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The Dimensions of Diversity

The meetings and events industry embraces inclusive environments for employees and visitors

By Natalie Compagno

The spirit of hospitality is to provide a welcoming reception to guests. It’s a smile, greeting, or gesture that starts a vacation or friendship, and it involves making people feel comfortable, appreciated, and respected while being mindful of their needs and preferences. As critical as this mindset is, meetings professionals are dialing in on a more socially powerful concept: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Greg DeShields, executive director at Tourism Diversity Matters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is one of these industry pros. He oversees his organization’s four primary pillars: apprenticeship, workforce development, research and data, and DEI training for tourism organizations. DeShields says the COVID-19 pandemic allowed the industry to “look at where [it was] around the issues of social justice and [its] commitments to DEI.” With increased travel stimulating the economy, he says, “We see diverse travelers who have high expectations about feeling included and welcome.”

A speaker at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. May 16, 2023
The Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee implemented a plan to do business with minority-owned providers. CREDIT Andrew Feller/414 Photography

The issues of stereotypes and unconscious biases are still prevalent, he adds, so it’s important that DEI is top of mind—but this can be a challenge for event planners. Step one toward the solution? Be intentional and ask questions. “There is what’s called a diversity wheel,” DeShields explains. “There [are] about 19 different dimensions of diversity. While most would perceive it to be race and ethnicity, the reality is that it could be people who are disabled, veterans, seniors, etc. We want to look at what makes us all diverse and what
makes us all unique.”

Destinations Dedicated to DEI

Being intentional begins with choosing the right destination, and it is a crucial decision in the planning process. It’s essential for hosts to select a city that prioritizes inclusivity and safety to ensure attendees feel comfortable and welcome. 

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, prides itself on being one of those places. For instance, the Visit Milwaukee website promotes its “Unique Unites” slogan, which spotlights cultural events and places. Groups can support Native American-owned businesses or discover more about Milwaukee’s Asian, German, Pacific Islander, or Jewish heritages, among others. 

People gathering at the Athens Last Resort. May 16, 2023
Gathering at the Athens Last Resort CREDIT Visit Athens

Additionally, the Wisconsin Center, a convention and exhibition facility in downtown Milwaukee, is committed to inclusivity for guests with physical disablities and has made accessibility and inclusion its top priority in its $456 million expansion project—anticipated to be completed in May 2024. The center will have quiet rooms, mother’s rooms, and dedicated gender-neutral restrooms. Importantly, the Wisconsin Center implemented a self-mandated minority-owned business inclusion plan to maximize employment of the local workforce and partner with diverse businesses (including vendors, subcontractors, and suppliers) during complex development. The companies that collaborated on this project consisted of 25% minority-owned businesses. 

But these efforts don’t stop in Wisconsin—many other cities across the country prioritize DEI within city limits, tourism organizations, and event spaces. One such destination is Visalia, California, which is the first Certified Autism Destination in the United States. Hospitality staff in the city are trained to accommodate the needs of autistic visitors, and Visit Visalia provides sensory guides with photographs and descriptions. Additionally, it participates in the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, which discreetly informs venues that someone in the group has a disability.

Also on the West Coast, Tacoma, Washington, shows its solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement through the BLM Mural Project, celebrating the achievements and contributions of Black Americans throughout history. The mural, located at Tollefson Plaza downtown, was created by a group of Black multidisciplinary artists, and it’s a block away from the main meeting and convention space in the hotel district.

Event-goers at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. May 16, 2023
Event-goers at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania CREDIT Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau

In Georgia, Elyse Harris, director of sales at Visit Athens, emphasizes the importance of reflecting the community’s diversity in events. “Being a college town, Athens is its own melting pot with visitors, students, locals, and professionals crossing paths every day,” Harris says. “We strive to bring events to Athens that reflect the diversity of our community, whether it’s by working with meeting planners, highlighting diverse local businesses on Visit Athens’ blog, or ensuring our marketing photography is inclusive.” Athens hosts the annual Big Hearts talent show, a fundraiser for Extra Special People Inc., and recently the A Libris conference, which featured gender-neutral bathroom signage. The Classic Center, a convention center and performing arts theater in downtown Athens, offers accessible seating, wheelchairs, and assisted-listening devices, and service animals are also welcome.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is another example of a destination that is creating an inclusive community for its visitors. The city is home to one of the first convention and visitors bureas in the nation to establish a dedicated division, PHL Diversity, to highlight the destination as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive location for meetings and events, says Gregg Caren, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. For the last 30 years, the CVB has connected planners with local businesses, suppliers, and community leaders who share the same values of inclusion and can also assist in the facilitation of engaging programming for visitors and locals alike. “[PHL Diversity is] focused on promoting diversity in both the events they host and the economic benefits to the communities they serve,” he says. 

Hotel Properties with Inclusive Environments

To ensure everyone receiving a room key feels welcome and seen, be sure to research properties before booking for a group and make sure the accomodation has DEI practices in place. Language, cultural understanding, diversity in staffing, and accessibility are all crucial factors.

