Virtual meetings offer green alternative to business travel

According to virtual events platform provider InXpo, each visitor to a virtual meetings saves – on average – 1,217 pounds of carbon dioxide. It would take 25 trees a whole year to absorb that much carbon.

Airplanes, cars and hotel rooms use a lot more energy than the servers and computers needed to run virtual worlds.

For a large corporate conference, the environmental impact could be significant. Take, for example, Cisco’s Global Sales Experience, which 19,000 employees attended virtually last September (full case study here).

Yes, the company saved 90 percent of what the conference would have cost if it had been conducted the traditional way — with hotel rooms and airline flights. But the company also saved its employees a total of 334,000 hours of travel time. And kept 84,400 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere. That’s 3.5 million trees slaving away for a whole year.

(Image courtesy Cisco.)

(Image courtesy Cisco.)

Virtual conference attendees might not get too excited about the company saving money, but they can certainly get behind fewer travel miles and less pollution.

And travel is just part of it, said Shel Horowitz, co-author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green,” a book that shows businesses how to go green, and how to harness the marketing advantages of doing so.

There’s also the meals, the linens, the water bottles…

Shel Horowitz

Shel Horowitz

“The hospitality industry is an industry with a huge amount of waste in it,” Horowitz told Hypergrid Business. “Going virtually is definitely a way to go green.”

There are even solar-powered hosting centers for companies that want to minimize the environmental impact from their server farms, he added.

And the computers that attendees use to access a virtual conference are likely to have been running anyway, he added.

“I still think that there is a place for face-to-face meetings,” he said. “There are things that the Web can’t match yet, and won’t be able to match for five to ten years. But there are some events that can be moved over.”

When companies do hold a virtual conference, he added, they should take advantage of the opportunity to market it as a green event.

“You can say that this conference is saving X tons of carbon dioxide by not having people travel,” he said. “Bars of soap that are not going to be thrown out at the hotel. And bottled water is a huge environmental waste. You waste as much as three times as much water as goes into the bottle, and you have to transport the bottles. And if you’re going to a hotel in Texas in the summertime, the amount of air conditioning required to make that hotel comfortable for people is enormous, and hotels tend to over-air condition.”

A green conference is not only a marketing tool for promoting the conference itself, but also a way to improve the image of the whole company, he added.

“Consumers are hungry for businesses who are going down this path and want to support them,” he said.

Cisco isn’t alone in switching to virtual conferences. The high price of air travel, or natural disasters like the Iceland volcano, have spurred companies to look for more cost-effective ways to get people together. The environmental benefits are a happy side effect of this trend.

Business media giant UBM said it will triple the number of its InXpo-based  virtual conferences this year. InXpo is one of the top three vendors for virtual events — the other two are On24 and Unisfair — and was also behind the Cisco conferences.

The virtual conference and trade show market has more than doubled from 2008 to 2009, according to a report by Market Research Media, which predicts a compound annual growth rate of 56 percent through 2015.

And according to a report from Forrester Research, 75 percent of business decision-makers attended three or more Web-based events during the previous 12 months.

This is a positive change, said the World Wildlife Fund in a recent report.

“Air travel is important not only for its 5% or more – and rising – direct contribution to anthropogenic global warming, but also because it is a core feature of the broader patterns of economic and social development which are driving carbon emissions generally,” the report said. “Minimising or reducing it can therefore have disproportionate effects on global emissions.”

The report cited research showing that an individual replacing a 415 mile trip with a two hour videoconference can reduce total carbon dioxide emissions from 4400 to 880 pounds — only 88 of which were related to the power necessary to run the computer equipment. The rest were due to the “rebound effect” — when a virtual conference creates the need for another, face-to-face meeting, down the line.

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maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China. Follow me on Twitter @MariaKorolov.

11 Responses

  1. Virtual events company Second Events has released a calculator that can help you determine exactly how green a particular conference is:

    http://www.secondvenue.com/green-events

    Some more environmental advantages:

    The folks at Second Venue note a 2000 study by the EPA, which reports that an attendee to a typical conference generates an average of 20 pounds of trash per day while at the event — but would only have generated 4.6 pounds at home. For a 500-attendee event that works out to almost four tons of extra trash.

  2. enerhax@yahoo.com' Ener Hax says:

    there are indeed many, many meetings that can be done virtually. there will always be the need to have face-to-face meetings

    but we also have some cultural things to get over too. for example, many companies want a "butt in the seat" for work that can easily be done by telecommute. this fundamental attitude, when changed, will affect our perception of the need to travel for conferences and meetings

    to me that is a trust issue – once we can trust our fellow people, then we can also trust that as much value can be gained from a virtual meeting or conference as a real one. i would go so far as to say that more value may be gained from some virtual meetings

    how on your game can you be if you jet into a city, sleep in a foreign bed, eat some continental breakfast and stress about your attendance? and then red-eye back to your home base and hit the office the next day?

    certainly that affects your ability to learn, function, be creative, solve challenges, and so on

    (ener disclosure <– unfortunately, the amount of CO2 i put off rambling on and on offsets any carbon savings from me! very cool that the carbon from servers was used in this calculation, i like that from a geologist point of view) =)

  3. An update from On24 spokesperson Kimberly Gengler:

    The typical ON24 virtual event, with 2,300 participants, reduces carbon emissions by 3,300 tons; an estimated 17,000 trees would be needed to have a similar effect.

    The average number of pieces of paper saved by using digital documents at Virtual Shows—36,000 per show.

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