The Importance of Diversity When Planning Online MeetingsApril 1, 2021

April 1, 2021

The Importance of Diversity When Planning Online Meetings

Today’s current events have provided an exceptional opportunity for corporate meeting and conference organizers to consider the future of event planning from a new perspective. According to industry insiders, one of the greatest opportunities lies in the ability to reach a broader audience and be more inclusive through the offerings of virtual programs.

Why Inclusivity Matters

For Jon Trask, CMP, CMM, owner of Strategic Meeting Tech based in Orange, California, that means having the ability to include those who might otherwise be excluded from attending a live meeting because of “distance, cost or physical limitations.” Why does that matter? “Because we can no longer live within a bubble,” Trask says. “Bringing more diverse voices to the conversation increases the effectiveness of the conversation and solutions that resonate with more people.”

It’s an attitude of inclusivity that resonates with other event organizers, such as Michelle Robinson, CMP, senior meeting planner at Nestlé Purina North America. “When participants feel as though they matter, that changes the experience of the meeting/event,” Robinson says. “In terms of events, we want to ensure every participant — regardless of race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, ability, gender, generation, veteran or non-veteran, personality type [i.e. introvert versus extrovert], parent versus non-parent – feels included.”

To Amani Roberts, chief musical curator at The Amani Experience, “It’s of paramount importance, because in virtual, as well as real life, people need to hear different perspectives to help increase the educational value of the event for everyone in attendance.”

Alex Plaxen, former vice president of experience strategy at Nifty Method Marketing & Events, looks at it this way: “If diversity is being invited to the party, then inclusion is being asked to dance. The engagement component for a virtual meeting is essential to elevating your diversity and inclusion efforts. Passive participation will never lead to long-term retention of a diverse group of attendees. You need to get buy-in, which comes with inclusion. This can be achieved in a number of different ways, but one of the most essential is making sure everybody can participate.”

Ensure Diverse Representation

If diversity and inclusivity are recognized as added values to the learning experience of virtual programs, how can meeting planners ensure then that a variety of voices, needs and expectations will be heard? “We as meeting professionals aren’t simply planners; we are event designers,” Robinson says. “We must be intentional about inclusion.”

Pawntra Shadab, CIS, CTA, CITP, vice president & event strategist at Elite Productions International, suggests that having a group or committee dedicated to diversity and inclusivity can make the task much easier. “Planning inclusive virtual events starts at the beginning of the process, continues through the middle and extends to the end,” she says. “Make sure meeting planners planning the event are diverse, that they have different types of backgrounds and are part of the discussion. Otherwise, you might never know your blind spots.”

“Make sure meeting planners planning the event are diverse, that they have different types of backgrounds and are part of the discussion.” — Pawntra Shadab, CIS, CTA, CITP, Vice President & Event Strategist, Elite Productions International

At the top of the list, once meeting planners determine the audience and goals of the event, “You can start to think about who should attend, maybe who hasn’t in the past, and how you can better engage those communities,” Trask says. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking them. Other times, you may have to dig deeper and understand what has kept them away in the past. Were they just unaware, because your marketing wasn’t reaching them? Did they feel excluded or unwelcome, even if it was unintentional?”

Plaxen suggests simply asking around to get answers. “Reach out to micro-influencers in these diverse communities you’re trying to reach and make an ask. Ask them to be a part of the planning process. See if they’ll join a committee.”

It will take effort and a bit of creativity, but in the end, it’s worth it, Shadab says. “Look beyond your backyard.” If cost would limit registrations, she says, “offering scholarships opens up the opportunity for attendees to participate even though they may not have the financial means to do so at that time.”

Ensuring inclusivity in virtual events goes beyond who’s in the audience, but it also extends to the speaker lineup. “When thinking about representation of attendees, it is as important to take a 360-degree view and include presenters and entertainment as well,” Shadab says. For instance, if you’ve assembled an all-male panel for a women’s leadership discussion, this is something [you’ll definitely] want to reconsider.”

As part of their community outreach efforts, Nifty Method Marketing & Events published a list of their 50 favorite African-American professional speakers, “in an effort to ensure that event organizers no longer have an excuse not to hire diverse speakers for their events,” Plaxen says. “When you see diverse speakers headlining an event and being featured in the marketing, 69% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase from that brand. It’s even more effective when there is more than just a stock photo. It serves as a message to the potential attendee that ‘You are welcome here,’ and ‘Your voice will be heard here.’ Those are simple, but powerful messages.”

Planners say some tips for including people with disabilities in event planning include remembering to invite disabled authors when putting together a series of authors to read their work. When organizing a comedy show, hire disabled comedians to be part of it. If hosting a webinar series, have disabled experts among the speakers.

