Darci Motta, CMP and senior conference manager at CSAA Insurance Group, and board director of Meeting Professionals International, Northern California chapter, recognizes the vital role diversity and inclusivity plays in today’s meetings arena. In fact, CSAA Insurance Group’s focus on diversity is expanding beyond race, ethnicity and sexual orientation to encompass inclusion and belonging, and creating strategies to bring the best out of all people.
“We strive to create safe and inclusive environments where everyone feels valued and encouraged to share their truths and perspectives,” Motta says.
The American melting pot gives our nation depth, character and diversity. With so many different kinds of people, how do meeting and event planners manage diversity and inclusivity within an event?
As the workforce becomes increasingly globalized and younger, more diverse generations enter the labor market, corporate meeting planners are looking for ways to make various meetings and events appeal to these diverse audiences.
As we know, the emphasis being placed on diversity and multiculturalism in the meetings arena is much greater than it was even a decade ago. There is intense scrutiny on inclusiveness concerning factors such as race, sexuality, national origin, gender, religion and health.
“ Most meeting planners should look heavily into the origin of their attendees and research these calendars — often found online — to determine the best possible solution of when the ideal attendance threshold and event date is desired.”
Gregorio Palomino, CMM, CSEP, CWP
San Antonio, TX
Meetings have taken a dynamic approach the last few years and have made a push to take notice of when guests and attendees are unable to attend due to conflicts that may arise from religious, cultural, school or state/federal duties that would not normally appear on a planner’s radar when planning a meeting.
Gregorio Palomino, CMM, CSEP, CWP and CEO at CRE8AD8, LLC, in San Antonio, Texas, says that recognizing your attendees’ diversity can help develop a better, more comprehensive program. Whether it be food and beverage, their age group/generation, observances during the program such as religious services/worship time, the destination itself offering inclusion of the community or simply a break that coincides with the time children get out of school, it can greatly impact the program and provide positivity throughout, which, in turn, will fuel a beneficial learning environment for all.
“This not only helps with increasing guest and attendance numbers, but revenues and sponsorship dollars as well,” says Palomino. “Most meeting planners should look heavily into the origin of their attendees and research these calendars — often found online — to determine the best possible solution of when the ideal attendance threshold and event date is desired.”
“Having diverse and inclusive meetings leads to better audience engagement, and, ultimately, to better ideas and results,” Motta says. “The more voices that can be heard and represented in the room, the better. Conversations become richer, new ideas are surfaced, and, we get better insights into our customers, too.”
The largest change that Mazda Miles, CMM and chief event strategist at Perfection Events Inc., in Philadephia, Pennsylvania, has seen in recent years is the understanding of the depth and breadth of diversity and inclusion with the meetings and events marketplace.
“When we first began to turn our attention to the importance of diverse and inclusive meetings, the definition and understanding was somewhat narrow — referring only to race/ethnicity and gender. And, the implementation was somewhat limited.
“At this time, I am grateful to see that we have moved to emphasize that we must be inclusive on so many more fronts — race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability or impairment,” Miles says. “Additionally, I see that we, as an industry, are working to be thoughtful about infusing inclusion through every area of the meetings instead of in acute scenarios such as one representative person on a panel.”
It makes perfect sense to Miles and other meeting planners that attention is being put on having meetings be diverse and inclusive in order to have meaningful interactions and gain truly impactful insight.
“Otherwise, we are only seeing a portion of the picture, and that presents a risk to our outcomes and return on investment in such meetings,” Miles says. “Although it is the right thing to do to focus on diversity and inclusion, it is also the wise thing to do. It just makes good business sense.”
So, how do the best multicultural meeting and event planners create experiences that make targeted attendees feel welcome and included? Among some of the most common practices include evaluating how a meeting or event fits in demographics of attendees, craftingan appropriate message, ensuring that you give attendees proper access to the event, while demonstrating support for targeted groups throughout the planning process.
Motta suggests that meeting and event planners do the following in order to make a meeting as diverse and inclusive as possible:
When identifying speakers, have a rich and diverse speaker lineup. Engaging conferences, like TedX, Nantucket Project and C2, are great examples of how to infuse diversity into your speaker lineup and your engagement practices.
Find diverse ways for audiences to engage in meetings with interactive tools, such as throw-able microphones and mobile polling software. Engage attendees in different ways, and, often, in ways they prefer.
“Throwable microphones make Q&A more fun, interactive and less intimidating, so there are more voices in the room,” Motta says. “Interactive voting software also allows you to crowd source Q&A content from attendees, introducingmore diverse voices into the meeting.”
Include diversity in foods and beverages. In addition to addressing potential allergens, planners should look to fulfill the needs of a diverse culture perspective, as well. At CSAA Insurance Group, their menu options have become more international and include options the organization wouldn’t have offered even five years ago.
Create the right environment. You can’t plan a diverse and inclusive event if you don’t design it that way. This might seem simple, but removing barriers and bringing attendees closer together can help make a meeting feel more inclusive. Motta suggests removing the “front” and “back” of the room.
“At a recent milestone anniversary banquet, we transitioned the space to be in-the-round to eliminate the front and back,” Motta says. “With only two rows of tables around a center stage, everyone had a first- or second-row seat.” For meetings, CSAA Insurance introduced alternative seating options allowing attendees to choose how and from where they want to engage. A standing counter at the rear of the room? A residential chair toward the front? A pod with colleagues? They have options. Holding “walking meetings” and including “wellness moments” at an event gives people a break from sitting for too long and shows consideration for attendees’ personal choices and comfort.
“Environment design can speak volumes, especially when creating inclusiveness,” Motta says.
