The Z: DEIB and Generation Z, a Conversation with Alicia Jenelle
The Z: DEIB and Generation Z, a Conversation with Alicia Jenelle
There exists an important difference between industry trends and industry initiatives.
Trends typically come and go or change and redevelop as they become more prominent across the industry, like wellness offerings expanding beyond yoga or new and exciting F&B experiences.
Industry initiatives, on the other hand, exist as efforts to make permanent positive changes to how things are done, like the implementation of sustainable practices at hotels and convention centers—practices we hope are here to stay.
One industry initiative in jeopardy of being the “latest trend” is diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), a concept that Generation Z in particular is hyperaware of, and one they speak up and advocate for in all areas of life. While DEIB is a prominent industry initiative for now, the concern lies in whether the ideas we have developed as an industry will lead to actionable change.
In recent years, conversations about diversity have undoubtedly led the news cycle, and the meetings and events sector has taken note. The industry is reevaluating its approach to DEIB from top to bottom, considering everything from speakers on public-facing panels to the vendors behind the scenes that make meetings happen.
As we move through 2023 with the mindset of making industry trends a long-term reality, how do we push the DEIB conversation one step forward? I sat down with Alicia Jenelle, a multi-hyphenate professional and international experiential design expert from Toronto—Canada’s diversity capital—to talk about what the next step might look like.
“[We have to] continue to exercise having these conversations,” Jenelle said. “When you think about working out at the gym, you only get stronger because you continue to go, so [continue] to have these conversations and [ask] the tough questions.
“Right now, our industry and the hospitality industry in general are struggling with staff and not having enough, right?” Jenelle continued. “So, people are overworked. They’re tired, they’re exhausted. And so, again, things that are very important, that require that extra love and support and understanding, are often put to the wayside.”
For more than 10 years, Jenelle has remained dedicated to executing authentic, diverse and industry-leading experiences through events for brands such as TD Bank, The Wall Street Journal, Ford Motors, Vistaprint and more. In my recent Meetings Today Podcast for “The Z,” Jenelle shares what she's learned about authentic DEIB initiatives and invites current industry professionals and the incoming generation to take that proverbial next step forward.
“Set measurable goals and objectives around DEI,” Jenelle said. “Hold yourselves accountable to those objectives. Don't just create them and then they don't exist anymore, right? We need to exercise that practice by thinking about it, measuring ourselves and considering it in every aspect of the work that we do.”
That’s when the idea turns into an initiative, Jenelle said, as well as when it becomes necessary to ensure yourself and your team are educated.
“We're in the information age. Leverage the resources, have these conversations, continue to remain educated, read books, read articles and just deepen your understanding of the issues, the unconscious biases that exist,” she said. “And that will help you put yourself into the shoes of other people and just really reframe your mind on how you think and how you plan.”
What other changes are necessary for the industry to make now to ensure DEIB remains an integral part of meetings and events in the future? Listen to my full conversation with Jenelle now and follow along with the transcript below.
Logging out with love,
Hello and welcome to this Meetings Today Podcast. I'm Taylor Smith, destinations and features content developer for Meetings Today, here with some tips from Canada's diversity capital Toronto regarding authentic diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB).
Conversations about diversity have undoubtedly been leading the new cycle the past few years, and the meetings and events phase has been no exception. The industry as a whole is reevaluating its approach to inclusiveness from top to bottom, considering everything from speakers on public-facing panels to the vendors behind the scenes that make meetings happen.
It would be easy for event planners and meeting professionals to let equity initiatives live as a trending topic and become yet another item on a long list of things to do before their next event, but the corporate world is recognizing the intrinsic business value that diversity brings. So, the time for action is now.
As we move through 2023 with the mindset of making industry trends a long-term reality, how do we push the conversation one step forward? Alicia Jenelle, a multi-hyphenate professional and international experiential design expert from Toronto, is here to talk about what the next step might look like. For more than 10 years, Alicia has remained dedicated to executing authentic, diverse and industry-leading experiences through events for brands such as TD Bank, The Wall Street Journal, Ford Motors, Vistaprint and more. In this Meetings Today Podcast, she's here to share what she's learned about authentic DEI initiatives with you. Thank you for joining me today, Alicia.
Thank you for having me, and I love that amazing introduction. That's wonderful.
