At a roundtable of women leaders in the meetings industry, convened by our sister magazine Association Meetings at the 2001 annual conference of the American Society of Association executives, some of the most provocative discussion was not about gender — but about race. After the tape recorder was turned off, Suzette Eaddy, CMP, director of conferences, National Minority Supplier Development Council in New York, talked about some of the prejudice she has encountered, as a conference organizer and as an attendee. While medical meeting planners have developed strategies to make their international attendees feel welcome, they may not be so tuned in to the concerns of their U.S. attendees from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Q: What concerns do minority attendees have?

A: Sometimes, the guests can be made to feel different or unwelcome. There are times that hotel staff pay more attention or give better service to non-minorities. Nine times out of ten the person behind the desk will attend to a non-minority person, even though the person of color is there first. I think they genuinely don't see nor do they ask [who was there first]. Also, there are many occasions when people of color are assumed to be staff, not guests.

Q: What questions should a planner ask to make sure the hotel staff will welcome a diverse group of attendees?

A: Hotel staff will portray themselves as friendly and accommodating. The only way to find out is to ask for the names of minority groups who have met there within the last year, call them, and ask for their experiences. Look at how well the staff reflects diversity. Ask them what challenges they've experienced establishing a diverse team. Ask what diversity training the staff has received and how effective it was.

Q: What makes a location appealing to people of color?

A: They find it appealing if there is a guide listing historical facts interesting to people of color; cultural activities, authentic ethnic restaurants, and historical attractions such as a Holocaust or civil rights museum; and people of color in political office, such as the mayor. It helps if the CVB has people of color as salespeople, and minorities are reflected in advertising materials — and not only as athletes, taxi drivers, or door men.

Q: How can planners find local minority vendors ?

A: The CVB will probably be the most helpful — except they represent only their members. Minorities don't tend to join CVBs in record numbers. You can go to the Urban League; or my organization, the Minority Purchasing Council; or the Hispanic or Black Chamber of Commerce. Some bureaus and convention service managers have lists — under the table — of minority suppliers.

Q: What can a meeting planner do to send the message that minority members are welcome at the meeting?

A: Program content should address the interests of a diverse audience — not with just a session on diversity, but meal functions, entertainment, and speakers can reflect different cultures and themes. In registration kits, include suggestions on local things to do for every group.

But some historical attractions are difficult for mixed audiences: Whites feel guilt and minorities feel anger. I went to an Aboriginal theme park in Australia with the National Coalition of Black Meeting Planners. There were 150 to 200 people in the audience; and about 20 of us. We were the only people of color there. They showed a movie about the history of the Aborigines, which included how the country was taken from the Aborigines and how they had been disenfranchised up until about 30 years earlier. When it was over, everybody — except our group — clapped.

Q: What else can a meeting planner do to make a conference more diversity-friendly?

A: When at a meeting in Chicago, a colleague took a cab to a suburb to shop — and then learned that black people were not welcome there. She had to bribe an off-duty cab driver to take her back. Somebody should have told her, don't go there. Don't hold off-site events in areas that are dangerous for people of color. At networking activities, board members should introduce minority members to the long-time member groups. But, first, you have to recognize there is a problem. Some people believe that minorities are always complaining and want special treatment. I just want to be treated just as well as you are.