“… It stands to reason that if an organization desires a more inclusive culture — and leaders want to model inclusion — then meetings are the place to start.”
— Harvard Business Review article
DEI, DEAI, EDI. You may see these letters arranged in a variety of ways, but they always mean the same thing: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility. When applied to meetings, they represent the goal of creating events and environments in which everyone feels welcomed – every race, ethnicity, gender, pronoun and ability or disability.
It’s a tall order. So where to start? Elaiza Shepherd, founder & lead planner at Elevate in Minneapolis, MN, and chair of MPI’s EDI Committee, pointed out that DEI is always evolving so there will always be new things to learn and understand.
“A good way for planners to start is to keep an open mind and ask questions,” she said. “Get to know your audience by asking questions. Beyond that, planners should introduce DEI into the planning process not just through content, but as a whole.”
For one thing, planners can choose vendors and other partners from organizations that are themselves inclusive.
“It can be as simple as asking them for their EDI statement,” Shepherd said. “Becoming attuned to DEI is a big-picture project, especially when it comes to accessibility. Don’t just think about what you see and the physical aspect. Include physical and non-physical aspects of accessibility.”
One resource she highly recommends is Google’s most recent launch of the Neu Project Focus, the stated goal of which is, “to make the world more welcoming and productive for neurodivergent communities” and “to amplify existing methods while encouraging new practical approaches to inclusion.” Specifically related to meetings, it includes “An Event Professional’s Guide to NeuroInclusion.”
Adam Campfield is a senior accessibility manager with a Fortune 50 company in Denver, CO. Visually impaired since childhood and working in a company with many meetings each year, Campfield has a clear understanding of how meeting planners can best meet the needs of ability-challenged attendees. Echoing Shepherd, he said that it’s crucial for planners to know their audience.
“The first step, more like step zero, is identifying the type of meeting, as that will shape everything else that needs to be considered for accessibility,” he said. “There are many more online meetings, and the accommodations for those are different from in person meeting, which in turn has different requirements than a one-off conference auditorium-style event. Only after this comes the next, equally critical piece, which is knowing the audience. What one might prepare for a small group of close teammates may differ from preparing for a large group composed of multiple teams.”
Campfield said there are a host of resources for different types of events and audiences, as well as general considerations, depending on the audience and event. If there are presentation materials, for example, such as documents or slides, these should be provided in an accessible format to participants in advance of the event. Microsoft and Google, among others, provide information on creating accessible slide presentations and documents.
“The significance of providing these materials is due to the fact that reading and also listening, unless the words are one to one, creates increased cognitive load, meaning participants will absorb neither as well as when the two are separate,” he said. “In fact, some people cannot process written text while there is audio stimulation or vice versa. People who use screen readers can find it trying to follow along with a presentation live, and even more challenging as they then have a computer talking and a presenter speaking at the same time.”
He said that it may also be helpful for speakers and presenters to describe themselves.
“This point is still somewhat controversial, but having speakers give a physical description of themselves can be helpful for people who are visually impaired,” Campfield said. “If planners choose to have this as an option, Campfield recommends that descriptions be short and objective. Some people will describe what’s in their video background or the clothes they’re wearing. Unless that information is relevant to the presentation, or someone is wearing a humorous T-shirt, the extra info is probably not helpful. It’s better to use more permanent descriptors, such as, ‘I am a Caucasian male with sandy hair and hazel eyes,’ or ‘I am a short female with dark hair, light brown skin and sparkly purple glasses.’”
Beyond that, he also has these recommendations:
Campfield said it’s also important for planners to carefully inspect hotels and venues personally.
“There can be a lot of variances in knowledge and preparedness,” he said. “At the least, the planner should speak to someone at the venue and ask pointed questions such as these below. If no one can answer them, that’s a red flag.”
Questions dealing with DEI special access:
When it comes to contracting with hotels, convention centers and other venues with DEI in mind, Campfield said the biggest issue is simply lack of knowledge.
“I find many people are willing to be helpful but don’t possess the knowhow to implement accessibility,” Campfield said. “Quite often, physical spaces will be accessible for wheelchairs or other mobility device users, at least in theory, because of legal regulations. Less often are venues constructed in a way to be easily navigated by someone who is unable to see signage. Providing accessible materials or a sign language interpreter helps, however, typically these services have to be contracted separately for the event.”
Looking back at his own experiences, he gives examples of the challenges he has faced, such as difficulty finding the meeting location, which is on the top of the list.
“If one can’t see signs, only knowing a building or even the floor of a building can still mean a great deal of extra time trying to locate an unfamiliar place,” he said. “Add to that the presenters who refer to visual content without describing said content, such as ‘As you can see here…’”
Live drawing or whiteboarding style activities are a challenge for visually impaired attendees.
“Not only for lack of description,” Campfield noted, “but the medium is very visual, making participation for someone who is blind awkward to impossible. “Activities requiring filling out information on printed paper and activities that require getting up, moving around or finding groups are additional challenges.”
Anyone who has ever attended a meeting can relate to these normal conference activities and situations, but few think about them in the context of a fellow attendee with visual impairment. Perhaps as DEI becomes more of a standard focus, everyone will start to look differently at even the smallest, seemingly inconsequential things.
Campfield offers a few final tips for planners as they work on their next meeting.
Practice inclusion by including description information, accessible materials and captions as often as possible. This will help make it habit and help others realize that, perhaps, they should do the same.
Never assume ability. If you conduct yourself without assuming everyone can see, hear, walk, stand, move their arms or speak, you will be most likely to include the majority of people.
