Event Management

Diversity Is an Important Part of Event Planners’ Destination Choices

Skift Take

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are strategic business imperatives event planners look at when choosing the site of their next gathering. Demographics and the political climate are also important facets of a destination being considered for an event.

Five years ago, Skift took a comprehensive look at 15 convention and visitors bureaus (CVBs) focused on attracting the meetings and events of diverse communities including African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, LGBTQ, and people with disabilities. These bureaus understood that with the U.S. poised to become a minority-majority country by 2040, multicultural markets are no longer a niche.

Since then, the world has changed, impacted by the Covid pandemic, Census 2020 results, and increasing attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Skift Meetings reconnected with these destinations and others to see where they are in 2022 with their multicultural meetings outreach. 

The hallmarks of success for CVBs that have increased meetings business from diverse groups are the same today as in 2017. It is about recognizing changing demographics; responding to the political climate and national news; involving the local multicultural community; having a dedicated budget plus long-term commitment, and thinking ahead about the next generation that will make up the travel industry. New since then are research studies that demonstrate how diversity factors into how groups choose destinations for their meetings as well as the buying power of the multicultural traveler.

First and foremost, it’s good business

“DEI is not a nice to have, rather a strategic business imperative to be competitive contributing to a business success,” said Greg DeShields, executive director, Tourism Diversity Matters (TDM). Established in 2021, TDM is among several organizations dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the travel and meetings industry that have been created, as is National Blacks in Travel and Tourism, created in 2020, and Travel Unity, formed as a 501(c)(3) in 2016.

A destination’s efforts in diversity and outreach to multicultural organizations make a difference to groups when choosing a location. Jim Clapes, corporate event manager, Mayer Brown and immediate past chair of the LGBT Meetings Professionals Association, cited a study done with Temple University Hospitality Department, commissioned by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB), which showed that 48 percent of destination selections are based on “some sort of D&I initiative.” “Due to our work at LGBT MPA, meeting professionals are more educated about how to plan their meetings in a more inclusive way, what cities and suppliers they can partner with in order to ensure that objective, and how this contributes to advancing diversity across the industry,” Clapes said.

The more than 2,200 members of the LGBT MPA spend over $18 billion annually based on a 2017 study conducted with Iowa State University.  “We strongly recommend destinations and event venues that are LGBT business members that are showcasing a commitment to diversity and inclusion and positioning themselves to meeting professionals as leaders in the industry when it comes to ensuring a welcoming environment for their attendees,” Clapes said.

“According to MMGY Travel Intelligence, multicultural travelers account for 44 percent of all travel spend, and they can’t be ignored,” DeShields said. “It is important to keep in mind that the multicultural traveler is more likely to spend with brands where they see themselves reflected,” he added.

An MMGY Global research report, The Black Traveler: Insights, Opportunities & Priorities, which was conducted through partnerships with organizations including The National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals (NCBMP), Black Travel Alliance (BTA), and the National Association of Black Hotel Owners, Operators and Developers (NABHOOD), found that black travelers say that how destinations and travel service providers approach diversity influences their decision-making. In addition, the study revealed the enormous spending power of U.S. black travelers, who spent $129.6 billion on domestic and international travel in 2019.

Philadelphia was the First

Philadelphia was already a minority-majority city, said Greg DeShields in the 2017 article, who was then executive director of PHL Diversity. “The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau was the first CVB in the nation to establish a division whose efforts focused exclusively on attracting diverse meetings, formed in 1987 as the Multicultural Affairs Council now called PHL Diversity,” said Maria Grasso, senior vice president, convention division, Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Grasso pointed to the city’s legacy of activism in the LGBTQ+ movement and that the city was even founded on the Quaker principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and brotherly love.

Among the multicultural organizations and events that Philadelphia has hosted recently are the Black Enterprise 2022 Entrepreneurs Summit and Mazzoni Center Annual Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference, the largest transgender health conference in the world.

This month the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau appointed Sheila Alexander-Reid as executive director of PHL Diversity. She will oversee the division’s efforts to promote Philadelphia as an inclusive, welcoming destination for meetings and conventions.

Make Diversity a Priority: Cleveland

“Destination Cleveland’s sales team continues to prioritize efforts to bring multicultural and diverse meetings to the region,” said Gordon Taylor, III, vice president of convention sales and services, Destination Cleveland.

While rescheduling events impacted by the pandemic became a primary focus in 2020 and 2021, the organization worked on a parallel path to attract new meetings representing diverse audiences. “Our goal in doing so is two-fold: to generate economic value for the region and to attract and connect organizations and event attendees to Cleveland community leaders to spark and foster collaboration that leads to positive change,” Taylor said.

To advance their efforts, Destination Cleveland hired a sales manager in 2020 focused on the diversity segment, increased their involvement with the National Coalition of Black Meeting Professionals, and prioritized attendance by Destination Cleveland representatives at diverse conferences.

