PhD Defence Vanessa Meinen

On September 12, Vanessa Meinen successfully defended her PhD Thesis entitled: Steering Sustainable Events Performance. Towards a more balanced assessment of sustainable association events (Click on cover to download the full version). Together with Prof. Marion Halfmann of the Hochschule Niederrhein, I had the honour of supervising her.

We know from academia, that interacting with our fellow scientists worldwide on the occasion of conferences, consortia meetings, etc. is far from sustainable, especially when we look at the environmental impact of all the travelling involved, not even to speak of the local impact of the event itself. Especially during the past Covid-19 pandemic, we have also experienced many possible alternatives for communicating and exchanging ideas with our fellow scientists. At the same time, however, we have also experienced the loss of the embodied and experiential meetings with our colleagues. It is clearly too simple to think of the sustainability of these kinds of events by only reducing the ecological impact by replacing travel with digital remote communication. One needs to look at the sustainability of these events in a more balanced and multi-modal way.  What is true for scientific meetings, is even more true for other kinds of meetings and events with stronger experiential aspects., like in many touristic events. Vanessa Meinen, based in research and policy-making in the field of sustainable tourism, dedicated her PhD research to exactly this topic well before the pandemic hit us and before we became aware of these different aspects. As such, she was well ahead of her time.

One of her major cases was a large scouts event in Germany. A topical case where it is clear that the embodied experiential aspects are very prominent, and also the location, in the green countryside, is almost by definition not sustainable from an ecological point of view. But such an event is not just about a sheer exchange of information, which could be easily replaced by digital media. This is an event where being physically together in a very special setting and environment is the core business of this event. This is very comparable with many other touristic attractions and events. It would be too easy to disqualify these events as unsustainable. One really needs to look at these kinds of events in a more balanced way in which also other aspects, like e.g. the social, experiential and economic aspects need to be taken into account.

When I was on holiday in Switzerland last summer, a similar event took place in the mountain valley Goms. 30’000 scouts met in this remote location. It was an immense effort, to do this in as much as possible sustainable way, while at the same time also keeping the once-in-a-lifetime experience of a scout alive. It comprised 800 scouting groups, 5000 assistants, 500 volunteer organisers, a budget of 25 million Swiss Francs, a 120 hectares camping site, 5000 Kilos of bread every day, etc. etc. The following video gives a brief impression of this huge event. For me, this underscored once more the relevance of Vanessa Meinen’s research.

It also exemplified, how difficult it is to collect comprehensive data at such an event. Doing a survey among the participants, while they are all having other priorities at this unique event at that moment, does not allow the collection of data that would enable sophisticated statistical modelling of the behavioural aspects of the sustainability of such an event. But even limited and more descriptive data tell us more than no data at all, so sometimes scientific ambitions need to come down from their high horse, and use the data we do have in a pragmatic way to serve policymaking.  In this respect Vannessa has come up with a wealth of data and knowledge on the policy aspects of the sustainability of these kinds of events, allowing for a more balanced judgement. This is also how the PhD thesis of Vanessa should be read. It clearly shows how we could improve the assessment of the sustainability of these kinds of events and how we might strive towards a more balanced way of managing the sustainability of association events.

At the same time, it also shows that places, settings, and embodied experiences, do matter also in relation to events.