Thank you. Thank you. So, I want to get to know you a little bit more before we jump in. Tell me a little bit about how your career in events began.
Yeah, so I was a graduate at Seneca College taking their communication arts program with a focus on corporate media production. Really what that means is I had an opportunity to work on or understand media productions, content writing, website development, event production and all things creative/professional, and that's what introduced me to the world of events.
Outside of that, I only knew [Jennifer Lopez] from “The Wedding Planner” movie and had little understanding of the actual work that had to be done, but that's what introduced me to it, and then I secured my first paid job as an audiovisual technician for a company that I think recently got bought out and is now rebranded as encore. They're huge in North America, and I think they're global as well at this point. But at the time, I was one of I think very few, and I don't remember seeing the other women technicians at the time setting up. So, it was a really interesting experience for me, and that's really what started this love for events.
And then how did that lead to you beginning to dedicate your career to executing these authentic and diverse experiences?
So, I really, really enjoy bringing people together, and what I observed during these events is people really got a chance to let their hair down, enjoy themselves, consume the information, network, and I love seeing that and integrating fun nostalgic things, like cotton candy and snacks and so forth, just to really create a safe and fun space for people. So, that's really what led me into continuing my career. I also learned to channel my love for organizing things, but also creativity. So, this was a tool for me to merge the two together and be able to do both. So yeah, that's really what led me here.
Awesome! Well, I'd like to talk to you today about the tactical steps that event planners can take to lead with diversity, rather than leaving it as an afterthought or acknowledging the need for it but failing to really take initiative in their event design. As Canada's diversity capital and one of the most diverse cities in the world, Toronto can offer event planners cues and perspectives into what authentic DEI initiatives look like, and I'm excited to discuss those topics with you today.
So, to start, what do you feel is the current state of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the meetings and events industry? Would you say it's relatively positive? Are people open to learning more, or do you feel the energies kind of been dropping off?
I think it's a mix of things. I think there are areas that are progressing, and one of those areas is the gender diversity conversation. And then, I do think that there are areas where the momentum has slowed and been steady for other underrepresented groups. So, it's a mixed in between, I would say.
And seeing that we're still working through post-Covid recovery, it would be hard to say there's been a noticeable shift in the way in-person events are being handled. What has been your experience with diversity initiatives for virtual events over the past two years?
So, one thing that I've observed with virtual events is that content is king. You don't have the opportunity to incorporate the experiential side of things when it comes to food, music, the in-person handshaking that happens. And so, what I observed with virtual events is there's a heavy focus on representing people, right? You see more diversity in the speakers and the panelists, in people who are involved in the marketing campaign aspect of it.
I've also seen a heavy focus on closed captioning and making sure that we're looking at the event from an accessible lens as well despite it just being virtual, because there's still some challenges there that people experience, like making sure the text is a reasonable size that's readable and so forth. So, I have seen some really great progress from that perspective with virtual events.
And what about your experience with diversity initiatives for in person events that you have been able to attend recently?
I would say some of the areas that have really grown is having a community or a committee that weighs in on the decision-making for the events. So, what I've observed and some of the organizations we've been working with is they will handpick individuals from a variety of different backgrounds, educational, financial, race, ethnicity, etc., that will again weigh in and provide a different perspective so that, again, you're not just really trying to put yourself in someone's shoes. They are the individuals that can be the advocates for those areas. So, that's really what I've observed that has shifted in the in-person events world.
At IMEX 2022, Google launched a new project, which is called The Neu Project, NEU, that advocates for neuroinclusivity at events, and they created a committee kind of, and a board of people who are near neurodiverse and have all of these different ways that they experience events. They're sensitive to different senses and they need that extra layer of consideration when planning events, and The Neu Project really was kind of the first experience I had where I noticed that people are not just trying to change things, but they're bringing in those who know and live that experience to be able to help them make these changes and decisions that are informed in a way that, if you don't experience it personally, you can't really understand it.
Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And in addition to that, what I've also observed is that our clients are willing to reach out to a pool of invitees prior to deploying the invitation to everyone to specifically asked them to weigh in on a survey, if you will, prior to the event to say, ‘Hey, this is our plan. Please provide input.’
We’re all accustomed to post-event surveys, but a pre-event survey really has been helpful to ask the actual guests or attendees in advance to weigh in. So that's a huge thing. I think that's important to consider.
