Green Interview: Jeff Chase, VP of Sustainability, Freeman

December 11, 2017

In his six years as vice president of Sustainability at Freeman, Jeff Chase has become quite proficient at making the case that “sustainable thinking is good for business.”

Besides working alongside corporate and association clients to help them produce greener shows, the 30-year industry veteran also serves as sitting chairman of the Events Industry Council’s sustainability committee, where he is passionate about educating the industry about the far-reaching benefits of environmentally minded shows.

TSNN had a chance to sit down with Chase to discuss how far our industry has come, where we are now, and how far we need to go for our industry to adapt and thrive in the face of a changing business environment, audience demographic and planet.

TSNN: Why is sustainability an important issue for the trade show industry to focus on and why is it important to you an event professional?

Jeff Chase: Our industry has been finding better ways to produce experiences for many years and as our world has changed, we too must change to keep up with modern world trends. Sustainability thinking is here to stay and if our industry wants to continue to find the right ways to bring people together, we will need to focus on using better methods to reduce our event footprint on the earth. I have been around this industry for 30 years and with everything I’ve learned, seeing all the waste that we’ve generated and the different materials we’ve used, I’m thrilled that our industry has seen a lot of improvement, even though we’re slow-moving. Still, I would like to see us continue to do things better.

Sustainability hasn’t always been my focus, but not being wasteful has always been a part of my focus. Back in 1990 when I was show director for Interop, I shot a video of all the wastefulness of our show and took it back to my staff and said, “look at all how much waste we have from our show, can we not do better?” Back then, I was talking more about cost-effectiveness and how much money we were wasting from printing too many materials or leaving leftover things and one-time use stuff, but over time I realized that the economic impact also had an environmental lens that we could put on it.

My theme all year long as an EIC chairman has been “sustainability is good for business from a business aspect,” that if you become more efficient in doing business, there are environmental benefits that automatically come through. That’s the real reason that a lot of these companies that I work with get involved in doing this – it’s not about necessarily environmental but rather economic. It truly is my overarching theme: this is helping the earth but it’s also helping your budget if you do it right.

TSNN: Do you believe the trade show industry is lagging behind the rest of the events industry when it comes to going green and if so, how do we up speed that process?

JC: There is a big difference in my clientele in that I have corporations that are leading the charge and pushing it out there because it’s about them living their purpose and values, and then I have association markets that are lagging behind about four or five years. Not all of them of course, but there are some that are struggling. So, I live in two different worlds: the corporate world pushing the limits and then associations that are still trying to figure out how to recycle at their show, so there’s a huge variance.

I love the trade show and events industry, and I understand that there are a lot of variables, including financial and social, and that there are associations saying that their members aren’t asking for it, so they’re not sure they need to be sustainably minded. But when others talk to us about attracting new members and wanting our help in getting them there, I tell them that young people care about the earth and values and only want to work with associations and be members of associations that really care. Start showing that you care by what you do at your events, because your event is a window into your whole organization – it’s a living breathing thing that says who you are.

TSNN: When and why did Freeman begin “going green” and form its Sustainability Team?

JC: Freeman really ramped up its focus in 2004 when some of our clients started asking for better solutions to the amount of waste they were generating from their shows, so it was really client-driven. Around that time some of our team got involved with the newly forming Green Meetings Industry Council and the committee helping to set the APEX/ASTM standards for Exhibits with the Convention Industry Council.

I came on board in 2011, so that’s when Freeman made the financial commitment to bring on a full-time person to watch over sustainability. My role today is still focused on helping our clients find solutions to make their shows more sustainable and earth-friendly by using more recyclable materials. Beyond that, Freeman is building our standard operating procedures to be environmentally efficient and socially conscious, practicing the 5 R’s of Sustainability: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose and Recycle.

TSNN: What kinds of environmental products, practices and services is Freeman offering now that it didn’t when you first embarked upon your “green journey” in the events industry?

