DEI — diversity, equity and inclusion — has become a significant topic of conversation and, more importantly, a significant call to action for associations and other organizations across the globe, both public and private. For some, accessibility is specifically added as a fourth element, though equity and inclusion should by definition include people with differing abilities.
Whether called DEI or DEAI, the purpose behind the acronyms is the same: To create an environment and culture where all are welcomed, all have access, all are respected and all are equal. DEI typically includes race, gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, language, socioeconomic status, ability/disability and differing political perspectives. It may include equity in procedures and processes within an organization. There may be a focus on justice and closing gaps of disparity related to pay or promotions, and ensuring not only that everyone in the organization has a voice, but that leadership listens to those voices.
As the world has become ever more divisive, the need for organizations to make DEI an integral part of their core mission and culture has become ever more critical. But what, exactly, does that look like? DEI is a microscope that reveals how an individual, company or association is upholding systemic racism, sexism, ableism, etc. in their hiring, procuring and design practices. By revealing the existing systems that create unintentional and intentional barriers, we can develop new systems that center on inclusive behavior that leverages equity as a strategy to achieve diverse results.
That’s the definition put forward by Chiriga “Zoe” Moore, certified diversity practitioner (CDP) and immediate past chair of MPI Global’s advisory board. She practices DEI consulting as a profession, and has seen firsthand how it plays out in the meetings industry. “The focus on diversity, equity and inclusion has impacted the way planners think about hiring, partnering, designing and evaluating more than the financial ROI of their events,” she says.
The recognition of the importance of DEI among associations is increasing. “As a hospitality equity, diversity and inclusion strategic consultant, I’ve seen increased inquiries from association management companies,” Moore says. “Most are in the early stages of acknowledgment, awareness and assessing their areas of opportunities, but the requests for services are more frequent than in the past.”
While this is progress, she says, “The dilemma is that few association leaders understand how DEI needs to be integrated as core to their business strategies and implemented to change existing practices, processes and procedures. The goal is that the continued focus leads to more executive DEI roles being created to ensure an intentional focus on initiatives, programs and investments.”
Creating an executive DEI role or hiring a consultant to focus on aligning the organization’s business goals with a DEI strategy was, in fact, among the recommendations of the MPI Global DEI Committee to the international board of directors. “That may feel like a heavy lift because its new,” Moore says, “but it’s a realistic step that will not only challenge existing operational biases, but improve the organization’s competitive and innovative advantage.”
Partnering with the Event Leadership Institute and MPI, Moore launched the Event DEI Strategist course early this year. She’s also being asked to keynote and facilitate more breakout sessions than in the past. “Personally, I feel more seen than I ever have as a Black woman in America. It has also increased my cultural and social competence of systemic oppression across the business ecosystem.”
Moore is an instructor in the Event DEI Strategist course, and the feedback so far has been very positive. “I have received and am receiving feedback from participants that they’ve learned to strategically focus their efforts and advocacy on internal practices and external client engagement,” she says. “The course is structured around the CMP curriculum, and many participants were shocked to learn that the existing domains barely address DEI in key areas such as risk management, marketing and design. Participants are learning how to translate their awareness to action.”
One challenge, Moore notes, is that, “Many want to believe that the industry is inclusive and that there are no barriers to entry or mobility. This belief isn’t based on data; it stems from fear of what focusing on the truth will reveal about individuals, companies and associations. We can’t overcome challenges without facing the reality that the institution of business, therefore our industry, is established on a system of oppression and inequity,” she says. She continues, “According to Data USA, women of European descent ages 35 to 43 make up over 80% of the industry, but less than 12% of senior leadership. That fact alone indicates that we have normalized men as authority figures that manage finance and strategy at the executive level. Are men ready to take accountability for this reality? If so, they’ll not only yield their positions to balance and redistribute power, they’ll get directly involved in contributing to the recruitment, retention and career development of persons that identify as women.”
There’s no question as to DEI’s importance in our industry, and Moore doesn’t mince words: “Pick your city or state. What happened in Buffalo, Texas, California, New York and Minnesota could happen at any event. DEI is not only a preventative measure, it has a very real value to putting a stop to domestic terrorism.”
Her advice to planners and associations interested in DEI is to start with an assessment. “Not investing in a formal assessment is like being prescribed medicine that only addresses symptoms and not the root cause of an ailment,” she says. “And simply adding a token diverse person to an organization’s leadership is not an answer.”