Events of note that have taken place since 2017 in Cleveland or will be taking place over the next few years include the Association for Women in Science Equity in Stem Conference, the Women in Cybersecurity Conference, and the 2023 National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives Conference and Exhibition.

“In response to the national call to dismantle systemic and structural racism, Destination Cleveland made an organization-wide commitment to do more with greater intention to make our community stronger. Making diversity, equity and inclusion part of our DNA and part of how we operate to advance tourism and Cleveland’s reputation as a destination city is essential,” Taylor said.

Greg DeShields echoed Taylor in directly addressing the spark of a movement. “During the summer of 2020, the world was shocked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which refueled decades of activism against discrimination and demands for social justice,” DeShields said. “The incident ‎inspired a new generation of social change that would inevitably impact the tourism industry’s ability to address diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.  The nexus of change for the tourism industry and voices concerning social justice was a call for action that could impact how the tourism industry approaches the gaps of ethnic disparities,” DeShields said.

Address Racial Issues: Minneapolis

Melvin Tennant, II MA, CAE, chief executive officer, Meet Minneapolis, has a unique perspective to add. “Clearly, the killing of George Floyd brought focus on equity and inclusion, which has already been a focus for us.” This year, Meet Minneapolis hired Ka Vang as the vice president of equity, diversity, and inclusion, a newly created role responsible for developing a strategic vision and implementing a plan that systemically advances a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusion as part of the organization’s core mission.   

“We are really operationalizing the sense of how we have grown from the traumatic experiences of the community,” said Tennant. Their business-to-business initiative, ‘Make Waves. Create Change. In Minneapolis’ “was born out of how we take what happened to us and turn it into not just something positive, but how we tell the world how we have grown as a result of the experience we have been through.” 

Promote the Diversity of the Destination: NYC & Company

Many destinations pointed to the diversity of their city as a key attraction to promote to meeting planners.  

“New York City is one of the most diverse places in the world, home to people of all backgrounds and cultures, with hundreds of languages spoken here,” said Jerry Cito, executive vice president, convention development, NYC & Company. “In addition to our ongoing relationships with multicultural groups and meeting planners, we are furthering NYC & Company’s DEI meetings efforts as we continue to work towards tourism recovery.  From the launch of our ‘Embracing Diversity’ business-to-business webinar series and multicultural content platforms to fostering new connections with a variety of groups and industry associations, NYC & Company is here to help planners organize tailored programs that authentically reflect the diversity of their audiences and that of New York City itself,” Cito said.

A Diverse Workforce is Key: Las Vegas

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recently created a new people and culture position dedicated to diversity recruitment.

“Our efforts in marketing to multicultural groups includes connecting meeting planners with the various multicultural chambers of commerce organizations in Las Vegas that help support locally owned businesses,” Jim McMichael, national sales manager, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said. “With a diverse local population and the ongoing DEI training offered by our hotel partners, hosting multicultural meetings is a natural fit for Las Vegas,” said McMichael.

Creating a pipeline to mentor, develop, train, and hire the next generation workforce is crucial.

Two programs reflect this mandate.

Explore Charleston offers an intern cultural enrichment program (ICEP), in association with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) which was created to encourage opportunities that recruit and develop individuals from diverse backgrounds in the tourism and hospitality industry.

The Indian Hotels Company (IHCL), India’s largest hospitality company, launched She Remains the Taj. This initiative includes a goal of raising women’s participation in its workforce to 25 percent by 2025, as well as supporting women-led businesses and partners.  

Staff Training: San Diego

“Since I took over as president and CEO, we have implemented an extensive DEI training program for our staff so that the organization reflects the values we want to see in our industry, and our community,” said Julie Coker, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

“We also created our Tourism Accelerator program, one of the first in the country, that provides education, mentoring, and networking opportunities to businesses owned by people of color, women, veterans, and those who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Coker said.

Montgomery is making a similar effort. “Montgomery’s appeal for diverse, multicultural groups has always been strong because of our uniquely powerful history. We are starting at home – literally by training our own staff and realigning our brand to resonate more deeply with the meaning of our destination,” Experience Montgomery’s Simmons said. “African Americans find a tremendous amount of value in coming to Montgomery, but we are also seeing more interest than ever from LGBTQ+ and Hispanic groups, as well as people with disabilities,” said Ron Simmons, chief officer of destination and community development, Experience Montgomery.

Highlight Diverse Local Businesses:  Portland

About five years ago, Travel Portland partnered with Prosper Portland to develop “My People’s Market” as part of its goal to create pathways for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) entrepreneurs. In attracting diverse groups to Portland, one service Travel Portland offers conventions is a mini My People’s Market as a part of the conference experience.

“This brings Portland’s BIPOC vendors directly to the convention attendees,” said Angela Nelson, vice president of equity, diversity, and inclusion, Travel Portland. 

