Synergy Global Forum – A Master Class in Disruption

I’m shaking things up a bit. I decided to get a taste of sustainability at another type of venue – a business, entrepreneur event – a demographic that likes (needs?) their coffee. Here are a few things I learned and observed over the course of the two days (October 27-28, 2017).

Day 1

I ascend a set of marble steps, entering one of multiple glass doors of the front entrance of the Theater at Madison Square Garden, New York. I’m sent to a line to wait to go through security. I pull out my laptop, open up my bag, ready, trying to help with the flow. The security guard, a tall white bearded man sees my lunch (in a reusable container, of course) and tells me I can’t bring food in. I explain I have dietary requirements and want to be careful of cross contamination – he immediately backs off. Then he pulls out my glass water bottle, inspects it. I can’t bring in glass. I ask if I can keep it on the side of the bin to pick it up later. No, security will confiscate it. I tell him I’m willing to take that risk. No.

I don’t see separate recycling bins, just one big bin. I take several large swigs of water,  peer into the clear plastic lined trash can with it’s bottle-filled contents, and reluctantly release my trustee glass container – it will now have to go through a whole disposal cycle, eventually ending up in a landfill. Painful.

Eating my food later in the day, a guy commented “they let you bring that in here?!” He seemed a bit envious. I assume they took his away. They sell snacks at the event, but to get a meal you have to leave the building. This, in a way, is forcing people to buy on the go and accept whatever disposable packaging it comes in.

After collecting my ticket, I ascend more stairs to the theater entrance. I pull out my info pack and skim through it. Single-sided printed pamphlets. I count the number of pages. 42 (plus a folder). I heard the announcer say they hit a record number of attendees (7000), so multiplying this over the number of unnecessary pages (21 if printed double sided), is huge, not just in terms of waste, but also in costs.

Photo on 27-10-2017 at 16.29 #2

With the proliferation of cell phones, I think the event could have been entirely paperless. The event website could have an up-to-date program and/or QR codes could be available at check-in to scan for event information.

Later, I attend the event lunch, which is a few blocks away at the Hammerstein Ballroom. It’s packed. People with (VIP) tickets are being turned away. I enter a dim lit room with a heart-shaped light hanging on stage that reminds me a bit of a high-school valentines dance. I see wine glasses and ceramic dishware assembled around the circular tables – nothing disposable. Napkins are cloth.

There are several waiters dressed in black lined along the side observing, waiting to attend to guests. I approach several of them, asking about their observations on waste. One female waiter tells me, “honestly, there’s a lot of waste in this industry”. She mentions a recent fashion event she worked at. Food was hardly touched, she suspects  this was because”most of them were on diets”.  For this type of situation, I think there is an issue with portions – if there was some way (like an app?) to allow people to pre-select portion sizes of food, I’m sure a large amount of waste would be eliminated.

I learn catering is by In Thyme. One of the servers points out the manager, AJ. He’s in a nice suit with a pink tie. As he walks over, I briefly introduce myself and tell him about my focus on sustainability. I’m aware of his need to attend to the event so suggest we discuss things another time. He gives me his business card.

While I’m observing the lunch, I hop on the In Thyme website – Ray, a security guard with strong prescription glasses who I’ve been chatting a bit with let’s me use his cell phone wifi –  I didn’t see anything about sustainability.

At the lunch, I overhear a conversation between two guys, picking up something about app development. I approach them. One of the guys – really tall, in a suit, with 90’s style spiked hair – is walking away, so I mention my interest in finding a developer team to the other, who I later found out is Gerard Adams, Founder/CEO of Founders. Gerard calls back the tall guy, Ron, slaps him on the back, exlaiming how he already is getting him leads. Ron works at The Real Start and explains to me they’re more than a developer team – they also do biz dev and consulting. They’ve done some work with the Synergy brand (who are running the event), along with several Russian spin-offs of things like Airbnb. It’s not what I had in mind, but I’m open. Maybe greater support will help accelerate the idea and lead to faster product development.

I attend the After Party, also at the Hammerstein Ballroom. The tables from lunch are cleared and there’s a square bar at the center of the dance floor. The dress of people is a range of Halloween costumes, business suits, cocktail, and semi-causal (the category I’m in). Drinks are served in plastic cups. When living in England, I found out about waste-free solutions for serving drinks at venues (e.g., Green Goblet, Stack Cup, and Ecocup) –  a deposit is paid for a branded cup with the purchase of a drink; the cup is returned and either a new one is used with the purchase of another drink or the deposit is returned. People who want memorabilia can keep the cup, in which case, they do not receive their deposit back. This type of system would help move Synergy towards a zero waste venue.

I don’t have any water. One of the servers I’ve been speaking with offers me an unopened pouch of HFactor water – there are many left on the table. I’m super impressed by the hospitality. I’m not a seated guest and yet asked if I’d like some food. I had eaten earlier, so declined, but accepted a cup of coffee.

Photo on 27-10-2017 at 16.27 #2.jpg

Day 2

I’m back observing the lunch. Same set up. I meet AJ again. I have an opportunity to speak with him a little bit. He tells me how their company is multi-legged, and that in areas where they cater to corporations, there is a growing demand for biodegradable packaging so they’re moving in that direction. I later email AJ to set up a meeting, telling him I’d like to learn more about the company’s policies on local sourcing, packaging, left over food.

I notice they don’t have recycling at the lunch venue. There are plastic bottles and paper (that could be recycled) being tossed into the bin next to me. This is hard to see. I’m still not sure what happens with left over food and don’t know if food gets composted.

Photo on 28-10-2017 at 15.13.jpg

I also had the opportunity to meet with Alex, the CEO of Synergy. I tell him I’m interested in helping their venue be zero waste. New York is trying to go zero waste by 2030 (0X30). I tell Alex it would look good if they could get there before, and that this could be used as part of brand and event promotion. Alex expresses interest in working together. He gives me his contact and I’m also asked by another Synergy team member for my details to set up a meeting in a few weeks to see what can be done.

The event is almost over. I need a break. I head down to work at a table in the food court right outside the theater. I’m observing this guy in a baseball cap and gloves removing the trash. Why not speak to him too? I think. This isn’t Synergy event related, but I’ve been trying to understand the general business waste system since the NYC Coffee Festival. The worker tells me they have the recycling and landfill waste in separate bins in the food court, but when he brings them down in the basement, they all get crushed in the incinerator together and collected. He doesn’t think any of the waste gets recycled…

On the whole I sense that sustainability at this event (including catering) was not the main focus. However, I do believe there is interest in this area, and hope there will be improvements at next year’s venue.

*Thank you Alex for letting me borrow your iPad for the feature image. Phone acquisition with good camera pending!


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