by Brendan M. Lynch | January 01, 2006


Charles Darwin wrote of evolution: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one that is most adaptable to change.” To apply that quote to organizers of face-to-face events in the United States, one of the most pressing changes to which they must adapt is the radical remaking of the American population.
    When the Census Bureau last measured the number of inhabitants, in 2000, the 32.7 million increase was the largest 10-year jump in history (13 percent). It was an even bigger increase than the baby boom decade of 1950 to 1960. Further, between 1990 and 2000, the foreign-born population of the United States leapt from 19.8 million to 31.1 million. This means there’s an increasing likelihood that participants at U.S. events were born in another country, even though they are now U.S. residents (or, like 40 percent of those born elsewhere, American citizens). 
    A good grasp of populations and people is vital to the meetings trade. Demographics lend meeting planners situational awareness: the power to understand, attract and better serve attendees in an ever-shifting marketplace of people and their evolving cultural and ethnic makeup. Analysis of who attendees and potential attendees are and where they come from can help a planner to effectively locate and market an event, hire speakers, plan menus and reach out to the right community organizations. 
    “You want to know your customer,” says Dr. Lalia Rach, Ed.D., associate dean and HVS international chair at the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University. “You want to know your potential participants, suppliers and sponsors. As a meeting planner, you have multiple audiences, and you need to know as much about each group as you can.”
    Indeed, to survive with the fittest, planners must be alert to demographic trends. As we begin a new year, M&C examines these changes and their bearing on meetings.

The need to know members
Today, with approximately 286 million people, the United States stands as the world’s third most populous country after China and India. In the next 25 years, America is expected to experience a 23 percent increase a big jump for an industrialized nation.
    This population rise gives the United States, and meetings businesses here, an edge over nations with decreasing populations. “As a meeting planner, you have more people and more potential attendees,” says Chris Pentz, CMP, president of Pentz Group Communications in Philadelphia which brings an increasing need to tailor events to achieve maximum inclusiveness. To do this, experts say, it is important to first know as much about your membership as you can. 
    “Have a membership poll and try to get more demographic information so you can better understand the cultural environment,” suggests Karen M. Gonzales, CMP, managing director of Meeting Professionals International’s Multicultural Initiative, established to build meetings industry relationships with diverse groups. “Ask about race, ethnicity, nationality and origin of birth, but make it optional and confidential. It allows your members to tell you who they are. If you’re organizing a trade show, you can do it during the registration process. You may only get a certain percentage of responses, but usually people who have specific needs, or want to be understood for their culture and how it works, will want to be recognized.” 
    MPI followed its own advice and polled 1,743 meeting planner members about their ethnicity. The results showed planners themselves are increasingly diverse, coming from many nations and races; indeed, respondents were born in 61 different countries. Of meeting planners in the United States, 66 percent self-identified as Caucasian, 9 percent as African American, 5 percent as Hispanic, 2 percent as Asian and 2 percent as Jewish.
    Asked to rank the importance of services and practices to the success of multicultural meetings, these planners emphasized:
    " Speaker presentation; 
    " Awareness of customs/traditions;
    " Awareness of dietary requirements;
    " Cultural education and awareness training for organizations;
    " Understanding of regional cultural differences, and
    " Understanding of international cultural differences.

Reaching out
Two themes common among experts in diversity and multicultural inclusiveness are outreach and representation: “You have to look at it internally and externally,” says MPI’s Gonzales. “Internally, we need to ask: “Why do we want outreach to diverse communities?” The answer: because of untapped growing markets and because we feel perhaps we don’t have enough representation. So look inside and ask, ‘Who do we have already in our membership who can reach out? What are we doing to build relationships, strategic alliances?’ Then you need to reach into communities and form bonds before you can start saying, ‘Hi, I want your business!’ That’s not good customer service. Invite them to the table first.”
    Planners of trade shows, conventions and events could, for instance, contact chambers of commerce or business associations for African-American, Asian, Hispanic and other communities in major American cities. Indeed, many in the meetings world are now taking proactive steps to make business-to-business contacts between divergent ethnic and racial groups. 
    “Through our local MPI chapter, we’re hooking up with the Asian, African-American and Hispanic communities within Houston,” says Lisa S. Davis, national account manager with Conference Direct, a third-party planning firm based in Los Angeles. “I think it’s really exciting and long overdue in our industry. It’s about forming business contacts and broadening our cultural horizons.”
    Promoting diversity among staff and within a leadership structure is another important way organizations can be more inclusive as well as more effective at diversifying a customer base. 
    “It is important to show a change from the top,” says Horacio Gavilan, executive director of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies. “You have to set the tone with diverse board members listed, where ethnic customers can see they are represented within a group. Diversity creates a connection and makes people pay attention.”
    “Make sure leadership, staff and the executive team reflect the market you’re going after,” echoes MPI’s Gonzales. “It’s hard to say ‘be a part of our organization’ if your leadership is 99.9 percent Caucasian. The same goes if you’re an Hispanic organization and want to reach out to a more diverse audience: You want to establish an inclusive environment. You need representation on a board of trustees or advisory board and staff.”