The Critical Importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Meetings and Hospitality Industries

For weeks, my co-author Zoe Moore and I have labored over subject matter for corporate leaders to maintain focus on the Value of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) that would result in creating a relevant and resourceful article.

We have evaluated numerous viewpoints to provide a valuable and meaningful conversation to acknowledge and address the crucial responsibility of corporate leaders to realize the need for Continued Value of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

However, the recent expression of protest to address systemic oppression and racial injustice has emphasized that we still have MUCH work to do! While we do not have all the answers, it is our individual and collective responsibility to act and sustain dedication to DEI.

The injustices of our society have a profound effect upon people, which in the workplace manifests itself in many ways. As we navigate COVID-19 and launch a recovery from a distressing economy, prioritization of DEI remains a business imperative that should not be compromised.

[Related: Industry Leaders Talk Diversity and Inclusion]

This year had promise to be another record-breaking year in many ways—business, employment, economic growth, political election, moral and social justice change, and of course, DEI.

However, unknown at the time, coronavirus was advancing to the U.S. in late December and January. In February, the health and human tolls were coming into focus, and by March the economic impact was becoming clear.

The health crisis, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), states as of June 12, the U.S. had 2,106,027 total cases and 113,914 total deaths. We also see varying strategies to reopen the country by adapting guidelines of social distancing.

Zoe Moore
Zoe Moore, MS, is a Certified Diversity Practitioner.

The coronavirus pandemic shook the nation, leaving businesses with little choice but to adapt and adjust, implementing strategies such as work from home, virtual meetings, expense reduction, staff reduction and creating new forms of business delivery. Tactics from a DEI perspective have included developing marketing campaigns with representation of ethnic diversity, creating empathetic messages that acknowledge racial disparity, and issuing a corporate statement against racial oppression.

Company leaders had to pivot to address the needs of their most important business asset—talent—and one thing has become abundantly clear: Those with strong DEI initiatives already in place would be more effective in steering their companies through the pandemic’s choppy waters.

Now in June, as businesses move toward re-opening, our original interpretation of 2020’s record-breaking promise has been reevaluated.

From an economic standpoint, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released unemployment data on June 12 showing that the U.S. economy lost over 20 million jobs in May, with the unemployment rate spiking to 13.3%, the worst since the Great Depression. For the travel, tourism and events industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought operations to an eerie standstill, with a staggering 51% unemployment (terminated, laid off, furloughed) rate, which disproportionately impacted people of color. In total, 5.9 million travel-related jobs were lost, and it is estimated a return to pre-COVID-19 employment levels are not anticipated for three years.

[Related: Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter to and for Hospitality, Tourism and Meetings]

Unlike any other time in history, every facet of our robust ecosystem is feeling the pressure of how to pivot, engage existing stakeholders and budget through uncertainty. Drastic changes to our scheduled programming have created a demand to streamline priorities while tabling others. Grim industry predictions have challenged even the most disruptive of leaders, and those desiring to create change are up against the need to default to proven methods for success.

Where does this leave the promise to continue DEI activities?

The Time Is NOW to Assure DEI

According to Statista, in 2018, nearly 156 million people were employed in the U.S. For 2020, an increase by almost 2 million employed people was expected (pre-COVID-19). In 2015, McKinsey published a study with staggering statistics revealing that racially diverse companies tend to outperform industry norms by 35%. Additionally, a pre-COVID-19 Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with more diverse management teams have 19% higher revenues due to innovation. 

Now it is more important than ever to hold true, reiterate and reinforce your values in this regard as a brand and a company. Otherwise, we risk damaging or unraveling progress that has been made in the important work of bringing people with different backgrounds and experiences together.

Remember our argument: Today’s DEI initiatives must be proactive and viewed as a business imperative by company leadership—a core function that fuels a company’s competitive edge.

Diversity and inclusion cannot be a one-time campaign or a one-off initiative. Promoting them in the workplace is a constant work in progress and should be maintained and nurtured to guarantee effectiveness.

[Related: 2018 Meetings Trendsetters: 20 Industry Agents of Change]

DEI is a business imperative tied directly to the business case of the best companies in America and around the globe.

