareholders are alert to any corporate events that appear to be too lavishly funded and the word ‘junket’ is increasingly being used by the press.

However, it is not only corporations that stand to benefit from being associated with social legacy activities. Martin Sirk, of ICCA believes that by articulating and promoting the social benefits of their events, international associations can also improve the way they are perceived, winning greater support from the destinations which host their conferences, improving their negotiating position vis-à-vis suppliers, and energizing their various stakeholders. He has stated that the political debate is shifting from direct economic impact alone to the CSR impact of international meetings, and this is where international associations can make some powerful arguments: ‘Politicians like to hear about how international events can create a social ‘legacy’ in their communities’.

The role of Convention Bureau

Convention Bureaus (CVBs) can play a valuable part in bringing together meetings planners with local agencies representing charitable causes. As interest in offering social legacy activities as an add-on element of business events grows, a growing number of CVBs are taking on the role of key intermediary in bringing together the interested parties.

An outstanding example of this is seen in the activities of the Melbourne Convention + Visitors Bureau (MCVB) which, this year, won an award from Australia’s leading industry body, Meetings & Events Australia (MEA) for its record number of green initiatives and its contribution to instituting lasting legacies from business events held in Melbourne and Victoria, including significant fundraising initiatives for local charities. In respect of the latter, the MCVB offers a range of CSR tools and advice for those planning a business event in its destination. For details, visit the MCVB website:

www.mcvb.com.au/about-mcvb/corporate-social-responsibility.aspx

Conclusion

It is clear that interest in the CSR aspect of conferences is still growing fast – and increasingly focusing not only on ‘green’ issues but on the social legacy that such events can leave behind. It may even be argued that by adding a social legacy dimension to conferences, organisers are making use of a valuable opportunity to avoid the accusation that meetings are a wasteful and extravagant use of company resources. This is a movement being driven by Generation Y, the fastest-growing age-group in the global work-force – and so it is here to stay.