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Welcoming Event Design: Rethink Your Biases

From the invitation to the speakers and the venue, unconscious bias can be a problem for creating inclusive events.

An event design seminar at October's IMEX America in Las Vegas began with a slide showing a photo of a group of happy couples on a beach eating seafood and drinking Champagne. The invitation to the event read, “Join us for a beachfront crab boil featuring live bands and fireworks.” It looked like a lot of fun.

The session hosts, Tahira Endean, CMP CED, author of Intentional Event Design, and Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, MBA, director of industry advancement, Events Industry Council, posed the question: What could possibly be unwelcoming about this event?

It turns out the answer is: lots of things.

The most obvious problem with the image was that the couples were white and heterosexual, but several audience members said that as single people, they would not feel welcome at an event featuring couples in the photo. The organizers clearly expected their guests to be professionals traveling alone and were not intentionally trying to put off people of color or with different sexual orientations—but by using a badly chosen stock photo they managed to make their target audience feel unwelcome. One simple fix: If there is no appropriate image for your event, don’t use one! 

Other problems the session presenters pointed out:

·      People with mobility issues would be unable to negotiate sand

·      Allergies and dietary restrictions rule out seafood for many people

·      Fireworks can be disturbing for attendees who are former military personnel or have sound sensitivities

·      Some guests avoid events with alcohol unless there are obvious alternatives. They may be concerned that there won’t nonalcoholic beverages available.

Endean stressed that this does not mean the end of beach parties; there are many ways to accommodate everyone such as including a boardwalk at the location for people in wheelchairs and having alternate food and beverage options. But she emphasized that it is important for planners to look at the invitation from the perspective of every attendee to make all the invitees feel welcome from the get-go.

Endean and McIlwraith explained that unconscious bias is different from racism and discrimination because it is malleable, and simple strategies can eliminate it from event design once a person becomes aware of it. McIlwraith showed the iconic image of a silhouette that some people see as two faces and others see as a vase. She pointed out that just knowing that some people see a different image allows you to see it. 

Here are some terms that can demonstrate unconscious bias and should be considered danger zones in event planning.

Affinity. It is nice when you feel an affinity for a person or a place, but it should not be part of the criteria for choosing either one. People often have an affinity for people like themselves, but when choosing a speaker or company the choice should be the best one for your attendees. If you feel an affinity for a particular venue or destination, make sure that it works for attendees with different abilities and lifestyles.

Attributions. We make assumptions about people that may not be true. For example, if someone is good at sports we may assume they are disciplined and have leadership qualities. Similarly, in the U.S., very often people who are attractive are given more opportunities than people who are not.

Conformity. We like people who are like us. Unfortunately, by favoring people who conform to our expectations we might be denying useful new viewpoints and ideas. 

Gender. We grow up with defined roles that can make us believe there are “pink” jobs and “blue” jobs. No one should still be thinking this way, and, Endean points out, we should also recognize that there are more than two genders and your event attendees deserve to feel welcome whatever their identity.

Endean said that unconscious bias encourages a “halo or horns” approach. “We assign positives and negatives based on our biases,” and not addressing them will undermine any attempt at inclusive events.


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