I love that idea. So also, a large part of the conversation around DEI stems a bit from a generational shift and attendee expectations, especially as the industry's Generation Z population increases. Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations, according to the Pew Research Center, and we take pride in that, which is why, when members of Gen Z search for jobs, they look for companies that actively make an effort to improve DEI initiatives all around. The industry may already recognize this about Gen Z, but what steps should they be taking now to account for these new expectations?
Yeah, so I really, really appreciate Gen Z because what they've done is helped us to look at the work that we do in more of a harmony and that has shifted the way we think, and I think there's a few things that definitely can be done to continue to grow in that area.
One, I would say, is developing a DEI strategy, right? So, incorporating the key stakeholders that are diverse, that can weigh in confidently on the areas that you need to have further conversations about. I would say then, it would be establishing clear goals and metrics. It's often difficult to do that because it's based on experience, right? And so I think it's, at the onset, really understanding, ‘How do we measure if we're doing well or not? How do we truly know? Are we asking people on the ground? Are we doing a survey? Are we having an ambassador speak to guests during the lunch break?’ Really defining what that is that you can take that back post-event experience and then make some adjustments.
I would also say to identify potential barriers, so put yourself in the shoes of the different experiences from an attendee standpoint and start literally from the email invitation, how's that going to be? Or that onset experience when they're arriving. If I'm arriving in a wheelchair, am I going to have to go through a back-alley entrance because there's no ramp or the venue is not accessible? And that's not a good feeling. So, it's really identifying what those barriers are.
And then a couple of other things I would suggest to consider is providing training and resources. We are in the age of the internet, so there is no reason why we cannot stay informed and continue to have these conversations. And then lastly, I would just say be transparent and accountable. These are such sensitive conversations, and we're in a world where everything is much more sensitive and you want to be super cautious and respectful and mindful. But I think if you create a safe space, people can have the tough conversations that need to be had, and then that will allow for honest, real feedback and changes.
Do you see those conversations happening in our industry now? Or do you think that there still exists maybe this fear of saying the wrong thing, or offending someone and asking maybe the wrong question or one that you may be feeling kind of uncomfortable asking? How do you get past that nervousness and fear of doing the wrong thing when all you're really trying to do is learn and do better?
Yeah, that's a really, really great question, and I would say it is continuing to exercise having these conversations. When you think about working out at the gym, you only get stronger because you continue to go, and so continuing to have these conversations and asking the tough questions.
Honestly, one thing that I always hear come out is a non-person of color is afraid to refer to a Black person as Black, and they have always been asked these questions like, ‘Can I say that?’ or ‘Do you capitalize the word when you type it or do you lowercase it?’ And so, again, if you're coming from a genuine place and continuing to have these conversations, I wholeheartedly believe it will get better.
[Related: The Z: Planning for the Gen Z Attendee]
There's a difference, I think, when you're speaking to someone, you could tell when they're asking the question to genuinely learn something, and I think that's what makes it, too, having that sincerity behind your question and your reasoning for going about it makes those conversations a lot easier to have, I think.
Companies are now also hyper-aware of their brand reputation when it comes to diversity, too. But it's a bit of a nuanced line between sincere efforts and tokenism. How can planners help navigate this area on behalf of their company or third-party clients?
So, planners have a valuable, unique opportunity to really help their clients navigate this. I think there's a couple of things that they can do. One is really understanding the difference between genuine efforts and tokenism as you mentioned, Taylor, right? You can sense when a person is being genuine and really identifying the difference between the two. And then providing tools that can help them kind of gut check, ‘Hey, let's look at this checklist of things that we should consider so that we could eventually not need that checklist and build it as an innate resource or learning that we have that we can apply regularly.’
I would say another thing is educating the clients on best practices. I mean, we are the experts. We are attending conferences. We are constantly having conversations with the people who do the work, the people that are presenting and being a part of it on both ends, and so continuing to educate them and also to bring it to their awareness.
An example of that is, a client of ours that we're working with, one of the topics we're presenting on is DEI, and the presenters, none of them are diverse, right? They all look the same. And so the onus is on the planners to say, ‘Hey, I want to make sure you're thinking of this. This is what I have observed.’ And having that courage to bring it up because again, that's what they're paying us for, to be the experts and to give them advice.