A Discover Durham Culture & Community website page, Bull City Beautiful was created to celebrate local business owners, such as the largest minority-and women-owned event planning company in the area, the long-time organizer of the city’s official Juneteenth celebration, a wife-and-wife catering team and others that tell the story of Durham as a diverse place to plan an event. “We have had a black-owned business blog post on our site for a few years, and it became one of our top trafficked pages in 2020,” said Susan Amey, president and chief executive officer, Discover Durham.

Heed Census 2020 Indicators: Cincinnati

According to the latest census, the white population has decreased by 8.6 percent since 2010. In light of this and other Census statistics demonstrating the growth of the multicultural population, destinations are increasing outreach to multicultural America. 

“The census is just one more proof point that the country is browning, and our industry has to decide how to engage or be left behind,” said Jason Dunn, group vice president, diversity, equity and inclusion, Cincinnati Convention & Visitors Bureau. “For those who work within the diversity market, it’s almost like a see I told you moment, and a feeling of validation.”

Work with Outside Consultants and Partners: Montgomery

“Our entire organization is currently going through diversity training to improve our ability to relate to each other and the people who come to our destination,” Experience Montgomery’s Simmons said. The city is developing a curated DEI experience for groups.  

“One of my key goals as I stepped into this position was to launch a brand-new concierge service for meetings professionals that highlights diversity and inclusion training offerings available in the destination,” Simmons said.  “As more and more corporate entities realize the value of DEI, the inquiries have become more frequent.”

Next month, Discover Durham also will begin work with outside consultants. “We plan to seek external expert guidance to ensure that our systems are, in fact, productive to the DEI movement and expectations and that we are representing Durham in equitable ways,” added Discover Durham’s Amey. “We sought out new partnerships with entities in the travel and tourism space – including giveaways and content with Travel Noire, hosting the Blacks in Travel & Tourism Collaborative and also now support Pride Journeys,” she said.

Destinations International offers help. “The critical need right now is to develop frameworks that address how to get started on EDI initiatives and how to overcome the question, ‘What if my destination isn’t diverse?’” said Sophia Hyder Hock, chief diversity officer, Destinations International. An EDI Assessment Tool, an EDI pledge for CEOs, an EDI study, and an HBCU scholarship initiative are among the resources Destinations International offers.

Diversity Celebrated in Mobile All Year Long

“Day in and day out, our team aims to forge new relationships with multicultural organizations and meeting planners that might not know what our destination has to offer,” said Patty Kieffer, vice president of convention and leisure sales, Visit Mobile. “Most recently, we hosted 2,000 attendees for one of the oldest African American fraternal organizations in the country, the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World,” Kieffer said.

Involve Local Organizations: Greater Palm Springs

In the 2017 article, Visit Greater Palm Springs told Skift that LGBT groups were a natural fit as the destination had worked with this community for decades. While the LGBT community had embraced the Greater Palm Springs area on the leisure side, the convention executives had discovered that the meetings business didn’t automatically follow. Their plan was to involve the community and then proactively reach out to groups.

Today, Visit Greater Palm Springs continues that commitment. “We are always looking for opportunities to find, attract and welcome diverse and multicultural groups. We work hand in hand with our local organizations and business partners to identify these groups that we should target for meetings in Greater Palm Springs,” said Carolina Viazcan, vice president of sales for Visit Greater Palm Springs.

Diversity includes Every BODY: Virginia Beach

“Virginia Beach is the first city in America to offer Grommet Island Park, an oceanfront park for every type of body,” said Sally Noona, CMP director of convention sales and marketing, Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. The beach park features wheelchair-accessible entrances, a sensory board for children who are autistic and visually impaired, a hand-operated sand scoop designed to be used by a person in a wheelchair, and beach wheelchairs that are free to use allowing everyBODY to play in the sand.​

 Make us Feel Welcome

“Over the past few years, a few destinations have really stood out in terms of going above and beyond the usual LGBTQ+ event roster, adding LGBTQ+ conferences to their mix. Fort Lauderdale is probably one of the top destinations in this regard. Las Vegas is right up there, hosting these and a wide variety of LGBTQ+ sporting conferences and events,” said Matt Skallerud, president of Pink Media, a company that produces LGBTQ+ business events.

“I see many destinations, including us, take a look inward at how we go about appealing to more diverse audiences than we did before, with great intentionality, and what it is, specifically, about our destinations that can and should be attractive to groups and organizations who want to be mindful about the inclusiveness of the destinations they choose for events,” said Susan Amey, president and chief executive officer, Discover Durham.  

“I think we have entered a place where D&I are not just catchphrases or passing trends but foundational objectives for the hospitality community,” Clapes said. “My advice would be simple. Ensure that your destination embraces diversity and market it as an inclusion location,” he said.