Let us refer to the continuum of DEI:

  • The Civil Rights era led to EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) and Legal Compliance Diversity & Inclusion initiatives. Emphasis was on equal employment, legal mandates and reporting to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
  • Affirmative action supported conscious efforts to create inclusive environments where diverse perspectives are heard and acted on.
  • Valuing and integrating DEI into the Corporate Business Model allows companies and organizations to make DEI central to their brand, business practices and culture.

Today, DEI is managed in a far more strategic way, typically including high performance measurement of the entire process and of specific DEI components.

How Do We Define Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? 

Diversity includes all the ways in which people differ, encompassing the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another.

Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation by marginalized groups plagued by an unlevel socioeconomic playing field.

Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can be and feel welcomed, respected, supported and valued to fully participate.

Remember the four key arguments that make the case for DEI:

  • Moral and social justice
  • The economic case
  • The market case
  • The results case

This is now our challenge.

The challenge hospitality leaders are facing now is what can I do now, when the future of what we do is unstable?

Authentic, strategic leadership determines how we will emerge from this crisis, strengthen operations and create new opportunities amidst chaos. While everything is coming undone, those in leadership positions may question paving a path less journeyed.

In times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, topics like DEI can get pushed to the sidelines. Often perceived as a “nice to have” in the best of times, DEI risks getting taken off the senior team agenda entirely as leaders struggle to manage in a time of fundamental uncertainty.

[Related: 22 industry innovators who push our profession forward]

Before moving forward, measure the effects on workforce diversity as you make critical business decisions:

  • Evaluate your decisions and their impact upon your DEI strategies.
  • Consider who is in the room when you are making critical decisions.
  • Organize a task force that includes a cross-section of employees at all levels to advocate for and represent the people you employ.

To establish confidence and proceed authentically, leaders can apply three practices: collect data, take accountability and define a clear measurable strategy.

The Steps to Achieving DEI

The first step to achieving DEI is to identify where you are currently standing.

The hesitation for businesses in times of suffering is avoidance, to deflect acknowledging deep-seated issues and focus on the financial framework and revenue. As you confront difficult decisions around layoffs, furloughs or who to bring back to work, consider how to make your workforce more diverse.

Leverage this pause rather than hope for the past. Leaders faced with a crisis need to analyze their mission and ask themselves if their activities were in alignment. Knowledge of their landscape will showcase their awareness throughout the industry and to potential clients globally.

Most companies base their needs on stakeholder interests, with this being the first time they had to consider all stakeholders at once: employees, shareholders, communities and government. 

For most, navigating financial pitfalls came easier than enacting emotional intelligence. According to TheBoardlist, not only did 40% of companies lack risk mitigation plans, it became apparent that the need for emotional intelligence was underestimated.

Transactional business has made little room for developing a relational culture. Unfortunately, the needs of already marginalized employees were compacted not only by elevated health concerns, but also disparities across the socio-economic stratum.

Uniquely, this is not a time to be overwhelmed by the need to diversify an existing boardroom—instead identifying THIS WATERSHED MOMENT as an opportunity to invest in the benefits of having diverse leadership. This is a proven tactic for increasing efficiency, effectiveness and accuracy, according to a Harvard Business Review article published in 2016, titled Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter.

In this current awakening of consciousness there is hope that no “Rooney Rule” or affirmative action policies will have to incentivize companies to stand in solidarity. Leveraging the pause is a willingness to embrace 2020 for its envisioned year of clarity.

The second step to achieving DEI is to be transparent and commit to measurable change.

Data will reveal imperfections and unconscious biases, especially those that have created inequities or barriers to access throughout an organization.

[Related: Out and Proud: The Rise of LGBT+ Representation in the Meetings Industry]

The best example was not by one company, but by a city that collaborated with a diverse group of companies. Leaders in Chicago across the spectrum represented areas of expertise in mental health, academia, nonprofit organizations, grassroots activists and sectors of municipalities. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot consulted a task force and used a strategy called partnering with authenticity.

