The increasingly global character of business in the 21st century has had many effects on corporate life, and one of the most salient is multicultural meetings. When companies expand their operations into new countries, develop their customer base globally, or merge with or acquire international firms, a variety of events with multicultural attendance often ensues, from incentive trips to training meetings to product launches.
An executive at a premier meeting and incentive company noted that as their client base grew globally, it became more important to integrate the constituents from those areas of the world in the overall event planning. Specifically, the company has seen more attendees from the economically strengthening BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries.
Furthermore, a widely multinational corporation is still finding room for overseas expansion. According to their senior event planner, Asia is a big growth market for them. They hold a great number of meetings there. In addition, the company arranged an event on the West Coast for their Latin American dealers.
Yet multicultural meetings aren’t necessarily the result of globalization in business, as the U.S. itself harbors a great diversity in cultures due to ethnic diversity. Interestingly, U.S. meeting planners tend to define “multicultural” in terms of ethnic diversity, while those living outside of the U.S. tend to equate multicultural with multinational, according to the findings of an MPI Multicultural Initiative study. After 120 interviews with a random sample of MPI members, it was found that 80 percent of all respondents “noted that organizations which provide meeting services need to be sensitive to specific needs of meeting attendees from various races or cultures.”
But for respondents living in the U.S., “ ‘multicultural’ meetings are often described as meetings of people from various ethnic backgrounds, including religions and races. Respondents living outside the U.S. more often described ‘multicultural’ meetings as meetings of people from various nations.”
But despite attendees’ diversity — whether national, ethnic, generational, or otherwise — a sense of unity must be fostered at a corporate meeting. In that context, participants are all employees (or clients) of the same company, and a single corporate brand and message must draw them together. Multinational meeting company clients attempt to set a consistent tone and create an “environment of oneness at their meetings,” said the executive.
That may require a little give and take on attendees’ part in how they expect the meeting to be conducted, such as its formality or scheduling. German and Asian attendees typically put a strong emphasis on punctuality, for instance. Indeed, late arrival to a business meeting is often considered insulting to the Chinese. But when these attendees are just one cultural group among many at the meeting, they may well need to expect and allow for more flexibility in start and end times. Latin attendees might expect more time allotted for lunch (the main meal of the day in their culture) and a program that runs later, conforming to their work customs.
A planner facing a mix of attendees from various backgrounds would do well to stage dinner somewhere in the middle, Thus, neither group would be eating at their usual hour, but neither would deal with a radical shift. Of course, it’s natural that customer-facing events will cater more precisely to any cultural preferences of the attendees than internal events.
Much has been written on the business customs of various cultures, but instead of making any prejudgments as to how attendees would want the meeting structured, what entertainment or offsite activities they’d prefer, and so on, it’s arguably best to take an empirical approach and find out. To that end, Maritz Travel deploys a tool called Meetings Effectiveness, which essentially informs design of a meeting by gathering quantitative data on potential attendees’ preferences. “While we do have to be somewhat utilitarian about some choices including destination and properties, we can be more individualized in other ways — free time, optional sessions, activity selection and family-friendly — based on feedback from the Meetings Effectiveness tool,” says Jim Ruszala, senior director of marketing for Maritz Travel. “A move towards creating more individualized incentive travel experiences has become a must, and incorporating the voice of your program participants and creating an exceptional experience from their perspective can make a significant business performance difference.”
In the senior event planner’s experience, the Asian market requires much more attention to protocol, to the sensibilities of their culture. Therefore, planners have to make sure that they are seating the Chinese leader at this position and next to him is the appropriate person. (Chinese guests are seated in descending order of rank with any interpreters sitting behind the principle speakers. These speakers will typically sit at the center of the table across from each other.) And when planners work with government officials or high-level suppliers, it’s even more important that such cultural needs are met. Moreover, with a totally U.S.-based meeting, planners have much more leeway and may randomly seat guests to a certain extent. And with any attendees who are competent in English but not to the degree that they readily understand idioms, regional expressions or pop culture references, it’s best to avoid entertainment that might depend on that capacity, she has found. Planners have to be sensitive about the type of entertainment offered to a multicultural group of attendees. A good idea is to try to use visuals as opposed to spoken language. For instance, a Blue Man Group performance instead of an English-language comedian would fit the bill. The language factor obviously extends to other aspects of the event besides entertainment: everything from registration materials to signage should be kept in “plain English,” as they say, or offered in multiple languages if needed.
