We now have access to an infinite variety of in-home entertainment options as well as the ability to instantaneously connect with strangers, friends, and loved ones around the world from the comfort of our homes. Unfortunately, our incredible technology comes with consequences. Although the ease and access of home entertainment has soared in recent years, so have feelings of loneliness and isolation. In fact, a 2016 study found that nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults have experienced loneliness and one-third of adults feel lonely at least once per week. Digital connections and entertainment may offer a quick-fix to mask the social downsides of our individualistic society, but they do not seem to be enough according to this research. Recent mass shootings and terrorist attacks at large events around the world make staying in sound even more desirable.
Despite these seemingly frequent public tragedies, people remain motivated to venture out. Research shows that 80% of U.S. Millennials are expected to attend a live event each year and spend more than double the per capita average in our country on these events. I would like to think we are a fearless bunch, but this wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Perhaps we are gravitating towards live events to instill the sense of community and social connectedness that is difficult to find elsewhere in our modern age.
Though temporary in nature, live events provide fleeting feelings of salvation in this world of increasing isolationism. The event industry offers one cure for our lack of unity, as evidenced by a nationwide doubling in spending on live concerts, art shows, and sporting events (as a percentage of total consumer spending) between 1990 to 2010. And in addition to the emotional remedy offered to us, events also may be able to help us overcome issues on a larger scale.
Live events can serve as oases of social connection, rare expressions of interpersonal cohesion that can add extreme value to our lives and those around us. In their ideal forms, music, sport, and community initiatives can transcend even the most rigid differences, whether it be political, religious, or otherwise. When the music hits your ears, when the smell of the fresh grass puts a smile on your face, or when the crack of the bat sends a ripple of cheers through the crowd, the shared experiences can create a bond that breaks barriers and uplifts all who attend.
Although financial opportunity should not be ignored as a driver for live events, the overall benefits behind them are arguably much more significant. Constructing a more united society, promoting art and culture, and inspiring attendees to live with joy and fulfillment are just several more profound reasons found at the core of live events. But when event producers do not fully commit to maximizing the societal benefits of their events, they are chipping away at the very foundation on which the events can be built. Therefore, it is imperative that event producers do not undercut these deeper purposes which exist at the heart of events. Additionally, managers can begin to identify opportunities to better manage our shared natural resources and local community needs to reach industry sustainability.
Bringing those Millennials back into the picture, 78% of the demographic would prefer to spend their money on experiences—such as events—instead of material objects. 81% of them also expect their brands to publicly commit to advancing social and environmental sustainability. This makes sense—the very nature of the shift from our desire to consume to the desire to experience aligns with our growing awareness of the unsustainable and damaging systems in our consumerist society. Event goers prefer to spend their money experiencing culture and community rather than just blindly consuming products. If events and their brands can effectively capture these rising trends and balance social, environmental, and economic value, we can maximize the benefits of these live events for all stakeholders, internal and external.
Now, how close are we to reaching widespread industry sustainability, and are most large “sustainable” events even “sustainable” at all? Many of our music festivals, temporary sporting events, and community events are manufactured, artificial villages that consume mass amounts of fossil fuels in various forms and can put significant stress on the natural resources of the actual cities in which they operate, regardless of landfill diversion or solid waste recycling efforts. While the minimization of operational resource consumption such as transportation emissions, solid waste, water supply, and others are vital to a sustainable event, perhaps our lens is too narrow.
Sustainability in the context of a temporary event is almost paradoxical. “Sustainability” is about preserving our way of life for future generations, but events last for just a few days at most—obviously they won’t be around to sustain a community. This is why we must focus our attention on two things: We must encourage the ability for the host community to sustain itself (via the minimization of environmental resource consumption and promotion of social equity), and we must attempt to create a permanent legacy. This requires a perspective beyond just traditional resource conservation metrics.
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which have been historically utilized in businesses for financial decision making and economic development, can help events define relevant sustainability goals and track performance as it pertains to the goals. Although all natural resources and social issues are crucial to address on the macro level, event-specific and community-centric initiatives can be identified when predetermining the most meaningful KPIs. Then, the limited resources available from the temporary event can be fully focused on addressing the issues that matter most.
We need to concentrate our sustainability efforts on the social and environmental issues that are most relevant to the host communities and local ecosystems so that we can take action that will continue to resonate long after the last diesel-powered truck pulls offsite. Are imminent rising oceans or natural disasters threatening the security of your coastal host community? The event could partner with a local coastal restoration organization to develop measurable KPIs regarding the education of attendees and recruitment of inspired volunteers. Is drought decimating local crop yields and putting immense strain on regional surface and ground water? Perhaps you could develop KPIs which track event water consumption as well as limiting all event food to originate from within a defined radius in an effort to support local farmers. Are children in a nearby low-income neighborhood lacking sufficient access to nutrition, education, or professional development resources? Again, utilize the work of local organizations and increase their community influence through your event’s high-profile platform. By taking into account pressing social and environmental issues your community faces, you can boost public relations and feel confident that you can keep returning to the same host city year after year.
By educating attendees on relevant local issues and motivating them to take action outside the fences of the event, the door to real sustainability can be opened. Only then can a temporary experience lead to long-lasting change across the world. By sparking unity, creating community, and inspiring activism, events can help us overcome personal conflicts and external threats to society and our planet.
It sounds awfully simple, but perhaps all the world needs is for us to come together with open minds for a beer and a good show.