Creating Sensory-Friendly Events

Creating Sensory-Friendly Events - TSI18.3

Anyone who’s ever walked a trade show knows how easy it is to hit stimulus overload. And that becomes even more of a challenge for neurodiverse or introverted attendees.

So how can we make our conferences and trade shows more sensory-friendly? Professional Event Host and former BBC broadcaster Clare Forestier shares tips on how to:

  • Create breathing space for attendees to recharge
  • Consider sensory needs like you do accessibility issues
  • Provide a better AX (Attendee-first eXperience)
  • Include sponsors in the conversation

Related links:

About Clare Forestier

Clare ForestierClare Forestier is a professional Event Host who prides herself on emceeing virtual and hybrid events for her clients with energy and knows how to bring the WOW factor. She is also an experienced presentation and media trainer, following a 20+ year career as a BBC journalist. Connect with her via her website:


[00:00:00.480] - Marlys Arnold

You're listening to The Trade Show Insights Podcast, season 18, Episode 3.

[00:00:19.640] - Marlys Arnold

I'm your host and exhibit marketing strategist Marlys Arnold bringing you tools to improve your exhibit results. On today's episode, brought to you by the Exhibit marketers Cafe, we're talking about how to avoid stimulus overload and provide a better experience for all attendees.

[00:01:03.200] - Marlys Arnold

Clare Forestier is a professional event host who prides herself on emceeing in person, virtual, and hybrid events for her clients with energy, and she knows how to bring the wow factor. She's also an experienced presentation and media trainer, following a 20 plus year career as a BBC journalist. She's joining us today from her home studio in Bristol, UK. Welcome to Trade Show Insights, Clare.

[00:01:30.430] - Clare Forestier

Thank you so much for having me. I'm really looking forward to it.

[00:01:33.870] - Marlys Arnold

Well, I'm excited to have this conversation because neurodiversity and creating a more inclusive experience is definitely a buzzword right now. But I want to really drill down and talk more about ways to be more inclusive and to really create a better attendee experience. What really inspired me when I saw your video on LinkedIn, you were talking about attendee overload and trying to help attendees build in more space and breathing room for attendees. That's one thing I always tell exhibitors is you've got to remember, as these attendees are walking around, they're all on stimulus overload. And so what can we do as either event organizers or exhibitors? What can we do to help, like you said, create some breathing room for these attendees so they don't feel so overstressed?

[00:02:30.010] - Clare Forestier

Well, I think for me, I always just look at an experience. And you can have lots of positive experiences. You can have lots of negative experiences in an event. But wouldn't it be better if it was all positive? So you don't want somebody leaving your event going, well, it was great. There was so much content. I learnt this stuff. But then I was completely exhausted. And so many people talk about how they go home at the end of an event, and I'm the same, and you are literally useless for the next two days. It's because we're overstimulated. And it is easy to fix. But in a world where we're so obsessed by putting more content in and proving the value, and especially now when everybody wants people to come back from virtual and come back in person, that they feel they've got to give you so much. But it's almost... It is too much. It's way too much.

[00:03:19.340] - Marlys Arnold

So what are some of the things that you suggest to your clients that they can do to try to trim that down?

[00:03:26.530] - Clare Forestier

Well, more breaks, longer breaks, somewhere to go that's nice during the break, because I think sometimes you're in big trade centers or conference centers, it's not that easy to get outside. And when you go outside, it's just a load of people smoking. So it's not even great. That's not very green. So even just finding where the nearest green space is and sign posting it in the agenda or in the documentation, the paperwork that you give them just to say, you've got an hour and a half lunch, they can see, I'm going to have half an hour and sit in the sunshine, or not in the sunshine if it's raining, but somewhere where that I'm going to see some fresh air or see a nice view or just get a break from it. And also, I went to an event recently, and they're starting to talk about having essentially quiet rooms, calm places to go, which was set up, I think, for people with neurodiversities, but all this curb cutting effect ideas, actually things for people that you change for somebody with a disability to make it more inclusive actually makes it better for everybody because I wouldn't consider myself neurodiverse, but I would definitely want to go somewhere like that and just relax or just close my eyes for five seconds or put some noise reducing headphones on and just replenish for the afternoon.