An immediate response might be, “but that is a whole city”—no excuse. The point is homogenous teams are proven to be less effective than the recommended alternative. That is the requested business case, period.

That means there are opportunities for growth, and taking accountability sets a stage for authenticity.

And it means that you will be able to create a culture of belonging using benchmarks, from tactical ideas that ensure every member has access to virtual calls to financial strategy such as how socio-economic barriers will impact participation.

It may also involve restructuring leadership teams to have representation of various constituencies involved at the decision-making level. Your clients/staff are the professionals that promote and co-sign the value of an organization, and when things are challenging, knowing who they are establishes relationships, reciprocity and mutual purpose to pursue innovative ideas.

The third step is to define DEI as it relates to an overall strategic plan.

Initially, a singular definition with recommendations to improve procedures will cause resentment, and efforts to change may feel counterproductive. Leaders will need to remain steadfast and not waiver in their commitment.

To implement improved practices, reference and make goals applicable to developing organizational culture, whether that involves presenting receipts, sharing a case study or providing evidence from collected data.

[Related: Why Diversity and Inclusion Matter to and for Hospitality, Tourism and Meetings]

DEI strategy fails without leadership buy-in, period.

Without resources, teams that are charged with guiding a DEI initiative will not be empowered.

Shelton Goode of Icarus Consulting, based in Conyers, Georgia, in a recent post on LinkedIn asked corporate leaders if their chief diversity officer’s (CDOs) have “power and influence” in response to the plethora solidarity statements clogging inboxes.

Up against the uncertainty of the times, leaders may default to continued treatment of DEI as an appendage that is not prioritized, but those decisions to accept global solidarity is not a trend—it is promising of a shift in culture that begins with a collective effort.

Successfully emerging after a substantial health, economic crisis and social advocacy dilemma will be determined by your emphasis on being innovative. Ideas that challenge the status quo and welcome discussion up and across the ecosystem and chain of command should be encouraged.

Resources, whether an allotment of time, commitment to change or financial investment, empower teams—those advocates who passionately and professionally provide useful critique, even challenging popular opinion—is imperative for effective change that is measurable and sustainable.

The Continued Value of DEI Is Vital

Concepts for making DEI a priority now will stand the test of time when we face future challenges. Our willingness to collect data, conduct an assessment, gain deeper insight into those we serve and provide transparency in our report findings are the actionable skills that showcase leadership buy-in now and into the future.

Amidst the storm of unprecedented times, our prioritization of DEI as a core aspect of what is next will identify us as thought leaders that stakeholders will invest into as we journey to a new norm. 

So, how will your organization look in the future? What will be your DEI success story? Do you want your company to have an ongoing record of demonstrating equity, diversity and inclusion for your employees and the communities that you serve?

Or do you want to defer DEI to a later date and find yourself in a reactive mode, sending inauthentic commitment statements in response to major social justice concerns without the track record to back those statements up?

Further your commitment to achieve economic growth, moral and social justice as a business imperative and competitive edge.

Remember, “We will get through this together,” is more than just a hashtag: IT IS A CALL TO ACTION

Listen to Episode 5 of Dare to Interrupt about this topic: Inclusion is the Driver of Innovation

About the Authors

Zoe MooreZoe Moore, MS, is a Certified Diversity Practitioner. Honorably discharged from the Army in 2014 after 12 years of service, Zoe graduated California State University East Bay in 2016 with an MS in Hospitality Recreation & Tourism.

Immediately choosing events as her field of choice, she conducted event services for several clients locally and abroad. While very passionate about the logistics, operations and strategy behind events, her primary interests concentrate on advocacy for Inclusion & Diversity in the meetings, events and tourism industry.

Greg DeShieldsGreg DeShields, CHO, CHE, is a Certified Hospitality Educator and academic professional proficient in developing and implementing plans, strategies and initiatives specifically designed to raise destinations’ image for diverse multicultural travel.

He is also an experienced Diversity, Equity and Inclusion practitioner and frequent presenter on specific Diversity, Equity and Inclusion fundamentals: assessment, planning, strategies and implementation to reinforce the need for organizations to lead inclusion from the top. More information about Greg can be found at his website,