Business Tourism: Providing a Social Legacy

by Rob Davidson
Sep 2009
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This article examines initiatives that meetings and incentive travel planners can include in their programmes to leave a lasting legacy of community improvements in destinations which host business tourism events. It considers the advantages of adding a social legacy dimension to a meeting or incentive trip, as well as the challenges and pitfalls. Finally, a case study of a recent UK conference describes in detail how corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives were included and highlights examples of best practice.

Many people within the new generation of participants in business tourism events (essentially, meetings and incentive trips) are uncomfortable with the type of conspicuous consumption that often characterises such events. This is particularly the case when lavishly-funded meetings and incentive trips take place against a background of disadvantaged communities or in developing countries.

Consequently, one of the main differences between 20th-century and 21st-century business tourism events is the current widespread desire – particularly among younger, Generation Y, participants (usually defined as those born between 1977 and 1995) – to somehow make a difference and give something back to the communities where their corporate meetings and incentive trips take place. This is becoming known as the social legacy of business tourism, and it is one of the key trends driving the design of such events today.

Social legacy relates to the People aspect of the triple bottom line of CSR (People, Planet and Profit) and, as such, goes far beyond the simple greening of business tourism events. While the planet-centred greening of events involves practices such as recycling materials, hosting paperless meetings, choosing meetings destinations served by public transport and building green clauses into contracts with suppliers, social legacy also takes into account how a meeting or incentive trip impacts upon the people and economy of the local community.

Social legacy elements encompass community initiatives and the raising of social awareness among meetings and incentive travel participants. This aspect of business tourism events is closely linked to the growing interest, especially among members of Generation Y, in volunteerism (or ‘volun-tourism’) as a form of community service that promotes goodwill and provides personal fulfillment. For many attendees, social legacy has also become an essential part of the experiential dimension of a meeting or incentive trip.

In his book, Conferences and Conventions: A Global Industry , Tony Rogers notes that:

'A successful business event can be marked with a ‘legacy’ initiative, for example with a corporate donation to a sustainable project, or by fundraising among delegates, possibly with top-ups by the venue, agency and other suppliers.'

This is one of the most common ways in which business tourism events can leave a legacy in destinations where they take place. Participants may be invited to donate to a local charity or another worthy cause at the time of registering for the event or, more commonly, at the conference or incentive trip gala dinner, possibly after viewing a video presentation describing how their contributions will be used.

From the point of view of the event organiser, the appeal in this approach to leaving a social legacy lies in its relative simplicity and its minimal impact on the time taken out of the principal focus of the business event.

For longer events, where there is less pressure on participants’ time, a more hands-on approach to leaving a social legacy can be used: participants take a day or half-day out of the event’s proceedings to work directly on a project. This can range from landscaping the garden of a local retirement home to constructing a library in a nearby village school.

Construction/renovation projects may even be included in the event’s actual programme, as seen in the example of Swedish communications and events company, Inspiration. They arranged for participants at one of their events to assemble new park benches for the Stockholm City Mission, over pre-dinner drink and canapés.

Many participants in business tourism events are more motivated by outreach activities, which give them the opportunity to meet and interact directly with local people. This approach works particularly well when part of the objective is to raise participants’ awareness of social issues impinging on the local community.

An example of this was seen in the 2008 ‘Greening the Hospitality Industry’ Conference, held in Vancouver, where the organisers made a commitment to do something that would directly benefit the community. In addition to selecting a carbon offset programme, they partnered with the Vancouver Food Bank and participated in their volunteer programme. Attendee volunteers toured the food bank and learned about the various local groups who benefit from its work. They then sorted and separated food and household items, weighed and measured items, and arranged goods into boxes for disbursement. In one hour, 31 attendee volunteers from around the globe assisted 1,600 people with meals in the Vancouver Metro area.

If attendees include a number of VIPs, another valuable outreach activity can included where they take time out to share their knowledge and skills with people in the local community.