[00:04:47.080] - Marlys Arnold

Well, and it's interesting you mentioned the quiet rooms because I know one of the convention centers here in Kansas City has actually... It's one of the first convention centers to do that. They actually have implemented a quiet room with all the different, like you said, the neurodiverse tools for people who need that a break. But like you said, it's not necessarily just people who are considered neurodiverse. I mean, all of us, especially now when so many of us have spent the last several years working from home and very isolated, and suddenly you're thrown into a convention with how many hundreds or thousands of people, it is just too much. So do you have some other examples of some things that you've seen? Even if they've done it right there on the show floor within the convention center of some things, some tools that they could use to help with that?

[00:05:38.770] - Clare Forestier

I've seen some people when you give away all the free stuff at trade shows, a lot of stuff is given away that's free or promotional. I saw someone and they had those fiddle toys, I think. I don't know what they call, but it was like a stress ball and stuff. And it was quite interesting because I was watching somebody really... We're on audio now, but they were really clenching it and you're thinking, whoa, what's going on there? And if you get into all that stuff, which some people might quite call woowoo, but say tapping or emotional freedom techniques, things like that, people will be tapping. And I walked around and I saw people doing it, which is if you're in a stressful moment, you might tap. So you could even have sessions included in your agenda, depending on who your attendees are, talking about ways to reduce stress, just really simple ones. Even I now, when I walk around the London underground, I will listen to headphones with really calming music in. I never used to have to do that, but it's now so overwhelming. And I think that's the after effect of COVID, as you said.

[00:06:43.780] - Clare Forestier

The first time I went back into the city after lockdown, I found it quite overwhelming. And I'm the event host, I'm the emcee, I'm the person who brings the energy. And yet I'm sacked by it too much noise, too much noise. So I have to find ways throughout an event if I'm there all day personally to look after myself. And I think event organizers could have those little elements in. And I noticed at events when they do have anything about mental health, about those things, those are busy sessions. There are always people going to those.

[00:07:19.090] - Marlys Arnold

Well, and you talked about the fidget toys or whatever the official term for those are. That's an idea that exhibitors could use to have as a giveaway in their booth as well or some other a wellness tool. You talked about the noise canceling headphones. There's lots of different kinds of things that exhibitors could give away that would also help to support attendees' wellbeing as well.

[00:07:45.720] - Clare Forestier

You talked, I think, on a previous podcast with Al Mercuro about being sustainable. That's something that people are going to take home with them. It's not something that's going to end up in the trash. It's going to go home and be used. And it's also that part of considering people's sensibilities, considering all the different kinds of event attendee, considering people who might need a break. That's much more inclusive. Then you're being inclusive and you're being sustainable and you're right on the track to doing all the right things to make a great event of the future.

[00:08:23.930] - Marlys Arnold

Well, I think, too, we talk a lot about the neurodiversity, but it's an important thing to keep in mind for just introverts because it's draining to be in a crowd for an introvert on any day. And I know in one of your videos that I watched, you talked about the five coins theory. Could you talk a little bit, explain what that is, if people haven't heard of that before?

[00:08:49.230] - Clare Forestier

Sure. I mean, I can't claim it's mine. It's Simon Sinek's idea that you all get five coins of energy, I suppose, a day. And an extrovert will be able to add to their coins of energy with an interaction. And actually, sometimes with an introvert, they will be losing a coin of energy for every interaction that they have. So you want to be able to replenish that for people. But I think even an extrovert, whilst they get this energy from being around people, they need time to calm down. If you think of the real extroverts in your life, you probably sometimes think, okay, just go into a quiet room for a moment, calm down. You're being almost too much. My sister says to my husband, she just goes up and says, You've used all your words for today because he's. So it's a benefit to everyone. And you just have to calm down and you think. I think it's also we all digest and learn things totally differently. And an introvert might learn it differently from an extrovert. And also just we all have different learning styles.

