The Meetings Industry Diversity and Inclusion Roundtable

Thought leaders see cause for optimism when it comes to inclusion in the meetings industry -- and much room for improvement

Few issues have dominated the public arena in the past few years as much as those related to diversity and inclusion (D&I). Charged discourse about race, religion, nationality, gender and/or sexual identity are impacting every part of our culture, including the meetings industry. During the first week of August, Successful Meetings gathered five thought leaders on a conference call to discuss these topics. The insights they offered help explain where the industry is on addressing these matters, and where improvements are needed.

PARTICIPANTS 

THE CULTURE AT LARGE

Successful Meetings: How big a threat is the current climate of ideological polarization to creating meetings and events that respect diversity and the rights of all attendees?

Gwen Migita: I don't see this as a threat. It actually creates a heightened expectation for inclusion. I liken it to the environmental-sustainability wave we saw over a decade ago. When there's a greater awareness around certain issues, there's also an awareness around policies in place to address them. This goes beyond some of the hot-button issues such as the bathroom bills that get all the media attention. It creates an environment to discuss many other proactive policies that create cultures of inclusion.

Michelle "Mick" Lee: It's definitely an opportunity for meetings and events professionals. When you think about who has the most control of content, it is, of course, the buyer and the client. Whether it's an association or a third-party organization planning meetings, we can only go so far in effecting diversity because of the level of control that the buyer, owner or client has. I do think that the current climate will get them to be open to handling and planning the design and content of events in a more diverse way. That said, if the company culture is not diverse, then their meetings and attendees will not be diverse. As meeting professionals, there's only so much we can do.

Sherrif Karamat: The climate today is a perfect backdrop to raise greater awareness and move from awareness to action. We've got to be mindful that what is happening in the domestic U.S. is not the reality around the world and that there are different stages of inclusion and diversity. The rhetoric that is sometimes brought into the mainstream dialogue, especially in this country, is that two wrongs make a right. I am very mindful of the term inclusion before diversity, because unless we include all, we will never have diversity, which is not just skin color and sexual orientation, but also ideas. We can all look different and have different genders, but if we all think the same, it is not diversity. 

THE INDUSTRY'S ROLE

The meetings industry is working to be more diverse, but the existence of special-interest organizations demonstrates that it has a long way to go. How would you rate the current level of diversity in the meetings industry?

Dave Jefferys: The existence of the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association is indicative of the missed opportunities within the industry, and that's the reason why we've had such rapid growth in membership as well as sponsorship. Folks want to get involved. They want to be able to show that they are involved. It is a long, uphill battle to start an association. I would not have begun this effort on my own if I didn't feel so strongly that it has been missing. I see nothing but blue skies in terms of the opportunities that we can move forward on.

Greg DeShields: We have made some strides, but we still have a long way to go. Conversations, like we're having today, are a good leap forward as they bring greater connectivity of organizations that can make an impact. Looking at the fundamentals of D&I as a component of our society is where there needs to be a fundamental long-term commitment. As you look at it from the perspective of task force and initiatives, it somewhat lends itself to a limited effort, and D&I should never be limited. It's something that is more of a marathon as opposed to a sprint.

It's important to think in terms of our industry and how the DNA of it, the core of it, the culture of it, is established to embrace more diversity and inclusion. That's where the work needs to be done so that there is a greater understanding of how the industry needs to change to create more access for individuals who may be of color, for instance, who have aspirations of going into the business. Collaborating with the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality or engaging more with the historically black colleges and universities can help. There's a number of outreach strategies that could bring more diversity when you think from a long-term plan as opposed to a short-term strategy.

Migita: As an industry, we need to look at standardization and practices that go beyond optional training and certificate programs. For example, is there a best-practice standard that all meeting planners and venues should hold to that has evolved from something similar to APEX or what was once the environmental-sustainability movement? I'm seeing a lot more of that sector moving into social sustainability and the governance of venues or companies offering these meetings. So transparency and standardization are key.

