An Honest Discussion on Race, Culture and Meetings

race meetings photos

If ever there was a time for an honest discussion on diversity, it’s now. Conversations about building a border wall, deporting immigrants and other polarizing topics have left the country divided.

We called on five veteran hospitality professionals (shown in order from left below) for their takes on diversity in the events industry and society as a whole: Dan Williams, vice president of convention sales at Experience Columbus (Ohio); Wanda Collier Wilson, president and CEO at Jackson (Mississippi) CVBFabian J. De Rozario, national president at National Association of Asian American ProfessionalsAl Rutherford, managing partner at Rutherford & Associatesand Anisha Lewis, executive director at The Association of Black Psychologists.

These are people who not only plan meetings but also attend them frequently, whose average age (51) and years in the industry (25) attest to their wisdom and experience. Their thoughts on subjects others often shy away from are enlightening.

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A generation ago, meetings began to change, becoming less a sea of white faces and more diverse. How have meeting visuals progressed in their racial and cultural composition since then?

Rutherford: When I first began my career a little over 30 years ago, I was often the only person of color sitting in a workshop, and one of only a handful in a general session. Today, the attendees are more diverse, but the numbers still aren’t representative of the diversity in our country. We still have more work to do.

Wilson: Twenty-five years ago, it was not uncommon to walk into a room filled with white males, only three to five nonwhites and veiled, unwelcome looks. I’m seeing a greater mix of racial and cultural composition now than in the past—more faces of color. However, in 2017, we should be further along in the process [than we are].

De Rozario: I’ve seen an uptick of more racial, age and gender diversity at meetings over the past 10 years. Planners and organizations are more thoughtful about improving ethnic and gender representation among their speakers, particularly for keynotes. Speaker agencies feature a greater diversity of women, Hispanics, blacks and Asians. Marketing and promotion of events and conferences are ensuring diverse representation of people in published collateral.

Williams: In marketing materials and pages of industry publications, it’s much more common to find a person who looks like me. And certainly there’s a wider range of diversity at industry events, in terms of both presenters and attendees. But the diverse makeup of these events is still not reflective of the wide-ranging diversity found in the general population.

Talking about diversity doesn’t necessarily lead to action. What makes you hopeful?

Williams: I love that I’ve seen a number of inclusion efforts from industry groups in recent years. PCMA and MPI created a multicultural education program tool kit for planners; ASAE has numerous diversity and inclusion strategies and initiatives. DMAI has a program I’m particularly passionate about that works to increase the visibility of the hospitality industry to people of diverse backgrounds while they are still in school. Another positive trend is planners are making a conscious effort to understand the makeup of a city and, in turn, embrace that culture and bring it into their meetings.

Lewis: There is an increased number of diverse organizations that represent various industries. I find this shift encouraging, as long as the primary goal remains to be inclusive, and not just to increase attendance. I’ve also noticed an increase of diversity in the meetings/hospitality workforce. I’m hopeful diversity will not stop at entry-level positions, but that it will be reflected in senior management positions as well.

race culture and meetingsWilson: Actions speak louder than words. More companies are actively seeking individuals to groom for positions of leadership, hoping to attract a more diverse membership and audience. I will continue to observe the active attempts to groom leaders, provide learning tracts that are actually meaningful.

What comes across as lip service?

Rutherford: As a business owner, I’m particularly interested in exposing people of color to opportunities within the meeting and hospitality industry. When a convention is held in a city, how much of their budget is spent with diverse suppliers or people of color? It’s important that convention centers, built with taxpayer dollars, be used for the benefit of the attendee, but also for the citizens of the city—and that means opening doors to opportunity.

Wilson: The promise of trying to be more inclusive but, you know, “We just can’t find the ‘right’ people. We’re working hard on it though!”

Rutherford: To that I respond: “Call me. I’ll help you find capable, diverse suppliers.”

What makes you cringe?

De Rozario: I celebrate freedom of speech as long as people are held accountable for what they say. When demeaning jokes and put-down phrases are transmitted without concern for their potential impact, it’s a blatant disregard for others. This is what creates divisiveness.

What challenges remain for people of color in meetings and hospitality?

Wilson: Like most of us who have “made it,” we’ve had to claw and fight our way to the top. There are no strides given; we simply don’t give up. Challenges? Respect for the value of a job well done—not well done for a woman or a person of color or another nationality, but for a professional who knows his or her job and worth.

race culture and meetingsDe Rozario: The meetings industry still has a lack of representation of Asian and Hispanic, Latino/Latina populations, both on the planning side and among suppliers. One reason is that these populations in the U.S. are in large part recent immigrants, so both cultural and communication challenges can create a glass ceiling. Additionally, a blossoming career in hospitality may not be an immediately conceivable choice due to lack of role models in the industry. Again, optics has a profound effect on people, so if someone doesn’t see someone else like them in a particular career, they might not think they could be successful in that way.