[00:09:55.600] - Clare Forestier

So if we build that into our events. So that's when the breaks can be good because sometimes it can be because you need a break. Sometimes it could be because that gives you time to talk it over with somebody else. That might be how you learn it, or reread your notes, or anything like that. Just giving you a chance to maybe not be stimulated by the event and have, I think somebody told it today that I spoke to, white space, white noise time, which I liked. And introverts as well are not necessarily going to want to do all the crazy stuff that's in an event that might be added. I noticed in virtual events, there's an awful lot of us trying to get people to be really inclusive, not just inclusive, but join in, sorry, so more in...

[00:10:39.380] - Marlys Arnold


[00:10:40.810] - Clare Forestier

I can't think of the word because it's evening time here. That could be too much for some people. They do want to watch passively. And whilst we all want to encourage people to not just have us all staring like zombies as an audience, there are some people who prefer that. So you have to look at your audience sometimes and think, if I'm doing an event for these type of people and more of these people are like this, then I'm going to make it much more focused that way. But you can still include the other elements, the more participatory elements for those people. Because just want to make sure that every event has the balance that matches the attendees coming.

[00:11:16.860] - Marlys Arnold

Well, and you're right about even extroverts need a break. Because I consider myself an extroverted person, but my problem is that as the adrenaline ramps up, I get to a point where I almost get breathless and sometimes almost feel like I'm just ready to short circuit or something. So it is true that everybody needs that a break and just, like you said, a reset for their brain so that they don't feel like they just maxed out at the event. And I think that too many organizers, like you said, they're trying to do the right thing. They're trying to fill the time because they don't want to have too many gaps where it's too easy for an attendee to just go, oh, well, I don't have anything for an hour and a half. I'm going to go back to my room. But if they can have more of those types of areas built in, then people can still have the breaks and not have to feel like they have to literally escape the conference or escape the show floor. So I think that's a very good piece of advice.

[00:12:24.300] - Clare Forestier

Well didn't they used to do? Was it Google and places? It might just be an urban myth, but they would fill their buildings with all the lovely stuff so that they would keep their staff there for as long as possible working. I guess it's that idea. If you make it somewhere where you really want to stay, then we'll stay. But if you're at a big, enormous conference center, I just think of the ExCel in London, but they're all over the world. It's a lot going on there. Even if you want to go back to your hotel, it's a good 25 minutes walk, potentially. You want to sit down and have a break, and there's really only most of the time, the only place to go is a noisy cafe somewhere where you've got a limited supply of not necessarily great healthy food and coffee, just more stimulants, and it feels like there's no place to go and regenerate. And that's why you're exhausted at the end of it. And if you're going to go to events, you don't want to go home, go back to your office and be too exhausted to work for the next two days because then that's five days out of the calendar rather than three or whatever. And that will make me more inclined to go again another year if I thought I was looked after. And that's what attendees should feel that they're being looked after.

[00:13:36.210] - Marlys Arnold

Well, I can remember a conference I went to years ago, and they had created basically a comfy lounge area because even in convention centers, a lot of times there's not even any place to sit down if you want to take a break. But they had this great lounge area and it was off the beaten path. And so it was really popular with attendees because you could just go there and just veg out for a few minutes and just catch your breath, look at your notes from the last session, whatever you needed to do, and then get up and move on and go to your next activity. But sometimes I think it's something as simple as that. Or even having you talked about having the ability to go outside if it's the right day and if you're in the right place. But there's even ways to bring that element of bringing the outside in as well.