Karamat: I launched the Ascent CEO pledge a few months ago, and we have more than 100 CEOs worldwide who have signed on board. It's a pledge that speaks to inclusion and diversity on every front. PCMA is also now developing and launching different training programs, including unconscious bias training.

We are in the business-events industry, and many of us are in the hospitality industry. So, as part of that study, I looked at Fortune 500 companies in America, and then at the hospitality industry globally and certain other verticals. When the results came back, the hospitality industry was the worst in promoting women. This is exacerbated by the fact that women outnumber men by a significant amount in this industry with respect to the number of people being employed. One woman in 10 were leaders of an organization. The industry has to do a much better job. If you look at Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. that are led by women, they perform 41 percent better as a return on equity than companies led by men. That is a fact.

I'm encouraged by this conversation, but I'm also encouraged by what's happening in broader society. We all have to be conscious of everything that we do, but we also have to have a mechanism to get to the leaders and have a commitment not just in writing, but tangible actions that they will take to see a diverse and inclusive workforce. If the only thing that people respond to is the economic benefit, there are tangible results that show that with true inclusion and diversity, you get better economic performance.

Lee: Sherrif, compliments for what you said, because it's one thing to talk about what needs to be done, but it does take a definitive action plan to be able to put this into motion. There are not that many brands in the hospitality industry that have taken that. Egencia and Lodging Partner Services are ones that have. They specifically have required a diverse candidate pool for every hire to ensure that there is no unconscious bias. There are more diverse candidates, specifically women. That's another example of how, unless we have those specific actions where someone is taking a stand at the senior levels, than the conversations aren't going to get us anywhere.

Jefferys: One of the challenges I had at the beginning of establishing LGBTMPA was the powers that are in place. The discouragement that I received in the first year was devastating. Newcomers are not welcome in the meetings industry, they say: "New associations -- why have one?" Many of these naysayers are older and very established. I see another opportunity based on what Sherrif said. We're all about the next generation, all about professional development, speaking a common language and talking about common experiences. I welcome all of you to become part of our association because we are collaborative across the board.

Do you think the meetings industry needs to approach the issue of diversity in the same way that Meetings Mean Business promotes the idea of the value of meetings through a bipartisan umbrella organization?

Jefferys: Since our association is rooted in the D&I argument, everything we do is about how do we get further involved with other organizations. How do we develop the professional movement in a way that truly reflects our organization? How can we create more content? How can we spread that content, and how can we connect all the buyers and suppliers that have those initiatives going? One of the things that is developing from our workshops is overlooked destinations that develop diversity and inclusive activities, workforces and tourism strategies. They are places like Birmingham, Macon and Detroit. They've stepped up, and we're providing this opportunity for them to say we're a part of your organization and we're supporting it because we think we've tried hard and we're doing a lot, and we're getting a little overlooked here. It's tough to get some recognition for some of the movement that has begun, and we're thrilled to be able to weave that fabric.

DeShields: I encourage our industry to stay focused on our convictions and to avoid conversations that aren't constructive. It's important that we become the voice of our organizations and we help build bridges to be more collaborative in the ways that we engage, so that we're not in silos. There should be more of a unified voice to create an understanding of the contributions that our industry makes in general to the overall economy and the culture, especially as you whittle it down to individual cities and their need for the hospitality industry to be successful. It's about staying focused on what your convictions are, staying away from nonproductive conversations and speaking in more of a collaborative voice.

Jefferys: The fact that our organization has grown so quickly speaks volumes for the timing. But when it comes to professional development, if other industry organizations are not structuring boards that are fully diverse and inclusive, then they're subconsciously avoiding the issue or not addressing it. It's a tall order to have a completely diverse and inclusive board. Where is the opportunity within the meetings industry to support and grow not just the LGBT community, but what the LGBT community very often stands for, which is diversity and inclusiveness?

DeShields: There is a consistent mind-set that diversity and inclusion are very important to the future of our business, our society and as such, having more continuity, intersectionality of the strategies around how various organizations are pursuing it is vital. Understanding that at the end of the day, it's not just a good thing to do but it's also good business.

