Planning diverse/multicultural corporate meetings was once a niche endeavor for planners because attendees, speakers and panelists were predominately white males. Those days are steadily coming to an end.
Planners are increasingly called upon to create meetings and events that include African-Americans, Latinos, women, seniors, LGBTQT people, Asian-Americans and other diverse groups. In addition, many CVBs (also known as DMOs or direct marketing organizations) are offering a range of tools to help planners with diverse meetings.
As a result, diverse meetings are becoming more of a common practice for many planners. “To be successful at what we do and be engaging planners, we must view diversity as essential,” says Rosa MacArthur, CMP, president of Costa Mesa, California-based Meeting Planners Plus. “We must embrace diversity because attendees at meetings we produce come from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
People are becoming more sensitive to the topic of diversity and are making extra efforts to be inclusive. As planners and suppliers, a large part of our job is to be sensitive to the topic and be proactive.”
Planners are finding that diversity can help them achieve meeting goals, as well as provide unique and enriching experiences for attendees.
Kate Stockton, CMP, president, Stockton & Partners Meetings and Events, a Philadelphia-based meetings, event and destination management company, says, “Attention to diversity in planning meetings adds value for attendees because they can experience something new, meet someone new or hear a speaker with a fresh viewpoint. Meetings are less about the straight delivery of information and more about the interaction of ideas and people. Diversity is the world of different experiences, voices, backgrounds, ages, etc. Diversity is essential to living in, doing business with and innovating in the world, and that includes meetings.”
Several factors are driving diversity in meeting planning: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, minorities will account for the majority of people living in the U.S. by 2040. Corporate diversity policies seek to ensure minority representation in meetings and events. The globalization of U.S.-based businesses means that meetings include more attendees from cultures worldwide.
“We rightly highlight our city’s diversity as a key attribute for our destination. We believe that when everyone has a seat at the table, the quality of an event improves immensely.” — Greg DeShields
In addition, corporations now see diversity as a benefit to the bottom line. Companies with the most diversity in the areas of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are 35 percent more likely to generate financial returns higher than their respective industry medians, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Another factor encouraging diversity results from the growing trends to book meetings and events at least partly based on a destination’s record on controversial diversity laws and issues. For example, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (CRVA), North Carolina’s law limiting bathroom access for transgender people caused the cancellation of 11 conferences, dozens of meetings, three sports events and 63,023 hotel room bookings representing $83.9 million in direct spending. The law was partially repealed last year.
Joan Eisenstodt, principal of Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based meeting management and consulting firm, has firsthand experience with groups that respond to diversity controversies.
“Having had a client who pulled out of a destination because a discriminatory law passed, I am fully aware of what can happen,” she says. “Groups look to DMOs to find out where they stand on issues that aren’t favorable to diversity.
DMOs are in a tough position because their stakeholders include local and state governments. But many DMOs have lobbied against discriminatory laws because they know the economic harm that will occur if they pass. Meeting planners and attendees want to see commitment from destinations and those who market them.”
Planners and others who follow the issue of diversity in meetings closely say there is still a need for progress, and it should be defined broadly.
Says Eisenstodt, “Diversity has to be seen in terms of ethnicity, gender, gender identification, gender expression, race, religion, ideas, country of origin, etc.
When a person goes to a meeting and sees people who are not like them, or if they see that an organization holds meetings over significant religious or ethnic holidays, or meets in cities that have experienced hate crimes and done little to change the culture, then it shows a culture of not caring about others.”
Planners can help ensure diversity by encouraging meeting stakeholders to include speakers and panelists who vary by culture, race, gender and ethnicity.
According to MacArthur, “If attendees feel welcomed, comfortable and assured that their requests/concerns are taken seriously, and if their presence is valued and the message is relevant to them, they will want to attend most, if not all, sessions and be fully engaged. If they see presenters, speakers and other attendees who look like them, it is easier to relate. It puts them at a level of comfort and gives them a greater feeling of belonging.”
Eisenstodt agrees. “We all want to hear diverse ideas and experience diverse speakers,” she says. “Those who look alike or have the same ideas don’t stimulate thought. Meetings present opportunities to expose people to new ideas and different people, and that leads to more comfort and ability to interact. Although we are often most comfortable with people ‘like us’ (whatever that means to an individual) we are better when we experience others unlike us.”
That’s the philosophy that MacArthur practices when she plans diverse meetings, including one that involved a company holding diversity leadership meetings for managers and employees.
