. How Hotels, DMOs and Meeting Planners Are Incorporating Diversity Into Events | Northstar Meetings Group

How Hotels, DMOs and Meeting Planners Are Incorporating Diversity Into Events

From hotels to DMOs, the meetings industry is getting serious about inclusion.

If the early 21st century can claim a passionately debated, socially progressive movement of its own, the push for diversity and inclusion surely fits the bill. But as successors to civil-rights activists of an earlier time, today's protesters are as likely to work on the inside, fighting for inclusionary legislation and calling companies to task, as they are to take to the streets.
 
And changes will surely come, as the numbers underscore: The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2045, the white population in the U.S. will shrink to less than 50 percent, and what we consider today's racial minorities will be the primary engine of the country's future growth. How is the meetings industry responding? Following are some of the exemplary ways our organizations are embracing diversity and inclusion as core operating principles.

MARRIOTT: Promoting Cultural Awareness

Five years ago, a catering director at one of Marriott International's Washington, D.C.-area hotels approached the hotel giant's director of multicultural affairs, Seema Jain, for help. The property was set to host an Indian wedding, and the catering director wanted input from Jain, who is of Indian descent, to better understand the cultural nuances of such an affair. Jain was able to offer some gratefully received advice -- which led to her idea to start Culture Day, a company wide series of programs intended to increase staff awareness of cultural issues affecting the chain's wide variety of customers. 
 

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In California, Marriott's L.A. Live Culture Day celebrated the LGBTQ community.

This year, Marriott will conduct 20 Culture Day programs on-site at host hotels across North America and Europe that will touch on guests' disparate culinary and housekeeping preferences, body-language customs and communication skills, along with how best to market to different groups. Jain herself leads these programs, which focus on 13 cultures, including Chinese, French, Japanese, Jewish and LGBTQ (people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning). "I am not asking anyone to change," Jain  notes, "only to think from another's perspective and to see through a different lens."
 
The immersive, daylong programs have all been designed by Jain and feature half-day classroom and half-day field-trip components, with the goal of creating best practices for welcoming guests from each culture. Typically, representatives from a local ethnic community speak about the traditions, celebrations, dress and language of their culture, followed by a visit to an ethnic grocery store and/or restaurant to learn about the foods and spices of the culture. Lessons learned can then be incorporated further into each hotel's employee-training program and even used to come up with ideas for special in-room guest amenities.
 
"When we started the program, it was primarily major cities that were interested," Jain says. "Now, we are noticing that secondary and tertiary cities are coming to us. I think it's eye-opening for a lot of people, especially those who have not traveled outside of the U.S., and I love knowing that I am making a difference in how they are looking at the travelers coming through the doors of our hotels."

HYATT: Hiring Disadvantaged Minority Youths

The International Labour Organization reports that 40 percent of the world's young people are living in poverty and are unemployed or underemployed. According to a 2017 report by Measure of America, an estimated 4.9 million of these so-called Opportunity Youth -- people age 16 to 24, most from nonwhite ethnic backgrounds -- are disconnected from the economy in the U.S.
 

Hyatt's Audrey Williams-Lee oversees an effort to provide minority youths with job training.
Hyatt's Audrey Williams-Lee oversees an effort to provide minority youths with job training.

In response to such statistics, in October 2018, Hyatt Hotels Corp. launched RiseHY, an ambitious global initiative through which the company is committed to hiring 10,000 disadvantaged young people by 2025.
 
"Having young people who are not working and not in school significantly contributes to the skills gap and income gap," says Audrey Williams-Lee, senior vice president, human resources, talent acquisition and philanthropy at Hyatt. "We felt strongly that youth unemployment was an area where we could scale our efforts to create meaningful impact."
 
As part of RiseHY, the hotel company has begun working with a number of community-based groups, such as the Youth Career Initiative in London and Grads of Life in Boston, to provide on-the-job training at its hotels. The organizations, which work directly with Hyatt in placing job seekers, are important collaborators, says Williams-Lee, because they provide vocational training in underserved communities for a number of diverse youths, including those who identify as LGBTQ and those who are former victims of human trafficking.
 
