. Making Diversity a Priority in the Meetings Industry | Northstar Meetings Group

Making Diversity a Priority in the Meetings Industry

Following the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, Black members of the meetings industry speak out about their experiences and what needs to happen to make real changes.

Destination DC’s Elliott Ferguson, looking out over Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, says it’s time to share more stories about being Black in the meetings industry.
Destination DC’s Elliott Ferguson, looking out over Washington’s Black Lives Matter Plaza, says it’s time to share more stories about being Black in the meetings industry. Photo Credit:Chris Ferenzi Photography (taken at The Hay-Adams hotel)

Confronting Racism
In a new video, seven Black travel executives from across the country share their experiences with racism. This powerful video is 8 minutes and 38 seconds long, just under the time that George Floyd had a knee on his neck when he was murdered on May 25, 2020.

 

In 1983, there were no Black CEOs of convention and visitor bureaus, according to the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals. Fast forward 37 years, and that number has improved only marginally.

"I read a recent article that mentioned there are just four Black chief executive officers among the 500 largest companies in the U.S.," says Cleo Battle, COO of Louisville Tourism. "I thought that sounds very similar to the more than 700 CVBs in the U.S., where maybe only 10 have Black presidents or CEOs."

Diversity — or the lack thereof — has been an ongoing topic among meeting professionals for years. But it's clear the industry and the nation as a whole still have a long way to go.

"I have walked into boardrooms, job interviews and conferences, and been judged before I open my mouth," says LaToya Williams, manager of global accounts at HelmsBriscoe, a meetings procurement and site-selection company. "I think in some cases, I have a double whammy: I am Black and I am female... I had an instance where I was dressed in a suit and was told I was overdressed for housekeeping. I knew what that meant: Someone that looks like me could not possibly be in a position of management or leadership. I look back at photos of the teams I belonged to and I was always the only minority. This is unacceptable, and it needs to be discussed."

Black Lives Matter

The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and most recently Rayshard Brooks have sparked protests in every state and forced Black meeting professionals across the country to relive their own experiences of racism. Even those who have risen to the highest ranks of the industry are not exempt.

"If you're a person of color such as myself, you're reflecting on instances where you may have experienced profiling by the police and are blessed that it didn't turn out the same way it did for George Floyd and so many others," says Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, Washington's CVB, and national chair of the U.S. Travel Association. "I think we are all now realizing that it is important we share more about being Black in the hospitality industry, in America and in corporate America. People look at us dressed in a suit and they look at our sense of accomplishment and assume that some of these same levels of racism and profiling are not afforded to us. Unfortunately, that's not the case. We all have experiences that are very painful, and this really resonates and hits home."

"I look back at photos of the teams I belonged to and I was always the only minority. This is unacceptable, and it needs to be discussed."
LaToya Williams, HelmsBriscoe

When discussing diversity, Ferguson notes that it is not enough for organizations to simply hire more people of color. Representation must come at all levels, including the C-suite, in order for real change to occur.

"I think that arguably some of my peers will say that this is a truly diverse industry," says Ferguson. "I don't argue that the hospitality industry affords an opportunity for and clearly has diversity on most levels, but not at the top... I think it's the responsibility of people like myself, my peers and others to continue to focus on the true importance of diversity at all levels within this industry. I think it's been marginal at best."

Diversity Amid a Pandemic

Worse yet, COVID-19 has likely exacerbated the situation. The pandemic has had a crippling effect on the meetings and hospitality industries, with an economic impact that is expected to be nine times worse than that of 9/11, according to U.S. Travel. As companies grapple with the loss of business from the coronavirus, diversity has been pushed to the back burner.

Jason Dunn of the  Cincinnati CVB and the National Coalition of Black Meeting  Professionals worries  people of color have  been deemed “nonessential” during the pandemic.
Jason Dunn of the Cincinnati CVB and the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals worries people of color have been deemed “nonessential” during the pandemic.