Ensure participants in any event are aware in advance of a mechanism to request accommodations, such as accessible materials, to help navigate a location or interpretation.
“If there is insufficient time or resources to make every other best practice happen, at least make participants aware of how to let the organizer know they need something so it can be provided on an individual level,” he said. “That will go a long way.”
In addition to DEI-specific resources and materials, planners have a resource they most likely already know about that can provide a great deal of help: The CVB in the destination where they are meeting. CVB staff know their local communities and know venues and vendors who meet and/or are aligned with diversity and inclusion goals.
Gregg Caren understands the value of diversity and inclusion as President & CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB), which has been focused on diversity for years.
“We recognize and celebrate the differences that make us unique,” Caren said. Each member of our team comes to the table with a different background, race, sexual identity and orientation. Each brings their unique perspective to the PHLCVB to help create an inclusive environment. When staff members feel accepted and included in company culture, they can be more successful and flourish.”
Caren is also co-chair of the upcoming Tourism & Diversity Matters DEI Conference called The Collective Experience.
The importance of DEI, Caren said, extends to conventions and meetings, too.
“We believe DEI can and should be integrated into all facets of a meeting or convention,” he continued. “We work to support the diversity, equity and inclusion of meetings and events through our business division, PHL Diversity. PHL Diversity connects event organizers with resources, businesses, suppliers and community leaders to support their DEI objectives in Philadelphia. From providing local experts who can serve as keynote speakers to nonprofit groups for community engagement opportunities, and diverse vendors and businesses who can supply anything a group needs, the PHLCVB works to help foster these connections that benefit our events and local stakeholders equally.”
Caren believes CVBs are a good resource for planners, as well as attendees, with a variety of ability challenges because they know the businesses in the area that have what those attendees need.
“In Philly, for example,” Caren said, “the PHLCVB team works closely with our partners at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, area hotels and venues to ensure attendees with a disability have everything they need to have a wonderful, world-class experience. This may mean identifying and matching them with hotels that provide visual alarms; doorbells and phones for the hearing impaired; roll-in showers; easily moveable furniture; lower appliances and sinks; parking for wheelchair accessibility and transportation services; electric scooters; ASL interpretation and close captioning vendors for conventions and meetings.”
Like Shepherd, he said that, while some disabilities are seen, many are not. That’s where asking questions comes in.
“We strive to go further and ask more specifically about ability-challenged attendees’ needs to create inclusive environments,” Caren said. “When event attendees feel they belong, they can focus on conducting business, networking and learning.”
As DEI has become more front and center and the concept of supporting local, entrepreneurial businesses has become the norm, CVBs can help connect planners with those kinds of businesses.
“During their time in Philadelphia, meeting attendees are often looking to support local venues and restaurants owned by underrepresented groups,” Caren said. “The city has a thriving food scene, and the diversity of Philadelphia is represented by the culinary options available. For example, we are connecting planners with many of Philadelphia’s Black- and Brown-owned restaurants and venues for offsite group dining. One popular example is South, a restaurant, jazz club and special event venue not far from the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Another great option for groups is Booker’s Restaurant in West Philadelphia, which serves up elevated Southern comfort food.”
Caren also pointed to the historic Reading Terminal Market, which houses a diversity of vendors.
“The more than 80 independent merchants that feature regional and global cuisine are all locally owned and operated at the Reading Terminal Market,” Caren said. “It is an attendee favorite for lunch and sits conveniently in between our primary headquarters hotel and convention center.”
While Caren is justifiably proud of Philadelphia’s diversity and welcoming spirit, he’s not the only one.
“Simply put, the ‘City of Brotherly Love’ is not merely a slogan,” Caren said. “It is the literal translation of the word Philadelphia, and we Philadelphians live it every day — so much so that Philadelphia has earned a Certified Welcoming city by Welcoming America, the largest city in the nation to receive this designation. We think that said it all!”
Houston is another very diverse city with a CVB committed to diversity and inclusion.
“As a company, Houston First Corporation (HFC) recognizes the importance of cultivating an environment that nurtures talent, is equitable and values different perspectives, and most importantly, is respectful of everyone,” Natalie Young, CMP, founding co-chair of the DEI Business Resource Group at HFC and the associate director of client services at Visit Houston, said. “Several years ago, we engaged a workforce research group to conduct an employee survey to determine what we were doing well and where we needed improvement. We were pleased that the organization scored very well based on employee perceptions, but it also illuminated for us a few areas that needed improvement.”
“Houston First launched a DEI Council and separate Business Resource Group (BRG),” Young said. “The Council, which is made up of diverse members of the executive team, is responsible for setting organizational goals and ensuring implementation of programs and policies that foster a diverse and equitable environment. The BRG, comprised of team members at all levels of the organization, provides recommendations to the council that addresses issues, supports our corporate culture and helps move HFC forward. The BRG has spearheaded new initiatives including an apprenticeship program, DEI trainings and educational activities for staff and the public around heritage months.”
With that in-depth understanding in its own organization, HFC is well positioned to help planners and groups meet their DEI goals and needs. It has been so successful that the National Federation of the Blind held this year’s annual convention there.
“Houston hosts a wide spectrum of events, and many organizations hold something important to them that they want to learn about while in Houston,” she said. “It might be learning about our city’s unique African American history, or securing a presentation from a community leader here in Houston who is doing important work in DEI. We can help be that bridge to connect the meeting with something that is uniquely Houston.”
Meeting the goals of DEI is a collective effort; all must have a role in helping to make meetings diverse, equitable, inclusive and accessible. The result of those efforts will be better meetings, better communities and increased productivity. What’s not to love about that? C&IT