"Anyone can come to our event." That’s what we tell ourselves - we the people who program and labor over our events. We don't bar anyone from joining the fun, and the only barrier may (or may not) be a ticket price or alcohol-related restrictions around age. When we do price our events, we make sure they're affordable for our demographic and right along with our competitors’ prices.
But the real truth is that not everyone is actually welcomed to our events. Whether we want to admit or not, our event send signals about who's welcomed and who isn't.But don't worry, we can counter that. We must lay down our defensive attitudes and ask what we can do better. There are three major facets of your events—marketing, venue, and programming—you can improve all of those for inclusivity. Your events can send messages that truly say “all are welcomed.”
Event marketing: who are you selling to?
Language and imagery
The two most powerful tools for selling an event are the language and the imagery you choose to use. Copy should be honest about what your event is about. It should also avoid bias. For example, in tech spaces, words like "rockstar" and "guru" invoke masculinity and may only attract a male audience.
Likewise, you'll want to check your imagery. Who's represented? Who's missing? What activities or parts of your event does your imagery show off and what tone does that set for your event?
This marketing conference focuses at least half of their promotional video on the party. What would a manager looking to send their employees think about the electronica rave? What about a person who doesn't like to party or prefers networking over dancing? The video makes it unclear what information one might learn at their event, even though the stage and audience setup is impressive.
Themes can be great way to pull everything in together and give you a headstart on event design and experiential marketing. Just don't take it too far like this conference, which focuses on love as theme:
And perhaps takes the romantic theme with two cupid-like characters too much into the professional space:
Even if your event doesn't go this far, get opinions about your theme. Work with designers and a/v teams on concepts and execution. Consider who your theme attracts and who it doesn't. Consider the content of your event and the industry it's in.
Code of conduct
Code of conducts serve to make your event a safer space. We want everyone to be excellent to each other, as Bill and Ted said. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. It's important to lay down ground rules and enforce them at the event. Geek Feminism has a creative commons licensed code of conduct template to help get you started.
Answer the right questions
Make sure you're addressing the asked and unasked questions from your audience about the event. Some attendees are okay with the elevator pitch and telling them where and when to show up. But other attendees will have a ton of questions. Facebook groups, your online community or other forum posts can be helpful for letting people meet each other beforehand and give a voice to those questions. If you're hosting a multi-day event where most people are coming in from out-of-town, you might consider providing information about the city/town your event's in.
Some common questions:
- Why does this event cost this much?
- Where can I get dinner after the conference?
- What's the dress code? What should I wear?
- Will there be others in my specific industry?
- How do I get to-and-from the airport to select hotels/venue?
- Is the conference hotel nice? How far is it from the venue?
- Is the area around the event safe for me to walk around at night?
The more questions you as an event organizer can answer, the deeper a relationship and understanding about your audience you'll have. They'll learn they can ask for their needs — such as nursing rooms to pump — or maybe ask otherwise embarrassing questions — such as visiting a US state where marijuana is legal and wanting to know the laws around it.
Is there an audience or demographic missing from your show? Target them with ads. For example, during a speaker pitch solicitation program, I noticed not many women were submitting talks. We took out social ads on Twitter and Facebook to attract them and saw a lift to 40% of submissions being from women.
The venue: what's the physical space like?
Well lit and clean venues
You never want your attendees to be nervous in and around your event space. For large events, this usually isn't a problem. Due to the sheer number of attendees, you've likely booked a professional events space. But for those scrappier meetups on a budget, venue quality can be all over. We've all been to the donated teeny-tiny startup spaces that you access through an alleyway and up several flights of stairs. This can be intimidating for new attendees, or for those who don't know the area or anyone else at the event.
General, comfortable accessibility
Accessible venues are important for everyone. Most large venues are fully accessible, but smaller ones can be more challenging. Regardless, you'll want to test your venue's accessibility before the event. Unfortunately, many venues will say they only have a freight elevator in the back, or require someone in a wheelchair to go through an alleyway and kitchen before getting to the main space. This can be uncomfortable or confusing. You also want to make sure to check out the restrooms, seating options, and stage accessibility. Even large events, with over 40,000 attendees, have gotten this wrong by not adding a ramp to their stage.
Gender neutral restrooms
Gender neutral restrooms are an easy way to make your event more inclusive. You can easily adjust signage in your event venue by covering other restroom signs. This can be simple or elaborate. Many venues for smaller events have single room restrooms anyway. Just make sure to block off urinals in shared spaces.
