Expert tips on integrating diversity, equity and inclusion principles into your events, and how Toronto venues have set high standards for DEI.

Accessibility, food restrictions, gender identities, sustainability, inclusive language, religion—the list of considerations in DEI-conscious event planning goes on. But that’s the key: consider everything; consider everyone. There’s no simple formula, but it is possible to plan a meeting or event that puts inclusion first.  

We asked three Destination Toronto team members—Farnaz Mirza, Sales Manager; Alison Owers-Graham, Senior Event Planner; and Mara Rodas, Destination Services Manager—to weigh in on all the factors that come into play and the Toronto venues that are taking major strides in DEI. 

Nathan Phillips Square during Cavalcade of Lights

“If there’s one thing to remember, it’s that Toronto is a massive city with lots of options. We are such a multicultural and diverse city—there’s something for everyone.”

– Mara Rodas, Destinations Services Manager

1. Get to know your audience (and then check in).

"Knowledge of your audience is very important in the planning phase," says Farnaz Mirza, Sales Manager at Destination Toronto, who recommends sending out a detailed registration form and/or a pre-event survey. 

Consider attendees' cultures and faiths; whether support is needed for delegates with disabilities; if translation services are required. Think of everything. Thorough research is important to get a complete picture of your attendees’ needs. 

“We send a survey so that we can curate site inspections to assess delegate needs and expectations,” says Mara Rodas, Sales Coordinator at Destination Toronto. “It could be needing transportation from location A to B because they can’t walk, or assistance with a specific room because they're visually impaired. We ask about food restrictions. We ask these things, and everything is kept confidential.”

Finally, checking in during and after an event can be especially informative.

“A mid-point survey and post-survey are great checkpoints to get in touch with your audience and make the experience better,” said Farnaz.

2. Make accessible event design a priority.

Accessibility basics should be a given; think: elevator access, ramps, accessible washrooms, accommodating service dogs, barrier-free access throughout the space, and ease of travel to the venue.

“The Metro Toronto Convention Centre is connected to two hotels—the Delta Toronto and the InterContinental Toronto City Centre—so it’s very easy to get to,” says Alison Owers-Graham, Senior Event Planner at Destination Toronto. Wheelchairs are available as a courtesy service, and the entrances, bathrooms and elevators adhere to the highest accessibility standards. 

Shadows or glare can also create challenges for those with low vision, and adequate lighting is vital for people who read lips or use sign language. Consider the acoustics as well: echoes can be challenging for those who are hard of hearing. 

There should also be quiet spaces to escape to; the hustle and bustle of large events can be sensory overload for neurodiverse people. Other delegates may need a quiet space for prayer, breastfeeding or meditation. Two prayer rooms were available during the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) held at Exhibition Place, for example.

Both the CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada undergo regular audits by the Rick Hansen Foundation and hold accessibility certifications.

Across the city, Toronto has venues that get a gold star in accessibility (and some are literally certified). The CN Tower regularly undertakes audits by the Rick Hansen Foundation and other accessibility consultants to ensure that the building is up to snuff on accessibility standards. 

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada undergoes the same audits and is a member of the Access 2 Entertainment program. It’s also the first attraction in Canada to be designated as a certified autism centre, giving staff sensitivity and awareness training. The Art Gallery of Ontario is BlindSquare enabled, whereby a GPS app assists the blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted. Just to name a few. 

3. Consider inclusive communication and language.

Incorporating meeting tools and technology for accessibility—such as sign language interpretation, second screens, real-time captioning, assisted listening devices and translation services—can help ensure that diverse delegates can fully participate. 

For onsite communication, consider using inclusive formats, such as large print, Braille, captions, translated materials, and/or audio recordings.

Also, be conscious of using inclusive language that makes every participant feel seen, heard and valued. Destination Toronto can help advise on incorporating inclusive content through the 6ix Stack consultative partnership, as well as provide assets and content that help promote inclusivity.  

Finally, consider keynote speakers who are leaders in the DEI field and champion inclusive language. "The beauty of working with Destination Toronto is that we have connections," says Mara. “We can connect you with an expert or help research speakers.”

Michael Bach on stage
Michael Bach, Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility Executive and Thought Leader, Author, Speaker

4. Be conscious of gender inclusivity.

Many people identify as non-binary, trans, two-spirit or gender diverse. To promote equity and inclusion, think about removing gendered language, illustrations and photography from presentations and/or signage, and print pronouns on delegate badges. Also, make sure universal or gender-neutral washrooms are available.

“We have venues and restaurants with universal washrooms rather than male/female washrooms," says Mara. “The Second City, Selva, The Warehouse Group—there are a lot. The Toronto Region Board of Trade has male/female washrooms, but also a separate universal washroom.”

At Fan Expo, signage in The Metro Toronto Convention Centre depicted icons with different genders and read: “Whatever—just wash your hands.” 

Even without gender-neutral washrooms, most venues in Toronto will make accommodations. 

“The Metro Toronto Convention Centre can easily switch their bathrooms to gender-neutral,” says Alison. At Fan Expo, signage depicted icons with different genders and read: “Whatever—just wash your hands.” 

5. Make sure your catering is for everyone. 

Gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, halal and kosher options should be available. Make sure food labels list ingredients in detail. Thoughtful non-alcoholic drink options should be served. 

 “The Metro Convention Centre and Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel are very well known for their food as well as catering to different restrictions,” says Farnaz. “On a smaller scale, our caterers—such as The Food Dudes and Oliver and Bonacini Catering—are also exceptional.”

ASAE 2017 Food Offerings

Another advantage is that, as a multicultural city, Toronto has one of the most diverse food scenes in the world.

“It gives us the luxury of having many different types of food,” says Alison. “So if you go into the Metro Convention Centre looking for a certain type of food, the likelihood is you're going to find it there. They have a beautiful test kitchen and do a great job of meeting the client's needs.”

"We also love working with catering partner Daniel et Daniel, who strive to intimately understand their audience, then reflect that understanding in their food—always with a local twist,” adds Alison.

6. Adopt a sustainability mindset.

“For people who are much more aware of the environment, it could be offensive if the event is not environmentally aware or sustainable,” says Farnaz.

In recent years, Toronto has made great gains in offering sustainable event venues. For instance, Exhibition Place—Canada's largest entertainment and business events venue—has installed wind, solar and geothermal energy to heat, cool and power its spaces, as part of a pledge to achieve net zero by 2050.

"A great resource is Destination Canada's launch of Canadian Business Events Sustainability Plan, a first-of-its-kind national program aimed at improving the economic, social, and environmental sustainability practices of business events hosted in Canada," shares Farnaz.

Weaving sustainability into event menus is also important: “I keep raving about the Metro Convention Centre’s farm-to-table approach,” says Mara. “They have their own gardens and beehive on the rooftop, and also source from mid-size farms within Ontario.”

Daniel et Daniel was involved in the composting and recycling pilot project, a driving force behind the City of Toronto’s current system for restaurants and prepared food suppliers. It’s estimated that we now recycle 95% of our waste,” says Alison.

7. Choose a city built for inclusivity.

“If there’s one thing to remember, it’s that Toronto is a massive city with lots of options,” says Mara. “We are such a multicultural and diverse city—there’s something for everyone.”

With a compact downtown core, accessible public transit, modern venues and a motto of “Diversity Our Strength,” Toronto is well-equipped to host diverse groups of all ages, stages, backgrounds and abilities from all over the world. And Destination Toronto is the ideal planning partner.

“Our destination services are great at being the bridge between the client and attendees to make sure that we accommodate their needs and that everyone feels welcomed,” says Mara.