Language is also a means by which attendees of certain backgrounds can feel included — or excluded. “To the extent that you are inclusive in your language you allow for the possibility that there are people who may identify differently than your majority population,” notes J. Kevin Jones Jr., deputy director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates. The nonprofit organization focuses on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues in corporate America. “The important thing to recognize is that at any meeting you have there will likely be members of the LGBT community present, whether you’re aware of it or not. And there are lots of cues that they pick up in terms of language and visuals that either feel inclusive or feel exclusive,” Jones says. “If you use the word ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’ instead of ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ you basically tell someone who’s in a relationship with someone of the same gender that they’re included” in the target audience. Speakers should be coached on their language in this regard, if necessary, Jones stresses. “For example if you have a CEO talking about diversity in general, he might refer to, in what he intends to be a good way, ‘I believe that a person’s sexual preference is not important in determining who gets the best job.’ Well, that language specifically would be problematic for someone in our community because it refers to sexuality as a preference.” Now, it may be that a very small percentage of the attendance is part of the LGBT community, or even none at all. But importantly, “you don’t know whose brother, whose son, whose parent, whose best friend is also part of the LGBT community,” says Jones. “So when you add those who care about or are in relation with LGBT, you may then be talking about 40-50 percent. And to the extent that they are tuned into sensitivities around that community, something concerning to LGBT may be concerning equally to a much larger audience.”
Also important to bear in mind is that the demographics of whoever is on stage also can send a message of inclusiveness. For example, when a Hispanic gives a keynote, or a Gen Y employee delivers training on her specialty, those in the audience of the same demographic tend to feel that the company is particularly accepting of them. A similar effect results from providing entertainment during the event that reflects attendees’ culture or generation.
Mixed demographics can require something of a balancing act on the part of the planner. Clearly, Gen Y participants tend to favor different kinds of entertainment than baby boomers, beginning with often-diverse musical tastes. But in line with the point that fostering unity is important, it’s probably a good idea not to segregate the group at different entertainment functions if possible. Especially when incentive winners are all age groups, one savvy planner says she doesn’t segregate the 20-somethings from the 50-somethings because she wants them networking together. As a matter of fact, she says it’s a good thing to understand what your fellow employee does after work. That it helps to foster unity.
Now, if for some reason a planner thinks that an extracurricular event may not be appealing across the demographic board, a good approach is to market it as just that: extracurricular. Ensure that attendees don’t see it as their primary opportunity for networking. For example, if it is an entertainment option that may not appeal to the entire group, set it up at the end of the day so it does not appear to be a mandatory-type event.
This sort of issue doesn’t arise, of course, with a generationally uniform group, and here the entire event can be tailored to the general preferences of attendees in a particular age bracket. For instance, if a planner has a client with attendees in the same age group such as the mid-20s, it’s a simple task to factor that into all the planning including the hotel style, which in this case would be more cutting-edge or have a hip feeling as well as a more relaxed dress code.
One planner who it might be said has her finger on the pulse of Gen Y is 26-year-old Abigail Wesley, part of San Francisco-based BCD M&I’s sales support and marketing team. Wesley has observed some marked preferences in travel incentives among that demographic: “What we’ve found is that they are the generation asking about all-inclusive properties: typically a beach destination that provides the group with VIP access to the resort’s on-property amenities. They seem less interested in organized activities. Meeting sessions similarly tend to be more casual. We’ll bring in lounge chairs and beanbag chairs, so it’s not a structured, ‘sit in a classroom and watch a PowerPoint’ environment. It’s more interactive.”
Using the online survey tool for corporate clients in the past, Maritz has had cases where preferences might be traced to cultural or generational demographics. “Today, there are four to five generations in the work force, creating a much larger melting pot of diversity — both culturally and generationally — than ever before,” says Ruszala. “This melting pot, along with the multiplicity of behavioral and attitudinal values, influences individual choices when it comes to what participants need, want and prefer in an incentive travel program, ultimately challenging the design process of successful incentive travel programs. It is imperative that we work with clients to create research- and experiential-based design approaches to provide the best value to both the sponsoring organization and program participants.”
It’s safe to say that, statistically, younger attendees are more comfortable with — and would prefer — virtual communications regarding the event, particularly via mobile apps and social media. But the convenience of these media is certainly not lost on every attendee over 40. “Having a Twitter wall that allows attendees to track and further discuss session topics does seem to appeal to every generation,” says Wesley.
Again, surveys are a simple way to find out how attendees want to be communicated with, and a planner might discover that she does indeed have some tech-savvy older folks on her roster.
One CMP has discovered that social media has been very well accepted throughout her multinational company, including senior employees, who are very technologically astute. She even stages an annual meeting for 300 senior-level managers who all use iPads.
In fact, her company decided a couple of years ago that emphasizing electronic communications is part of the company’s sustainability initiative. While such “green” practices may be especially appreciated by some demographics (e.g., West Coast 20- and 30-somethings), whether they are adopted at meetings tends to be more a function of corporate culture than attendees’ culture or generation. And some cultures are far more advanced in their green practices than others.
It is the meeting planner who often implements that corporate directive and decides on specific ways to make the event green, whether contracting with a property with a certain green designation, encouraging the use of public transportation among attendees, and so forth. Planners of all generations are leading the green meetings movement, but when it comes to the younger professionals, one can expect that priority to come naturally.
Wesley, for example, has become “kind of the sustainability expert” at her BCD office. Her generation has grown up with green practices such as recycling, and increasingly will demand transparency regarding those practices, she feels. “Because the younger generation is so well informed, they’re not going to take green designations at face value, but really question and examine vendor practices. “If you say you recycle, they may ask to see where and how it’s done.” We’re definitely coming into more of a transparent age, and that’s going to matter a lot to the younger generations.” C&IT