Martin Sirk, CEO of ICCA, the International Congress and Convention Association, has suggested that delegates attending international association conferences can offer a direct benefit to local communities, for example when:

  • visiting world-leading surgeons conduct master classes in local hospitals
  • delegates who are high-profile business leaders visit local schools to talk to young people about, for instance, the skills needed for success in today’s globalised workplace
  • eminent specialists in their field give free public lectures to complement their conference presentations.

It is generally accepted that, when used effectively, this form of community investment can create a profound impact on the lives of people living and working in business tourism destinations. And this is clearly something that applies to all destinations where a section of the population suffers from some form of social or economic disadvantage, not only developing countries.

Conversely, including social legacy activities in meetings and incentive trips can also considerably enhance the image of individual companies and the business tourism industry as a whole, by demonstrating their social awareness and desire to make a difference. This is particularly important at a time like the present, when the economic climate means that media and company shareholders are alert to corporate events that appear to be too lavishly funded.

However, it is not only corporations that stand to benefit from association with social legacy activities. Martin Sirk of ICCA believes that by articulating and promoting the social benefits of events, international associations can also:

  • improve the way they are perceived
  • win greater support from the destinations which host their congresses
  • increase their negotiating position vis-à-vis suppliers, and
  • energise their various stakeholders.

He has stated that the political debate is shifting from direct economic impact alone to the CSR impact of international meetings, and this is where international associations can make some powerful arguments:

'Politicians like to hear about how international events can create a social ‘legacy’ in their communities.'

Including social legacy activities can also be a highly effective way of creating a meaningful bond between delegates, boosting the quality and quantity of team spirit generated. Jonas Bodin, CEO of the Swedish company Inspiration has noted that:

'It [including social legacy activities] bolsters the group in a deeper sense than if it were done through games. An activity becomes a social process and the group gels …'

Encouraged by a growing body of evidence that CSR has a positive impact on businesses’ economic performance, more and more companies are engaged in integrating CSR into all aspects of their business, including their corporate events.

But CSR is not without controversy. While it is often presented as an enlightened approach by corporations eager to demonstrate their corporate philanthropy, it is sometimes criticised as a public relations cover for ‘business-as-usual’ or, worse, a collection of initiatives that are designed to distract consumer and watchdog attention away from business practices that are actually detrimental to communities.

'Greenwashing' is a term used to criticise a manufacturer or service provider that makes a claim about the environmental benefits of its product/service without foundation. Companies that incorporate social legacy activities into their business events need to avoid having similar accusations levied against them.

A recent article on this topic written by Michael Pinchera for Meetings Professionals International, highlights this risk and offers the following precautionary advice:

  • ’To avoid 'CSR washing,' [organisations should] tie [efforts] into their own organisational goals, mission and vision. This shows that the organisation is serious.
  • CSR efforts should also be long-term. Community activities or investments that don't have any staying power are obviously headline-driven.
  • The biggest warning sign is a company that aggressively boasts its activities. Most corporations that are truly committed to CSR practices understand that CSR is an evolution and all companies are far from CSR-perfect. So, you don't often see these companies bragging about what they do, they tend to share stories and their best practices but also focus a lot on what they can do better.’

Social legacy activities are most effective and convincing when they take place within the wider context of the company’s existing CSR policy. This lends coherence and continuity to such activities, focusing, where they exist, on the company’s established contacts and the causes that it already supports.

Sensitivity to local communities’ plight is another factor to be respected when planning social legacy activities. While the desire to engage in outreach activities and make actual contact with local people is commendable, it is vital to avoid any impression that the event participants are ‘slumming’ in any way, or motivated by voyeuristic curiosity. As Jonas Bodin of Inspiration notes: ‘It’s important not to go and see people in misery because it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Rather like shanty-town tourism in South Africa, and that’s not pleasant’.