[00:14:28.760] - Clare Forestier

Well, yeah. There's so much ways to add greenery now just to give your event some alternative spaces and also lighting and smell, all those things which affect our mood so much. Just that endless, fluorescent light and huge amounts of blue light. We can have areas where that's reduced. We can have sessions at the event which are going to be in smaller rooms where you can have more, I suppose, muted ambient lighting. You don't have to have the extremes that it feels like an event sometimes is. And I think that's little subtleties like that, which I don't think have to cost a fortune, can make a huge difference. And it's everybody's sensory needs that you're considering then. And I think the other thing that can be really straightforward is when you are gathering information on people before they come, ask them about it. Sometimes the form that asks you is just to fill in really basic accessibility needs, but you could get a lot more out of people and then you could see, oh hey nobody's mentioning this. Okay, maybe it's not an issue. And also when you get the feedback from the last year's event, ask the question, did this stuff bother you?

[00:15:37.170] - Clare Forestier

And if it did, then you know for next year. I just think it's sometimes we're not asking those questions and therefore we don't know that. We are asking the basics, but there's a lot more we could get out of people. And it helps you just have a load of data about your ideal attendee, which has got to be a good thing, right?

[00:15:55.450] - Marlys Arnold

That's true. Well, and you might be very surprised when you ask because like you said, so many organizers are asking about accessibility issues or food allergies or things like that. But if you just ask the questions of, Would you benefit from having a quiet room or a quiet space? Or some of those kinds of questions, you might actually be amazed at how many people say, Oh, yes, I would love to have this as an option. Because, again, like we've said, it's not necessarily those who are considered neurodiverse. It could be you may discover half your audience says, Oh, yes, this would be a welcome benefit.

[00:16:30.320] - Clare Forestier

Completely. And I think, and you're going to learn. And that's the way we know what needs changing in our events is to ask people and take their feedback. Nobody used to ask you about whether sustainability mattered to you 10 years ago in events. And now they ask you that. So why can't we ask some more questions?

[00:16:46.740] - Marlys Arnold

I think that's a really great point. I want to shift gears just a little bit here for the last part of our interview and talk about because you also have brought up a great point in some of your videos about just the overall attendee experience or what you call AX. And I think that is so genius. Tell us a little bit more about how you see that becoming a trend or a buzzword in the industry.

[00:17:11.600] - Clare Forestier

Well, I want to make it a buzzword, it could just be my own little fantasy.

[00:17:16.980] - Marlys Arnold

I'm on board.

[00:17:18.260] - Clare Forestier

I used to host events and people would talk about customer first, customer first in retail and getting the customer touch points right and all that thing. And it's the same. We have customers in events. Although in my mind as the event host, the emcee, I'm just thinking about the attendee. So it's like I want the room to be when I'm talking to people about going out and talking to an event as a speaker or a presenter, I want to see a sea of smiling faces. I use that to get myself excited about the event if I was having any nerves and I would suggest it to people. So to get that sea of smiling faces, the whole person needs to be considered from the minute they arrive at the event and before they arrive at the event from their first interactions to when they go home and sit down and tell people whether it was any good. And that's what I say when I say attend the experience. And I think every decision when you're investing in the event, when the person who makes those financial decisions about which suppliers to go with or what person to use or whatever is based on the experience first and foremost, because everything else then falls into place.

[00:18:26.060] - Clare Forestier

So you're not going to waste money investing in something you don't need if it's not going to have a direct impact on the attendee. And I think there's so much of, We should do this. This is how we've always done it. This is what's expected. And it's just like, But that doesn't mean everyone's happy. And just those little things, like I've been to events and they close the door to the room where you could sit at lunchtime, which was where the speeches were and the talks were in the keynotes in the Plenaries because they wanted people to go around the trade show. So they were thinking of the sponsor, but then they weren't thinking of the attendee who wanted to have someone to sit down because actually it was quite a lot of people whose role in their day to day was they tended to be more of the thinkers and the quiet, cogitating types. So actually they really needed space. But the whole thing was like, We've got to get the sponsors. We've got to get the bills paid. And it was like, But you still got to keep going back to how does that affect the attendee?

