The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last summer shined a spotlight on the need for greater equity in all walks of life. They also prompted many in the meetings industry to examine their own staffs and the events they host. Now, almost a year later, as planners prepare for a surge of in-person events, we should assess how much tangible progress has been made — and ask what more can be done to ensure events and organizations are following through on their diversity, equity and inclusion promises.
"While many organizations have declared a commitment to diversity and inclusion, few have reportedly found ways to put those strategies into action. It is time we change this," said Amanda Ma, founder and CEO of Innovate Marketing Group, speaking to Northstar Meetings Group following the shooting in Atlanta in March 2021 that left eight people dead, six of them Asian Americans. "Talk is inspiring, but action is what drives change. Come up with a real action plan and be accountable."
For those business leaders who made new public commitments to cultivate greater inclusion throughout their organizations, there are few areas as high-profile or ripe for opportunity as business events.
"The whole idea of an event is about bringing people together, it's about human connection, collaboration and teamwork," says Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, founder and director of EventMind, a virtual-event production company, as well as co-founder of Diverse Ally, a diversity and inclusion consultancy. "We already possess creativity, resilience, the ability to adapt quickly to change — there's no reason we as an industry can't work on this and actually see some results."
She adds that the meetings industry is also well-positioned to show others how creating positive organizational change is done.
"Engage someone who is an expert in these matters to sit down with you to improve, then you implement the strategy."
Anne Thornley-Brown, Executive Oasis International
You have events and conferences happening in every vertical that exists," Bentil-Dhue says. "And even if you have someone who works in pharma/medicine and someone who works in energy or automotive, they will all be bonded by their role as event organizer. Those skills bond them together."
For meeting professionals seeking to create events that are truly inclusive, here are a number of practical steps to take.
Before moving forward on making changes, individuals and organizations can start by reviewing where they currently stand in their own approaches around inclusion. That includes educating themselves and team members on issues around racial justice and inequity and examining where there might be organizational blindspots.
Andrew Roby, who plans corporate gatherings in Washington, D.C., recommends in his list of 20 ways to promote inclusion at events that planners tap into any number of resources to better understand the topic, from books on antiracism to enrolling in online courses on the topic.
It might also be worthwhile to hire an outside consultant to help address an organization's specific challenges.
This is a moment for organizations to take stock, says Bentil-Dhue, adding that long-term improvements require organizations to put in the time necessary to understand where change is needed.
"Engage someone who is an expert in these matters to sit down with you to improve, then you implement the strategy," says Anne Thornley-Brown, president of Executive Oasis International, who offers management consulting, meeting facilitation and is a frequent writer about the industry. "And they should not be doing this for free. I've seen so much discussion about that in Facebook groups — Black professionals who are suddenly getting calls from organizations in a panic that want to pick their brains for free about how to improve things. It's nice you want to improve things, but why would you expect someone to give you an advice and consultation and not pay them?"
Diversify Your Team
One of the most effective ways to ensure your events are speaking to a diverse audience is to ensure the team planning the events is diverse as well.
"There are a lot of businesses, teams, whole companies where they are 100 percent white, or over 90 percent white," says Bentil-Dhue.
A monochromatic organization is more likely to have blindspots when it comes to a wide variety of aspects of events, from the diversity of speakers to the terms used in panelist questions. Recent research from McKinsey finds that respondents who feel included in their organizations are nearly three times more likely than their peers to feel excited by and committed to their organizations, and that they take organizations' inclusiveness into account when making career decisions.
"It's a matter of really looking at your practices, looking at who is in your organization, particularly at a senior level, and maybe making some hard changes," says Thornley-Brown of Executive Oasis. "This isn't about quotas. It's not about promoting people who aren't qualified — it's about promoting people who are in many cases far more qualified."
Diversify Your Speakers
Once you've done the internal work, it's time to look at the decisions you are making while creating an event. One of the first ways to enhance diversity is to consider the speakers — the thought leaders, panelists and educators in view on stage, who should represent a host of identities and perspectives.
"All races travel and attend meetings, but oftentimes all races are not represented," LaToya Williams, manager of global accounts at HelmsBriscoe, told Northstar Meetings Group. "Panels need to be diversified, so that every voice can be heard. There should not be any committees, boards or panels that are not diverse. They need to look like the world we live in."