I would also say encourage authentic engagement. So again, understanding is it coming from a good place and knowing how to address the issues, measuring progress, so making sure that we are gut checking throughout the process. Often what happens is we are so inundated with the work that we just want to get stuff done, and then you put aside the stuff that takes a bit more time. And so, what that says is that we need to make it more innate by continuing to exercise and practice it.
And lastly, I would say, continuously improve, right? There's always going to be a lot of work to do, and by having conversations like the ones you and I have, we’ll continue to make it better.
Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is not something that you could just check off the to-do list. It, like you said, it's an ongoing effort that we have to make, and I think it's funny to hear it called a trend, right? We don't want it to remain something that is trending now, but trends die down. They disappear.
Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging is a priority. And there's a need to, like you said, continue working and educating people. But I think there's also a need to realize that that work in education is ongoing and never-ending.
Yes, absolutely. And what I've also observed is, right now, our industry, and the hospitality industry in general, are struggling with staff and not having enough, right? And so, people are overworked. They're tired, they're exhausted. And so again, things that are very important, that require that extra love and support and understanding, are often put to the wayside. So that is something that I think we need to continue working through and navigating.
And Toronto is very good at doing that. They are globally known for its diversity of culture. Can you speak to some examples of how the city embraces a wide range of perspectives and viewpoints?
Absolutely. So, I would say venues. I'll start with that. About 10 years ago, I would go to a venue and say, ‘Hey, from a cultural perspective, we'd like to have some food that is Caribbean or Chinese,’ and they would not have that option available, and they would offer American or Italian, right? And so fast forward to today, one of the great things about Toronto is we've got such a melting pot of incredible cultures, and now venues have really adopted that.
Just the other day, I'm actually planning an upcoming social event and the client had asked to incorporate Trinidadian culture and the Chinese culture, so I was able to tap into the venue's—the King Edward actually—and they're able to provide some dim sum for us, which is great. And they're willing for us to provide doubles, which is a traditional Trinidadian dish, really, with no issues, right? … So, I'm seeing that a lot with venues.
With talent, I've attended quite a few conferences lately—Collision, Elevates, to name a few—and the speakers have really grown and changed. Just a few months ago when I went to Elevate, I saw an old colleague of mine actually at TD Bank, who is a person of color, a woman, she's got curly hair and she's just truly herself, speaking and presenting at this amazing tech conference. So, it has grown so much in that area.
And then I would say lastly, something that comes to mind for me is vendors. So, there's a company called Idea Hunter that really focuses on managing entertainment and activation experiences. And they offer a wide range of cultural entertainment, so I always tap on their shoulder to say, ‘Hey, I have an event coming up. I'm looking for something that really ties into X culture,’ and they have that offering. So that has really, really changed and grown over the years. And it's one of the main reasons why I love our city so much.
And when you look at those examples, how can they be applied to thinking strategically for meeting planners?
So, I would say what it helps or what event planners should consider is location selection. We know Toronto is a city that is multicultural, it's got a wide range of offerings. Let's tap into that and leverage that for the experience. There's inclusive policies that exist and so, because that's innate in our city, it's so much easier to ask a venue, ‘Hey, can you share us your accessibility plan?’ Because most of the time now, they have one, which is great.
Representation in marketing materials, so consider in the pre-event communication, post-event communication, any of the teaser videos or highlight reels that are created, really consider diversity and showcasing a broad range of people.
And then I would say lastly, what they could think about is partnerships with local organizations. We have so many amazing talented artists in the city or organizations that are focused on bringing awareness to underrepresented groups. A client of ours actually recently had asked us to reach out to a couple of the art groups to integrate their artwork into the gallery event that we’re having, so there's so many things that I think planners can do and I would say those are a great starting place.
And kind of to dig into that a bit more. What are some unique offerings and opportunities in Toronto that can help create that feeling of inclusiveness for an event or different kinds of local partnerships? Things that really stick out to you when you are planning something for a client, you say, ‘I think this would really hit the spot when it comes to incorporating DEI into your event this time.’
Food is probably one of the best ways to bring people together, right? We all need to eat, and we all love it. So, the multicultural cuisine that exists within Toronto is so vast, and that is a great way to integrate inclusiveness into the event, to teach somebody about another person's culture that they may not be exposed to because that's not what's in their peer view.
