I have seen a tremendous amount of social-media backlash against “religious freedom” laws in North Carolina (HB2) and Mississippi (HB1523), both of which allow businesses and nonprofits to discriminate against LGBT people in accordance with their religious beliefs. More than 100 major corporations (Google, Apple, Bank of America, and other powerhouses) oppose the North Carolina ordinance. Pepsi, Choice Hotels and Hyatt have publicly opposed the Mississippi law. And, of course, meetings are pulling out in droves. But organizations that cannot afford to cancel at the last minute have no choice but to meet in these states. Planning for LGBT attendees is similar to the customer service and planning we provide for any guest, including my specialty, planning for guests with dietary restrictions.
How can the planners of these meetings protect their LGBT attendees?
The answer is not so different from protecting attendees with special dietary needs, a challenge that has become my specialty. The key to planning for any guest, to include planning for LGBT attendees, is communication. When planning for food-allergic guests, I first obtain, at registration, detailed information about which of my guests need special consideration and what they need. A smart meeting planner would also find out how many transgender people will be in attendance, in order to ensure that there are public restrooms available to these guests.
My next step when planning for attendees with special dietary needs is to communicate with all venues to discover and choose the best options for catering to those attendees. Regarding the need for bathrooms for transgender people, planners should ask about the policy at the host hotels and convention center. The major hotel chains are pro-LGBT rights and will probably expect their gendered restrooms to be used based on gender identity and not gender assignment, but it behooves us to ask. It also makes sense to speak with conference leadership about it, so that there are no surprises. Another option is to create an all-gender restroom, i.e., one that is open to people of any gender. It’s as easy as affixing a temporary sign over the usual “men” or “women” sign.
If planning off-site events or dine-arounds, it’s important to ask in advance about those restaurants’ ability to serve people with dietary restrictions. In destinations with religious freedom laws in place, I would also recommend asking their comfort in serving LGBT guests. If the answer isn’t a wholehearted yes, there’s no reason to bring your business to those establishments. But the vast majority of businesses in the hospitality industry will be more than accommodating. If you’re not convinced, read this.
On-site communication is also key to planning for LGBT attendees. I ensure that everyone with special dietary needs is individually addressed on site, to make sure that they are given the meal they requested. Likewise, if your meeting has a significant number of transgender or gender-nonconforming attendees. It can’t hurt to enclose a letter in the registration packet affirming the organization’s commitment to equality and explaining how the public restrooms will be set up. That way there will be no surprises.
Please note that by making this comparison between guests with special dietary needs and LGBT guests, I am not implying that there is a sameness to the struggles of either group. I am only pointing out that the procedures for ensuring a safe, healthy, and stress-free event require frequent and thorough communication, no matter what your guests’ needs entail.