Green Interview: Lindsay Arell, Founder and President, Honeycomb Strategies
Denver native Lindsay Arell always knew she wanted to pursue a career helping the environment. A longtime ski bum with a passion for nature, it was her work in event production after college that began to shape what would become the main focus of her career: making the trade show, meetings and events industry a less wasteful and more sustainable one.
This inspired path led Arell to become Colorado Convention Center’s first-ever sustainability coordinator, and eight years later, president of Honeycomb Strategies. In this role, she’s worked with some of the biggest names in sustainably minded conferences and trade shows, including Natural Products Expo East and West, Sustainable Brands and Greenbuild, helping them achieve their environmental goals.
TSNN sat down with this green industry leader to talk about her mission of bringing sustainability to the forefront of the events industry.
How did you end up becoming Sustainability Manager at the CCC?
I started my career as an event manager at the Colorado Convention Center, then moved around to explore life in other cities. I worked as a third-party planner in Montana, then for a general service contractor in Seattle. I wanted to move home to Denver and stay in the events industry, but I’d become disillusioned by the amount of waste I was seeing at events across the country.
So when I moved back to Denver in 2007, I suggested that rather than working as an event manager again, I could develop a new position as a sustainable programs manager. I was able to implement programs not only at CCC but also act as a catalyst for sustainability in the city overall. Thanks to a lot of great collaboration between the different agencies and venues here we were able to put a lot of things in place.
How has your role evolved over time?
From there I started traveling to other SMG-managed convention properties that were interested in looking at sustainability. In 2009 I went out on my own and was working primarily for venues, then from the planner side. Three years ago I rebranded as Honeycomb Strategies and a year later partnered with Amanda Simons, who was with Green Meetings Industry Council. I still manage the CCC’s sustainability programs as a contractor, meet with clients, do all their metrics and help evolve their programs.
Tell me about your role at Honeycomb Strategies.
Luckily, a lot of our clients already cared about sustainability before we got involved. But generally, we’ll go in, see what they’re currently doing and how they work with their team and then do an in-depth analysis. Using some of the industry standards and best practices that we’ve seen through years of experience, we’ll provide them with a report and get some baseline metrics of what their impacts are. Using that information, we’ll work with them to develop a [sustainability] goal for the following event.
No program is the same, so when I’m working with Sustainable Brands, for example — a show that has advanced waste management practices and a great culture in terms of what they’re procuring and their suppliers are providing — I’m there to support their efforts. The show changes location, so we’ll go in and make sure that the suppliers, venues and caterers understand our goals, and then I help them implement those onsite. We also try to take our programs beyond environmental sustainability and look at how we can positively impact the local community, too.
Can you share an example of that?
When Sustainable Brands was in Vancouver in 2018, I worked closely with the CVB to see what they were trying to do as a city and how could we support that. We partnered with Tourism Vancouver and OceanWise to highlight the issue of ocean plastics and worked with all of the event’s hotels to stop using plastic straws in their restaurants, single-use plastic bottles and plastic cups in guest rooms. Vancouver is a progressive city, and even though this was a new initiative, we became a catalyst for the city adopting that practice early and not going back on it.
Are you seeing more planners asking about green initiatives when planning events at CCC?
I would love to say I’ve seen a dramatic uptick in interest, but we haven’t — although there are definitely more people asking about it than there were three years ago.
One of the most popular things we get asked about is the donation of leftover materials. It’s something that everyone can get behind and takes minimal effort.
Beyond the low-hanging fruits of recycling, cutting waste and going digital, what are simple ways event planners can create even greener events?
Something simple that not enough planners take advantage of is using the resources of their suppliers. In a lot of big cities in the major convention markets, their CVBs are thinking about sustainability and have tools you can use. That’s a no-brainer, to ask the CVB what the city has in place for sustainability and how your event can support that.
A lot of cities even have checklists or guidelines for having a sustainable event in their city, and they’re looking for events wanting to participate in those programs. Also, ask hotels and venues if they offer any donation programs and take advantage of them.
On the food and beverage side, simple initiatives include incorporating less meat into your menus, offering fewer options and using smaller plates so you waste less food. And don’t be afraid to put out “ugly fruit!”
The other big ask is to request your waste, energy and water metrics from your [venue and GSCs]. A lot of people don’t do that, and if you’re able to at least gather that info, then you can know where you stand and what your impact is. A lot of larger GSCs have a standard report that they give to planners, but only if they ask for it. At the CCC, we’ll do it automatically for full facility shows but if a smaller wants their impacts I’ll gladly provide it for them.
The industry is shifting and it’s becoming easier to have a sustainable conference than it was a few years ago, so don’t give up on your objectives.
What are the biggest barriers to event sustainability now?
The biggest barrier I’ve seen is human behavior. You can talk through things like cost, effort and time. A lot of technologies are making events more sustainable whether planners realize or not, such as all online registrations. With things already in place at convention centers, such as recycling programs, some planners aren’t necessarily identifying those as sustainable actions. Rather than saying, “OK, we’re doing pretty well, so maybe [sustainability] is something we should start talking about,” they’re not putting the pieces together.
How are you working with planners to help them overcome these obstacles?
There are people who are always going to be frustrated that things aren’t changing fast enough, and there are some people who are too afraid to push that envelope even though they’re hearing from their attendees that they want [more sustainability initiatives]. Overall, in our post-show surveys, sustainability is received very positively and rated as something of importance, so I’m so fascinated when I find planners worrying about that minuscule percentage of people who might push back against it.
What’s also interesting, and maybe it’s because of the political climate, is clients who are hesitant about promoting their sustainable practices. Some people won’t even bring up the topic because they assume it’s polarizing. In that case, we work with our clients to create a program that’s engaging and reframe it as making sense, not necessarily about the environment but about doing good things. That seems to make it more accessible.