Designing Inclusive Events

There are many reasons for planners to design an inclusive event. Inclusivity creates a welcoming atmosphere for everyone. Diversity improves educational sessions and opportunities by featuring disparate voices and opinions. An encompassing event builds a community that’s defined by shared experiences. And, most importantly, it’s the best thing to do for all attendees.

It is also a wise business move. A recent study by McKinsey & Company on workplace diversity found that diverse workforces tend to result in higher-performing companies. Specifically, the report revealed that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity “are 33 percent more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.” Those in the top quartile for gender diversity have a “21 percent likelihood of outperforming their fourth-quartile industry peers.” In addition, “companies in the fourth quartile on both gender and ethnic diversity are more likely (29 percent) to underperform their industry peers on profitability.”

So, not only does a lack of gender and ethnic diversity not help companies, it actively hurts them. These stats are particularly relevant for the events industry, which thrives on building communities.

To create a truly inclusive event means doing much more than ensuring that speaker panels feature more than a bunch of white men. Don’t misunderstand; diverse speakers and panels are essential and an essential first step that many organizations are taking. However, true inclusivity requires stepping back and taking a holistic view of the entire event.

Start Before the Doors Open

Authentic inclusivity starts from the moment you begin event planning and continues once the activities have concluded.

Your event’s registration page is a great place to begin. Here the language and images you use are extremely important, but so is the overall design of your website. If you have questions about the accessibility of your event site and registration page, the Web Accessibility Initiative has created standards, known as WCAG 2.1, that clearly define what is needed for web and technology accessibility. It encompasses all disabilities that could affect access to tech, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual.

The event’s registration form should also include the ability for attendees to alert you to any dietary or accessibility needs. Also, consider if you are asking the appropriate questions for your form because some queries relating to gender may not be necessary. Additionally, it may be time to update your salutation pulldown menu. In addition to Mr., Mrs., and Ms., consider including the gender-neutral option Mx.

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Also, carefully review any stock images used on the site and ask if your intent matches the execution (this is true for invitations and presentations, as well). At an IMEX America session on welcoming events, Mariela McIlwraith, the Director of Industry Advancement for the Events Industry Council, gave examples of some stock image results when she searched specific terms. For example, the term “leadership conference” returned men in suits, for “cybersecurity” an Asian male appeared, and for “work-life balance" the image was a woman in a messy house.

Images are extremely powerful, and you have to be very thoughtful of the message you send with your pictures. Even images that appear to showcase diversity may be subtly negative. An example would be an ethnically diverse photo where the only woman in the photo seems to be taking notes while everyone else is engaged in conversation.

Pay Attention to the Holiday Calendar

When scheduling your event, pay attention to the calendar to make sure that the dates you select do not correlate to any religious holidays. If an overlap is unavoidable, make sure to acknowledge the holiday and make any necessary accommodations.

For example, this year’s GitHub Satellite in Berlin intersected with the Muslim holiday Ramadan. To ensure that the Muslim population who wished to attend the event could do so and still observe the customs of Ramadan, GitHub made sure that a sizable prayer room was available in the venue. Because observers of Ramadan fast during the day, GitHub Satellite served a filling meal after sundown. They also made halal food options available at snack and meal times for anyone not observing Ramadan but who desired halal foods.

Visit the Venue

If your event is taking place in a smaller venue, you need to be particularly vigilant that it can accommodate the needs of all of your attendees. You may even want to navigate the venue using earplugs, an eyepatch, or a mobility device. At the very least, utilize an ADA checklist to ensure the venue is in complete compliance. Remember that the intent of your visit is not to ensure legal compliance; it is to guarantee that the location can provide an inclusive experience.

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Most large venues are certified ADA compliant. However, this is not a guarantee that they will satisfy your expectations regarding inclusivity. Just because a site is accessible does not mean that it provides the same experience for all guests. For example, many venues are only able to accommodate certain mobility devices in the freight elevator, which is usually located in less-than-lavish service areas. So, not only will these guests have to travel a further distance in the venue, but they will also take in the most unattractive décor in the venue.

You also need to be inclusive in your emergency planning. Since those with mobility issues are often reliant on electrical power and elevators, they can become compromised in emergencies. On your site visit, be sure to determine that these attendees will be able to safely and efficiently leave the venue in the event of an emergency.

Universal Design Principles

In 1997, a group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers created the seven principals of universal design. The goal was to develop guides that “may be applied to evaluate existing designs, guide the design process, and educate both designers and consumers about the characteristics of more usable products and environments.”

The seven principals are:

  1. Equitable Use – The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  2. Flexibility in Use – The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  3. Simple and Intuitive Use – Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

  4. Perceptible Information – The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

  5. Tolerance for Error – The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  6. Low Physical Effort – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use – Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

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While planning an event is not the same a constructing a building, the goal of providing the “same means of use for all users” is universal for any project. By keeping these principals in mind when you are making decisions (about the venue, menu, sessions, etc.) you are more likely to make the selection that will benefit your entire community of attendees.

Creating a truly inclusive event is not accomplished by just marking off inclusivity checkboxes. Instead, event planners need to focus on what Inclusive means to their specific attendees. Taking a holistic approach to their event will help create an environment where everyone feels welcome and valued.

TTG Marketing