As the pandemic results in more virtual and hybrid meetings, planners say don’t forget about diversity and inclusivity. Photo Courtesy of Pawntra Shadab

As the pandemic results in more virtual and hybrid meetings, planners say don’t forget about diversity and inclusivity. Photo Courtesy of Pawntra Shadab

Create Engaging Exercises and Activities

Virtual programming provides both opportunities and challenges for creating inclusive experiences that balance the needs and expectations of diverse audiences. “Entertainment is a great way to connect individuals, especially with music; it’s a universal language,” Roberts says. “Incorporating segments into your program with a live band, DJ or even dance performance can really engage the audience in between education sessions.”

When designing specific exercises and activities to engage attendees on a virtual platform, Robinson emphasizes the importance of making every attendee feel included. For example, “If one of your participants wears a hijab, make the entire event a hat-themed event so this person feels included and doesn’t stick out.” She adds, “There should be closed captioning, sign language, effective lighting, and larger fonts,” as well as “adequate breaks, ensuring everyone speaks and much more.” For instance, “The introvert may be left out unless the speaker is intentional about calling on individuals. If there’s a language, hearing or sight barrier, it may be difficult for that participant to stay engaged. If someone has a different ability level, sitting for long periods could be tough. If someone is a parent and they have small children in the home, that may be difficult for them.”

Despite any inherent challenges of virtual programming, Plaxen looks at the bright side: “The biggest thing to remember is that virtual events have flexibility that face-to-face events do not. For example, if you’re interested in captioning for attendees who have hearing disabilities, you’re far more limited at a face-to-face event,” he says. “A virtual event can be streamed on a delay with accurate captioning added in. You can also record your sessions more easily and offer them on demand, opening yourself up to an entirely new audience who can view the content on their own time, like working parents who may not be able to travel to a live event or attend an event during the day.”

In any event, explains Roberts: “You need to have different levels of breakouts that meet the intellectual and ability needs of all participants from the C-suite to mid- and entrance-levels, as well as freelancers and entrepreneurs. Select presenters with universal appeal who can speak to the needs of those groups, who can apply their content to the everyday lives of participants.”

Events Outside Your Control

As any meeting planner well-versed in staging virtual events knows, organizers can expect something to go wrong when it comes to technology. Beyond that, however, unexpected situations can provide opportunities to highlight the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. For example, when a program on which Nifty Method Marketing & Events was working was set on the same day as George Floyd’s funeral, the team made the decision to reschedule. Floyd died in 2020 during an arrest by Minneapolis police officers. “I’m sure you can imagine the complexities behind moving a 24-hour-long event a week before it is set to go live. [There were] many stakeholders . . . to address with the decision, including the attendees, the speakers and the sponsors,” Plaxen says. “The CEO of [the] client organization created three unique videos that were sent out to each of the segmented stakeholders. Being authentic when dealing with diversity and inclusion is key to having positive responses, and we did. We were fortunate [there was] a solid marketing team in place who was able to shift on a dime and immediately put out messaging on social media and by email that garnered positive responses as well.” The result? “We saw an immediate surge in registrations.”

Next Steps

As organizers look to the future of virtual meetings and conferences, opportunities to create events that are welcoming and inclusive of diverse audiences abound. In Robinson’s view: “We must also remember we have the opportunity to do some amazing things. There is no template for virtual events; we are all simply navigating our new normal. Planners are out-of-the-box thinkers, so here’s the time to really create some meaningful experiences.” Roberts encourages meeting planners to “Have an open mind and don’t assume people all learn the same way and that they want to learn the same subjects.”

“Have an open mind and don’t assume people all learn the same way and that they want to learn the same subjects.” — Amani Roberts, Chief Musical Curator, The Amani Experience

As Plaxen sees it: “At the end of the day, marketing and content are just stories being told. Make sure they’re coming from diverse voices. And, lastly, tell stories about diversity. It’s OK to brag about yourself a bit,” he says.” If you’re making these efforts it’s important to share them or nobody will know what’s going on behind the scenes to make this happen.”

Trask says by challenging himself to learn about diversity and inclusivity, he has broadened his perspectives. “By simply trying to become better educated and aware of things I might not have noticed in the past, it’s helped me to question things in other areas that I might not have considered in the past. There are groups you can reach out to and begin a dialogue,” he says. He challenges his planner colleagues to “be fearless, and, when necessary, step outside your comfort zone to widen your perspectives.” He adds, “I attended my first ever protest march a few months ago to stand up for what I believe is necessary and right. There’s a time I would have never done that, simply because it was a bit outside my comfort zone. But, now, I have challenged myself to take actions when I can. My presence was a small thing, but small things can lead to bigger ones. And, in the end, it can lead to us living in a better place that meets the ideals we were raised to believe that our country stands for.”  C&IT

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