diversity in events 2021

It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time for #EventIcons! For weeks, we have been discussing virtual and hybrid events, engagement strategies, and all kinds of other pandemic-related issues. Today, it’s time for something different, but just as relevant: we will talk about diversity in events as of 2021. The conversations around diversity are quickly gaining traction, but it’s important we implement the changes rather than disregard them when they’re not hot anymore. And we found just the speaker to talk about it!

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Today’s event icon is William S. Matthews, a connector, corporate event planner, and author of three best-selling books, including Everything I Need to Know about Life I Learned from an Event Planner. In his newest book, Corporate America, he writes about the ins and outs of the corporate world as well as race relations and diversity. Our host Sarah talked to him about his work, what diversity in events looks like, and what we should strive for in the future.



Welcome To #EventIcons, Will!

Before Sarah and William take on the world of diversity, he talks about his beginnings in the events industry. “In college, I did a lot of party promotions on college campus for fraternities, sororities, and different organizations. When I graduated grad school, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Having so many doors closed in my face and being told that I don’t have enough experience, I just decided to create my own path.” He made the right choice. In 2008, he launched his very own event planning business, RSVP with Will.

William’s Take On The Current State Of The Industry

Of course, no conversation can skip the predicament in which the world found itself last year. William briefly tackles the key issues of the entire industry suddenly moving into the virtual space, such as monetization and engagement strategies for virtual events. “Normally [at in-person events], people would get a swag bag and networking. Now, you still want to charge that because that’s within your budget. That’s the bottom line that you hope to net, but they don’t get anything. They get to sit in front of their computer for 30 to 45 minutes.”

As an event prof, William knows how to plan a successful event in these trying times. “It was a luncheon with a very small budget, but we still decided to do it. We delivered the lunch to everybody. It was very elegant! We worked with a catering company and it was delivered to your door, contactless of course. We also had a really cute little swag bag that went along with your lunch.”

“You definitely hit on two of the things that we’re talking about in our 2021 trends guide: personalization and the hybrid portion of bringing people together safely,” agrees Sarah.

diversity in events 2021

Diversity In Events 2021: More Than Just A Trend

Next up, it’s time to talk about the topic at hand: diversity in events in 2021. Yes, the year is an important aspect of the conversation: William wonders why diversity only became such a major concern now. “You see every company is coming to the table, putting together a diversity team. And that’s great! But when you’re about ten years too late, I wonder why didn’t you do this possible when the US  elected its first Black president back in 2008. Now, it was rushed so quickly. Some of these are just smoke and mirrors, while for others, I feel that they do me well by it. Some mean well and others are really doing it to show face.”

Diversity Shouldn’t Be Reduced To A Marketing Strategy

So, how does a company go about implementing diversity in events nowadays? “Go to your colleagues, to the people that you trust. Talk to them and see what names they recommend. What kind of things have they done to implement diversity?”

Sarah also shared William’s concerns about diversity in events being reduced to a popular hashtag. “Some of these things can be just performative, just to say: ‘Oh yes, our event was diverse’. It’s a sticky situation we’re getting into, trying to move beyond it just being a buzzword and something that you can market. People are using diversity in events to show their event is elevated, better, and more inclusive because it’s diverse. But there are so many layers to what really being diverse means in your daily life and in your company. It’s having those people sitting in really influential positions in a company. People can dig deeper than just having the appearance of being diverse in your event.”

Implementing Diversity In Events: Think Outside The Box!

Sarah asks William what kind of events truly benefited from diverse thought leaders. “The really challenging events are the larger scale events, the really big corporate ones where big money is being spent. It’s bittersweet: the ones that are definitely more open to diversity are the smaller events, the ones with less than a hundred people.”

There are different ways an event planner can insert diversity. “It really boils down to having topics that relate to a universal scale. From the moment that someone walks into your event to the moment they leave, they are being embraced with a form of diversity. Just the little details of it. It’s not always necessarily who the keynote speaker is or who’s on the panel,” William says.

Diversity In Events 2021: A Shining Example

“There’s one event that I worked on a few years ago. We decided to get all the volunteers to be high school students. And it was a high school in an inner-city neighborhood. Most of the volunteers were Black and Brown students. It was an amazing opportunity for these students. A win-win for the students and the organization! It doesn’t necessarily always have to be about getting a woman, an African-American, or Hispanic person as the keynote speaker on the panel, but about asking yourself can I do to diversify this room a little bit.”

William reminds the listeners why diversity in events is so important.  “The biggest significance by having someone of diversity in the room is different ideas and input. Their experience will be completely different than yours, especially if we’re talking about a room full of 50-year-old White men. Someone who is in their late twenties to forties from a different ethnic background will have a different approach and experience. They might drop on some things that you didn’t even think about. And again, thinking outside the box – that’s an added value of having someone from a different background at the table.”

diversity in events 2021

Diversity In Events 2021: “Give Me The Board & Leadership!”

William shares one of his best nuggets of wisdom. “It’s great to have a diversity council and to diversify your event by including a minority. But as long as there are not people of diversity at the corporate table on the board and a leadership position in a C-suite, the problem will continue,” he warns.

“I don’t understand how the consumer companies that deal with the public don’t reflect the change in demographics of the nation, yet you have this board, and everyone’s 60 years old and they all look alike because they all play golf together. They all belong to the same country club, but yet 75% of your consumer base is minorities, yet that’s not reflected at all, not even on the board,” he rightfully laments.

C-Suite Is In Dire Need Of Some Diversity

He encountered the same problem on the level of not just the board of directors, but also leadership and C-suite. “It was a bit disheartening to me that not one person who they help on a daily basis or their consumers were represented on that wall.”

Our lovely Sarah explains how empathy can play a great role when discussing diversity in events in 2021. “Everything is going towards empathy, an understanding of where people are coming from and meeting them where they’re at. If you don’t have that diverse C-suite or a leadership team, you can’t have that empathy. You really have to be able to put yourself in your consumers’ shoes or your attendees’ shoes to truly understand their needs and what they’re looking for and how you can help provide that,” she says. “These C-suites are really long-standing. There’s a lot of tradition there, but I think it just takes one voice and one person to listen and being open-minded. It just takes one of those people to really shake things up and bring someone else to the table that has a different idea,” she adds.

In Conclusion: Be Patient & Be Grateful

William leaves #EventIcons as befits an author of three books – with an inspiring thought. “Be open, think outside the box, and just be patient. Everyone in the world, no matter what industry you’re in, we are trying to embrace the new normal on a day-to-day basis. You really have to protect your mental space.”

He urges event planners to be grateful in these trying times. “We’re fortunate that most of us can do a virtual event or put together a little outdoor event.”

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