"Hyatt's purpose is to care for people so they can be their best," says Williams-Lee. "One way our purpose of care extends to our communities is through connecting individuals with clear pathways to employment." She points to a recent example at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap in Cambodia. In partnership with a local nonprofit group called Everything's Gonna Be OK, the hotel was able to provide an internship and then full employment to a youth who had spent his first 13 years in an orphanage because his widowed mother could not afford to care for him.
 
At the core of the RiseHY initiative are two customized high-tech tools. The first is an immersive virtual-reality experience that lets the prospective employee experience what it is like to work inside a hotel. The user can (virtually) spend a day in any number of key entry- level jobs, such as bell attendant, waiter, culinary worker or housekeeper. "Throughout the tour, candidates can 'meet' our colleagues and hear about what they do at the hotel, as well as see the types of roles that are offered through RiseHY," says Williams-Lee.
 
The other tool, a digital skill-matching app, taps into artificial intelligence to identify a candidate's inherent soft skills and match those to an entry- level role in the hospitality industry, and not just at Hyatt. "It is helping set candidates up for success from the very start," says Williams-Lee.

HILTON: Providing Mentors

This year, Hilton jumped up 14 places to win the top spot on Fortune's annual Best Workplaces for Diversity in the U.S. list (not to mention rising from number 34 to the top spot in Fortune's overall 100 Best Companies to Work For). The company achieved the diversity ranking, says Jon Muñoz, Hilton's vice president of global diversity and inclusion, by creating a number of unique mentor- focused employee-resource programs across all ethnic groups and abilities, as well as establishing community partnerships with nonprofit agencies, offering coaching and financial assistance for any employee wishing to earn a high-school diploma or GED, and pledging to hire 20,000 military veterans by 2020.
 

Hilton's John Muñoz spearheads the brand's global diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Hilton's John Muñoz spearheads the brand's global diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Of Hilton's more than 55,000 U.S. employees, 69 percent are from racial or ethnic minorities, 53 percent are women, 5 percent identify as LGBTQ and 4 percent have a disability. "Throughout our long history, we have made comprehensive efforts to support all communities and ensure every team member and guest feels cared for, valued and respected," says Muñoz. "It's in our DNA."
 
In 2012, Hilton launched Team Member Resources Groups (TMRGs), in eight categories: Abilities, African American, Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, LGBT & Friends, Millennial, Military and Women. Each group is sponsored by a Hilton Executive Committee member and has an advocate from Hilton's team at the vice-president level or above. The goal, says Muñoz, is to provide leadership, coaching and mentoring for employees with everything from investment advice to how to navigate a job promotion, as well as provide opportunities to engage with projects and partnerships within their communities. To date, there are 39 corporate and hotel TMRG chapters with 8,000-plus participating team members.
 
One of the most important aspects of the initiative, says Muñoz, is that the groups give everyone a voice and a chance to be heard, which in turn leads to professional growth. "As a Latino and gay man, I didn't see a lot of people like me in my early years in corporate America," he notes. "This meant I had to learn how to assert my individuality and feel comfortable bringing my whole self to work. I am really proud to now be in a position where I can focus on extending diversity and inclusion around the globe on behalf of our diverse team members, guests, owners and vendors.

Discover Philadelphia helped produce the Diversity & Inclusion Conference, held this spring, which featured the Meetings and Conventions Leaders Roundtable.
Discover Philadelphia helped produce the Diversity & Inclusion Conference, held this spring, which featured the Meetings and Conventions Leaders Roundtable.

PHILADELPHIA CVB: Producing A Diversity Conference

Not many convention and visitor bureaus can lay claim to having a dedicated diversity division, but the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau can. In fact, this past March, the bureau's PHL Diversity offshoot produced the second annual Diversity & Inclusion Conference in partnership with Temple University. The one-day event, held at the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia, drew more than 350 attendees from a wide spectrum of academic and corporate institutions, as well as the meetings industry.
 
