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‘A Long Way to Go’: Event Industry Leaders Reflect on Diversity, Opportunities, and Challenges

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • Racial inequality in the meeting and event industry is not an issue for Black people to solve alone—it will take everyone
  • New roles such as diversity and inclusion officers can help set goals and measure progress.
  • Hiring minority-owned vendors and businesses are one way to spread economic opportunity.

While Black History Month is a good time to highlight racial diversity and inclusion initiatives, internally and to outside audiences, diversity initiatives are not limited to February. 

The Event Leadership Institute asked meeting and event professionals to reflect on what this time of year means to them and how it relates to the industry. We reached out to industry leaders as well as asked for contributions on Twitter and LinkedIn

Here’s what they had to say.

Devin Lewis, CEM, CMP
Director of Regional Sales, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority
President, Meeting Professionals International-Potomac Chapter
Connect with Devin on LinkedIn.

Devin Lewis, CEM, CMP

“It is essential for us to follow through on these commitments and learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

There were many events that took place over the course of 2020 that forced us to stop and take a sobering look at what freedom and equality truly mean in our country. It seemed every night on the news, we were met with more heartbreaking dialogue surrounding overworked but underpaid essential workers, the increasing numbers of furloughed or eliminated positions, and the effects of an acrimonious and divided country. We asked ourselves whether or not our places of employment were willing to invest in making change. Would our companies realize that diversity was not a top priority when creating company culture? Would they admit that the makeup of their decision-makers did not come close to reflecting an inclusive community?

There were many events that took place over the course of 2020 that forced us to stop and take a sobering look at what freedom and equality truly mean in our country. It seemed every night on the news, we were met with more heartbreaking dialogue surrounding overworked but underpaid essential workers, the increasing numbers of furloughed or eliminated positions, and the effects of an acrimonious and divided country. We asked ourselves whether or not our places of employment were willing to invest in making change. Would our companies realize that diversity was not a top priority when creating company culture? Would they admit that the makeup of their decision-makers did not come close to reflecting an inclusive community?

When you look at the meetings and events industry as a whole, traditionally the opportunities for minorities to be heard and seen on an elevated level has been slim. Pledges of inclusivity have been announced and are an integral part of the changes that we need to see. While it’s been nice to witness some companies taking immediate steps to perform deep-dive assessments, it is clear that we still have a long way to go. I believe it is essential for us to follow through on these commitments and learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

As a Black woman and tenured professional in this industry, I am encouraged for the future knowing that action follows an awakening. I have already seen an increased number of opportunities for marginalized individuals to inject new perspectives, processes, and initiatives into our businesses. Now that we are in a space of awareness, it is more important than ever for us to be more conscious allies for all of our colleagues.

April Goff
Senior Associate, Events & Meetings, KPMG
Connect with April on LinkedIn.

April Goff

“We need to understand the importance of using minority-owned vendors and businesses that promote real change and economic opportunity.”

This time of the year, I like to reflect on my family, our history, and the struggles we have gone through as Black people. As an African-American female professional in the events and meetings industry, my strength and work ethic comes from my people. With the ongoing struggle for social justice, we have realized that we must do more as event planners for the meeting and events we are executing daily. Meaning more research, more data, and clear communication to share ideas to promote minorities at our events.

Considering what our country has seen over the past year, KPMG LLP is working to do more in this effort. Most recently, KPMG has marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a firmwide holiday to recognize the distance we have come, but also how much further we need to go and the work that needs to be done toward racial justice and equality. There is still more work that needs to be done and we need our clients to have the courage to speak about the challenges and have people of color speak at their events. We need to understand the importance of using minority-owned vendors and businesses that promote real change and economic opportunity.

As I use this time to reflect on my personal changes, I have been more open about telling people my story, struggles, and achievements. I’m so proud to be Black and to work in an industry that touches so many people where they can learn and gain valuable information. It is important for me to represent myself, my people, and my firm in a way that is beneficial to all and that moves us forward as a country on racial equality and justice.

Jennifer D. Collins, CMP, DES
President & CEO, JDC Events
Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn.

Jennifer D. Collins, CMP, DEC

 “It’s important we are included not as spectators but as decision-makers.”