Countless organizations have been forced to reduce their staffs, and people of color have been deemed "nonessential," says Jason Dunn, group vice president of diversity sales and inclusion for the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, and chair of the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals. But according to Dunn, now is the time for companies to double down on diversity and equality initiatives.

"Although COVID-19 is very real and the unrest is at our front door, there are many organizations and corporations that are choosing to eliminate diversity among their staffs. They are pushing to the side diversity markets and violating their core values," he said in a video message shared on June 1. "History has an unsettling way of repeating itself, particularly if one chooses to turn a blind eye. We must not ignore the challenge we face as a nation and, to be more direct, as an industry. It is the challenge of diversity and inclusion, race and equity."

"I think now is an opportunity for us to circle around and share those stories, because I think white America needs to recognize that the pain is much deeper than what they might perceive."
Elliott Ferguson, Destination DC

In addition to diversifying their workplaces, Black industry leaders advise companies to facilitate ongoing conversations among employees about race and diversity. People of color should be encouraged to share their stories and their ideas for improvements.

"I've been in this industry since the '80s, and I'd never had a sense that when I came to work and had on a suit that I could share some of the experiences that I've had in terms of racism, discrimination or profiling, because it would be frowned upon or maybe I'd lose my job," says Ferguson of Destination DC. "I think now is an opportunity for us to circle around and share those stories, because I think white America needs to recognize that the pain is much deeper than what they might perceive."

Planning Inclusive Events 

Meetings, too, must be diversified. As planners rewrite the events rulebook with new health and safety standards, diversity should be a top priority.

LaToya Williams, manager of global accounts at HelmsBriscoe
LaToya Williams, manager of global accounts at HelmsBriscoe

"All races travel and attend meetings, but oftentimes all races are not represented," says Williams of HelmsBriscoe. "Panels need to be diversified, so that every voice can be heard. In 2020, there should not be any committees, boards or panels that are not diverse. They need to look like the world we live in."

For some planners, this could mean having tough conversations with stakeholders, bosses, team members and/or clients. But doing so is imperative, Williams stresses.

"When I speak to my clients as to how they want their meetings to look and feel, I often interject to ensure all bases are covered. Oftentimes, it is an oversight to not have a diverse meeting, because they are doing what they have done year after year," she says. "Other times, it is intentional. This is when the conversation may become hard and uncomfortable. Being able to remove the emotion and have a dialogue about the bigger picture, facts and the true world we live in makes a huge difference."

Williams recommends asking the following questions during the planning process: What does diversity mean to you? Have you considered diversifying the panel? Have you reached out to your team for options you might not be aware of? Do you want to be a change agent and offer diversity and inclusion at your event? 

Those discussions don't need to be tough, says Williams. They can be presented as an opportunity for growth. "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."

Creating a Lasting Impact

Throughout the planning processes, decisions such as where to meet and which suppliers to use are opportunities to consider diversity.

"You want to make sure that when you go to a city, you're able to work with diverse businesses so that everyone can participate in the tourism economy," says Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis. CVBs can help point planners in the right direction and should offer a wide array of options that reflect the local community, he adds. "We have to be empowered and be more conscious of being able to provide those diverse experiences for meeting professionals."

Larry Alexander, who will soon retire from his post as president and CEO of the Detroit Metro CVB, urges planners to ask bureaus tough questions about diversity within the city and the treatment of Blacks. This is particularly important for events that will include a majority of Black attendees.

"Meeting professionals know the benefit of economic growth and the economic dollars they can bring to a destination," says Alexander. "Any city or destination that wants to host a meeting of Black professionals needs to recognize that when they come to the table, they should have some really outstanding and poignant questions about how that destination deals with Black meetings as a whole."

Alexander suggests asking about the city's treatment of minorities, its track record of police brutality and the economic advancements available for people of color. Planners should "look at cities that not only provide diversity inclusion, but equality for all, and have pointed examples and a history of doing that," he says.

When groups leave a destination, says Alexander, they should be able to say, "We had a great meeting, we had great attendance, and here's what we put in place that will be a lasting legacy as a result of our meeting in that city."