SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
7 September 2017
Volume 18 Issue 9
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Secrets to a Successful Meeting Unveiled

Bart Bosveld, SETAC Europe Executive Director

SETAC Europe annual meetings have become a hallmark event, and we continue to grow our global network of environmental scientists. On average, 80% of our membership attends the SETAC Europe annual meeting, and 300–400 non-members join us that week. The average number of delegates has increased steadily over the decades – from 500–1,000 delegates in the 1990s and 2,000–2,500 in the years since 2010.

We conduct a survey after every meeting to tell us about how the meeting was perceived by the delegates. Generally, satisfaction ranged from 4 to 4.5 on a scale of 5 (very satisfied) to 1 (very unsatisfied) over the past 5 years. This year at the SETAC Europe 27th Annual Meeting in Brussels, the satisfaction ranking was 4.2. We are happy with this result but of course strive toward a higher mark next year.

word cloud
Word cloud from the more than 1,000 individual comments that were provided in response to the open questions in the post-conference survey.

We are pleased to report consistently high marks on the scientific program. With regard to the other aspects of the meeting, we typically receive a lot of comments on the food, conference center navigation, meeting room sizes, the poster area, the price of the congress dinner, and more recently, on the use of sustainable products and services.

I’d like to address some of these items in the light of the choices that have to be made when organizing a meeting. I’ll start with the latest and one of the more recent concerns coming from our delegates, the sustainability of the annual meeting.

Environment

The plastic waste and other sustainability issues, such as travel, food waste and energy have our strong attention when planning for a meeting. For one of our smaller meetings, the 22nd SETAC Europe LCA Case Study Symposium that was held last year in Montpellier, France, a detailed footprint analysis was conducted by Quantis to map the environmental impact of the conference. It showed that meeting participation had a serious effect on the delegates’ environmental footprint.  Participants’ carbon footprint increased from 16 to 125 kg CO2 eq/day by attending the meeting, compared with a regular day. 88% of that carbon footprint is caused by travel. For the SETAC Brussels organizers, this was a good reason to explicitly promote travel by train. The central location of Brussels resulted in almost half (46%) of the participants arriving by train (38%) or by road (8%), compared with 54% arriving by plane.

The second largest impact was on water use. The water footprint increased from 3.8 to 6.0 m3 eq/day for an average participant. This excessive water use was mainly caused by food and beverages. Using local and seasonal food and reducing food waste helped to limit the impact. We reduce food waste by accurately estimating the daily needs of the delegates and if too much food is produced, making sure that it is used for other purposes. We learned from the meeting in Montpellier, and in Brussels we made an arrangement with a local charity organization to provide the unconsumed food to the homeless. Unfortunately for them, our estimates were rather accurate and not much was left over.

Reducing the environmental footprint was an important goal for the Brussels meeting and the use of disposables was another factor to be considered. Many studies have been carried out to analyze the environmental impact of disposables and re-usable plates, cups and silverware. The differences between the two seem to be limited and the impact small. Especially when compared with larger factors such as travel or food and beverages. However, when we are talking about plastics other factors come in play. The issue of microplastics in the environment received ample attention at our past meeting, and we are aware of the impact this has on the environment. SETAC should lead by example and limit the use of plastic, especially for an issue like this.

We made efforts to reduce our reliance on plastic, and the use of disposables in the daily catering was limited. Moreover, a re-usable foldable water bottle was provided to all delegates with a goal to limit the use of plastic cups.  We know that these efforts have not resulted in a zero level with regard to plastic waste, but we are dedicated to further reducing the plastic waste generated by our meetings. 

Food

“A good lunch is what they remember.” This is a good thing to know for conference organizers. Usually, there are as many opinions on what is served as there are people in the room. This makes it a challenge for SETAC to select a menu that is healthy, environmentally friendly, tasty, attractive, variable, sufficient, time-efficient and affordable. As you can imagine, not all factors go together easily, and the final selection is a matter of finding the right balance. It is truly a multivariable analysis to find the optimal combination. And it goes without saying that the combined optimum is not the same as the optimum for all individual factors.