JC: Years ago, we struggled to find cost-efficient ways to use recyclable materials because the cost-difference was 4-5 times the normal price of materials that were traditionally used in our industry. To make your signs on recyclable substrates was 2-3 times more expensive than it was for the normal foam core signage. Today, because of our strong purchasing power with our supply chain vendors, along with industry demand that has raised the interest of our manufacturers, we’re able to offer earth-friendly products and materials that are basically cost-neutral. So, it’s no longer a choice for show organizers to pick budget versus environmental solutions. Besides taking away the cost factor, we’ve also developed a lot of green products, planning tools, reports and support that helps take away the barriers for show organizers to go green. Back in the early days, we heard, “we can’t go green because it’s too expensive,” and now the problem is that clients don’t have the time to (address sustainability) or they worry that it’s going to cost them too much.

Waste, energy and air are our three big areas of environmental focus, so around waste, signage is always a big thing, so if you want to make your show on 100 percent recyclable signage, we’re able to do that. We also offer carpets that contain recyclable content and we have a program where we repurpose, reuse or re-sell it. Around air, we’re getting more efficient in the way we transport things by cutting down on the number of trucks we have to use, which cuts down on the greenhouse gas emissions of diesel for transporting, and we’re very much involved in the EPA SmartWay program. For energy, on our A/V side and all of our materials that use electricity, we’re going to LED lighting, so our registration counters and all of our back-lit signage are under an LED program, which cuts way down on the use of electricity and power.

TSNN: Have environmental offerings become necessary for GSCs to adopt in order to remain competitive in this increasingly environmentally conscious business environment?

JC: Part of going forward is recognizing that the client and the culture of our industry are changing. As younger people are coming out of college and becoming the new managers of trade shows or managers of their company’s booth at shows, they’re all saying they want green materials and they want you to reduce the environmental footprint of the show, so there’s a lot of competitive advantage in going with sustainable practices. We received the global ISO 20121 certification and we’ve noticed that a lot of people are asking more and more about the ISO and APEX standards, so it’s very important that we have that as a general service contractor. In addition, operating sustainably benefits efficiencies in other areas of our business.

TSNN: Where are we now in the green events movement and what are you seeing with the shows Freeman helps produce?

JC: More clients and trade show managers are asking us to help them find ways to make their shows greener while also looking to give something back to the local community where they hold their event. We’re a global company now, so we’re seeing differences in Europe, Asia, North America and South America, different things happening in different scenarios but at the same time, everybody is focusing on being more environmentally friendly. It really is the Paris Climate changes that all these countries adopted, so we’re seeing some of these things trickling down into our day-to-day work on a global scale. I believe that the industry must pay attention to this and that a decade from now it’s going to be almost a standard practice that you have to pay attention not just to what you do at a show but also what you leave behind as a footprint from your show.

A lot of the hotels and some of the convention centers are focused on that right now because they’re saying, “when you come here you’re going to have a green event at our building, you’re going to get the green practices that we already do every day.” It’s trickling into the supplier side and that’s exactly where Freeman is headed now – when you hire Freeman, you’re going to get a green show. I won’t say that we’re there yet but that’s where the Freeman family has made the commitment to say that in order for us to be around for another 90 years, we have to pay attention not just to profit and taking care of people, but also to the planet and how we’re impacting it. So that ties into the facilities and the hotels, and all suppliers need to understand that this is where the world is going.

The reality is that our world is changing and it’s going to change whether you believe in it or not, so let’s get on board this train because it’s already going. There is a new expectation that as a global company we automatically provide services with an eco-minded lens. Freeman partners with many hotels and venues where we work to support programs where it’s not an option to be wasteful. We have programs to donate equipment and materials left behind at trade shows that are given to local charities, including theater groups and Habitat for Humanity, so there’s lots of focus on giving back to the local community.

TSNN: What are some of the “greenest” shows you’ve worked with in the recent past and what separates them from the pack?

JC: On the association side I would say the U.S. Green Building Council, which does the Greenbuild show. Because of their LEED certification program, they’re hugely involved in sustainability. On the corporate side, Oracle Open World really pushes hard and has great corporate goals. My greenest clients have found out that “going green is good for business” and that it helps their brand image with members and attendees. The secret sauce is that they don’t accept the norm from any of the facilities or any of their supply chain vendors – they set goals and push their vendors to meet those goals.