To start, leadership has to buy into the proposition that there’s a need for diversity in the organization and has to be willing to be accountable for the lack of diversity to begin with. “The best advice,” Moore adds, “is to include a plan for recurring education, because the assessment will more than likely reveal some deep-seated biases and drastic changes that need to be made to effectively level the playing field.”
Of course, there are smaller changes associations can make as a start to becoming more inclusive, and meetings and events offer excellent opportunities for that. Marla Schrager, CAE, vice president, Chicago, with Kellen, an association management company, says planners can look at getting more diverse voices on panels and among speakers, for example. She also suggests eliciting more participation from committees with members of more diverse backgrounds and seeking out more partnerships with like-minded organizations.
Schrager, who serves as executive director of the College Media Association, The Association for Graduate Enrollment Management and the Society of American Travel Writers, says, “We’re seeing a shift in the topic of diversity, equity and inclusion to ensuring that there is representation of speakers and panelists from diverse backgrounds providing multiple perspectives.” Associations, she continues, “are looking to incorporate DEI in every aspect of their meetings by bringing in diverse voices from across the world. However, the starting point should be diversifying the association itself, from the board to volunteers to reaching new audiences if a diverse constituency is not already present.”
There’s progress in this, Schrager says, but there is still more opportunity — opportunity to be conscious in every aspect of meeting planning, from marketing to networking with those of diverse backgrounds and incorporating the views of diverse people and perspectives into meetings.
Ariana Reed, Global Strategic Partnerships, Meetings & Events, AMEX Global Business Travel (AMEX GBT), also points to meetings and events as an important — and increasingly expected — pathway for organizations invested in diversity, equity and inclusion. “The rising importance of inclusive events has created an increased need for planners to scope out and ask detailed questions in the pre-planning and registration process around how to create an inclusive experience for event attendees,” she says. “Supplier diversity has also become an important objective of many organizations, given the need to support local economies by using diverse and local suppliers. It can also give planners the opportunity to create more interesting and engaging events; using locally sourced goods and services can sometimes resonate more with attendees than typical corporate products.”
Additionally, she says, “With more education around the full breadth and definition of DEI, accessibility has been an emerging topic. Planners can utilize detailed checklists to evaluate what accessibility measures are in place for their attendees, in both in-person and virtual events.”
To that end, Reed says, AMEX GBT has created an Inclusive Meetings Checklist of tips and advice for planners. “It features seven key areas to consider in the pre-planning phase. These include understanding and aligning with clients’ DEI goals, learning about attendees’ ‘dimensions of diversity,’ creating inclusive communications strategies, agenda development, food & beverage choices and more.”
But DEI isn’t just relevant for meetings and events. The meetings industry has multiple opportunities and areas where DEI can and should come into play, including among industry leadership, at CVBs, in professional organizations and among planners themselves. “In our industry, to make significant impact within DEI, it requires a combined effort across the value chain, including travel management companies (TMCs), destination management companies, CVBs, hoteliers and venue providers and client organizations,” Reed says. “Leadership requires a strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) program and commitments as a foundation, such as AMEX GBT and the commitments shown in our ESG reports each year. For suppliers, it means incorporating DEI into offerings/experiences and providing visibility to diverse suppliers in meeting destinations, and for TMCs to bring it together for client organizations.”
One step many organizations within the meetings industry have taken is providing implicit-bias training for staff and members to highlight how biases we may not even know we have can play out in our interactions with others and the choices we make, such as when we interact with people in or from international destinations and cultures different than our own. The Society of American Travel Writers offered all of its more than 1,000 members a free two-part implicit bias training session. AMEX GBT also launched implicit bias training for all of its employees and in multiple languages.
“This is essential in understanding internal biases that might affect the planning process or the ability to create inclusive experiences,” Reed says. “Also, through our membership of Diversity Inc., we provide colleagues with a platform that provides multiple support and learning opportunities. This encourages colleagues at all levels of the organization to develop the most relevant skills for their regions, geography and roles.”
