5 ways that conferences and events can better serve sustainable tourism

better tourism sustainability sustainable tourism May 18, 2022
5 ways that conferences and events can better serve sustainable tourism

 I’m a conference junkie! One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is being able to participate in and contribute to conferences and seminars.  I’ve spoken at several conferences – nationally and internationally, online and in person.  A few years ago, I even planned, curated and hosted a national professional development conference, The Tourism Space LIVE - twice. I’ve been MC for events inside and outside of tourism, have moderated discussion panels and conducted practice trainings and workshops. I love all of these events. More and more, sustainability and sustainable tourism are becoming key features in all of these events.

Conferences play a central role in reflecting the evolution of the industry and helping set its future direction. This is very obviously the case with sustainable tourism, which is finding its way to the centre stage of mainstream tourism conferences and events (as opposed to conferences dedicated fully to sustainable tourism). This was first noticeable in 2019 when almost every conference included a nod to sustainable tourism on its agenda, perhaps for the first time. It’s even more pronounced in 2022, with the concept of sustainable tourism most often elevated to the status of a main event theme and tagline.

Reflecting on the last few years, here are 5 small ways in which I feel conferences could even better serve the awareness and understanding of sustainable tourism. I'd love to hear what you think of them!


  1.  Aim for Expansion of Understanding

There’s a tendency for the segment on sustainable tourism to focus on best practices, end solutions and those who have already achieved great things. However, this leaves a big gap between the stage and the audience. Many are still figuring out what sustainable tourism means and how it applies to them. Allow your conference to be what it should be – a bringing together of people for the purposes of discussion, consultation, deliberation. Avoid trying to curate all the answers in a show of best practice. Allow space for questions, for not knowing, for dialogue. People figure things out in dialogue. Being in conversation, being outside of one’s own space, being in deliberation with others – all of these things allow us to discover our next possible steps.


  1. Ensure the MC is informed

The MC, Event Host or Conference Moderator, plays a central role in allowing your conference reach its objectives. This person is usually an accomplished communicator, very often a media personality with television or radio experience. Having such experienced and well-known faces certainly lends a touch of celebrity to the event. Just make sure that this is matched with a good understanding of the complexities of sustainable tourism. If it’s not, the questions and synthesis will be limited by the understanding or biases of the MC.


  1. Select diverse speakers

Unless the conference has its origins in sustainable tourism, there’s a tendency to play it safe when it comes to speaker selection. Perhaps there is an underlying fear of speakers having viewpoints that are too radical, too disruptive, or too critical of the industry and policy makers. Be careful not to let your conference be limited by past beliefs and current apprehensions. The most memorable and impactful speakers on the topic of sustainability are those that are provocative, invite new thinking and bring humour and even joy to the conversation.  A great option is to invite speakers from outside the domain of tourism altogether. They are ideally positioned to offer a fresh perspective and are also unfettered by any industry politics or relationship considerations.


  1.  Brief speakers and moderators on the ‘buzzword’

This is a pet peeve of mine! The word ‘buzzword’ should be eliminated from conference conversations on sustainable and regenerative tourism! It is used surprisingly often in this domain (I counted 17 utterances in one ½ day conference recently). Calling sustainability a buzzword is pejorative and serves only to grow cynicism. Check out these definitions below if you don’t believe me on that.

  • A word or phrase used by members of some in-group, having little or imprecise meaning but sounding impressive to outsiders.
  • A stylish or trendy word or phrase, especially when occurring in a specialized field.
  • A word drawn from technical jargon, and often rendered meaningless through abuse by non-technical persons in a seeming show of familiarity with the subject.

It’s time for ‘buzzword’ to go and best to let your speakers and moderators know in advance that you’d rather if they avoided it. 


  1. Embody application of sustainability principles

I’ve been at sustainability-themed conferences and events where I eat meat with disposable cutlery, pour water from my own individual bottle (occasionally even a plastic one!), drink tea from a disposable cup, receive a glossy conference programme, am gifted a notepad and pen for the day, wear a name-badge in a plastic wallet or receive goodie-bags with trinkets – in short, a whole host of actions and items that cost resources and generate waste. The inconsistency in sentiment and action does not serve the cause of sustainable tourism. I’ve equally been at first-class conferences that have eliminated these ‘extras’ without in any way compromising the quality of the event. If not fully virtual, all conferences could offer a hybrid option – this extends the reach of the event without the additional travel impact. Especially when your speakers have travelled from international locations to gather, there’s a responsibility to share the synergy and insights from the conference stage.

Each and every conference or event is a golden opportunity for expanding understanding and practice of sustainable tourism, whether through hearing from great speakers, meeting thought leaders, networking with colleagues or generally getting that kick of mental stimulation. I look forward to experiencing how this space unfolds from here. Let me know what you think!


Tina O'Dwyer

Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach specialising in tourism. She has extensive experience in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, networks, clusters and collaborations. To avail of any of our MC services you can contact us at [email protected] or sign up to our newsletter below for weekly industry insights.

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