Migita: There are a lot of great activities and initiatives going on from this group. Not being directly in the meetings industry, I'm looking at all of the standards we follow, from diversity best practices to the Dow Jones sustainability index, to the National Minority Supplier Diversity Council and some others. There are also about 100 or so on sustainability -- environmental and social. All of these are not interconnected between the destination-based standards. It would be helpful if we look at a multisector approach to standardization.

Karamat:
I agree with that statement. When we launched CEO Ascent, it wasn't about PCMA; it was about what we considered to be a just society, inclusion at every level. The people who have signed the pledge range from the CEO of Hyatt to Cisco to European Cardiology to Asian societies, American societies and Canadian societies and corporations. It's incumbent upon all of us to be on the same page and take collective action. If the end goal is a just society, it doesn't matter if we're all doing the same things at the same time. What matters is that we want equity for all. If that's the case, then we're paddling in the same direction.

THE GRASS-ROOTS LEVEL

Is there anything individual professionals who work in the meetings industry can do to prevent the current spirit of our age from being reflected in our field?

Lee: The most important thing is to get involved, and it's more than just joining an organization. It's about being engaged and in a position where you're holding each other accountable. Looking at gender diversity includes the critical component of men participating in women's leadership initiatives and all of us, regardless of what our background or our focus is, supporting each other in a way that is authentic and actionable. At WINiT, we've often talked about the fact that the goal for any meeting that we have is that each one of us has an opportunity to make history in our little piece of the world. If every one of us takes action or gets involved with an existing organization, the ability to make a difference and move the needle is incredibly powerful.

An important thing that’s tied to this conversation is not to create something new, but seek to join what’s already there, because power comes in numbers, and the real movement and ability to change and move the needle around all of these things is people joining together, not starting individual silos when the support already exists.

DeShields: Here in Philadelphia with PHLDiversity for over 30 years, we serve as that connector. It's important that you have someone who's that facilitator to help an individual or organization that may have some aspirations to achieve specific goals as it relates to diversity inclusion. That's where the success can be measured -- to be able to show that the group was able to move forward with a goal of either having more outreach or engagement within a community.

Karamat: What I do not see is the inclusion of younger people in this conversation. The older generation tends to be hampered by certain paradigms and legacies, whereas the younger generation puts different lenses on things. I would like to see more involvement of the youth as a part of inclusion and diversity to change this conversation faster.

Lee: I see something a bit different with the younger generation. At WINiT, we have found that Millennials and younger generations are a force to be reckoned with and have been very engaged in our diversity efforts and mentoring program. In fact, the WINiT mentoring program that Dawn Repoli established has a good number of Millennials who are reverse mentors for older generations that are looking to connect with or be better leaders by understanding the younger generation. So they are in a reverse mentoring relationship to help them come forward and ensure that senior leaders are recruiting and retaining the younger generation. I've found that they have been aggressively, and I mean that in the most positive way, engaged in diversity, from a gender perspective anyway, at WINiT.

Karamat: I agree with you, and I'm speaking the same language. At PCMA we have programs like 20 in their 20s and others that feature a range of young and diverse perspectives that are also doing reverse mentorship. But when it comes to trying to drive a lot of broad scope changes, we're still not integrating the youth enough in shaping direction. Young people are going about it in their way. I am mindful of a comment that was made earlier. Here is the power that we have and it should not be taken lightly if we all believe in a better and just society for all. Let's look at climate change for a moment. When certain governments stopped supporting climate change, for example, the U.S., there were states and corporations that said, you know what, this is the right thing to do. They said, we want a better world for our kids, for our future, and we want a healthier planet, and they're moving forward.

We need to understand why fear-based discrimination exists. How do we overcome it and help people? Frankly, I don't want the very few people that may be biased against somebody else to be left behind either. I want to make sure that we're propelling and enabling all of society so we can have a better society. This means everyone needs to get involved. When we see things that are unjust, we should do something about it. We should take action. We should not be silent because when we're silent, we're complicit.

ON-SITE ISSUES

How do you feel meeting professionals can create program content that accounts for ethnically diverse audiences?