The event featured roundtable discussions on issues such as minority hotel ownership and overcoming racial barriers in developing a business. Also on the agenda: A think tank made up of administrators from Temple University and executives from Philadelphia's business world compared how diversity was taught in schools to the actual strategies being employed by companies. The result? Temple will launch a new three-credit course this fall that will focus on the fundamentals needed for the development of a viable, working diversity/inclusion strategy.  
 

Greg DeShields of PHL Diversity wants a more single-minded group approach to inclusivity.
Greg DeShields of PHL Diversity wants a more single-minded group approach to inclusivity.

The highlight of the conference, however, says Greg DeShields, executive director of PHL Diversity, was a particularly intense session. Over four hours, 15 panelists from the leading associations in the meetings industry -- including the American Society of Association Executives; Brand USA, which markets the country to foreign visitors; Destinations International, the association for convention and visitor bureaus; Meeting Professionals International, and the Professional Convention Management Association -- engaged in a candid discussion of the current fractured nature of diversity and inclusion strategies in the meetings industry. They determined that it is crucial that they begin to work to collaborate on a singular approach in order to achieve greater results.
 
"We want to see a more diverse workforce and more diversity in leadership, but as an industry we are not moving in one direction," says DeShields. "It was an eye-opening experience that showed we need to create a successful dialogue around this topic."

VISITDALLAS: Putting Inclusion To The Test

It has been just over five years since the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau appointed Cheryl Richards as senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, charged with the pivotal role of creating a strong set of operating principals that would help cement the city's vision as a standout inclusive destination. Without that leadership buy-in, says Richards, she would not have been able to create any set of practices remotely practical or sustainable.
 

Cheryl Richards of Visit Dallas wants her city to be known for its welcome to all.
Cheryl Richards of Visit Dallas wants her city to be known for its welcome to all.

"We changed the bylaws of our organization to reflect our new direction by adding a diversity and inclusion committee," says Richards. "It's composed of 15 people from our board of directors as well as partners from the community. They are my thought leaders."
 
Richards spent her first months examining the CVB's communications and marketing materials, as well as how the bureau interacted with the local community and what it was doing on the group side for clients. She found that Visit Dallas, as the bureau is generally known, needed to pay more attention to attendee demographics if the city really hoped to fly the welcome flag.
 
Her efforts were put to the test when, in 2015, the Alexandria, Va.-based American Council of the Blind decided to bring its convention to the city. To prepare for some 1,100 visually impaired attendees and their 400 guide dogs, Richards and her team worked with the police department, hotels, restaurants, and representatives from the city's airport and transit system.
 
City leaders and other VisitDallas partners took visual-awareness training from the Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind, the city installed audible pedestrian signal lights, restaurants translated their menus into braille and the community was brought up to speed on how to interact with the influx of guide dogs.
 
"We brought everybody to the table that we thought would touch this conference," says Richards. "It was a small group, but it took a whole integration team to engage them and really show them how Dallas could stand out and really be a more inclusive destination."
 
The convention went off without a hitch, putting Richards and her team in good stead for many a "special" event.

PCMA: Making A Promise of Diversity

"We must have inclusion before we can have diversity, because diversity is the result of inclusion," says an adamant Sherrif Karamat, president and CEO of PCMA, on why the organization launched the Ascent CEO Promise in May 2018 during IMEX Frankfurt's She Means Business event, where he was the only male speaker. Karamat says the Ascent initiative and its Ascent CEO Promise were the outgrowth of an effort by PCMA, begun several years ago, to study how companies were addressing the issue of diversity.
 

PCMA's Sherrif Karamat says all CEOs should commit to promoting diversity.
PCMA's Sherrif Karamat says all CEOs should commit to promoting diversity.

The Promise asks corporate CEOs to commit to three goals: to make their workplaces and events open and trusting, to provide education on bias and inclusivity to their employees, and to pass along their shared knowledge to other companies.
 
"The CEO pledge was primarily to put a stake in the ground, but it wasn't enough," says Karamat. "We wanted to move faster, so we bought diversity and inclusivity training and then gave it to the CEOs for free, so they can use it with their teams. It's not meant to disparage any sector, like the white male, but lift everyone up, so everyone will be on a level playing field." As of Feb. 1, 2019, 120 companies had signed on.
 
