A Sustainability Conversation with Francis Purvey of Sunlark Associates & the Sustainable Events Network, Florida & Caribbean



Members United for Sustainable Events (MUSE) is happy to be a partner of the Sustainable Event Network of Florida and Caribbean (SENFC).  Today, we’re sitting down with the current president of the SENFC, Francis Purvey.

Hi, Francis, how are you today? 


I’m excited to learn more about the SENFC.

It’s an exciting thing, and it’s always a work in progress. We’re growing in leaps and bounds with people, especially now as the pandemic effects seem to be diminishing.  People are seeing the need for sustainability in meetings and events again, and they’re being re-energized in that direction.

Meetings and events are great opportunities for sustainable practices. A lot of us think of conventions, conferences and meetings in hotels and convention centers, but there are also events in cities including  festivals where the public and consumers are involved. And so we’re reaching out to cities and communities, to say, “Hey, there are simple things you can do – or stay away from – to make this event more sustainable.”

There’s food insecurity in many communities and we work with partners such as Food Rescue US, and Feeding Florida.  As the SENFC, we can’t possibly do all the work, but we can help others understand the process, implement the solutions, and see the reward.

It’s great that you’ve all created a local group, even though Florida is a big state.

Yes, Florida is a large state. And the Caribbean is a multitude of communities, islands, dialects, languages and governments. Islands have a lot of other sustainability challenges such as freshwater, power, and items that are unique to islands.  I grew up on an island, and each house has its own water tank, and you use water with that in mind. If you took a long shower, or ran the water while you brushed your teeth, you’d hear it from your parents. You knew that if you used more water than you should, you’re going to be in trouble.

How did you get involved with SENFC?

I got involved with the SENFC in 2013. Actually in those days it was called the Florida & Caribbean Chapter of the Green Meetings Industry Council. I was the Vice Chair of the SITE (Society for Incentive Travel Excellence) annual global conference in Orlando. We wanted to make the event as sustainable as possible.  I took on that responsibility, and that led me to get involved with all of the providers like the hotels, and all the attractions including Disney and Universal. We created an elaborate document for sustainability. And that’s where I personally got started in meetings and events sustainability.

The SENFC has grown over time, then we had this little hiccup with COVID 19. And now we’re ready to get back in step with everything. The Millennials have brought this to a common public perspective. And now the government is taking it seriously. So I think we’re in a great position to participate in this overall momentum, and it’s up to our profession to make sure that people do it right and do it effectively.

Food rescue is a key initiative of the SENFC.  Can you tell me more about this?  

Food rescue, which evolved into the name “Zero Food Waste,” has become one of our initial points. There was so much food waste at events, and there is so much need in the community for this food. The Super Bowl in 2020 in Miami, before COVID, donated 150,000 pounds of food and product that was distributed to the community. Right now we have the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. had to re-engineer their safety and sustainable practices, and they did it successfully. The need is there and everybody feels good about doing it.

One of our biggest challenges is that people need to understand there is no liability with food donation. The Good Samaritan Laws enacted over 20 years ago has been effective in discounting liability for people donating food.  People still use that as an excuse, or don’t understand that this is no longer an issue. It was an issue. But it is not an issue today in food rescue.

Can you tell us about some of the guidelines for food rescue?  Do you have to have a refrigerated food truck?

Yes, there has to be reasonable care taken. For example, once you’ve put a chafing dish out for a buffet you can’t send that to food rescue, but you might have two or three more trays that are still in a cooler or a hot box that can be donated.

We’ve found that once hotels or convention centers get used to this, they’ve managed to do it very well. And they start to think ahead and say, “We’ve got this event tomorrow, why don’t we combine it with this event the next day, and we’ll send it out at one time.” Now, there’s also a lot of smaller events where it goes directly to a food pantry, or a church, or to someone who needs it. And they deliver it so quickly that the amount of time that it’s out of the cooler is insignificant. But you do have to be careful in those types of things.  The Good Samaritan laws are easily understood, in fact, we post them on the SENFC website (HERE).  They’re not challenging, but there are policies that you do have to live by.

