7 Strategies for Inclusive Event Networking Experiences

June 13, 2024

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Ensuring an inclusive event has become paramount in recent years, but even well-intentioned event organizers can miss the mark. Anticipating and accommodating a range of needs is essential for networking experiences that don’t leave anyone feeling marginalized or unable to participate.

Event professionals are charged with creating events that have a real impact on businesses, but also to create experiences that resonate, inspire, and connect. However, the success of the latter imperative doesn’t always register equally for all participants, and not everyone’s participation happens on equal footing.

Diversity and Inclusion - Meeting Professionals

This can be due to practical barriers, like a lack of access or limited funds, but it can also result from less tangible barriers, like the feeling of sticking out, of not belonging, or of not being welcome in the spaces where networking happens.

The range of reasons why someone might feel excluded is wide and varied. Marginalizing features can include differences in race, sex, gender, physical ability, LGBTQIA+ status, and mental health. But creating diverse and inclusive networking events isn’t just a matter of ticking boxes; it’s a strategic move that brings immense benefits to both attendees and organizations.

In this article, we’ll delve into why fostering diversity and inclusion in networking events is not just a moral imperative but also a smart business decision – and give you some strategies for getting started.

The Business Case for Diverse and Inclusive Networking Events

The Benefits for Attendees

Investing time and resources explicitly in DEI initiatives can be met with resistance for a number of complex reasons, and overcoming them requires a nuanced approach. However, it’s critical to keep in mind your ultimate stakeholders: attendees. Whether your event succeeds or fails depends on the value they derive from it. 

Many attendees come to these events seeking expanded worldviews, new perspectives, and inspiration. It has been well established that interacting with people from different backgrounds and experiences encourages learning and innovation. Attendees gain fresh insights and perspectives that can spark creativity and lead to better, more well-rounded problem solving.

While some attendees may find it comforting to enter a networking event where they immediately feel welcome and validated by a sea of faces that mirror their own experiences, not all networking experiences give all attendees the same inherent sense of belonging. Inclusive environments build confidence in attendees, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups. Feeling valued and respected enables individuals to engage more confidently, leading to more meaningful connections and interactions for all those involved.

The Benefits for Organizations

Investing in diverse and inclusive networking events yields significant advantages for organizations in a number of ways. 

Value alignment. Diversity within networking events makes them more productive, but it also makes them fairer, and attendees are becoming increasingly value-conscious. Many event markets have become saturated with the same offerings, the same messaging, etc., and attendees will often turn to moral criteria to exclude competitors so they can feel good about their choices.

Audience growth. Supporting the diversity of networking experiences also serves as an investment in an event’s audience growth, as professionals who often feel alienated by less inclusive events are an underserved market that can bolster an organization’s audience growth. For those attendees, diverse networking spaces offer exposure to a broader range of connections and new opportunities for collaboration, mentorship, and support.

New markets. Organizations are best served by catering to the widest qualified market possible, and that means identifying and qualifying customers in new markets, understanding their perspectives, and determining if you are in a position to solve their problems.

Networking events that embrace diversity provide opportunities to connect with diverse customer bases, opening doors to new markets and business opportunities.

Better brand image. Moreover, hosting events that explicitly support traditionally marginalized people signal to potential employees that your organization values diversity and strives to remove arbitrary barriers. This helps attract top talent as individuals seek workplaces where they feel supported and respected.

The Cost of Exclusion

Networking events that fail to be inclusive have detrimental effects on participants and long-term consequences on organizations. 

Exclusionary events can leave attendees feeling isolated, undervalued, and alienated. This can lead to disengagement and a reluctance to participate in future events. In the best case scenario, attendees who are not able to extract a solid ROI from networking at your event will develop their own competing networks, which can undermine your audience retention.

Failing to include certain groups also limits the pool of talent and perspectives available, resulting in missed connections, leads, and partnerships. Repeat offenders also risk developing a reputation for exclusion that can harm an event’s brand and make it less attractive to prospective attendees, speakers, and sponsors – not to mention the human resources required to run them.

Long-term consequences from failing to be inclusive include a loss of competitiveness, stagnation from a lack of innovation, and less resiliency to changing market demands.

In the worst case scenario, a failure to provide sufficient accommodation to diverse groups can lead to legal consequences if it is interpreted as discriminatory. Inclusive initiatives at events help mitigate these risks by demonstrating a commitment to equality and fairness.

Strategies for Creating Diverse Networking Experiences

Having established the business case for inclusivity, here are some practical strategies for event professionals to create truly diverse and inclusive networking experiences.

1. Ensure a Diverse Mix of People

While there is little you can do to actively select attendees for diversity criteria, you can facilitate diversity by removing barriers and promoting the event in more diverse networks. Encourage participation from underrepresented groups by reaching out to relevant organizations, associations, and networks, using marketing collateral that reflects a wide range of attendees. A simple check across the stock images in your marketing to ensure that they include people of color can be an easy way to get in the right mindset. 