International hotel chains can, and do, lead the way for their franchises and properties to support DEI. For example, through programs, training, and curated events, Marriott International Inc. is among the most respected leaders in inclusive and mindful tourism. “We believe inclusion matters, and [that] diverse viewpoints and open dialogue strengthen communities,” says Maruiel Perkins-Chavis, vice president of global diversity equity and inclusion for Marriott. “That is why we are committed to creating an environment where guests, associates, suppliers, owners, customers, and our key stakeholders feel
valued and included.”  

One Marriott hotel devoted to these efforts is the W Seattle. It was the first hotel in the Washington city to raise the pride flag on the building above its Fourth Avenue entrance, and it remains there today. In addition, it has been the headquarters hotel for Seattle PrideFest since 2007 and is a sponsor of the Seattle Queer Film Festival. “It’s important to me that W Seattle stays connected to the LGBTQ+ community,” says Greg Campbell, director of marketing and sales. “Through our actions we say, ‘We see you, we support you, and we’ll always be a safe place for you to stay or work.’”

The W Seattle’s atmosphere also captures this sentiment. Morgan Zion, resident local artist, painted a vibrant, multiethnic mural near the lobby. Faces—an entire floor of guest rooms with unique portraits also by Zion—launched as well. These gender-neutral, multicultural personalities are based on people she has met, and the portraits dole out hip recommendations of sites to visit in the distinct neighborhoods they represent with a scan of a QR code.

The "Queer Me Out" live podcast at W Seattle. May 16, 2023
The “Queer Me Out” live podcast at W Seattle, the first hotel in the city to raise the pride flag CREDIT W Seattle

Hotel Indigo Austin Downtown in Texas concurs. “As a society, we are becoming more and more aware of each other’s different backgrounds and cultures,” says Humberto Fermo, general manager. “When guests see our hotel is comprised of a collection of different people from various backgrounds, they feel welcome to be their unique selves,” he says, adding that customer-facing communication through marketing and other verbal or written language can shift an attendee’s perception about the venue and its staff. 

Establishing this sense of effective communication with staff members and visitors is of primary focus for Miraval Resorts and Spas in Tuscon, Arizona. To address this, the hotel recently teamed up with a psychologist, Alfiee Breland-Noble, to raise awareness about DEI and self-care through a series of retreats and colleague sessions. “When people feel like they belong, their mental health improves,” Breland-Noble says. “This is why creating safe and welcoming spaces for people of diverse backgrounds is critical for the meetings and groups field.” 

Cultural Exchanges & Learning Moments

It’s essential to acknowledge and respect Indigenous peoples, their practices, and their long relationship with the land, which predates the establishment of the United States by centuries. One way to achieve DEI in your practice and shape a layered experience is to immerse your group in Native American art and traditions when visiting areas with a rich culture or history. 

For example, start by experiencing the natural beauty of the land in a place like Greater Palm Springs, California, where one can set up a hiking tour in the Indian Canyons, part of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation, or book a ranger-led interpretive hike of Tahquitz Canyon to see rock wall art from nearly 1,600 years ago. A visit to the Cabazon Cultural Museum in Indio or the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in Palm Springs is highly recommended, along with viewing permanent collections of Native American art at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Arleana's in Kirkland, Washington. May 16, 2023
Arleana’s in Kirkland, Washington CREDIT Kat Young

To the north, the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel in Worley, Idaho, has a Cultural Tourism program. Intimate, dynamic, and often sold out, these tours, classes, and activities are moments of wonder. Make Your Own Pendleton Moccasins is a popular class, while cultural dinners, blessings, and canoe tours are also sought after.

Another way to recognize Indigenous peoples is to make a verbal or written Land Acknowledgement for your event. This formal statement honors Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards of the land, and is a step in demonstrating solidarity and a commitment to social justice and racial equity.

Food Brings People Together

Catering is a delicious way to also integrate culture and diversity. Theo Martin of Island Soul in Seattle, Washington, infuses diversity in his Caribbean cuisine. “I want to bring the variety of flavors to my food, like the variety of cultures on the islands—Asian, Indian, French, British, African—and in our country.” The Black Lives Matter movement sparked a surge of interest in and opportunity for his catering services for corporate retreats and other events. Island Soul is now expanding into a second iteration—Arleana’s in Kirkland—in honor of his mother, who hosted all kinds of people at her home each Sunday. “Food is a language—it brings pleasure and bridges gaps—just like art and music,” Martin emphasizes.

Another important culinary consideration is respecting the dietary needs and religious preferences of guests who will be dining. It’s a good idea to be familiar with caterers who source locally and can serve up, for example, halal, gluten-free, kosher, vegan, and vegetarian, while also addressing food allergies.

In the News

As we go to print, there are laws being put into place around the country limiting the freedom and rights of individuals and organizations that can and will impact the hospitality industry. The U.S. House of Representatives-passed Parents Bill of Rights Act, and Florida’s Individual Freedom Act, Stop Woke Act, and “Don’t Say Gay” Act infringe on DEI maturity in the corporate and leisure sectors. DeShields understands this shifting landscape. “That’s why the work that we do with Tourism Diversity Matters is so important—because we can provide answers and insights around this subject, especially now that it evolves. I feel most proud about this. Whether I’m speaking to someone in Montana, Boston, or Los Angeles, we are a resource for DEI aspects in all sectors of our industry.” 

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