Download the SENFC PDF that simplifies food rescue (HERE).

What kind of advice would you give to planners just starting on embedding sustainability into their events?

The most important thing is that you don’t start thinking about it the day before the event. You start off at the time you’re contracting with a hotel or convention center. Take food rescue as an example: you have to save the food, you have to transport the food, and you have to have somebody to receive the food. And you don’t go around the night before saying “Oh, I gotta find a food pantry to do this.”  Although sometimes the hotel will have a food pantry they work with on a regular basis, and they take care of getting it there.

The key thing is to start at the very beginning, and start thinking about what can be made better in terms of sustainability. Do I absolutely need to have all of these signs? And if I do have signs, do they have to have the year and venue on it? Or can I reuse them next year? What are they made out of? Could I donate them to a school and church nearby?

The other big thing is to encourage the use of non single-use water bottles. Try to get people to use reusable water bottles, or get a sponsor to logo reusable water bottles. Or the hotel can use pitchers of water. There are things you have to be careful with right now regarding safety and cleanliness. And I’m not suggesting those are not important. But I’m saying that you have to do what you can.

Freeman and other organizations have sustainability programs, so you don’t build exhibits once and throw them away. You either repurpose or reuse them, and you’ll save money. And make sure that you truck it efficiently. So, there are a lot of things, but the core is think about how you can reuse things, get started early, start working with your hotels and vendors. Then the other part of it is communicating to your attendees: get them on board early, get them anticipating what to expect.

Use apps instead of paper, or print on both sides. There are a lot of things people can do.  So from the large convention to somebody just getting started, I would say start early, plan for it, engage everyone, and communicate it to everyone.

And at the end of the program, write down what you accomplished, we saved this much water, or we saved this many bags of trash, or we recycled this many cans of sodas.  Share that with your constituents, your stakeholders, your attendees to make them feel good. And this also creates a benchmark so you can do even better next year. But don’t think it can all be done by one person. And don’t think it can be done overnight.

What would you say to a person that feels overwhelmed by recording all the measurements and the benchmarking?

Sometimes it can be as easy as saying we distributed 10 trays of food, or we made this particular donation, or we recycled 10 bags of materials.

Something you have to remember is that you can have all the biodegradable products in the world and feel great about it. But the minute you throw them into a plastic garbage bag and put them out, it’s doing no good because they won’t decompose in those garbage bags. Make sure everything is disposed of or recycled properly.

There are ways you can individually calculate carbon to offsets your flights. I think that’s marvelous. But the more you, as a planner, can get your partners and providers  involved in your process, the more they become proficient at it, so they can do it with other people going forward.

And I guess that’s where the whole expansion takes place. As you convince one person to get involved, they make the connection and it just goes on from there.

How have you found ways to save money when making events more sustainable? 

There used to be a considerable cost if you are going to be sustainable. For example, switching to LED lights has an immediate cost, but there’s a huge, long-term saving.

There’s a resort in Aruba called Bucuti and Tara Beach Resort, and they’ve won the Global United Nations 2020 Climate Neutral Now Award, which is an incredible accomplishment.. The owner said he looked at everything from the perspective of saving and waste reduction. And he even looked at the plates he was serving food on in the restaurant, and reduced the size of the plate and reduced the size of the portions. Not dramatically, but he saw that people were not finishing their meals. And so he took it upon himself to reduce the size of the portions with no complaints, no comments. And as a result, he saves money on food costs. And two, he saves a significant amount on the food waste pickup. So if people think outside the box, and realize they can make changes, then we’ve all won.

What are you looking forward to in the coming year?

I think we’re all excited that we’re getting out and getting beyond feeling so confined. And the need for face to face meetings has certainly been proven. There’s also a pent up demand for travel. And so we’re very optimistic that meetings and events are going to be revived. And realizing we have to change our behaviors and openly accept change. There’s no better time than right now to realize that change is inevitable. And let’s grasp it and run with it.

Website: senfc.org
Facebook: www.facebook.com/SENFCorg
Twitter: twitter.com/senfcorg

Join the SENFC: senfc.org/Join



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