As 2020 continued to evolve, it became increasingly clear that Cisco IMPACT, a three-day, multi-venue corporate event traditionally held each August in Las Vegas, would not be able to take place in person due to COVID-19 closures and restrictions. The Cisco Global Events IMPACT team began the process of reimagining how to convene their nearly 20,000 attendees in a digital environment that would have the power to inspire and connect them in new and meaningful ways.

Responsible Meeting

In recognition of the countless endeavors that have been forced to radically innovate and adapt across the globe, the theme of this year’s event was appropriately titled: Reimagine Possible. Cisco IMPACT distinguished itself out of a host of high-profile 2020 conferences migrating to digital by embedding sustainability and corporate social responsibility across the attendee experience.

“We had spent the past five years refining a method of accounting for and reducing nearly every environmental impact connected to our physical production,” said Desiree Hamilton, operations manager at Cisco Global Events. “Abandoning that commitment to our sustainability values, principles and legacy simply because we moved to a digital event seemed wrong.”  This was particularly noteworthy, as during the outset, Cisco planners and event leadership were not 100 percent certain what components comprised a “sustainable digital event” in terms of design and metrics. But they were willing to try.

It became clear, through convening virtually, that climate impacts would be significantly reduced. According to Hamilton, “We have been working towards carbon neutrality at our events for years, but one of the unexpected benefits of meeting in a digital format, was that offsetting our emissions became more feasible than ever before.” To help facilitate this goal, Cisco neutralized 100 percent of virtual attendance and event production impacts by planting 1 tree for each attendee via the Tentree Climate+ program. Trees naturally “sequester” and absorb carbon and this planting, over the next 10 years, is expected to retire an estimated 1,800 metric tons (MT) of CO2 through science-based reforestation. Given that the carbon reduced from these efforts exceeded event emissions by such a significant degree, by virtue of unique accounting circumstances, Cisco IMPACT 2020 can technically be considered “climate net positive.”

Drive Positive Impact

Similarly, Cisco took bold steps in its attendee appreciation strategy. “Historically, our attendee giveaways have been the product of some form of circular economy. Our giveaways have aligned closely with our sustainability or social responsibility efforts themselves, such as backpacks created from up-cycled water bottles, however, this cycle was the perfect time to try something different,” adds Hamilton. Instead of traditional material items, Cisco attendees were offered the opportunity to help direct financial donations to causes such as the Cisco Fighting Racism and Discrimination Fund, Clean the World, and World Central Kitchen. Additionally, in 2020, “experience-driven” prizes replaced physical ones, and centered around one-on-one time with Cisco’s Executive Leadership team, sharing a personalized virtual experience based on their individual hobbies.

In addition to material reduction, Cisco sought to fully leverage the design and content of their digital platform to comprehensively promote sustainability education. This included ensuring attendees had the opportunity to access sessions and tools dedicated to enhancing diversity and inclusion, equity and accessibility, good health and well-being, and healthy communities. In just one example of the many transformative resources available, Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracism: A Different Conversation was viewed by thousands of  attendees across six continents. According to Hamilton, “Our challenge was to provide a portal for our stakeholders that would not only successfully accomplish our business objectives, but also authentically drive positive impact in our people, society and planet.”

Navigating the Future

As planners and industry professionals continue to search for fresh ideas in the realms of digital and hybrid connectivity, the work of Cisco IMPACT 2020 offers a compelling roadmap forward for reimaging possible in sustainability and events. For more information about Cisco sustainability please visit this link.

Eric Wallinger is director of sustainability at MeetGreen, a sustainable event agency that helps companies produce events that deliver targeted business results.