Understanding Diversity’s Role in Meetings

By Marc Boisclair, April 15, 2015

In planning last May’s Madison (Wisconsin) Region Economic Development, Diversity & Leadership Summit, event planner Mark Richardson landed nearly 20 sponsors and attracted 400 attendees, double the 200 who came to the inaugural event in 2011. He also assembled accomplished speakers like former U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and author and urban studies expert Joel Kotkin. But what really made Richardson beam is the successful dialogue on diversity the one-day meeting spurred.

Richardson, also president of Unfinished Business, a Madison-area career counseling firm, says he was thrilled by the manner in which the attendees from business, leadership and diversity organizations came together to share ideas and shape the diversity of the meeting itself.

“No matter what their eventual takeaways were at the end of the day, people were saying, ‘We need to pay greater attention to this,’” he says.

As meetings further expand globally, it’s not surprising to find planners paying more attention to diversity and inclusiveness in their events. From the obvious categories like age, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion to less common divisions such as language and physical and mental challenges, planners must acknowledge and embrace diversity’s broad spectrum to understand the value it brings to a client’s program. It’s a balancing act that can lead to more creative, interactive and rewarding meetings.

Defining Diversity

Merriam-Webster defines diversity as the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization. That’s as good a place as any to start in discussing diversity’s role and context in the meetings industry.

“Diversity means differences, and it’s a much bigger concept than any one organization,” says Anne Harris Carter, the director of corporate diversity and inclusion for Alliant Energy Corporation.

There are very visible aspects of diversity at events, starting with the people with speaking roles: keynote speakers, emcees, trainers and panelists. Less prominent but nonetheless integral elements range from attendees with disabilities and language needs to meal options to evening entertainment. Each component provides opportunities to be inclusive of attendees with myriad backgrounds, ethnicities and ages.

“All of this needs to be taken into consideration when planning an inclusive conference,” says Carter, a Yale graduate and the eighth of 12 children in a prominent African-American family in Iowa.

Richardson adds that adding diverse faces to a conference also infuses participants with a fresh outlook, creating a better environment to improve business and ultimately increase an event’s ROI. “You’re less likely to engage in group-think, while the potential for innovation, problem-solving and growth is much greater,” he says.

Sending a Message

The meeting itself can also act an expression of diversity, in its look, feel and overall operation. “Diversity is present everywhere—it’s who we are as people—and the events we plan should communicate this,” says Kate Stockton, president of Stockton & Partners, a meetings, event and destination management firm in Philadelphia.

“Diversity means differences, and it’s a much bigger concept than any one organization.” — Anne Harris Carter, director of corporate diversity and inclusion for Alliant Energy Corporation

Stockton, a hospitality veteran who works 20 major events annually, understands the nuances of convention marketing. Banners, videos, sponsor boards, closed-circuit programming and an army of smart phone apps commonplace at conventions and trade shows all convey messages that relate to inclusion. Without uttering a word, the people staffing the coat rooms, registration desk and business center send that message as well. Add social media to the mix and even the most innocuous moment can, for better or worse, go viral.

That said, a meeting’s overall message should be clear and inclusive. “What does the event itself say in terms of educating people on diversity?” asks Stockton. “If you’re not communicating this to everyone, then you’re not doing your job.”

The level of diversity achieved inside a meeting hall can also send a message about a client’s commitment to local community hosting the event. When the Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion and renovation was completed in 2011, Stockton & Partners helped plan the ribbon cutting ceremony and a promotional showcase for the center and city. To win the work, Stockton pledged that at least 10 percent of the event’s crew would be comprised of local minorities and women-owned vendors.

“It opened my eyes and really changed the way I run my own company,” she says.

Proactive Approaches

Having identified diversity’s meaning and context in meetings, there’s no shortage of ways for planners to implement it. Before the first attendee checks in, planners should have their client’s image prepared at its most diverse. Just adding a white woman or a black man in printed and online materials won’t cut it, says Rosa MacArthur, CMP, president of Meeting Planners Plus in Costa Mesa, California.

“You don’t educate or empower people this way,” says MacArthur, a 25-year veteran planner and leadership facilitator. “To really stand behind diversity you need to show it” in meeting programs, promotional literature and your website.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children draws almost 10,000 attendees to its annual convention, where teachers and caregivers mingle with school administrators and college students. To encourage diversity, the association, aided by director of meetings and conferences Monique Cabiness, arranges a meet-and-greet showcase for various groups (black, Asian, Latino, Native America n, special needs) followed by individual evening forums focusing on each group’s mission and activities.

“It allows general attendees to stop by, say hello and discover what the specific groups are all about,” says Cabiness.

For Manhattan’s Funders for LGBTQ Issues, promoting and communicating diversity is critical to its nonprofit mission and financial goals, which are often achieved through attendee contributions.

Prior to some of his larger events, director of operations and member services Marvin Webb holds a sitdown meeting with his vendor managers, from the serving staff to the C-suite, to emphasize the value of their roles. “I let them know why it’s important that we have a great conference and put it right in the contract,” he says.

His payoff comes from his staff’s interaction with the people they are serving. “Sometimes, a service person will say to an attendee, ‘My brother was affected by what you do. Thanks for your hard work,’” he says.

Helping Hands

Need assistance to support your diversity efforts within the meetings industry? Here’s a selection of groups to reach out to, their missions and how to contact them.

National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners
Alexandria, Virginia
ncbmp.com
571-527-3110
info@ncbmp.org

Nonprofit organization dedicated to training African-American meeting planners and improving the meetings, conferences, exhibitions, and convocations they manage.

International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals
League City, Texas
iahmp.org
281-245-3330
mgonzalez@iahmp.org
IAHMP serves the Hispanic and multicultural meeting professional at the national and international level by providing personal development and professional growth within the meetings, conventions, festival and special event community.

Christian Meetings & Convention Association
Westminster, Colorado
christianmeeting.org
303-451-6678
info@christianmeeting.org

Christian-based association comprised of planners for both faith-based entities and non-religious organizations, such as corporations, associations and SMERF groups. The membership also includes suppliers and hospitality vendors.

National Diversity Council
nationaldiversitycouncil.org
Nonprofit organization comprised of state and regional councils, the National Women’s Council, the Council for Corporate Responsibility and the Center for Community Leadership, with the goal of advancing diversity and inclusion in work places and communities.

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