Marketers are taking a more holistic approach to build inclusive environments and actively listen to their audience
As businesses continue to incorporate diversity and inclusion strategies into their corporate missions, inclusivity will continue to become more important in the world of events. Successful events will be those that create experiences that welcome and represent all attendees.
So, what makes an event inclusive? Ticking a set of boxes to gain that inclusivity label is tempting. But experienced marketers suggest taking a more holistic approach to creating inclusive events and, most importantly, actively listening to your particular audience.
Take GitHub’s practice of producing inclusive events for the users of its technology platform, a strategy that developed after receiving requests from attendees of its user conferences. Restricted mobility, hearing impairment and gender-neutral bathrooms were just a few of attendees’ concerns. So, in 2015, the company started to get serious about diversity and inclusion.
“We built out a social impact team and brought in a c-level person who was responsible for our diversity and inclusion and our social impact initiatives,” says Kelsey Schimmelman, senior event producer at GitHub. “That’s when we were able to start becoming strategic because we were able to utilize it as a resource and build out our D&I strategy for events.”
Schimmelman believes inclusivity at events is indicative of a global shift, and that event producers are in a unique position to drive it ahead of other industries. “It’s symptomatic of a large-scale change that’s happening in the world. Because events can be public spaces where people congregate en masse, we’re thinking about it a little bit more. You’re inviting a very broad swath of humanity into your space, so we’ve become aware of this change at a professional level sooner than people in other industries have,” she says.
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At Salesforce, inclusivity is integrated into the company’s mission. So much so that the brand recently began offering education modules on inclusive marketing practices for employees.
“One of our values is equality, and at Salesforce, that translates in an authentic way through our events—through the speakers we have on stage, the venues that we choose, the accessibility accommodations we have in our event,” says Jeffrey Huang, senior manager-employee engagement at Salesforce. “Making inclusive events is part of our event DNA because that’s how we attract more people. The more inclusive you are, the larger your potential audience is for any particular event.”
Establishing inclusivity at your events requires placing it at the forefront of the conversation. “It comes down to the event managers just holding themselves accountable for thinking about the various details that make an event inclusive,” Huang says.
But for those event marketers just looking to get started, he has a caveat: “Going from zero to 60 all at one event might be difficult. You can’t always do it all at once. Try adding one thing into your event that’s new and inclusive. And then at the next event, add another thing, and build it up over time. Eventually it becomes second nature.”
It’s also important for event marketers to communicate to attendees the types of resources your event will provide. Email outreach is a method that Schimmelman uses, and push notifications within event apps may be tested soon.
“I find that with everything that’s going on at events, it can be difficult to find the things that you want to take advantage of, especially if it’s localized, like a prayer room. We’ve tried to be more thoughtful about how we communicate that information to attendees,” she says.
For those of you forward-thinkers looking for inspiration, we offer more insights and examples of inclusive events produced by companies that are walking the talk.
Last year’s GitHub Universe, the company’s annual technology event for developers who build software on GitHub’s platform, featured parent rooms with private pumping stations, child play areas, service pet accommodations, prayer and meditation rooms (functioning as a place for prayer and also for those who feel overwhelmed by social interaction), and all-gender bathrooms. Guests were offered preferred pronoun stickers at registration, and the event’s merch shop had Pride and Trans Pride items to purchase. The venue was also ADA accessible.
At GitHub Satellite this year, a two-day regional extension of GitHub Universe, the brand made sure to make the Muslim population attending the Berlin-based conference feel welcome. Thanks to a member of GitHub’s Muslim employee resource group, Schimmelman learned that the event fell during Ramadan and that perhaps the significant number of Berlin-based Muslims—approximately 300,000—would appreciate if GitHub was mindful of that. The brand addressed this concern by building a larger prayer room than usual. And since the attendees would be fasting during the day, it served food after sundown that was hearty and substantial enough for those attendees. The brand also included halal food options at each meal and snack break for those seeking halal food, but who would not be observing Ramadan.
To cover inclusivity from an economic perspective, GitHub provides a scholarship program for those outside the GitHub community who are interested in technology but can’t afford the ticket price. A scholarship ambassador on-site serves as a dedicated resource for the recipients, and new to this year’s event was a private lunch with GitHub executives in attendance.
Salesforce’s internal events program, managed by Huang’s team, is committed to creating experiences that are inclusive and welcoming to all attendees. As the global president of Outforce, the company’s employee resource group for sexual orientation and gender identity equality, Huang is a resource for creating events that are inclusive of the LGBTQ community and attendees of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
He divides the process into three parts: logistics, event communications and the on-site experience. From a logistical perspective, it’s important to choose an event location that’s welcoming to the community. Speaker representation on stage should be diverse in order to encourage registration and create a positive experience, producers should consider LGBTQ- or minority-owned vendors and suppliers, and suggested dress codes should provide guidance without using male/female binary terms.
When prepping event communications, Huang suggests asking for guests’ preferred gender pronouns on RSVP forms through providing a blank write-in field. Gender-neutral terms should be used when making announcements (think “folks” instead “guys,” and “theirs” instead of “his or hers”). As for the on-site experience, Huang suggests providing pronoun stickers at check-in or a write-in field on name badges, all-gender restrooms featuring signage without male and female figures, and—crucially—training your staff and speakers to implement these inclusive best practices.
At Sony’s 2019 SXSW activation, the brand created a “Cave without a Light” experience featuring principles of inclusive design through the use of Sony’s sound and haptic technology. Attendees learned that the exhibition, partially designed by a blind Sony engineer, was meant to be accessible for a diverse group of people, including those who are disabled. The idea was to create an experience that simulated blindness that would inspire participants to create with their other senses.
For the experience, attendees were led to a room where four, bright yellow-painted forklift platforms awaited, each featuring a set of bongos. Theatrical brand ambassadors informed eventgoers that they’d be descending into a dark cave without light that mysteriously existed below the venue, and once there, would compose a music track together in complete darkness.
The lights went dark and attendees “descended” into the cave, an action simulated by gyrating platforms. Once they arrived in the cave without a light, attendees were encouraged to make music any way they pleased, with a vocalist joining in to add some extra musicality to the jam session.
Makeup convention Beautycon is another brand that has incorporated inclusivity into its mission and considers its events “a safe space, first and foremost,” according to Beautycon brand marketing director Trish Paik. Beautycon POP, the pop-up version of the convention, is an experiential retail space featuring 20 indie, female-owned beauty brands selling products to underserved audiences.
“We wanted to fill in that white space for both brands and consumers who are tired of being told what they need to buy, what they need to purchase, what they need to wear,” Paik says.
Signage is another way that the brand communicates its inclusivity mission. “In front of every entrance to every event we do—our festival, now Beautycon POP, any panel—we have a ‘We Welcome’ sign. Inclusivity is one of our core values as a brand and as a company. We want everyone as soon as they arrive to understand that,” says Paik.
Beautycon POP featured eight Instagram galleries encouraging the Gen Z and millennial audience to express themselves to the fullest as well as a panel of five female founders who discussed the challenges of raising money and building a brand from scratch.