By Ciritta Park, former vice president

Able Management Solutions, Inc.,
First published in Convene magazine, 12/97

Diversity. A decade ago, it was the latest buzzword in human resources. Today it promises to be the dominant social issue of the 21st century. The term and concept have gone far beyond issues of racial and gender parity. According to Dr. R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., of The American Institute for Managing Diversity (Atlanta, Ga.), embracing diversity begins by redefining it to refer to "any mixture of items characterized by differences and similarities."

What is a convention or meeting if not a gathering of individuals "characterized by their differences and similarities"? Meeting managers must be aware of diversity when developing content, choosing speakers, and selecting menus. They must comply with legal mandates for accommodation. And in order to be truly successful, they must do it in a way that is consistent with the organization's mission.

Sometimes it can be like walking a tightrope. Tension is created when a person or an organization is asked to change. And creating inclusion can make people nervous, especially in organizations founded by individuals who, historically, have been of like mind and similar background.

How can meeting managers work toward creating more diverse organizations? The Rev. James Steen, executive director of Prism Parishes, Inc. (Washington, D.C.), believes that the first step toward incorporating diversity is the development of a comprehensive, organizational plan.

"It takes intentional effort and hard work to diversify an organization," Steen said, "whether it's a community of faith or an association. We all go to meetings and conventions with our own perspectives. Make a checklist of all human differences represented in your organization. Then, during meetings, network with people who are a part of those groups. That's what builds pipelines of communication into different communities."

Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt Associates (Washington, D.C.), a meeting management firm, creates audience profiles to help clients address diversity issues. "We identify anything that might impact the group: gender, age, nationality, disabilities, religious issues, and so forth," Eisenstodt said. "The goal is for everyone to be able to participate fully."

Often, the impetus for creating diverse organizations comes from the observations of the volunteer leadership. That was the experience of Brenda Brown, the first African-American president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), based in Columbus, Ohio. "When I became president," she recalled, "it was obvious that very few people of color were attending our conferences. I wanted to do something to bridge the gap. Because people knew me - a black woman with a disability - they were comfortable with my talking about the issues."

When it came time to choose a keynote speaker for the conference in 1992, Brown insisted that the person be versed in multicultural diversity and be a person of color. The ongoing effort has paid off: The association's membership roster now represents many backgrounds and experiences.

The change, however, wasn't accomplished without tension. "I knew," Brown said, "that bringing up diversity wasn't going to make everyone happy. Issues around diversity had to constantly be balanced against the mission of the organization, which is access to higher education for students with disabilities."

Voluntary initiatives, such as AHEAD's, generally prove to be more effective than government mandates. However, legislation like the Americans With Disabilities Act can be a catalyst for more inclusive meetings and conventions. "The government mandates have provided a greater awareness for government meeting managers to consider other points of view and cultures when they do their program planning," acknowledged Steve Hilberg, president of the Society of Government Meeting Professionals. "The bottom line is that if you aren't offering a diverse program, you won't be able to market it."

Most experienced meeting managers understand the basics of access. But, according to Steve Smith, manager of association operations at AHEAD, access is more about sensitivity than compliance. "It would be wonderful if room setups had plenty of space for wheelchairs, guide dogs, and personal attendants. And it would be nice to see meeting sponsors offer more social alternatives that don't center around golf and alcohol. Many professionals do neither but still want to network."

"I spend nearly 15 percent of my conference budget on accommodations," Smith said, "and I'd gladly spend twice that. The perspective and knowledge brought to our conferences by a diverse population - including those with disabilities - is absolutely invaluable!"

In the court of public opinion, an association's image and institutional credibility are core issues. "It makes an immense impact on clients and members," Steen noted, "if you are perceived to be sincerely sensitive to existing human differences.

"On the other hand, anyone who doesn't seem sincere, doesn't pay attention to nuances of language, or is unfamiliar with basic issues will be viewed as a white person of privilege who is trying too hard."

Sidebar Article 1:
Until We Make Inclusion an Issue, It Won't Be an Issue to Overcome'

The International Society of Gay and Lesbian Meeting Professionals (ISGLMP) began in 1985 when founder Jim Luce was asked the question: How do you take your partner on a fam trip?

"I really didn't have a professional group I could get the answer from," Luce said. "A few fax responses later, ISGLMP was born."

Luce, executive director of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, continued, "The meetings profession is relatively gay friendly, so it's not an entirely uphill battle. Still, who you are shouldn't be a factor in your career."

Members of ISGLMP have reported through their online newsletter that before ISGLMP was founded, they never really said anything about being homosexual. Now they feel they can identify themselves and feel better about not being in the closet on the job.

"People feel accepted," Luce said. "They bring pictures of their families and keep them on their desks. It certainly makes for healthier employees."

Promotion to gay or lesbian groups needs to be more than window dressing. "Your convention and visitors bureau can't just do a gay guide and stop there," Luce said. We don't want to be courted only for our dollars. We're looking to support airlines, hotels, and cities that treat their gay and lesbian employees with equality. That means inclusive insurance, family leave, and bereavement policies."

It is ISGLMP's goal that sexual orientation is, ultimately, a "non-event."

"Thanks to our efforts, ISGLMP will someday no longer exist," Luce said. "But until we make it an issue, it won't be an issue to overcome."

Mainstream meetings industry associations haven't really addressed the needs of niche markets, according to Roy Jay, president and CEO of the Oregon Convention and Visitors Services Network. "I formed ACT [African-American Convention and Tourism] because of the needs of the market," he said. "ACT is a catalyst to providing education on all sides with a goal of better customer service."

Many of the emerging technologies, such as videoconferencing, aren't as appropriate for people of color. African Americans tend to see travel as a means to visit with people for family reunions, cultural tours, and so forth.

"We tend to come early, stay late, and spend money," Jay noted. It takes more than fancy rooms and a gift pack to make cities competitive for this niche.

"Reaching our market requires local involvement and advertising that includes people of color. We also want to see people of color and women being upwardly mobile in the meeting profession. When we go to a hotel," he said, "we wish to see people of color not only in housekeeping and food service, but also as sales staff and general managers."

Sidebar Article 2:

Food Prepared to Order

Food: If it's good, you hear about it. If it's bad or unsuitable for your audience, you really hear about it!

Some food tips for diverse audiences:

* People living with HIV/AIDS need to pay attention to protein intake and nutrition in general. Whole foods (not packaged or processed) are most appropriate for this group. - Jeffrey Barrett, RN, co-chair of the AIDS commission, Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio.

* American Indians and Alaskan Natives often wish to eat such traditional foods as buffalo and fry bread. They appreciate cooperation from hotels and food service organizations in purchasing and preparing these foods. - Lorraine Edmo, Ed., Native American Education Association.

* During the Jewish holiday of Passover, consider offering matzos as an option to leavened bread. - Joan Eisenstodt, Eisenstodt Associates.

* Attendees are choosing healthier food. There are many more requests for vegetarian meals and bottled water but fewer requests for caffeine. - Jean Ellippani, Society of Women Engineers

by Ciritta Park, CAE, former vice president of Able Management Solutions, Inc., is the award-winning author whose series on ADA and the Meeting Planning Professional first appeared in Convene magazine.