Jefferys: Let me start by saying it's a big challenge. There's a lot of content that's out there that can be compiled and repurposed. We have successfully created six workshops that have all come out of our executive and advisory board. We're super proud to be able to offer all of that to any of you folks in other associations. Our biggest challenge in all of this is bandwidth. We don't have enough support. We have more job in front of us than we have the opportunity to work on it.

Migita: It's human nature to have an unconscious bias; it's how we manage the unconscious bias. As a woman of color, Japanese from Hawaii, who is also openly lesbian with a two- and four-year-old, at conferences almost every week this summer, even with the D&I conferences, we all have biases. There could be improved inclusion around tailoring to people with kids who are coming in on weekends for conferences or tailoring to bicultural segments that you're trying to grow. As our diversity consultants are telling us, inclusion is not just being invited to the dance, but being asked to dance and recognizing the music that's playing at the dance. There are so many more layers around how we could improve. I agree with everyone, though, that we are headed in the right direction with the meetings industry.

The #MeToo movement has brought the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace to the top of everyone's mind. Meetings and events are business functions, but the hospitality and networking components create opportunities for inappropriate behavior. How big a problem is sexual harassment at meetings and what can be done about it?

Lee: I don't think that there's any more of an issue of sexual harassment at meetings or events than there is at other business functions, and it all comes back to the tolerance and the culture of the host organization. When you're looking at sexual harassment, there are specific things that organizations can do to change that in their culture.

The first is to stop ignoring the real reason you have an employee who is a problem. Oftentimes, it is someone who brings in a great deal of revenue, and those types of behaviors are tolerated regardless of the fact that there's a lot of complaints around them. That culture has been ending, especially with the #MeToo movement and there needs to be zero tolerance. The second area of focus is to lead by example and know that we are all leaders, regardless of our title or tenure. The third is reviewing the power structure in the organization. It's difficult for there to be systemic and sustainable change in the culture if it doesn't start at the top. 

Jefferys: We're developing a workshop on harassment and discrimination. One leads to the other, and the LGBT community certainly has been engaged in both.

Migita: We continue to have a zero tolerance policy around this, be it in the workplace or the hotel environment, even for the guests, but a lot of it also needs to be informed with greater training. In general, the movement has shifted corporate types to look at not just compliance and policies, but how you create a more comprehensive guest experience that prevents this.

FINAL THOUGHTS

What does the future hold for diversity in the meetings industry?

Migita: I'm the head of diversity inclusion, and we updated to diversity equity inclusion for Caesars Entertainment about eight months ago, and it's an exciting time to be in this role. I'm seeing a lot of intersections with social and economic sustainability. With interest and attention and a call to action for greater movement, it's a bright future ahead for more-inclusive meetings.

Jefferys: The LGBT Meeting Professionals Association is in existence because the D&I issue hasn't been addressed fully. I wish us a great, short future that's very collaborative. We don't threaten anybody in the industry. We want to have our voice at the table, and we want it to be honest and pure.

DeShields: We have to stay diligent when looking at the talent pipeline that can certainly impact diversity and inclusion in our industry.

Karamat:
I believe when we meet face-to-face, we see eye-to-eye and we can break down barriers that we initially think are insurmountable. The business-events industry is about bringing people together, and it's the ideal platform to address the issues that we face around inclusion and diversity. We have a golden opportunity to lead by example through education and walking the talk. I'm optimistic that the business-events industry is going to play a leading role in this charge of inclusion and diversity.

Lee: The greatest day of my life would be the day that I could close WINiT because it is no longer needed. Sadly, I don't think I will see that in my lifetime. That said, I do believe that now, more than ever, having been in the industry for over 25 years, that we have massive institutional, cultural shifts that will be sustainable. But it takes every single one of us to do something. It's not a matter of starting organizations like we all have. It is a matter of saying I'm going to give one hour a month to the diversity component that I feel passionate about. And the more you get involved, the more you're going to want to get involved, and you'd be surprised at how much you can accomplish by giving an hour a month to being part of making history.