There have been many who question the validity and necessity of a time such as Black History Month. Why I believe it makes a difference is that the contributions of Black Americans have never truly been taught. Even in having endured the injustices of slavery, which helped build the American capitalism system, we were never full beneficiaries of it—and that remains true today. The history is important to show the resiliency of us as a people.

We have made great achievements in the midst of enormous odds. We are often portrayed in media highlighting criminal activity, but rarely seen are images of us leading normal lives, taking care of our families, positively participating in our communities, pursuing education, and working jobs every day.

For corporations and even in the meeting industry, it’s important we are included not as spectators but as decision-makers. Acknowledgement of there being an issue is important, but actions are even more defining. And the true test comes once we move further away from last summer and see what corporations and others do when no one is watching. That’s how you’ll know what they truly value. We all need humble hearts to see, respect, and value each other not only as Americans but simply humans.

Gwendolyn Y. McNutt, CSEP
Regional External Affairs Manager, Comcast
Connect with Gwendolyn on LinkedIn.

Gwendolyn Y. McNutt, CSEP

“The recent season of unrest … required those that had never been touched by or taken a stand on racial injustice to take a hard look at social inequalities.”

Black History Month always makes me think of the things I learned as a child or of African-American icons that made a significant impression on me through school history books, documentaries, and movies. And with the events of last year, quotes from iconic figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. such as, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge,” have taken on greater meaning and significance for me.

The recent season of unrest was definitely a challenge. It required those that had never been touched by or taken a stand on racial injustice to take a hard look at social inequalities as it relates to race. Learning about Black history, honoring those that have paved the way for change and who have created opportunities for African Americans is always a reminder for me of the past and the promise of a better future. When we are able to achieve that, we will be standing in our moment of comfort and convenience.

Brandi Carson
Co-owner, Posh & Private Event Design
Connect with Brandi on LinkedIn.

Brandi Carson

 “What can the event industry do to raise awareness to African-American students about the career paths and job opportunities?”

With everything that went on during 2020 including the racial injustice that the world witnessed, it forced me to take a hard look at myself—not only as a professional, but specifically as a Black woman event professional. It made me think back to the many times that I have been overlooked by white and male hotel and vendor counterparts and assumed to not be the event producer working on behalf of my clients.

The inquiring party would ask either the next closest white or male counterpart, only to be directed back to me. I also remember times when it was assumed I was not well-versed in certain areas of production, such as A/V, only to quickly illustrate my knowledge by asking probing questions to demonstrate that I knew what they knew and more. In those moments, it didn’t matter that I had earned a master’s degree in tourism administration or had worked in the White House Social Office planning events, I was reduced to something that I couldn’t control: the amount of melanin in my skin.

Why was I analyzing and assessing myself when all of the most well-known social justice events were happening? Because it made me think about what I need to do in order to remain at the top of my game. What was evident to me is that the concept of Black Americans not being good enough or presumed to be a threat is relevant today, and I have to do what is necessary to show that I am just as valuable and as human as the next person in both my personal and professional life.

It has been said time and time again that “representation matters,” and that sentiment holds true within the event industry. How often do you see full-service production companies owned by African-Americans or African-Americans in positions of leadership at hotels and convention centers? How widely publicized are leadership paths and training opportunities that help African-Americans move into the C-Suite and help African-American entrepreneurs receive large contracts? One response might be everyone receives the same information about training and opportunities. That may be true, but how often are companies—internally and externally—recruiting and specifically targeting African-Americans for said opportunities? The effort has to be made, otherwise things will remain the same.  

Additionally, it is critical to start thinking about the next generation of event industry professionals. How can a pipeline be built to help bring in African-American students at all educational levels, from elementary to post-secondary? What can the event industry do to raise awareness to African-American students about the career paths and job opportunities? During my studies at Spelman College and The George Washington University, I don’t know if I can recall seeing any African-Americans in corporate event or hospitality positions—and I graduated from my alma maters in 2006 and 2008!

As we enter a Black History Month, that is like no other in my lifetime, I am cautiously optimistic. I am optimistic because I know that America and the event industry have been through tough times and we all have successfully worked together for the greater good. However, I am cautious because I want all Americans to do the right thing consistently. Respecting my talents and leadership during Black History Month is great, but what’s even better is if it’s also done during the other 11 months of the year as well.