Finally, where the company has no established contacts with charities or other worthy causes, the choice of the recipient or recipients of its social legacy activities must be handled carefully. Meetings and incentive planners may have very limited knowledge of the local situation, and they therefore need to work in close partnership with destination stakeholders who can identify the most deserving causes and recognise what can be achieved in the limited time available.

Many charities, for example, complain that one-off actions of the type favoured by some corporate groups are actually time-consuming and disruptive to their own activities, creating more problems than they solve.

In their role as ‘honest brokers’ at the destination, Convention Bureaux (CVBs) can play a valuable part in bringing together meetings and incentive planners with local agencies representing charitable causes. As interest in offering social legacy activities as an add-on element of business events grows, a growing number of CVBs are taking on the role of key intermediary, bringing together interested parties.

An outstanding example of this is seen in the activities of the Melbourne Convention and Visitors Bureau (MCVB). In 2009 MCVB won an award from Australia's leading industry body, Meetings and Events Australia (MEA) for its record number of green initiatives and its contribution to instituting lasting legacies from business events held in Melbourne and Victoria. This included significant fundraising initiatives for local charities.

The MCVB offers the following CSR tools and advice for those planning a business event in Melbourne and Victoria.

  1. Leaving a lasting legacy. They work with organisations to make a lasting contribution to the community through education and information sharing, particularly through public forums, allowing visiting experts to engage with local community groups. MCVB has also initiated a corporate donation system, whereby meeting planners or event VIPs and guest speakers can choose a charity or environmental protection agency from MCVB's list to receive donations made on behalf of the organisation or association.
  2. Support with major fundraising initiatives. They offer assistance with creative fundraising initiatives, benefiting both delegates and local charities. Recently MCVB worked with a major multinational corporation to raise over $57,000 for Melbourne children's charity, Berry Street, by hosting a Health Run for delegates during the corporation's Melbourne-held incentive programme.

The fourth annual conference of Eventia – the official trade body of the events and live marketing industry in the UK – was held in the Holiday Inn Brighton-Seafront on 6 and 7 July 2009. The Summer Eventia was attended by 220 events and live marketing professionals, predominantly UK-based.

As an association with a reputation for providing leadership to the industry it represents, Eventia takes its corporate responsibilities extremely seriously. It is conscious of its role in showcasing the type of CSR initiatives that conference participants could incorporate in to their own events. For Eventia, the definition of CSR most definitely includes community-based activities. And one of its key priorities is to ensure that the association’s annual conference strictly observes issues of sustainability.

This case study analyses the four initiatives selected by the organisers of the 2009 Summer Eventia – none of which had a cost-implication, other than some initial organisational time.

Eventia’s first CSR initiative for this conference was instigated long before the event began. It is Eventia’s policy to encourage the use of public transport and car sharing by attendees and by the conference team, so attendees were informed of this and encouraged to log their chosen transportation mode through the registration process for the Summer Eventia 2009. This data was in turn sent to the Carbon Trust for analysis, in order to track the transportation carbon footprint element of the event.

Before describing this community-based initiative it is important to recognise Eventia’s principal motivations in offering this activity – it was not to encourage team-building, but rather to give delegates a break from conference proceedings and the opportunity to network in an original manner in a part of Brighton that most of them would not have otherwise visited. There were also important time constraints, as no more than two and a half hours out of the two-day event was available for this activity.

The idea for this community initiative was one of several suggested by an organisation called the Brighton and Hove Business Community Partnership (BCP), a local partner of VisitBrighton. The BCP is a not-for-profit organisation that brings together commercial, community and voluntary sector organisations to support community development and encourage social entrepreneurship. In that role, the BCP identified a number of projects for Eventia to consider, and this was the idea that appealed most to the Eventia conference team.

St Bartholomew’s Church of England Primary School is commonly considered to be one of the most disadvantaged schools in Brighton, with pupils from 24 different nationalities being taught there. The dreary, grey school playground, looking more like a concrete car park than a children’s recreational area, was identified by the BCP as being in particular need of enhancement.

