The Top 4 Mistakes Meeting Planners Should Avoid If They Want Diversity and Inclusion at Their Next Conference

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Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of workplace diversity education firm New Demographic (, shares four mistakes meeting planners should avoid if they want diversity and inclusion at their next conference.

"Savvy meeting planners carefully sculpt both their advertising and their agendas to appeal to a culturally diverse population. But far too many planners still don't understand the fundamentals of culturally-sensitive hosting," notes Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of workplace diversity education firm New Demographic, in the latest issue of her email newsletter Diversity Career Success.

Here are the four biggest mistakes that Van Kerckhove says uninformed meeting planners make, followed by their more appropriate counterparts.

Mistake 1: Use diversity as window dressing only

Don't assume that providing ethnic buffets and displaying stock photos of smiling people of color in a brochure is enough to entice the unconvinced that they are uppermost in mind. Especially don't follow up by publishing an agenda and inviting speakers who don't know very much about the people of color in attendance and can't speak to their concerns or interests.

The Fix: Step outside of the comfort zone and call people of color in your industry. Find out what issues are on their mind. Incorporate their concerns into the agenda by finding knowledgeable speakers of color who have had success dealing with the issues that were raised, and then advertise that these issues will be tackled and that helpful ideas will be shared at the conference.

Mistake 2: Wait until the last minute to reach out to people of color

By reaching out to people of color only as an afterthought, when everything is buttoned up and ready to roll, any response received will likely be anemic. In a final push to attract a more diverse audience at the last moment, event planners can appear intolerant of diversity and few people of color will show up.

The Fix: Make it part of the initial plan to seek out and cultivate relationships with people of color. Involve them in the planning process from day one. Get their input early when their insights and contacts can help launch the event into the stratosphere instead of slapping a band-aid on something that will need a tourniquet later.

Mistake 3: Tokenize speakers of color

Don't place people of color into designated "conference ghettos" by asking them to serve on marginalized panels where they talk only about issues regarding their race or culture. People treated this way look and feel like tokens.

The Fix: Incorporate diversity into the very fabric of the conference itself and invite people of color to be main session speakers. It's far more powerful to have a panel of top executives which includes a person of color discussing a business issue than it is to just plop that person of color up there to talk about his or her race.

Mistake 4: Assume no one wants to hear from people of color

Meeting planners often assume that the only issues people of color have are "pet issues" for dealing with "identity politics" and that what they have to offer will not be of widespread interest or use to other people attending the conference.

The Fix: Open your eyes and ears to what can be learned from inventive people of color. Communities of color often have fewer resources at their disposal and must come up with sometimes unique, creative solutions that others haven't thought of or tried. Discover how an enormous talent for making lemons out of lemonade might benefit your own industry.

By making these few course-corrections, thoughtful meeting planners can anticipate an influx of new faces showing up. Just make sure to spend the time to get to know these new audience members so they can become an ongoing part of your network and event outreach.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the diversity education firm New Demographic, specializes in working with corporations to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and has visited as a guest lecturer at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and many other colleges and universities across the country.

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