Andrew Roby
Event Planner, Andrew Roby Events
Co-founder, National Events Council
Connect with Andrew on LinkedIn.

Andrew Roby

“Throwing money at Black organizations while simultaneously maintaining the systemic racism embedded in your company does nothing for liberation.”

While Black History is celebrated year long, the month of February allows us to acknowledge the breakthroughs that trailblazers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Claudette Colvin, Bayard Rustin, and others have created for not just Black people, but for all people. The month of Black History is a reminder that we are still fighting for freedom and justice for a people who have been betrayed, marginalized, and thought less than for far too long. It energizes us to keep fighting. To keep wanting a better outcome for future generations that we may not see in our lifetime. Black History Month is our freedom song that roars with one sound and one voice from our ancestors to those like Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor who died for just being Black.

We must certainly use this time of year to take stock on what progress has and has not been made toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. While many companies have pledged millions of dollars towards the notion of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it simply is not enough. Throwing money at Black organizations while simultaneously maintaining the systemic racism embedded in your company does nothing for liberation. It merely is a mechanism to pacify the rage of Black people. This is not to say that changes such as the knee-to-neck move being banned or President Biden signing an executive order to advance racial equity in the federal government should not be acknowledged. However, these are not enough because they do not flow throughout our country across communities and in nonfederal businesses.

As it relates to the event industry, I feel that there still remains a level of ignorance when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was great to see publications change from showing all white couples in wedding blogs and all white event professionals on “best of” lists. But the answer certainly is not simply adding Black couples and Black event professionals to the mix while alienating Indian, L.G.B.T.Q., Jewish, African, Latinx, and those with disabilities. The world went from posting black squares on Instagram in support of racial justice to complete silence when it came to continuing on the conversations that must and have to be had by white people. Black people were called upon to lead webinars as if we had to teach ourselves about the issues of racism. We are not the solution to systemic racism. White people dismantling white power is.

The riot that took place at the Capitol was a clear example that racism, white supremacy, and systemic racism lives on. No matter the number of marches, protests, and calls for self-reflection, we still have senators enticing mobs, the media painting Black and Brown people as criminals and thugs, and little being done to protect marginalized communities from the police. The road to freedom is murky, bleak, and dismal in the eyes of Black and Brown people, yet we still fight for freedom. We only look for the day when white people begin to struggle as we do. Perhaps then and only then will they see us being sick and tired of being treated as third-class citizens in a country we were never asked to come to.

Derrick M. Johnson, II, CMP DES
Chief Diversity Officer & Director of Event Strategy, Talley Management Group
Connect with Derrick on LinkedIn.

Derrick M. Johnson, II, CMP DEC

 “I give thanks to every person of color who laid a stepping stone so that my journey was easier than theirs.”

Black history month is a time to reflect and celebrate the achievements of the African-American community. Systemic injustices and inequality over hundreds of years have limited the collective African-American community from reaching the north star of influence and prosperity across personal and professional settings; however, it hasn’t restricted the race from continuing to seek liberation from inequity.

Technology has provided us the opportunity to do some amazing things and increase efficiencies; however, beyond the obvious, it has provided the opportunity for transparency, collaboration, and connection. This past summer was life changing, seeing people who look like me unjustly being attacked, assaulted, and degraded. There was always the fear of this happening in the world, but through technology, those horrific acts came directly into my home.

Black history month is a beacon/symbol demonstrating the world is full of opportunity and greatness if you reach your hand out and take it. We all have the chance to impact the world in broader ways, and it’s up to each of us to manifest that drive and determination to see our communities strengthened, minds open to new ideas, and souls cleansed of the darkness that ominously lingers. This month as we reflect on lost heroes of the African-American community, I give thanks to every person of color who laid a stepping stone so that my journey was easier than theirs. I aim to do the same thing for others, to ensure the path toward liberation is easier to travel than my own; and hopefully through these efforts, we’ll eventually find ourselves on the same road to the same destination.

Register now for the Event Leadership Institute’s webinar on diversity, equity, and inclusion on February 25 at 3 p.m. Eastern. 

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