This week’s Green Scene column in Crain’s Chicago Business: Green event planner aims to take Chicago events to next level

For years, Shannon Downey has aimed to change the way people celebrate and experience events in Chicago. Now, she’s putting her talents behind the upcoming TEDxWindyCity conference, which she hopes will spread the green message well beyond Chicago.

Ms. Downey, 32, launched Pivotal Production LLC, a green-minded event-planning and marketing firm, four years ago. Starting with $2,000 and a one-year contract with the Museum of Science and Industry, Ms. Downey began blending sustainable principles into experiential marketing events.

Ms. Downey’s intent to fold green practices into every aspect of her business stems from an early life spent mostly outdoors, where she nurtured a passion for the environment and learned from her parents to “leave no trace.”

Shannon Downey

Ms. Downey runs a lean shop. She has no full-time staff and assembles a new team each time she’s hired to create an event. Last year, she reported $105,000 in revenue, and she projects about the same for this year. And, she says, her business is profitable. 

About a year ago, Ms. Downey was awarded a coveted TEDx license from TED, the California-based non-profit that organizes the elite TED gatherings twice a year. Ms. Downey intends to combine her green event-planning expertise with other partners to produce similar local gatherings using her TEDxWindyCity license.

In fact, Pivotal and a few big-name partners are staging the next multimedia TEDx event Oct. 6 at the Museum of Science and Industry, which quickly sold out of its 400 tickets. The audience will hear experts and representatives from local food organizations discuss the topic: “Challenges, Innovations and the Future of our Food Supply.”

Crain’s recently met up with Ms. Downey, and she described how her green events go beyond minimizing trash that’s produced (she does that, too).

Crain’s: How did you identify a need to establish a green event-planning and marketing company in Chicago?

Ms. Downey: I actually didn’t start Pivotal with the intention of going after the green niche, but green is how I live so it was always going to be that kind of business. When I was freelancing for other large marketing companies and saw the waste that was happening, I thought there had to be a different way.

When I started meeting with clients, I had to educate them about the way I approach an event. I give them the aesthetic, the goals and deliverables of what they’re looking for. But then I add a whole other layer that goes into it, which is to find the most sustainable production elements that I can bring into it, including processes and vendors.

Crain’s: What are some details that go into planning a green event that might not otherwise be on the client’s radar? How do vendors respond to your tough requirements?

Ms. Downey: One example is lighting and sound for audio/visual support. I always want to use LEDs, which are much more energy-efficient than regular cans for lighting. They’re also triple the cost. I’ve sat down with vendors and worked out how they’re going to pack their truck and what’s the most fuel-efficient route to get to where we’re going. I even put idling limits in my contracts.

I have to make sure the people I’m partnering with approach an event the same way I do. It took a long time to find people who were willing to play the game with me. I would sit in meetings and see lots of eye-rolling, but once people figured out I was for real and that I was going to be successful, then they wanted to work on the events I was working on.

Now these companies are realizing they’re saving money when they work with me, and they’re willing to make changes.

Crain’s: Can you describe one of the greenest events you produced and how it expressed what you’re trying to achieve?

Ms. Downey: Last fall, we did a product launch party for Colori Eco Paint Boutique, a super cool paint store on North Avenue (in Wicker Park/Bucktown). The product was Mythic Paint, a non-toxic low (volatile organic compound) paint manufacturer, and Colori was going to be its new exclusive seller in Chicago. We had 400 people, a hip DJ, and we hired brand ambassadors who were local artists who did a group mural during the event. We even had the artists licking the paintbrushes to show how safe the product is. Out of the whole event, we produced one bag of trash and four bags of recyclables, and I took a bag of compost home and dumped it in my yard. I have a really fertile back yard.

A lot of people think about green events in terms of trash and recycling, but there’s much more than that. I take this holistic approach about supporting the local community, the local arts and musicians. If it’s a corporate event, I think about how I can fold in a non-profit or support small and local businesses. That’s really important to me and I feel what differentiates this company. I don’t just think about the “stuff.”

Crain’s: What types of clients are drawn to the events you create?

Ms. Downey: The clients I have are in three markets. The first is art-based, which is a result of my network and what I love. They are mainly non-profits and small companies, such as Woman Made Gallery and the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. I do innovation-based projects, which included work for the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the British Council in a partnership program, and events using my TEDxWindyCity license I got a year ago. I also have green clients who come to me because of the way I handle events, including Colori and Baum Realty.

Crain’s: You say that getting the TEDxWindyCity license from TED and producing those local events aren’t cash-cow kinds of ventures. So what’s in it for you?

Ms. Downey: It’s the relationship-building that comes out of these events that’s so valuable to me. I get the opportunity to work with companies and organizations that normally wouldn’t pay attention to me. Like Google. They’re one of the partners in this upcoming event on Oct. 6. They’re lending their network to us.

I’m not getting paid for it. These are labors of love, but also investments in PR and brand recognition. The intangibles have been invaluable in opening doors and creating relationships that are important for me. I hope it’s a way of bringing in new clients down the road, but it’s not the primary motivator.

Crain’s: You say these TEDx events are a great way to practice and model what you think the next generation of green events should be. What do you mean by that statement?

Ms. Downey: It’s moving beyond the stuff (like lighting and recycling) and the processes to the content. I think we should be using events to showcase collaboration. I love the idea that TEDx the brand creates an opportunity for little Pivotal and Google and the Museum of Science and Industry to work on something together because the topic is so awesome. And in addition, we’re going to use the event as a platform for all these up-and-coming businesses and projects and non-profits that are participating and help them garner support through this event.

That’s more sustainable than green. The recycling and composting for events need to happen in conjunction with the idea of community and collaboration so we can all sustain our businesses and programs, and in turn, sustain Chicago.


In other green news around town:

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has won the prestigious Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, the Institute announced Thursday. Mr. Daley, the 2010 laureate, is only the second mayor to receive the prize in its 11-year history. The announcement is being made Thursday at a celebratory luncheon in Chicago. Read more on the Institute’s Web site.

Will County is breaking ground this week on a renewable energy facility that will convert trash into cash and clean energy. The plant, in a partnership with Waste Management Inc., will recover and convert methane gas into energy from the Prairie View Landfill. The facility, which is expected to be completed by December 2011, could provide as much as $1 million annually for the county in energy sales to local homes. No local taxes are being used for construction, according to the Will County Board.

The International Interior Design Association and InterfaceFLOR launched their eighth annual IIDA Student Sustainable Design Competition. The competition was created to encourage sustainable design and thinking and award individuals who demonstrate consistent, creative incorporation and the understanding of sustainable principles. For more information, check the competition website: The grand prize winner will receive $2,000. Entries will be accepted online from Oct. 18 through Nov. 8.

Applications are now being accepted for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s GreenWorks Awards 2010. The awards will be given to business owners, entrepreneurs, activists or employees that demonstrate they are part of what’s transforming Chicago into a more environmentally, socially and economically robust city. The application deadline is Oct. 5. For more information:

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