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Tourism Diversity Matters’ The Collective Experience Conference Brings DEI Leaders Together

Photo of general session in ballroom at The Collective Experience conference.

Following a pandemic hiatus, Tourism Diversity Matters’ (TDM) The Collective Experience: 2023 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Conference returned to Philadelphia, a city that prides itself on diversity as well as being first in a long line of accomplishments, including being the first DMO to launch a diversity-focused division.

Photo of Greg DeShields on stage receiving a proclamation from the City of Philadelphia.
Greg DeShields (right) receiving a proclamation from the City of Philadelphia. Credit: Wise Owl Multimedia.

When it began in 2011 as the Diversity Summit, the event focused on diversity in human resources and talent acquisition. It really started to draw C-level hospitality industry leaders when it was held in the Washington, D.C., area in 2013, drawing heavy hitters such as former Marriott International President & CEO Arne Sorenson. It was taken over this year by TDM after being run by the Philadelphia CVB in 2019 and 2020 (virtual meeting), and Temple University and Lodging Media before that.

While the in-person last conference was held in 2019—before the pandemic shutdown—the event’s ability to attract top hospitality industry leaders continues, with the heads of DMOs from the likes of Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and others participating in the October 23-24 event at Hilton Philadelphia Penn’s Landing.

“There was a nice standard set, and we’ve always said that it’s really targeted to decision makers and individuals who are leading their efforts and have the ability to take the insights that they gain at this conference and actually to go back and implement them,” said Greg DeShields, executive director of TDM. “And that’s what we want; to keep it at CEOs, chief diversity officers, presidents and deans and so forth of academic institutions. And we’re quite fortunate that we had at least five CVB leaders who attended along with industry associations [such as U.S. Travel Association and Brand USA].”

The roster of more than 260 attendees also represented at least 14 academic institutions, various marketing firms, a global keynote from the Copenhagen Institute of Future Studies and even Amtrak.

[Related: Greg DeShields Brings a Career Dedicated to DEI to Tourism Diversity Matters]

Photo of people around a round table at The Collective Experience.
Discussion at The Collective Experience. Credit: Wise Owl Multimedia.

DEI Under Attack?

With certain states pushing back against DEI efforts and the teaching of history critical of the troubled past of the U.S.—with the recent NAACP advisory regarding travel to Florida as an example of the current state of affairs—DeShields believes it’s more important than ever to bring leaders together to share knowledge.

“If I were completely focused on what type of DEI articles I get from my Google feed, I would think that the world of DEI is over, and that’s just simply not the case,” he said. “I have to say that anytime you have a conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion, it begins with leaders being committed to this, and that it has to be focused as a business strategy. 

“It was clear with the leaders that were there that this is still a very relevant business strategy that needs a format,” DeShields continued. “It needs a platform where leaders can get together and discuss best practices to evolve the efforts around it.”

Photo of panel session at The Collective Experience.
Panel discussion. Credit: Wise Owl Multimedia.

One interesting exchange during a panel discussion was between Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of U.S. Travel Association, and Leon W. Russell, chair of the NAACP Board of Directors, regarding the civil rights organization’s Florida travel advisory. And although a bit challenging, the two leaders agreed that ongoing dialogue and education about travel advisories and boycotts is essential. Freeman even extended an invitation to the NAACP to participate in its future programs and discussions regarding travel boycotts.

[Related: DEI Update: Meetings Diversity Leaders Greg DeShields and Sheila Alexander-Reid Share Their Perspectives]

Photo of Sheila Alexander-Reid speaking on stage at The Collective Experience.
Sheila Alexander-Reid, PHL Diversity. Credit: Wise Owl Multimedia.

“There are some real challenges associated with the suppression of people’s civil rights and concerns about how people were treated in certain states, and that conversation with the NAACP showed that there is a direct correlation to the efforts around maintaining people’s civil rights and their ability to live their lives in a way that is welcoming and inclusive, and that we have to have a discussion. We have to be friends before we need a friend,” DeShields said.

“That connection, that ability for them to shake hands and say that we are going to talk together about how we can work collaboratively around ensuring our industry’s growth and maintaining civil rights was just a pivotal period for us in our industry.” 

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Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.