Clear directional signage or human arrows
Don't assume your attendees know how to access your venue or know where to go. You want to carefully label directions and make it easy for them to find everything. You also want to label where restrooms are, food and drink locations, what the food is, and more. Pre-visit your venue like you've never been there before.
Also, don't discount in-person greeters. Staff greeting your attendees can make everything so much more friendly. If you do discover there's a lack of signage, staff are an easy, moment-of solution.
Parking or nearby public transit
Depending on the geographic region and group demographics, you'll want to make sure your venue has parking and/or nearby public transit. This extra convenience makes your venue more accessible and less of a hassle for attendees. You may need to assist attendees by giving them detailed directions on where the best/cheapest parking is or what bus/subway/train transport to use.
Programming: who are you including?
Timing is everything
Both your length of programming and time of day (or days) you choose to host your event can greatly affect attendance.
You can never make everyone happy with the date and time you decide to throw your event. However, you can learn about your audience's needs. If your attendees are largely professional and their companies send them to attend, you probably want to have a weekday event during work hours. If employers aren't sending attendees, you should consider the weekend or an evening event.
For weekend and evening events, unfortunately, the audience often skews male. Sadly, mothers still spend more time raising their children than fathers. This means, unless you are offering childcare or your event's child-friendly (which most professional events aren't), attracting working mothers will be even harder.
When considering program length, some attendees may not be able to sit through an entire day due to injuries, chronic illnesses, or disabilities. Even if committed to an all-day conference, people need breaks to process information, take care of other responsibilities, or even just chill. A conference with solid programming starting at a 7am breakfast and ending at 10pm when the afterparty closes is a grueling schedule.
Speakers represent your event. They attract attendees, and many of them will promote your event as they're excited to speak at it. Putting a speaker on stage says your event and organization endorses that person's expertise. They speak to your values.
Basic speaker stage diversity is important. Ideally, you'd want a representative mix reflecting the area's population, meaning you're actually normalizing your lineup. All too often events wind up with all white men:
This event showcases only men as experts, with only a handful men of color. What does this say to the women interested in attending? They don't see themselves on stage. Will they be respected as experts during networking or if they ask a question?
For events with presentations, making sure slides are accessible is paramount. This means you want to make sure speakers' fonts are large enough to read from across the room, the images are clear, the messaging follows the code of conduct, and the decks available elsewhere.
Litmus' Justin Jordan ensures the audience at the back of the room can read her slides.
Closed captioning and language translation
Adding CART or live closed captioning to your event can make it extra accessible. Not only does it help hearing-impaired audiences, but also anyone who's minds wandered off for a second and missed an important point. You also may consider ASL translators, or having the option for attendees who need them. Many large international events may have a multilingual audience requiring translators.
Fancy stage and show lights can level up your conference. However, you want to be careful about strobe lighting, which can trigger those prone to epilepsy. Others may have light sensitivity or can’t see well in the dark.
Catering can be tricky as the most inclusive events will provide food based on dietary restrictions. Especially if the event provides multiple meals over multiple days. Basic restrictions to cover are:
You may also want to include an "Other" category for people who have any severe allergies to alert you of. Some events, who can't swing the catering and are in areas with easy access to restaurants, will give attendees with dietary restrictions pre-paid credit cards to get meals elsewhere.
If you're running an evening event, where no one depends on you for a meal, you can make sure your menu fits most of the audience's needs. You can also always jazz up a meetup with anything other than pizza.
Far too often, we hope to hook people by providing free alcohol. Or convince people to come to a party after the event because they'll get free booze. However, in promoting alcohol as a hook factor, many events take it too far and booze becomes the only reason to attend, which makes it strange for anyone who's not a drinker. To avoid this, emphasis other reasons to attend, like activities, prizes, networking, and food, and in addition to the alcoholic beverages, feature non-alcoholic mixed drinks or mention you provide water or soda (and make sure you provide it!). There are many reasons why someone doesn't drink — pregnancy, religion, alcoholism, and professional boundaries, to name a few — and it's our job as event organizers to make that choice okay.
Swag and other goodies
Everyone loves a free t-shirt. Or maybe they actually don't. Often the "one size fits all" t-shirt actually only fits bodies flattered by a male cut or who can wear a men's size M-XL. Offer different styles and go both larger and smaller in size range. Don't forget to pay attention to your other swag. For example, if most of your attendees fly in, you don't want large items taking up precious carry-on space or hand sanitizer bottles too big for TSA regulations.
All this may sound overwhelming. However, making your event more inclusive is a step-by-step process. Pick a handful of areas you want to improve for your next event and start there. Once that's going well, tackle different areas and audience requests. Likely, you'll be hosting more than one event, and you'll have time for improvement.