MacArthur planned the five-day meetings twice a year, and attendees were required to stay on property.
“I had to work with the chef or catering manager to make sure that the opening welcome reception served food that was familiar to the several ethnic groups represented,” she says. “I had Asian, African-American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern and other food stations during their opening welcome reception. Throughout the week, I also concentrated on their meals and snacks, which was a huge effort because we served all three meals every day.”
Culturally appropriate décor and decorative linens enhanced the multi-cultural experience. “Everyone enjoyed the diversity and appreciated all the extra effort that went into making the meeting interesting and inclusive,” says MacArthur.
“Once you get people talking, and they have agreed to suspend all judgment, they are amazed at how much they have in common vs. how much they differ.”
Planners looking to create diverse meetings can get more help than ever from CVBs and DMOs. The efforts result from the belief that supporting diversity is the right thing to do and the increasing importance of diverse groups to CVB bottom lines.
According to Greg DeShields, executive director, PHL Diversity, a business development division of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PCVB), which works to attract diverse meetings to the city, “Meeting planners in our business want to know that CVB representatives are sensitive to issues close to their community. The Philadelphia population is representative of this cultural mix — giving us the upper hand when competing with other cities for business opportunities. We rightly highlight our city’s diversity as a key attribute for our destination. We believe that when everyone has a seat at the table, the quality of an event improves immensely.”
Philadelphia is one of several destinations that have sought to increase and track the number of meetings booked by diverse groups. In 2017, the PCVB brought 51 diversity-related events to the city with 41,000 attendees, representing 52,000 room nights and an economic impact of $37 million.
While CVBs are improving their diversity outreach, the commitment to it varies among organizations. Planners looking to create diverse meetings can determine the types of assistance available from CVBs by asking key questions.
MacArthur suggests asking: “Does the CVB have a salesperson who handles the diversity market? What exactly does that person do to address the needs of diverse groups? Does what they do add value, and is it appreciated by planners or clients? How do they go about making diverse groups feel welcome?”
Other questions to consider include: Do the CVB’s goals include reaching out to groups to let planners know that diversity is important? Does it design and promote diversity websites and collateral materials? How does the CVB hope to improve its diversity efforts?
Ask CVBs about their diversity training efforts. “They can go a long way to train their members and their entire communities about the importance of a diverse workforce and diverse businesses to those who may visit for meetings,” says Eisenstodt. “Ask how often the information is updated as groups and populations change.”
Be diverse, as well as inclusive. For example, a diverse meeting that includes Jews and Hindus isn’t inclusive unless their dietary needs are met. A meeting may be more diverse if it includes attendees undergoing gender transition or whose self-gender identification differs from their physicality. But the meeting isn’t inclusive unless it also includes gender-neutral restrooms.
Research local cultures and spotlight them online and in distributed meeting materials. Include diverse restaurants, events, venues, attractions, historical sites and short excursions.
Collect demographic data about attendees and speakers that include gender, age, ethnicity and race. Research the specific needs of diverse attendees.
Get diversity “references” from the local CVB. Ask: What do diverse local leaders think about the organization’s diversity efforts? Do local multicultural groups tout the destination’s diversity?
Distribute meeting agendas, handouts and presentations well in advance. This provides extra time for groups with language and cultural differences to review materials and respond with questions.
Schedule diverse speakers and panelists. If initial lists of speakers have zero or few minorities then re-evaluate the list. When speakers and panelists don’t represent attendees, it’s more difficult to connect with them to achieve meeting goals.
Arrange meeting activities to ensure that attendees arrive and are seated on time. Reason: Being on time is more important in some cultures and less significant in others.
Assure diversity of ideas. A diverse multicultural panel consisting of everyone with the same views isn’t necessarily diverse.
Create activities for diverse groups so they can become familiar with each other outside of meetings and help bridge cultural differences.
Track national and local news that may impact destinations under consideration for meetings. Pay attention to issues that are local or national controversies that have the potential to impact destinations under consideration for meetings.
Due to fast-moving demographic changes, diversity is becoming a way of life in the meetings and hospitality industry. One day, the vast majority of meetings will be overwhelmingly diverse. Routinely planning diverse meetings may require some adjustment for planners who are unaccustomed to doing so.
However, planners who embrace diversity now will develop additional approaches to planning that will yield results in the long run.
As Eisenstodt put it, “Diversity is critical to ensuring the health of a meeting.” C&IT