Challenges remain, however. Reed says one main challenge is visibility, such as “visibility of diverse supplier information and supplier capabilities to encourage increased sourcing efforts in this space. AMEX GBT is helping make this process easier through our internal vendor assessments, which we’ve extended to our meeting and events organization,” Reed says. “Last year, we worked with Cvent to create a new template of DEI and sustainability sourcing questions for travel and meetings buyers to use in the RFP process. The questions aim to standardize and increase the availability of ESG data to support sourcing strategies and make the process more efficient and effective for both buyers and suppliers. The template includes questions around diversity certification and programs.”
DEI may be trending now, but it’s more than a fleeting trend. Its importance to the meetings industry is serious and impactful. “DEI is important for building a better future in all sectors,” Reed says. “In the meetings industry, DEI is important both for the welfare of those working in it and because it fuels better attendee experiences. For example, including diverse speakers makes for more robust and relatable content, while ensuring accessibility and making all attendees feel included creates a sense of belonging. Together these factors create more engaging events with successful outcomes.”
Essentially, Reed notes, “Meetings are about bringing people together, so DEI is intrinsically part of the travel and meetings experience. As an organization, we’re committed to an inclusive and equitable culture. Recently, we’ve expanded our internal ecosystem of inclusive employee resource groups, which include groups for Black, Asian, Hispanic and LGBTQ colleagues, and colleagues with disabilities. We have set a goal of 10% diverse suppliers across the strategic sourcing portfolio by 2030. AMEX GBT was honored with the Achievement in Diversity Equity & Inclusion Award at the 2021 Business Travel Awards.”
Christopher Vest, CAE, vice president, corporate communications for ASAE, sees meetings and associations much like Reed does. “Associations and the meetings industry in general are about bringing people together in a common purpose. We’re about advancing the industries and professions we represent. We act as facilitators between governments and private-sector industries and businesses,” he says. “We’re about collaboration and community, and lifting up others on their professional journey. Advancing our own commitment to DEI is not only a business imperative, based on the changing nature of our world, it’s part of our mission as associations.”
If some segments of an association’s membership or future membership feel marginalized or left out of organizations, he adds, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and them. “This is the fundamental purpose of associations, to allow different voices to be heard, to accept that there are many ways of resolving a problem and, ultimately, to make our industries, our professions and our society stronger.”
To be sure, DEI takes time and commitment, but Vest says ASAE has a long history of commitment already. “ASAE has a 30-plus-year history of advancing DEI in the association community, and we recognize that there is more that we can do to support organizations on their DEI journey. That’s why ASAE is currently developing a new strategy called Conscious Inclusion that’s designed to help organizations think about DEI efforts on a continuum that can progress to the point where DEI is embedded in the culture of how an organization thinks and conducts its activities.”
Through ASAE’s Conscious Inclusion viewpoint, Vest says, and supported by a multitude of products and resources in development, ASAE will be able to direct organizations to resources that match their stage of DEI evolution. ASAE also announced earlier this year that it is furthering its commitment to creating leadership pathways for diverse association professionals by launching the ReadyMe Program. “ReadyMe provides a combination of virtual and in-person training components that will build resilient and adaptable leaders, by unlocking essential traits and the career-management acumen critical for advancement and success in association management,” Vest says.
The online portion of ReadyMe can be completed in as little as seven weeks. “Upon completion of all seven modules,” Vest continues, “participants will be eligible for a one-day Extraordinary Leaders Bootcamp, which will enable participants to conduct a deep dive into key areas of their development. The boot camp will be convened in person and will be beta-tested with the first 50 graduates of the ReadyMe online curriculum.”
After completing all components — the online modules, attending the boot camp and creating a “My Story” video — participants will receive a certificate of completion and be included in a talent pool for ASAE member association CEOs to access when seeking senior-level leadership candidates. “ASAE will also launch a ReadyMe web page to showcase program participants and include ReadyMe graduates in the Association CareerHQ candidate database, which is accessible to all employers. ReadyMe program participants,” Vest adds, “will also earn CAE continuing education credits.”
There are many sectors of business and society that can benefit from DEI awareness and training, but the meetings industry is uniquely positioned to have impact far beyond its own “boundaries.” Moore thinks the meetings industry could be the catalyst for changes across every industry.
“DEI is a throughline across all business sectors,” she says. “People treat it as an ancillary objective, but it’s a competitive and innovative advantage that can fix social inequities. If leaders fully comprehend the impact of being strategically committed to DEI as thought leaders, we can be the roadmap and industry that holds others accountable to measurable and sustainable outcomes.” | AC&F |