I would say accessibility is huge in Toronto. So, incorporating or having the conversations around that. Again, it's such an easy conversation to have now. You're not starting from scratch. It's such a big conversation that is I think it another unique opportunity that is offered in the city.
I know you touched on the local partnerships that exist. And then also the multilingual services. So, what I've observed a lot recently is being asked to provide simultaneous interpretations. That's when you have the headphones that are being put on, and so what that allows is, the presenter doesn't need to be English-speaking. You can now bring in a presenter who's speaking a different language and so forth, and still be able to showcase the great content that they have to present because of the wide range that we have that’s accessible. So, I think those are just a handful of the opportunities for inclusiveness.
And I really like that multilingual service kind of angle that—not necessarily angle, but initiative—in that when you're watching it virtually or something, and there's a translation and the voice doesn't necessarily match up or you're watching it later on and trying to understand everything, it's missing that connection. You're not really getting that personal feeling that, ‘Wow, I'm really learning and this person is genuinely teaching me things that matter.’ And so that sounds like something that would be really interesting to experience.
Is there a recent event that comes to mind that you feel delivered on diversity really authentically, and what did that look like and feel like for you?
So, Elevate, I lightly touched on this earlier, is an incredible annual tech conference that's really like a festival, if you will. And I was so surprised while attending this conference at how diverse everyone was, from the speakers to the attendees. I was seeing everyone coming as themselves with the different hairstyles, the different outfits, just truly coming as they are, and it ignited my love for Toronto and what I want to see more of.
They had so much representation with the partnerships, with the local organizations, local artists. I was seeing, I think, TD Bank had a booth where they were showcasing local, underrepresented talents, so they were able to have some shine while they're at the event.
The speakers were, again, such a wide range of younger, older, in between, different races. There was an inclusive design. So you could see that, again, if somebody who needs support from a transportation perspective, was thought through, they weren't going through the back door. They were feeling just as empowered as the rest of the attendees were when they were checking in and didn't have to go through a sideway. So, I would say that was one event that really, really stood out for me and that was impressive.
Well, that was a very informative and educational conversation that we had. So, a little bit of a recap, what are three things that the industry can start doing right now to shift the conversation toward action?
So, I would say, set measurable goals and objectives around DEI. Hold yourselves accountable to those objectives. Don't just create them and then they don't exist anymore, right? We need to exercise that practice by thinking about it, measuring ourselves and considering it in every aspect of the work that we do.
Idea to initiative.
Yes, love that.
The second tip that I would conclude would be educating themselves and the team. So again, we're in the information age. Leverage the resources, have these conversations, continue to remain educated, read books, read articles and just deepen your understanding of the issues, the unconscious biases that exist. And that will help you put yourself into the shoes of other people and just really reframe your mind on how you think and how you plan.
And then lastly, but not least, certainly not least, I would say amplify under representative voices. There is so much incredible talent across our city, from different backgrounds, perspectives, age ranges and so forth. Leverage what we have. If it’s difficult to find them, which is a big part of why they're underrepresented, reach out to resources like the Idea Hunter, like a local planner, who may be able to provide some guidance or suggestions, or even just ask the questions, ask your partners, so that they can do a little bit more digging and research and be able to share and amplify those voices.
I think those are three great tips and I think that our listeners are going to really appreciate all of the information that you shared with them today.
Awesome. Thank you for having me. This was great.
Thank you, Alicia.
That was Alicia Jenelle, a multi-hyphenate professional and international experiential design expert from Toronto. Thank you for joining us for this Meetings Today Podcast. I'm Taylor Smith, destinations and features content developer for Meetings Today.
If you're interested in listening to any more of our podcasts discussing trending meetings and events industry topics, check out our website at MeetingsToday.com and thanks for listening.
Read more from "The Z: Planning for the Industry's Next Generation"
Mission Statement: "The Z: Planning for the Industry’s Next Generation" is a Meetings Today column discussing the meetings and events industry’s newest and youngest members—the incoming Generation Z. Written by Meetings Today’s Taylor Smith, a member of Gen Z herself, The Z explores how to welcome, work with, understand and plan for the industry’s next wave of professionals while serving as a guide for members of Gen Z themselves, planners and attendees alike.