I’ve been doing the Greenbuild show for about eight years now and because the show moves around, every city has risen to the occasion and found solutions. What’s really exciting is the cities that keep those solutions and use them from now on, so there’s a legacy left behind by those shows that are pushing, pushing, pushing. Oracle Open World is always in San Francisco at Moscone Center, which claims they’re in the greenest city and the greenest facility, and part of the reason they are is because of clients like Oracle that pushed them beyond their comfort zones and expected more out of them.

There are a lot of vendors and suppliers that (offer green products and services) and all you have to do is just ask for it. Almost everyone I know, from every shuttle bus company to every food and beverage group to some of the great facilities we have in the U.S. and even in Europe and Asia, they all have great green programs but they say that a lot of times nobody asks for it, so they don’t dial it up, they just leave it at normal.

TSNN: Are you finding that not enough show organizers are asking about greening and if so, why the disconnect?

JC: Every client wants their event or trade show to be green but they also have concerns about either the extra time it will take to plan or that it will cost them more money. Our goal is to take away these barriers and help them to reach their goal of a greener event while improving their attendee experiences. Again, I hear it from my sales team and vendors who say they have this great green program and yet very few event planners verbally ask for it. A lot more are getting it into their RFP processes, so it’s becoming more common that way, but not necessarily verbally when you’re meeting with them.

I think there are two sides of this coin: people who just expect it and think you should be green automatically now because of the world we live in and planners who are so busy that they don’t have time to even think about another program or another part of their show. Again, that’s where the suppliers have all the solutions but people get worried it’s going to take too much time and it really shouldn’t. In every one of our proposals now we put in a whole section about sustainability whether an organizer asks for it or not, and also in our onsite we have a lot of programs that are standard and already in place to help the show be more sustainable.

TSNN: For those shows still struggling with sustainability, how do you suggest they make a case to their stakeholders that greening their events is the right thing to do?

JC: Sustainability is good for business and if you really look at what you can do nowadays it really doesn’t take you more time anymore because everybody has a program in place and it should be cost-neutral. Yes, there are always trade-offs…it may cost you more in labor to do something over here but on the other side you’re not paying as much to do something over there, so if you’re saving money over there you can take that money and put it into (another green practice), so there are a lot of cost-neutral solutions for most organizers if they’d look at it.

Some of us forget that 10-15 years ago everybody used to print pallets and pallets full of printed show guides. We were paying for shipping and printing, and the cost was astronomical. Nowadays 90 percent of shows have gotten rid of paper products and are all on a mobile app. They used to spend $80,000 on printed materials and now they don’t spend that kind of money, so take some of that cost savings and spend another $5,000-10,000 on your sustainability program to help it be bigger and better. Oracle claims that it saved over a million dollars on water over the last four or five years just by taking away bottled water and moving to bulk water stations, money they then reinvest back into their sustainability program.

TSNN: With the impacts of climate change starting to become apparent around the globe, do you foresee the industry adopting more environmental practices and if so, how do you envision things looking in 5-10 years?

JC: Our industry will adopt more eco-practices and we are headed to a new chapter in how we produce experiences for our clients and their attendees. I believe that in 10 years we will see events that are claiming zero waste and no impact on the environment or the earth, or they’ll be offsetting their carbon travel, etc. and then it will become more normal in the way we do business. Our industry is always adapting to change and can change and I have high expectations for our industry, for us at Freeman and our own supply chain so we can help our clients set really high standards.

There is a well-known trend that started will millennials but is expanding to other generations, where consumers and business partners are demanding that companies do well while doing good. They care about the earth and have a huge influence on guiding the future of our industry. They don’t want to attend an event or work for an association or support a brand that doesn’t care about how they affect people’s lives and the environment of our planet.

They’re going to want to come to a trade show and give it three days of their time but they’re also going to expect it to meet the right triple bottom line: thinking about the planet, thinking about the people and how they’re going to be affected, and thinking about how that show is going to give back to the community through the profits it makes. It’s going to be a very interesting world in 10 years.

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