Miles always like to suggest that planners think of diversity and inclusion holistically. Think about every way attendees will interact with each other and how to make ALL of those experiences inclusive — from inception to execution. There are the most obvious things, like making sure speakers and panelists are diverse, but there are also less obvious things, like how you ask about gender during the online registration process.
“Every time a meeting planner touches an attendee, they should think about how to be inclusive,” Miles says.
In her efforts to make meetings and events diverse and inclusive, Miles has done things like designated prayer rooms, selected and crafted culturally diverse menus and, most recently, her firm worked with a venue to institute an inclusive restroom policy.
The following message was posted in the restrooms: “All are welcome to use the restroom that best matches their identity or that feels safest and most comfortable to them. Please help hold a safe space for everyone by not challenging or questioning others’ restroom choices.”
“This was a strategic decision due to the makeup of the audience, but we pushed ourselves to find a solution that would end up providing a safe environment for everyone involved,” Miles says.
Palomino and his team have helped clients develop programs and agendas to include all walks of life and human interaction. They’ve built inclusion groups based off postal codes, they’ve offered accommodation requests to better suit the attendee’s observed religious or cultural needs, and they often, if not most the time, make sure the menu planning has something everyone can experience.
“Our speakers, staff and sign language professionals also add to the mix of ways we make our programs inclusive,” Palomino says. “Talking with all vendors to ask their opinions and advice on how they will independently operate to observe these requests is important, too.”
In this time of ensuring that everyone feels welcomed, companies and organizations have added substantial costs to their bottom line budget to operate not only a perfect program, but one that is well-balanced. It has proven itself to increase numbers — both financially and in attendance.
“In an industry with financial and insurance professionals, which is one of the most diverse when compared to most others, it is more important that your organization lead the way,” Palomino says. “Unfortunately, most meetings/programs put on by the insurance and financial sector have been known to be somewhat boring. Making your program more inclusive and diverse is one way to elevate, engage and inspire. A diverse and inclusive program is only a part of the solution. It must mesh well with every other moving part from the time the guest leaves their doorstep to the time they return.”
The most common mistake meeting professionals make is to assume that there is no cultural difference in attendees from varying backgrounds. Rather than taking the time to understand, embrace and leverage diversity within the meeting and event experience, some planners decide to simply ignore possible differences among attendees.
When multicultural diversity is ignored, meetings and event planners risk attendees’ disenfranchisement and disengagement. That’s why it’s important that meeting planners understand the importance of working with individuals of diverse backgrounds to gain perspectives and insights they would be blind to otherwise.
Meeting planners must make everyone comfortable with providing these insights through diversity planning groups. And they must model multiculturalism to team members by embracing their diverse perspectives, recognizing them for the impact they have on the event planning process and respecting them as valuable members of the team.
One of the most important things to do when looking to increase diversity and inclusion is to be collaborative. Consider getting feedback from others regarding your ideas, and ask them for their thoughts on how to make your meeting more diverse/inclusive.
“When we go from what’s in ‘our mind’ and assume it is the only or correct approach, we can miss so much and do more harm than good with assumptions,” Miles says. “It is perfectly fine to be clear that you don’t expect one person to be the voice of all ‘their people,’ but let them know you value their feedback and would love their thoughts on ways to expand the diversity and inclusion of your meeting.”
In Palomino’s attempts to make sure a program — or the focus of the program — is more diverse and inclusive, he has sometimes felt he “overdid it” in the form of media, communication — and tried to please everyone to the furthest extent.
“We do aim to please, but we’re human,” Palomino says. “In one scenario, we really tried to make the program so inclusive, we designed 18 different sets of materials in 18 different languages, including the photo shoots, demographic and ways it was presented. The marketing was amazing, but it was overkill. It didn’t quite hit the note we were hoping for on one program. We anticipated about a 35 percent spike in attendance, it was more like 15 percent. In our eyes, we missed the mark on that one.”
Palomino also had a financial client that was centered on investors from four main countries: China, Sweden, Argentina and Brazil.
“As much as we attempted to make the menus all-inclusive, it was a lesson we learned that making one meal instead of several options was best for the program. It went over well — and so did the budget, but at least the client has kept us on board.”
The future is bright for diversity. We are becoming a more diverse nation, so it is easier than ever to incorporate diversity and inclusivity within the meetings and events arena.
However, as Palomino says, the future of these types of meetings is like Bitcoin — it’s new, cool and everyone wants to be a part of it — but not everyone knows how to plan for it.
With the younger generation taking over the companies and organizations their parents and grandparents started, they come with new ideas and motives for driving it to the next level.
“Over the next five to 10 years, companies and organizations will change, mostly for the better. But, unfortunately, those who don’t get on board with these changes — whether company or employee — will suffer and be left behind in a dust of the ‘unknown and unwilling to change’ group,” Palomino says. “Designing your inclusive program for everyone will come at a cost, but so will the increase in your bottom line.”
Motta says the emphasis on having diverse and inclusive meetings will continue to grow as audiences become more diverse and people get savvier about inclusive opportunities and the idea of belonging.
As our world and industry matures, Miles expects that the emphasis on diversity and inclusion will grow, as well. She hopes to see individuals and organizations continue to be thoughtful and become even more strategic in their approach.
“I can imagine that at some point, as companies see the business impact and ROI of diversity and inclusion, they will incentivize employees for their efforts, as well as tie attainment with performance goals,” Miles says. “There is a direct relation between diversity and inclusion with engagement and profitability, so I think that organizations will start to build strategies around assuring attainment of diverse and inclusive objectives.”
“Social media and event tech will provide planners better tools to engage audiences in new and different ways,” Motta says. “And, as younger generations continue to make their voices heard — whether as professional speakers or through mediums such as TedX and YouTube — access to more diverse voices will grow. Our audiences are changing, and their needs and desires are changing along with them. We can’t do things as we’ve always done and be successful.” I&FMM