I remember summer 2019 like it was yesterday. The scientific conference of the European Health Management Association – EHMA 2019 was taking place in Espoo, in Finland, a very sustainable destination. Three days, 350 international healthcare managers, professionals, researchers and policy makers. We had been working at EHMA together with our main partners, Helsinki University Hospital and Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, for an entire year with a common goal of creating something special that would have left a legacy behind. A conference that would contribute to the local economy, involve local communities, and be environmentally friendly. After a year of hard work, three words had become like Northern stars to us: Legacy, Community, Impact.
A destination, where your ideas come true
Before focusing on the destination selection, we started by creating the design of the event. One of the purposes was to give our participants the feeling of being connected to nature, a healthy lifestyle and to implement sustainability every step of the way. We needed to choose a destination which would fulfill all of our requirements, including good access to the venue, accommodation, capacity, and being open to working with us on all the incredible and innovative ideas we had in mind.
The Finnish Convention Bureau stood out from the competition by matching all our criteria. We found the perfect partner not only to bring our ideas to life, but we also found the destination which has sustainability in its DNA.
CVB is your new best friend
My biggest advice: collaborate closely with the convention bureau of the city where you plan to organize your sustainable event. The convention bureau is an organization that promotes the destination, and it’s in their best interest to help you with your event: before you make your decision, during and after your conference.
Making sure that you have feet on the ground even if you’re miles away is key to a successful conference especially if you’re introducing new concepts. They act as a bridge, which closes the gap of language issues, knowledge, and cultural differences.
You can’t win the battle alone
Sustainability is about organically expanding your scope, involving local partners, and creating long-lasting relationships. Connecting with academia, local members, institutions, and organizations that can help you increase your reach, that’s the key.
The conference hosts had several staff members fully dedicated to delivering EHMA 2019 together with us, which not only showed their commitment but got them involved in shaping the program and helped with the decision-making process.
In the end, we had more than 100 partners and high-level invitees involved in EHMA 2019. This not only helped to raise the event and the association’s profile but created meaningful discussions between the Ministries, WHO, and other high-level organizations, putting the region in the spotlight as 2019 was also the year of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
As we developed our program, we got many local sponsors and members due to the support of the convention bureau and our hosting partners in Finland. We were also introduced to the local authorities who supported our idea of a health hackathon for young healthcare professionals. This not only helped us to source the revenue to be able to organize it but also allowed us to give visibility to the younger generation, involving them in important conversations.
Create impactful opportunities
Local authorities can be very powerful partners. It’s in their interest to support you with your event because they want to stimulate the development in the region. They are able to share initiatives that you would not be aware of as an event organizer, especially if you live abroad.
Adding CSR activities to your program, like fundraising for charity organizations or creating awareness on certain topics, is also a great way to stimulate the engagement of your participants and members.
We teamed up with a charity and together we organized a morning run and all donations were given to the organization, which supports children through alternative care. On top of that, we organized architectural and bird sightseeing tours led by local activists and students from the design faculty.
All in all, we involved more than 30 local students and volunteers from three major Finnish universities and various healthcare organizations.
This might not be new to you, but it’s good to remember it. And this doesn’t relate to food only but also to everything that you want to put in your goodie bags. This reduces shipment costs and gives it a local touch.
We ordered recycled paper bags and offered to leave them, if not needed, upon registration. We also included a recycled biodegradable bottle, which we encouraged participants to use during the conference. We not only offered gifts with a local touch but also saved on costs in comparison with our expenses the previous year in Budapest where we ordered all items from China as we also needed to pay a customs charge at the time.
Involve the locals in your event
Any specialist that you commission for any type of job for your event contributes to the local economy and the population’s wealth.
- Opt for local audio-visual companies
- Involve art students to produce your onsite design & branding
- Involve NGO’s or students to do sightseeing tours and other relevant activities in order to diversify the program
In that regard, our onsite design and branding were produced by a student of the Faculty of design from the previous year, which significantly lowered our production costs, but also provided an opportunity for her to expand her portfolio and get her first paying client.
If you want to create awareness on the topic of your conference, work together with the local authorities. For example, set up a pop-up tent in the city around the days of your event in order to inform local inhabitants about the topic using clear language and visuals.
Instead of buying your speakers or VIP guests a pricey device or something else that they will forget, or perhaps even will throw away once they are out of the door, you can educate them by offering something alternative and get them to think creatively and sustainably. This can include:
- Adopting a rare animal that inhabits in this region via the WWF
- Planting a tree on their behalf and supply them with a certificate
- Donating to offset carbon footprint or towards other sustainable activities
Build a community online
A couple of years before EHMA 2019, EHMA’s presence online was very basic. We decided to revamp our communication strategy, giving a particular focus to social media and growing our reach organically online. With digital transformation happening across all sectors, this is a must-have in order to build a community and attract new members. Engagement doesn’t happen at an in-person event only but online too.
With over 500 tweets in three days, 350+ likes, more than 700 visualizations for the live-streamed Periscope videos, and more than 110k impressions on Twitter, EHMA 2019 reached a massive social media audience, allowing the conference to be a trending topic in Finland for three days in a row.
Inclusivity and diversity
Scientific conferences are the most conservative type in the event space. Although we were always prepared to welcome people with limited abilities, we needed to take a step further. We were determined to make our line-up of speakers gender-balanced.
In sectors such as healthcare, female specialists are not so much represented and we managed to prioritize female speakers in the selection process. We also predominantly involved local speakers and were able to give them exposure and showcase their accomplishments to the international healthcare community.
This is where all the pieces of the puzzle come together. The purpose of event design is to align together with your partners, sponsors, and members on a common sustainable goal and to stimulate each other to generate new ideas, support each other and create a long-lasting positive impact for all parties involved.
Instead of hosting a fancy gala dinner, we together with the Convention Bureau organized a camping-style dinner in the Nuuksio National park. We set up tipis and served smoked salmon, which is the highlight of the local cuisine. I can’t express how much our participants loved it and were surprised. Honestly, that year we had the biggest social dinner attendance even if participants had to pay extra for it.
Creating a highly sustainable event is not an easy task because it requires the involvement of many partners. However, the outcome is so worth it! There is no question as to whether it’s the future – it’s happening now. The real question here is: “Are you ready to come on board and create events that are leaving a legacy, support the community and create impact?”
I would finish up by saying the biggest oversight of EHMA 2019 was that, as we were so busy innovating and exploring, we didn’t document and develop a KPI checklist to be able to analyze the impact and the legacy we left for the destination with the performed activities. If your association aspires to incorporate sustainability in the delivery of the event, get in touch with me via firstname.lastname@example.org or connect via LinkedIn and I’ll provide you with free tools on how you can track the impact and results of your event.