Meeting planners are becoming very attuned to their members' cultural issues these days — and making decisions accordingly. For example, the National Council of La Raza pulled its 2009 conference out of Kansas City after hearing of the appointment of a member of the Minutemen, considered to be a racist organization by the association, to a city commission. The American Library Association said “no thanks” to Cincinnati after the city passed anti-gay legislation in the 1990s and took its 25,000 attendees to Philadelphia instead. And who can forget the rash of association meeting cancellations, including that of the National Basketball Association, in Arizona when that state, along with New Hampshire, refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday?
But for every big splashy story about associations that consider their members' cultural, religious, and ethnic perspectives, there are thousands of stories that go untold. Stories about potential minority attendees who take one look at the meeting Web site and, seeing no one of their race or ethnicity represented in theroster, click away. Stories of potential Jewish attendees who, upon seeing that the meeting is scheduled over Passover, take a pass. Stories about Muslim attendees who, after going hungry because there are no meal options for them, opt out of next year's annual conference. Stories about Jehovah's Witnesses who want to partake of the education but find that much of it is delivered at social events of a type prohibited by their religion.
To make a meeting truly inclusive requires considerable thought and deliberate considerations on the part of an entire organization — and likely a shift in the culture of the organization itself (see article starting on page 18). That is no quick or easy thing to do. But there are lots of things a planner can do now to send the message that all types of people are welcome and will be accommodated in the ballroom.
Send the right message. Make it obvious on your conference program, your Web site, and in all your other materials that your organization does not discriminate based on race, religion, country of origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. “Just seeing that sends a very strong message,” says Justin Nelson, president and co-founder of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C.
Use minority contractors when possible Suzette Eaddy, CMP, director of conferences with the National Minority Supplier Development Council Inc., New York, says that if you find few or no minority businesses on a city's recommended supplier list, request that they dig some up for you. Even if these companies are not members of the convention and visitors bureau, “the more progressive cities will provide an unofficial list on the side.” Ask local minority chambers of commerce for suggestions, or ask other planners who have held meetings in your destination.
Give minorities their own space. Think about holding separate receptions for different groups within your constituency before the main meeting begins, but understand it could be contentious. Some think holding a women-only reception, or an event for the Hispanic members, would just create or deepen a divide between different groups of people. Others, like Nelson, say it isn't “ghettoizing” the different segments if you don't make it exclusionary. (He suggests that invitations could read, “Gay, lesbian, bi-, and transsexuals, and friends,” for example).
Provide scholarships for under served communities among your membership for your certification programs. Celebrate them at your meetings, as ASAE and The Center for Association Leadership does for the Certified Association Executive designation and with its Diversity Executive Leadership Program scholarships.
Find role models. Look to other organizations that have diversity programs in place. “Most people aren't proprietary about diversity,” says Nelson. “If you're committed to diversity, you're committed to it internally and externally, and you take pride in sharing your processes.” ASAE and The Center's Diversity Committee and Diversity Listserv are two examples of ways of connecting informed people and sharing resources.
Talk their language. If you have multilingual staff, make them available at the registration desk, have them play host on the buses, and ask them to circulate at social events, says Louisa Davis, CMP, CMM, senior project manager, PRIME Strategies, Vancouver, B.C. Adds Joan Eisenstodt of Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt and Associates, if your staff lacks speakers of other languages, search among your members for those who might.
Offer alternatives. Make sure the meeting venue provides brochures that feature sites and local attractions of interest to people of different ethnicities, races, and cultures, suggests Eaddy, of the National Minority Supplier Development Council.
Look at the nondiscrimination policies the local community and your vendors have in place. While federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on color, race, religion, sex, national origin, and physical disabilities, sexual orientation and gender identity are not specifically covered. Those who are involved with and care about GLBT issues may appreciate your using a hotel that offers domestic partner benefits to its employees, for example, or a city that outlaws discrimination in employment or housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Be inclusive in your language. Instead of a spouse program, offer a partner or guest program. Say “international and U.S. attendees” instead of “foreign and domestic.” Use “different abilities” instead of “disabilities.”
Ensure that your speaker lineup mirrors the diversity of your membership, including the younger members you want to attract.
Consult a world calendar before booking your meetings to ensure that they don't conflict with an important religious or cultural holiday for some of your attendees. Sarina Butler, association executive director in the American Bar Association's Chicago office, says ABA does this for every one of its 2,500 programs. They also ask attendees if the dates chosen cause a religious or cultural conflict and if they do, ABA reschedules. “The last thing we want to do is create a circumstance that prevents [someone] from participating,” she says. If perchance you're stuck with conflicting dates — set by someone less enlightened than you several years ago, say — acknowledge the problem, apologize for the inconvenience, and ask if there is any way to make it possible for those affected to be accommodated in the meeting.
Plan menus that will accommodate the cultural and religious dietary requirements of your attendees. Most hotels will know what to do if you tell them what you need, says David Bennett, director of conference services for InterContinental Houston. “We typically ask for an idea of what the cross-section of religious beliefs will be. If I have a large Muslim contingent, I'll be sure to have halal options on the buffet. If there will be Jewish attendees, I need to know if we need to do a full kosher menu or just kosher style, which is prepared in the hotel kitchen but just doesn't contain certain items. If they do need full kosher, can we send out for it if we don't have a kosher kitchen available? If we know who's coming, we can take it from there,” he says.
It also is a good idea to provide a menu listing all ingredients for each item, so that those who can't have pork don't end up eating a salad with bacon in the dressing. This also helps avoid potentially dangerous situations for those with food allergies. For non-registered events, “we provide an abundance, a smorgasbord, so no one has to go hungry or sacrifice a health issue or religious principle,” says Butler.
Expand accommodation request areas on your registration forms to more than just dietary and physical needs. Ask if there are any other accommodations needed for religious or cultural reasons, or even for personal reasons, as could be the case for a nursing mother.
If possible, put aside some space for a reflection room that attendees can use for their spiritual needs. It is especially important for Muslims to have a clean, quiet place for their daily prayers without having to dash back to their rooms five times a day.
Don't forget women. Carlos Conejo, a multicultural specialist with Multicultural Associates, Thousand Oaks, Calif., points out that “The inequities haven't been resolved. Find women who are in leadership positions and have them be visible on your board and as speakers.” For attendees with small children, consider offering on-site day care, especially if you have many drive-in participants.
Consider including tracks on diversity and inclusion issues in your attendees' professional arena in the conference. If you have a large contingent that speaks another language, you could offer some sessions in their language. Because of its growing Latin American contingent, the Association for Conflict Resolution, Washington, D.C., has begun offering some presentations in Spanish, for example.
Consider accommodating the differences among your participants in your reception planning, suggests Eisenstodt. For example, if your attendees include those whose religion does not permit alcohol consumption or being in the presence of alcohol being consumed, have at least one “dry” reception or other type of social function that doesn't involve alcohol.