As shown before, food is the other major contributor to the environmental footprint of our meetings. By making the right choices the impact can be significantly reduced. The use of local products limits carbon produced by transportation. The impact of the production of the raw material for a typical vegetarian dish is half the impact of a meat dish. At the SETAC Europe annual meeting, some 30% of the delegates choose vegetarian dishes, which is more than congress caterers are used to serving for other conferences. In Brussels, we introduced a veggie day, serving only vegetarian dishes on Wednesday to further reduce the environmental impact of our meetings. In general, this initiative was well received – although we did receive some funny suggestions for different timing. One comment stated, “Please next time, don't plan the veggie day for the day after the students’ party - hearty food would be more suitable.” We will take it into consideration. Or perhaps, we should ban the alcohol at the student party!

Money

When making decisions for the services to be provided at the annual meeting, we are always bound to the available budgets and the registration costs that the delegates are prepared to pay. An important factor that the delegates need to be aware of is that everything out of the ordinary for the congress venue typically comes with an additional cost. When organizing meetings for more than 2,000 participants and dealing with pre-selected catering companies, it is not always possible to find the most desired solutions within the available budget. It’s also worth noting that the contracts with the congress center and the catering services were drawn up and agreed upon years before the event. With our most recent experiences, we know that we have to include our environmental requirements at a very early stage in the contract negotiations. For example, we are now negotiating for 2020 and 2021 and have introduced more and more environmental criteria in our list of demands.

For SETAC Europe, it is a challenge to deal with conference centers and service providers in a wide range of countries with variable standards when it comes to environmental awareness, services and food. Please be assured that these issues have our continued attention and that we are strongly motivated to minimize the environmental footprint of our meetings, provide the best food and services available, and find the financial resources to support both in the most cost-efficient way possible.

Sponsors

To host the annual meeting for approximately 2,000 delegates, a budget of roughly €1.2 million is required. The costs are more or less equally divided among the venue, the catering and the labor by SETAC to organize and run the meeting. Typically, €1 million income is received through registration fees.  The other €200,000 is received from sponsors and exhibitors. Without that additional income, the registration fees would have to be about 20% higher.

Not only do sponsors and exhibitors contribute financially to the meeting, they are also important for keeping SETAC meetings attractive to the business sector. The tripartite structure, with balanced inputs from academia, business and government, is one of the founding principles of SETAC. Effective communication between the different sectors is crucial to the success of SETAC, and our meetings provide the ideal platform to make these connections. Over the years, an average of 32% of annual meeting delegates were from academia, excluding students, who count for 28% of the total, 21% from business and 10% from government. Other sectors, including NGOs, make up 9% of our meeting populace. Traditionally, academia makes up the largest part, but with the exhibitors, we also attract the business sector and provide a better platform for a fruitful dialogue between the sectors.

The Host

One of the first things to consider when planning for a meeting is “where” it should be held. Meetings organized in well-known tourist cities in the south of Europe and in the western part of Europe, which has a higher member density, generally attract a higher number of participants. Nevertheless, SETAC aims to rotate among the regions in Europe to equally recognize and serve the members in all parts of our geographic unit.

SETAC meetings require a conference center with a large main auditorium for the opening ceremony, at least 10 session rooms that can accommodate 100 to 500 people and a poster and exhibition space of some 3,000 m2. These criteria limit the available choices, and the congress centers that do have this capacity are invited to provide a bid for one of the future SETAC Europe conferences.

The process usually starts either with a small group of enthusiast SETAC members interested in hosting one of the future SETAC meetings or with a local convention bureau and congress center that is interested in attracting SETAC to the city. As with the catering, the venue has to meet many and sometimes conflicting criteria to answer to the needs of a SETAC meeting: sufficient space, compact and easy to navigate, an availability of services, comfortable climate (inside and outside the building), an attractive city, easily accessible and more. It is for that reason that we sometimes have to accept less ideal circumstances for one of these factors if they are sufficiently compensated by other positive factors.

The Brussels office coordinates the process and collects all the relevant information to present a detailed proposal for a decision by the SETAC Europe Council. The bid process usually starts four or five years in advance, and a full proposal, including the proposed venue, dates, conference chairs, program committee (for local organization and scientific program), meeting theme and topics, and a detailed budget is usually presented to the SETAC Europe Council for a decision three years in advance. Following that decision, the contracts are finalized and the program committee springs into action.

Author’s contact information: bart.bosveld@setac.org

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