The plan to improve the appearance of the school playground by painting the walls white was agreed through consultation between Eventia and the BCP, who supplied the actual paint and protective overalls for the participants to wear. The wall-painting activity was to be included as one of the activities in an organised outing for the participants that would also feature a treasure hunt around Brighton and dinner on Brighton Pier.

The activities were scheduled for the period from 17.30 to 20.00, at the end of the first day of the conference. As it would be extremely difficult for all participants to paint the school playground at the same time, they were divided into four groups, each with a different slot during the two-and-a half-hour period. By 20.00 the four grey walls of the St Bartholomew’s School playground had been freshly transformed into sparkling white, one of them featuring the Summer Eventia conference logo.

The wall-painting activity was not the only community-legacy activity to feature in the 2009 Eventia Summer Conference. At the association’s 2008 conference, participants had been invited to make cash donations to a local charity. But the organisers of the 2009 event realised that, in recessionary times, requesting contributions of participants’ cash was not as likely to succeed as well as the previous year.

Consequently, a few days before the conference was due to take place, participants were advised that there would be a number of containers located close to the registration area where they could deposit any unwanted items that would be useful to the local hospice or for Brighton charity shops to sell. By the time registration was completed the success of this initiative was clear – the containers were full of saleable items brought by participants, ranging from unwanted clothes to children’s toys.

The final social-legacy initiative taken at the Eventia conference was to invite participants to pledge, in writing, either a sum of money or (again, reflecting the current economic climate) an amount of their time, to be used in support of ‘Meetings Industry – Meeting Needs’, a registered charity founded by leading figures in the UK meetings and events industry to raise funds for worthy causes in the UK and overseas.

The pledges were clearly written for all to see on the ‘Pledge Wall’, the white backdrop to the stage in the main conference room. By the end of the two-day event, £1300 in cash and 550 hours of participants’ time had been pledged. Meetings Industry – Meeting Needs have taken responsibility for the allocating money and participants’ hours of voluntary work to suitable projects in need of financial support or expertise.

The Eventia case study illustrates a number of examples of best practice in adding social legacy activities to an event.

  • There were clear objectives for each initiative.
  • Each initiative was carefully planned well in advance.
  • The initiatives were coherent and consistent with Eventia’s ongoing approach to CSR.
  • The organisers of the Eventia conference made use of the local contacts provided by VisitBrighton, the local destination marketing organization.
  • The chosen initiatives dovetailed with the core activities of the conference and were carefully designed to suit the limited timeframes available for CSR actions.

It is clear that, despite the global economic downturn, interest in the CSR aspect of business events is still growing fast – and increasingly focusing not only on green issues but on the social legacy that such events can leave behind. Indeed, it may even be argued that by adding a social legacy dimension to business events, organisers are provided with a valuable opportunity to avoid the accusation that meetings and incentives programmes are a wasteful and extravagant use of company resources, solely of benefit to a privileged and cossetted few.

  1. Rogers, Tony. Conferences and Conventions: A Global Industry. 2nd edition 2008. Butterworth- Heinemann.
  2. Pinchera, Michael. Beyond "Green": The future viability of business demands a focus on people as much as planet.August 2008. MPI ONE+ Magazine.

Rob Davidson is a Senior Lecturer in Business Travel and Tourism at the University of Westminster in central London. His latest book, ‘Marketing Destinations and Venues for Conferences, Conventions and Business Events’ was co-written with Tony Rogers in 2006. In February 2005, he was nominated Meetings and Incentive Personality of the Year at the Meetings and Incentive Travel Awards ceremony in London. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, he was included in Conference & Incentive Travel magazine's 'Power 50' – the 50 most influential people in the UK conference industry. In 2009, he was awarded a medal by the Polish government for outstanding services to business tourism in Poland.