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Make”Inclusive Meetings” Your Brand


Posted on June 06, 2007


By Patti Digh

More women work now, more working women have young children under six, more people with disabilities are working and traveling, the number of what we now call “minority groups” is increasing and will soon not be “minorities” any longer, the number of immigrants living in the U.S. has almost tripled since 1970, there are four generations in the American workforce for the first time, the number of Americans over 50 will increase by 40% in the next ten years, never married adults are one of the fastest growing population segments in the U.S., and over 10% of U.S. jobs now depend on overseas sales.

These changes bring with them new preferences, needs, and expectations and new prospective attendees for our meetings. No longer does “one size fit all” when generational, gender, religious, language, sexual orientation, cultural, and other differences abound. These demographic changes will increasingly have a profound impact on how we design, brand, market, deliver, and evaluate our meetings and conferences. Are you ready?

Impact of social changes on meetings
The National Urban League once pulled their annual convention out of California because of that state’s Civil Rights Initiative ballot question. They wanted to move it to a more "supportive affirmative action state." Ten years ago, the 58,000-member American Library Association moved its 25,000-attendee meeting from Cincinnati to Philadelphia after Cincinnati passed anti-gay legislation. They then included a statement in their contracts reserving the right to cancel their meeting, without penalty, should a supplier's position on gay rights conflict with ALA's views.

*Ensure that your organization's diversity policies are reflected by your meeting partners and suppliers. Be prepared to move the meeting if they are not.

Marketing and Image-Building
You don’t need expensive market research to make some simple diversity-friendly decisions:
*Use inclusive language, such as "international and U.S. attendees" instead of "foreign and domestic" on your meeting materials.
* Have bilingual people at the registration desk, and promote that in your brochure. You don’t have non-English speaking attendees? Maybe they don’t come because they are fearful that they couldn’t fully participate.
*Consider adding prayer rooms for Muslim attendees. These can be empty rooms where Muslim participants can go at the designated times for their daily prayers. You don’t have any Muslim attendees? Maybe you would if they knew their religious needs would be provided for.
* Show the diversity of your own association through the staff representation on-site.
* Provide diversity training for on-site staff to enhance their sensitivity to and skills around issues they might face during the course of the meeting.

Speakers
Even in 2007, major conference brochures come across my desk featuring all-white, all-male line-ups of Baby Boomer keynote speakers. While there’s nothing wrong with aging white males, theirs are not the only voices we should hear.
*Ensure a diverse mix of speakers for both plenary and breakout sessions. Don’t fall prey to the “but these are the biggies” syndrome. There are other important voices in the world – develop diverse networks in order to find them.
*Include your organization's diversity policy statement in your information packets for prospective speakers, along with diversity guidelines for their speech.
*Ask speakers to integrate diverse perspectives into their speech.
*Provide speakers with the demographics of your meeting attendees.
*Include a question on your session evaluation form: “did the speakers demonstrate respect for diversity and/or cultural difference?”

Social and Food Functions
Salsa has replaced ketchup as the number one condiment on American dinner tables, reflecting the kinds of changes that are appearing in meetings as well.
*Offer alternatives at every meal, including vegetarian, no pork, and no alcohol in sauces.
*On buffets, clearly label which dishes are vegetarian or vegan, contain pork or alcohol, or nuts.
Not just food, but entertainment itself is changing. Spouse programs have transformed into guest programs, moving beyond fashion shows and golf to more creative networking options that don’t rely so heavily on gender stereotypes.
*Make sure that your registration forms make it possible for people to make requests for accommodations-of many types.

Good-Faith Accommodation
The U.S. is now home to more than 1,500 different primary religious organizations. There are more Muslims than Methodists in Chicago, more Hindus than Congregationalists, and more Buddhists than Episcopalians. The Islamic community virtually equals the Jewish community and is one of the nation's largest non-Christian religious groups.
To ensure you're aware of religious issues that may impact your meeting:
*Before booking a meeting, consult a calendar that lists important Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious holidays.
*Know when religious groups observe their Sabbath. Seventh Day Adventists, for example, observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday through Saturday.
*Learn about food preferences and requirements for religious groups. For instance, Hindus are vegetarians. They also abstain from alcohol, as do Mormons, Baha'i, and others.

Many of the changes you will make in your meeting—from prayer rooms to special meals to staff training—should be noted in your marketing materials in order to attract diverse participants, not just accommodate them when they come. These messages also give a heads-up to all attendees that the organization is serious about diversity.

These kinds of diversity-focused changes in your meeting can be a "welcome mat" to attract new kinds of meeting attendees. They can also sensitize your traditional attendees to the changes in their industry, profession, and the world around them—and to the fact that their professional association is on top of the trends.

Building a reputation for being inclusive—by sharing diversity success stories in industry-wide newsletters and other media—is one key success strategy. Make “inclusive meetings” your organization’s brand to increase attendance from diverse groups.

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Comments

Joan Eisenstodt

Patti - How do we make this mandatory reading for all organizations, esp. associations? Thanks for moving this discussion along and providing such great information .. easily usable and smart.

Anne Roth

Thanks Patti - this is really terrific information. I would love to see it published in some form in our Industry Magazines or Newsletters at the International and the Chapter levels! This is the kind of basic insight we all need to have in our skill sets to be successfull Meeting Professionals.

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