How the Meetings Industry Can Better Support the LGBTQ+ Community
LGBT MPA chair Derrick Johnson discusses how planners can seek out inclusive destinations and use their influence to encourage greater diversity within the meetings industry on a recent episode of the Eventful podcast. Listen here
Like most events held in 2020, Pride celebrations across the world were cancelled last year or moved online. But the challenges of Covid-19 also brought new opportunities. During the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association's "Day of Diversity" on June 30, industry leaders shared their experiences planning Pride celebrations during the pandemic, discussed new ways for connecting with their communities year-round and emphasized the need for enhancing diversity and inclusion efforts at every event.
In New York, in-person events such as the city's signature Pride March were cancelled last year as the city struggled with one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in the nation. But NYC Pride found other ways to connect with its community, such as launching a series of virtual cooking classes featuring LGBTQ+ chefs.
"When Covid hit, we had to pivot like a hairpin turn," said Sue Doster, chief technology officer of the amfAR Foundation for AIDS Research and co-chair of NYC Pride, during the opening session on the future of Pride. "We cancelled some events, and our team adopted a whole new skill set: virtual events. Since we were virtual, we started batting around the idea of Pride 365 and are there events we can have outside of June to engage our community?"
Among the many advantages of going virtual was that it was easier for organizers to plan numerous events throughout the year and maintain engagement with their audience through a variety of media. In addition, members of the LGBTQ+ community who had not yet come out to their family, friends and colleagues were able to participate in Pride activities and other events from the comfort of their own homes.
"I think the digitization gives a completely new accessibility for people to go to Pride that have never been before," said Lars Henriksen, chair of Copenhagen Pride, which went virtual in 2020 but is preparing to return to a live event format this August, with some events scheduled to be livestreamed.
While Henriksen acknowledged the benefits of virtual meetings, he argued that the future of Pride will always be in person. According to Henriksen and the other panelists, the heart and soul of the event is the energy that comes from gathering thousands of people together in the same place, at the same time to openly celebrate their LGBTQ+ identity and culture.
"I am quite adamant in my position that digitalization is an add-on. It's never an exchange for what was because Pride is about visibility. Pride is about disruption," Henriksen said. "Pride is about taking back the streets that were unsafe for us and making them safe again. Pride is about protest. Pride is about coming together, shoulder to shoulder, and marching."
Creating a Welcoming Environment for All
Another common theme of the day was the importance of intersectionality and ensuring that those of all backgrounds feel welcome at Pride gatherings and other events. This includes taking time during the planning process to make sure that all meetings and marches are accessible to people with disabilities — a crucial step that many organizers acknowledged they are just getting started with.
"One thing we learned in D.C., like some of the other communities, is creating the space for accessibility — and not only for accessibility in the sense of people of color, the trans community and women, etc., but also accessibility for those who may have physical ailments," said Ashley Smith, assistant general manager of the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel and president of the board of directors for the Capital Pride Alliance. "One of the pieces that we consistently try to do with all of our events is to really focus on the diversity of the event and what that may mean. Our community, just like so many other communities across this nation and across the world, is very, very, very diverse."
For other destinations, creating a truly inclusive environment required addressing police brutality. According to Doster, NYC Pride typically has a very large, very visible police presence. But the rise of Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 forced NYC Pride to reevaluate its relationship with the local police force.
"With current events and the inequities in policing, especially around Black and brown trans individuals, it became crystal clear to us that there were huge swaths of our communities that did not feel welcome at our events," said Doster. "We realized that with an incredibly visible police presence, we were closing off participation at our events to huge numbers of people who didn't feel comfortable."
In an effort to remedy this and create a safe, welcoming environment for everyone, the organization decided to limit police visibility at the 2021 NYC Pride March, which was held on June 27. In addition, fully uniformed officers were not allowed to participate in the March. Instead, off-duty officers needed to be dressed in plain clothes in order to join in the celebration. The decision to limit police presence at the city's Pride March was difficult but necessary, noted Doster.
"I personally have a lot of respect for LGBTQ+ police officers," she explained, "but seeing officers in uniform can be triggering to large swaths of our community and we felt we needed to do something. In some ways Pride is a platform, so we felt we needed to use our platforms for public good."
Working With Destinations to Drive Diversity
In another session, titled "Rolling Out the Rainbow Carpet: Welcoming Diverse Groups to Your Destination," the heads of various convention and visitor bureaus from around the nation gathered to discuss the role that CVBs can play in advancing the diversity agenda and share strategies for improvement.
The panelists noted the importance of moving beyond simply diversifying destination marketing communications. Instead, they stressed the value of retraining CVB staff members and partnering with local tourism groups on DEI initiatives. Visit Knoxville, Tenn., for example, brought in leadership officials from local LGBTQ+ organizations, the Beck Cultural Center dedicated to African American history and the Latino community center for proper DEI training.
"We brought them in to train us and train the people at the front door of the visitor's center on the accurate history and how to drive interested travelers and conference-goers to these various organizations," said Visit Knoxville's sales director Chemain Kellogg. "We have to make certain that we're being accurate with the information that we're sharing, that we're being sensitive and that our language is correct."
The speakers also urged event planners to keep an open mind during the site selection process, and to not discount certain cities based on the reputation of the overall state.
"What you might see in the news and what you might perceive of the South is not necessarily the heart of what Knoxville is," said Kellogg. "The whole state does not represent the cities and the efforts that our cities are putting forth to share that message that we're here to support you and we're an ally."
Richard Gray, senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion of Visit Lauderdale agreed, arguing that Greater Fort Lauderdale is a "bubble of diversity" within the Republican stronghold of Florida.
"We've been extraordinarily progressive in what we've accomplished over the last 25 years, when we went into the LGBTQ+ space and we've been global leaders in transgender marketing," said Gray. He noted that the CVB's work over the past two and a half decades should not be discounted over the governor's recent anti-transgender bill, and that pulling conferences out of cities such as Fort Lauderdale in protest may do more harm than good.
"By pulling that conference out of Fort Lauderdale, you're penalizing our transgender, Black, lesbian, gay, nonbinary or disabled people," said Gray, in a nod to the local, minority-owned businesses, speakers and other partners who are negatively impacted. When one group called to cancel their September meeting following an anti-transgender statement from the governor, Gray said, "I asked them to rethink because I'm not necessarily sure that boycotts are the right thing to do."
What the right thing to do is remains up for debate. However, the panelists stressed that diversity, equity and inclusion are top priorities at many CVBs and urged planners to work with their organizations to further the cause and advocate for change.
"There are some incredible DEI initiatives underway across the country, we want to uplift those in every way we possibly can," said Greg DeShields, executive director of PHL Diversity and Tourism Diversity Matters. "But I think the most important thing is we begin to move into a national discussion about it" — a task that will require the collaboration of CVBs and planners across the nation.