Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
If you’re hearing that some attendees feel out of place at your conference, take these three steps to make sure everyone is welcome.
After wrapping up what he felt was another successful Risk Management Society conference in 2017, Stuart Ruff-Lyon, CMP, DES, vice president of events and education at RIMS, got some disturbing feedback: Multiple women said they had felt out of place at the event.
That message motivated Ruff-Lyon to jump into action and make plans so that none of the 9,500 attendees at its 2018 conference would feel left out. “It made me step back and start thinking of things in a different way to ensure that we were doing all that we could to foster a sense of community and inclusion at our event,” he says.
He shared three steps organizations can take if faced with similar feedback:
1. Pay attention to what you hear, even if it’s uncomfortable. Instead of shying away from the criticism, Ruff-Lyons dove into attendees’ specific concerns and took them to leadership’s attention. “If you’re hearing something [negative], you need to bring it up. Not just as an event professional, but as an association professional, we have an obligation to ensure that our customers, our members, our attendees feel like they have a place and that they’re welcomed by our services and at our events,” he says. “So if you hear that somebody’s not, that’s an important issue to address.”
2. Make an effort to address inclusivity and diversity in all aspects of your event. “Be mindful of how diverse your speakers are—that’s an important one,” Ruff-Lyon says. “And also, I think people need to be mindful of their marketing efforts. For example, I created a video that was highlighting something new at our conference, and it took an African-American person to tell me, ‘Wow, there wasn’t one person of color in that video.’ Do your marketing messages portray a welcoming and diverse lens for the event?”
3. Keep the conversation going. To help with this, RIMS has a task force made up of several board members, industry people, members, and even nonmembers. “It is just trying to give us the right guidance and the right lens to operate through,” Ruff-Lyon says. “The important thing is, it can’t just be one conversation. It has to be an ongoing effort, and it has to be interwoven throughout the entire business model.”