She said that this might often be the result of planners passively doing the same thing year after year without stopping to think of how to connect with a wider audience.
"Some think diversity is male and female with no mention of race," says Williams. "At this point, I mention the various levels of diversity and how when everyone has a voice, that is when everyone feels included... It can open up the conference to increased attendance from a demographic that is underserved, and could lead to conversations that make it the best event to date."
To help event organizers make these selections, Bentil-Dhue recently co-founded Black In Events, a network that is developing a central directory of diverse speakers, suppliers and talent. "I'm always about, 'What practical things can we do?' And this directory of Black and brown speakers will allow anyone in the industry who wants to diversify their panels to find people."
Diversify Your Vendors
The Black In Events directory will also include Black-owned suppliers to help planners get greater diversity into their supply chains — a point Bentil-Dhue says presents a ripe opportunity for planners. Once event organizers get their budgets, she says, they're not usually told exactly who to use for the décor, A/V production or catering, so they should be looking for ways to incorporate more minority-owned companies where they can.
"It's really easy — you don't need any permission to do that," she says.
Roby suggests a planner actually make a list of the vendors they used for their last 10 events, noting each that was run by a person of color.
"Take a good, hard look at who you are reaching out to, and if you aren't finding abundantly qualified people who are Black, Asian, Latinx, then you aren't doing your homework," adds Thornley-Brown.
One supplier worth special mention for those in charge of F&B is to branch out with caterers. If you're going to have a theme, try to get a provider who is authentic to that culture.
"For example, it's very rare if you're offering an Italian meal that you go to a company who is authentically Italian," says Bentil-Dhue, who adds that the same question could come up with a Soul Food or Caribbean theme. "Not only does it make the meal more authentic, but it's an opportunity to further diversify your supply chain."
Promote Your Partners
Help these vendors get additional exposure by touting their great work. Tag your catering company on social media posts about the event's food or the A/V company about the amazing light show they created.
And, of course, recommend these partners to other planners at every opportunity. Create a referral list, says Roby, and ensure that it's diverse.
"Within my business I have a list of referral partners that I have worked with and trust they can deliver," he says. "Typically, I have at minimum of three people in each category. If I don't, I make it a point to do some research and connect with someone with an introduction request to get to know them better. Your client deserves a diversified vendor team."
Review Your Communications
The messaging you are putting out about your event and how it is being promoted needs to be sensitive to a wide range of attendees. That includes the images used on your website and social media posts.
"One of the easiest ways to show diversity and inclusion is by showcasing it on your social media accounts," recommends Roby. "Curate your grid to showcase the diverse world we live in and be willing to attract all people."
Whether these are images from the event itself or general stock photos, present a range of ethnicities so a person of color won't feel like the odd one out.
Now that race and justice are being discussed more openly in the corporate world, it might be time for planners to address these issues more explicitly than they might have in years past.
"Corporate events have traditionally stayed away from issues that are seen as politically driven, so the first recommendation is consider messaging," says Katherine King, CEO of Invisible Culture, a corporate consultant for individuals and major companies on workplace dynamics, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. "Past slogans may not give this moment in history the gravitas it deserves and feel trivial. There is a way to make the framework meaningful and inclusive without being off-putting."
Make Diversity a KPI
To ensure diversity is central to your event, you can make all of the actions above key performance indicators that will be considered necessary by all involved if the event is to be considered a success.
"If you are at an organization where there is someone with a different color, think about how you can show up for that person in the work environment."
Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, EventMind and Diverse Ally
"This is something you have to engage and invest in. If you've got a problem when it comes to your marketing performance or sales team, you invest in improving the skill set in that tier," says Bentil-Dhue. "This has to be another performance metric."
At the root of all of these steps is the concept of "allyship," she says — looking within your sphere of influence to help raise up members of the Black community wherever you spot opportunities.
Learn more about how to ensure greater inclusion in your events and the wider meetings industry, and have your questions answered by industry experts, including LaToya Williams and Amanda Ma, during the live webinar "Diversity Now: How to Plan a Truly Inclusive Meeting," taking place Wednesday, April 21, at 2 p.m. EDT. Register here!