Be explicit in your communications that all are welcome, and use your marketing to set expectations where it makes sense. If your networking sessions follow educational sessions or panels, simply pulling experts from diverse networks can help promote diversity in the attendees they attract.

2. Use Technology to Bypass Attendee Biases

Especially where attendees may feel inclined to gravitate towards those they already know or who appear to have the same background, smart matchmaking may provide a unique way to help attendees overcome this comfort bias. Rather, it uses inputs like their features, goals, and industries to recommend matches based on the intrinsic value of the connection. In this way, attendees can lean into the event technology to pair themselves according to productivity-oriented criteria that provides the most value for all.

3. Account for Differences of Ability

Physical and mental abilities vary among attendees, so it’s crucial to create environments that accommodate everyone. Consider factors such as wheelchair accessibility, sensory-friendly spaces for neurodivergent individuals, and providing sign language interpreters for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

As it can be difficult for event professionals without differences of ability to anticipate all the complications, it can be beneficial to work closely with organizations designed to support people living with different abilities. At PCMA’s Educon, for example, the organizers collaborated with disability advocate Rosemarie Rossetti to host “Event Mobility & Accessible Design” tours in which planners experienced first-hand the challenges of navigating a venue in a wheelchair. In this way, participants learned just how much cumbersome design elements like carpets, swinging doors, and lowered sight lines can impact accessibility. 

4. Consult the Communities in Question

As well-intentioned as an event organizer might be, accessibility and diversity-related issues can become very heated. DEI as a doctrine is relatively new and often suffers from a lack of standards and data – particularly in terms of its practical applications, like at an event. And because the communities served by DEI initiatives are not always uniform in their attitudes, investing in new learning experiences can be a minefield.

Consulting with the communities you aim to include before planning your event is a good way to cover your bases as an organizer. This ensures sensitivity and helps avoid missteps or potentially controversial networking activations. Listening to their input tailors the event to better meet their needs and preferences, but also shows that you are engaging the experts and responding to their input.

5. Acknowledge History

According to a study conducted by the LGBT Meeting Professionals Association and commissioned by the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, 48% of destination selections are based on “some sort of D&I initiative.” One way this can manifest is in choosing a destination or venue with a history related to a diversity theme.

However, it’s important to recognize that history by acknowledging the contributions, costs, and legacies of a destination’s diverse communities. In many countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, this entails starting any event with land or settlement acknowledgements that recognize the indigenous people on whose land the event takes place. 

Land acknowledgements not only show your respect for the historical legacy of the destination and its people but also help attendees to connect with the local culture. You can even work with local DMOs to help find local partners to incorporate elements of their culture into the event in a respectful way, avoiding tokenization, orientalization, or appropriation. Any experiences that feature diverse cultures should be authentic and meaningful. 

6. Create Spaces for Wellness and Reprieve

Mental health awareness is on the rise, and many organizers are now incorporating wellness into their events. This can be especially important in a networking context that can make some feel anxious and under pressure to make a good impression.

Prioritize mental health by providing spaces for relaxation and self-care. Offer quiet rooms for meditation or sensory breaks located close to the networking area, and ensure there are resources available for attendees dealing with stress or anxiety. This can help create an inclusive environment where neurodivergent individuals can feel comfortable and supported.

7. Secure Top-Down Support

Obtaining top-down support is essential for creating truly diverse events as they often require a significant investment. Your ability to get stakeholder support reinforces the importance of these efforts and provides resources to make them successful.

One of the best ways to begin this process is to develop an action plan around your data. Your event technology can offer a number of ways to substantiate the efficacy of inclusivity efforts. A direct and effective way to do so is simply to use the mobile event technology to ask. Prompt attendees to a networking session to give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down, or probe further by using the app to prompt them to fill out a survey.

If your mobile event technology offers a mechanism for exchanging contact information, that can provide raw data on the overall success of a networking session, which can be compared to a networking session in which no such effort was made. Comparing two events may not indicate that much, but if you continue to collect that data over time, you’ll be able to see if a pattern emerges.

Conclusion

Events play a pivotal role in creating networking experiences that many professionals rely on. To ensure that they are able to participate fully and derive value from them, it’s critical to foster an environment where everyone feels valued, respected, and empowered to connect.

While you may face skepticism from stakeholders who feel threatened by change or who don’t see the organizational benefit to investing in inclusive networking, using data to support your initiatives can go a long way in demonstrating the effectiveness of your efforts.

And to ensure that those efforts are effective, it’s important to temper your creativity with expert advice from the communities you’re trying to accommodate. Your good will goes a long way, but without their input, it’s easy (and potentially very damaging) to make the wrong move. 

Need more ideas about how to make your next networking event more inclusive? Contact Stova – we’re always happy to help.

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