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Meeting & Event Planning

7 Steps to Racially Inclusive Meetings and Events

Posted June 30, 2020 By Jared Shelly

Global protests against racism and injustice have prompted business leaders to examine bias and diversity in their industries—and the meetings and events space is primed to make some serious changes. Of course, there are plenty of event organizers who make sure inclusivity is built into the fabric of their events. They select diverse speakers and reach wide audiences. But others have blind spots, leading to far too many events where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are underrepresented. 

A survey of 1,000 event planners by Meeting Professionals International found that 60% of respondents identified barriers to planning inclusive events, such as limited time, budgets, and leadership support. When asked how well the industry serves the needs of different groups, survey respondents said ethnic minorities, disabled people, people with non-traditional religions, and introverts are among the worst-served groups. Overall, respondents agreed that events need better training and technical tools around diversity and inclusion. 

If the industry truly wants to return from the COVID-19 hiatus with a more inclusive environment, leaders need to book more minority speakers, identify racial bias, and partner with minority-owned businesses.

For the industry to truly promote racial equality and make meaningful change, we’ve got to work together. That’s why we held conversations with a group of Black industry experts to help us compile the following list. It outlines seven ways the industry can promote diversity and inclusion—and start the process right now.

1. Find BIPOC speakers If all your speakers are white, you’ve got a diversity problem. 

“It boils down to research. There’s always a BIPOC that’s available in any topic but they may not be as publicly known. Do the extra work to find them,” said Shantel Young, senior production manager at Convene. She suggests consulting lists of minority speakers such as Great Black Speakers. “If you’re in a room full of people who are all one race, take a second to think, is there anybody we can bring into this conversation to change the narrative and offer a different perspective?”

2. Identify your racial bias. Survey attendees and organizers to determine the current state of racial bias amongst the attendees at your event. 

“If you have a brain, you’re biased,” said executive coach and CEO of Melissa Majors Consulting. “All of our biases are formed from millions of experiences we have throughout our lives and shapes how we see groups of people. Performing an organizational assessment to uncover systemic racism will lead to data-driven solutions that can help you make long-lasting changes to your events.”

3. Diversify leadership. Diverse teams lead to diverse ideas—and that drives innovation. But diversity needs to start at the top.

“The tourism and hospitality industry is one of the most diverse workforces, but leadership in meetings and conventions really lacks that representation of diversity,” said Greg DeShields, executive director of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We should strive for more diverse leaders to be in those roles.”

4. Create a safe space for difficult conversations. Attendees at your meeting or event should feel empowered to discuss race and other difficult topics. Provide a safe space to allow that to happen.

“Lay down ground rules of how to approach certain conversations,” said Young. “Make sure people aren’t afraid to speak their voice and say what they truly mean.”

5. Partner with minority-owned businesses. From suppliers to caterers to networking events, the industry needs to do a better job at partnering with minority-owned businesses. If you’re bringing thousands of attendees  into a city for a week-long conference, then partner with a minority-owned local business for your expo giveaways or find a Black-owned restaurant to hold your networking event.

“This is one of the biggest opportunities for our industry to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” said Majors. “So often, we rely on recommendations from our own social circle. If our own social circle isn’t diverse, likely you won’t get diverse recommendations.” 

Where can you find those minority businesses? DeShields suggests contacting a city’s ethnic Chambers of Commerce, or national organizations like Minority Business Development Agency or National Minority Supplier Development Council.

6. Ditch the swag and spend on philanthropy. Let’s be honest, swag can be pretty useless. Those ill-fitting sunglasses and thumb drives end up in the garbage. Why not make a more meaningful gesture and donate backpacks or winter coats to school children? Using your swag budget to make a contribution to a local charity can be a great help.

“There are a number of ways you can connect with organizations for charitable contributions. I would start with a school district in whatever city you’re in because they probably already plugged into local philanthropic organizations,” said DeShields.

7. Don’t be exploitative. Many business leaders genuinely want to make real change. Others are just paying lip service to the cause du jour. Being genuine always wins.

“Just like a New Year’s resolution, public statements don’t result in actions or behavior change,” said Majors. “Don’t just promote diversity. That’s just optics. You need to find ways to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion and that’s all about the actions you take—not the optics campaigns you run.”

At Convene, we’ve launched the “Amplify Your Voice” Campaign to donate our Virtual Meetings Product to organizations, activists, non-profits, and community groups dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement, so they can present to anyone, anywhere with the support of our team.

We’ve also recognized Juneteeth as an annual paid holiday for all employees in addition to making a donation to the Black Visions Collective, a social justice organization in Minneapolis. We’re committed to hiring more diverse candidates within leadership and board member roles at our company, and our executives are continually brainstorming with industry professionals hoping to make positive changes. These are small steps that are part of a longer, sustained effort we’re making to fight racism within Convene and in our society.


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