Karamat says the Ascent initiative also has resulted in Pass the Mic, a roster of diverse speakers who help meeting professionals program more inclusive events, and Ascent Luminaries, a video series highlighting people working toward a more inclusive world.
 
"As an industry, I think we have focused too much on what we do, and not why we do it," says Karamat. "We really  need to ask how we can connect communities and organizations in a way that allows people of all ages and backgrounds to be part of our events." 

The California Experiment in Gender Diversity  

As of October 2018, one quarter of all publicly held corporations with headquarters in California had no women on their boards of directors. That same month, California became the first state to pass a measure mandating that women be included in the top echelons of business.
 

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California SB 826, which took effect on Jan. 1 of this year, requires that all publicly traded companies headquartered in the state have at least one female on their board of directors by the end of this year, and a minimum of three by 2021 for companies with six or more directors.
 
According to the law, which was signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown and sponsored by state Sens. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Toni Atkins, any company not in compliance by year-end 2019 will be fined $100,000; subsequent violations will draw $300,000 fines. "We are tired of being nice," Jackson said in August 2018 as reported by the Los Angeles Times. "We are going to require this because it's going to benefit the economy and each of these companies. It's time that we burst that man cave and put women in the boardrooms."
 
It won't be smooth sailing, however. California's Chamber of Commerce and 29 business groups oppose the measure, arguing that it is unconstitutional in a number of ways, including the fact that it only takes into account gender and not the diversity makeup of a company's board of directors.
 
Similarly mandated quotas have been implemented for publicly traded companies in 14 countries, including India, France, Malaysia and Norway, and mandatory quotas are under consideration in several others, such as Brazil, Canada and South Africa. While Belgium, Italy, Finland, France, Norway and Sweden led the pack with an average of more than 30 percent females on company boards, the 2018 Global Diversity Tracker report by executive-recruitment firm Egon Zehnder showed that overall, just 5.6 percent of board seats worldwide were held by women. "A focus on diversity and inclusion has to be a core part of a company's strategy and has to come directly from the top," the study said. "If board leaders and CEOs make diversity in leadership an explicit goal -- one that will be rewarded if achieved or, possibly, penalized if missed -- it can and will happen."  

MPI REPORT: Much Room for Improvement

Meeting Professionals International has advocated for inclusion in the meetings industry for a number of years, and the Dallas-based association has put muscle behind its efforts with the launch of several new initiatives addressing the LGBTQ community, small-business owners and others. It also has added the new position of diversity-inclusion liaison on the MPI Global Board of Trustees, and is developing an Experience Strategist Certificate Program, scheduled to be launched later this year, to help planners arrange universally inclusive events.
 
This past May, MPI released its State of Inclusion in Meetings & Events report in partnership with New York University's Jonathan M. Tisch School of Hospitality, exploring how and to what extent diversity and inclusion are part of the event-planning process. One conclusion was that male and extroverted attendees are the two groups best served by the events industry, while introverted attendees rate as the worst served.
 
The following are other findings from the survey, which drew 1,087 responses from MPI members:
 
20 percent of respondents incorporate diversity and inclusion initiatives for meetings to comply with legal requirements, while 31 percent use diversity and inclusion to respond to guest expectations.
 
40 percent don't have all the information/knowledge needed to plan inclusive experiences.
 
56 percent said their organizations have written diversity and inclusion policies.
 
Many felt it was challenging to make their registration forms more inclusive for diverse populations.
 
Rarely do planners share event menus in advance or produce event materials in different languages.
 
Only 50 percent of meeting professionals offer different types of seating/furniture to match delegates' needs/preferences.
 
"Industry professionals have said there is a gap in knowledge and education to support the design of inclusive experiences, and MPI takes that seriously," said Jessie States, CMP, CMM, director of the MPI Academy, of the report's findings. "We need to create safe learning environments wherein our community can learn from the experts and from each other about how to design truly welcoming experiences."