Lewis: I do see a slightly increased number of people of color in upper-level positions, but it’s still disproportionate compared to the number of Caucasian men in upper management. Equal opportunity for women in senior management remains a work in progress.

Williams: There’s a great divide in terms of pure numbers of minorities holding and not holding leadership positions. As someone who’s had a hand in hiring for many years, I know that often the pool of candidates for even midmanagement-level positions is not diverse. It mostly boils down to the need for greater recruitment and retention. I don’t mean recruitment of high-ranking executives from other industries to fulfill vacant leadership roles in ours. I mean brass tacks recruitment at the lowest level—in high school and college—to ultimately grow them into leadership positions after many years of service to the industry.

Diversity in America both shapes and is reflected in diversity in the meetings world. How do you view the efforts by civic, political, religious and social leaders to promote and improve diversity in America?

De Rozario: Anyone who has a platform to be heard by others has a tremendous responsibility because of the impact and influence they can have upon others.

Wilson: Efforts move in waves. Great civic, political, religious and social leaders these days come and go. Most are beaten down by the lack of or slow progress in improving diversity in America. Until we all view ourselves as worthy and engage all people celebrating their worth through their differences, no efforts are going to be successful in improving diversity.

Williams: I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work for leaders who understand the importance of creating teams with a breadth of perspectives. For example, our mayor’s office recently appointed Stephen Francis, the city’s first chief diversity officer, to ensure Columbus stays at the forefront of diversity inclusion efforts.

Rutherford: In the not-too-distant future, you’ll see a person of color leading a major hotel chain. The hotel company that makes the decision will make a significant connection with its customers and that, in turn, will drive value for stockholders. It will show the company’s employees that their diversity is appreciated and valued, and that they have the opportunity to rise to the top of the organization.

race culture and meetingsHow does traditional media define diversity in America?

Williams: It’s much more common [now] to see people of all backgrounds in all types of magazines, movies and on television. This type of media is at the forefront of everyday life, and these images greatly influence the way people think about and accept others with diverse backgrounds.

Lewis: For many, it’s the only source of exposure to diverse people and attitudes, whether the portrayal is accurate, exaggerated or stereotyped.

Rutherford: Often traditional media reinforces stereotypes as opposed to dispelling them. We see this regularly in movies and on television and the news. However, I can see some progress. When you watch TV news, you can see diversity on the air, but we have to look behind the camera at who’s making the decisions on what stories will be covered and how they’ll be presented. Images and content presented to viewers affects their perception, for good or bad. After all, perception is reality.

Wilson: The better question would be: What role should the traditional American media play? My answer to this question changes day to day. Reporting versus entertainment has blurred over the years. Ratings are more important than facts and dignity. If the media handled their responsibilities better with their audience, who knows what the definition of diversity in America would look like.

And social media?

Lewis: Social media has become a huge influencer, and, many times, for the worse. People tend to hide behind social media to say things they would never say to a mass audience in person.

Wilson: People do not take the time to think about what they post for potentially millions to view and develop opinions. It sets in motion opportunities for cowards to hide behind a computer and stir up all kinds of trouble. Judging a whole race of people because of what was posted on social media is not conducive to pulling all together.

race culture and meetingsDe Rozario: It’s a double-edged sword. Social media brings the world together; it creates more awareness and knowledge of incidents happening away from us. If an injustice occurs on an airplane or in another country, we get the news almost instantaneously. But since our social network is likely made up of people who think like us, we are possibly exposed to a limited perspective, and this perpetuates living in our bubbles.

Rutherford: Social media has the potential to be an equalizing force. You can’t deny its impact. A vast majority of people gets their news from Twitter. People once believed everything they saw on TV was true; now many people feel the same way about the internet. We all must improve our social media literacy, and be adept at deciphering what we see on social media as fact or fiction.

Williams: Recently, we’ve seen many contentious issues dominate our news sources. We pit people with different views and beliefs against each other instead of encouraging meaningful and constructive conversation. This is especially prevalent on social media, where there’s so much information readily available only in snippets, causing people to make snap judgments. In these instances, it’s up to us as a society to do our research and get the entire context of a story before we form an opinion.

How do all of these factors influence the racial and cultural makeup and business of meetings today?

Lewis: Diversity must come from the heart and be done because it’s the right thing to do. It must come from a genuine desire for inclusiveness and not to increase profits.

Williams: We’re already seeing a younger generation that’s more open and accepting than any generation of the past has been. As these young adults begin their professional lives and work up to leadership positions, the industry should automatically become more inclusive.

Rutherford: We have to make a compelling case for the attendee to participate. One way we address this is by providing content and messaging that reinforces the importance of diversity in our society, at large and in our industry in particular. It just makes sense.