[00:19:18.690] - Clare Forestier

And actually, some more outdoor spaces for them to sit down or some spaces to sit down within the trade hall, you could have got them in there. And you would have got both things you wanted. You'd have got happy sponsors and happy attendees. It's all of those little things that just keep going back to what would the attendee want? What would make it easier for the attendee? How do we keep both people happy? That's what I'm saying when I talk about attendee experience or attendee first.

[00:19:45.850] - Marlys Arnold

Well, and I love that idea because it's like thinking about what your attendees want, then reaching out to your sponsors to sponsor that. So having a sponsor for your quiet room, having a sponsor for whatever your tools are to help people recharge and take a break. That makes so much sense because you're still getting those sponsorship dollars, but you're spending them on something that the attendees really want and are going to appreciate and even better that they're going to remember and appreciate the sponsor for later.

[00:20:19.900] - Clare Forestier

And it's also you could help your sponsors to be delivering that too as part of their role. You can be saying, look, people have fed back to us that they don't want a load of free stuff. This is what they want instead. And this is what would get them coming to the store. Not the plate of sweets, which, for heaven's sake, that just or candy, as you guys would call it. That on a sponsor stand. I mean, hello, it's 2023. What are you the child catcher? Am I only going to come to your stand if there's a piece of candy there? There's so much more that could entice us over. And just locking us in a room with you is not going to make it happen.

[00:21:00.920] - Marlys Arnold

That is not the way to create an attendee first experience.

[00:21:05.800] - Clare Forestier

No. And does the sponsor love it either. I don't think the sponsor loves standing there looking desperate, trying to grab passerbys with candy either. It's not intentional. It's not like, what's our ultimate goal? Which is that everybody leaves this event going, this was brilliant from everybody's point of view.

[00:21:23.440] - Marlys Arnold

Right. Well, Claire, any final thought? Something that maybe we haven't touched on yet that you think is a really important point.

[00:21:31.680] - Clare Forestier

Well, there's so many things. I know it's the feeling, I guess, I want to talk about that's what you want. We can only ever make people feel something, really, when we talk to them, when we spend time with them. And I think it's the going back all the time to how would I feel if this was me putting ourselves in other people's shoes that are coming to the event in whatever format? And I think as society starts to think about it in everyday life, we're going to have to do it in events. We need to do it sooner, though. We need to be moving quicker than the pace of change is perhaps allowing us. And we need to be stopping that sentence of, Well, this is what we've always done. That's my goal. I don't want to ever hear that again.

[00:22:13.870] - Marlys Arnold

I'm right there with you on that. I think it's high time that we just reinvent things and do things different and think forward instead of how we've always done them. Great points today, Clare. I really appreciate you being here with us on Trade Show Insights. It's exciting to see how something so basic as really looking at attendees first can really make over our entire events and our entire industry. Thank you so much for all of your great insights today, Clare.

[00:22:47.380] - Clare Forestier

Thank you very much for having me. It's been really good fun. I enjoyed it.

[00:22:56.660] - Marlys Arnold

If you enjoyed today's episode and would like more, you can subscribe to the podcast and automatically receive future episodes on your chosen device. Simply search for Trade Show Insights in Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or virtually anywhere else that podcasts are found. Then click the subscribe button. Trade Show Insights is protected by the Creative Comments copyright license. You may feel free to share this recording with colleagues or embedded on your own blog as long as it's shared in its entirety and is not used for commercial purposes. To learn more, please see the link in the sidebar of the show notes at Well, that's it for this episode of Trade Show Insights. Be sure to check out our show notes and archives at You can also connect with me using the social media links or the contact page on the site.

[00:23:52.930] - Marlys Arnold

I'm Marlys Arnold. Thanks for listening and be sure to join us next time for more tools to improve your.


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