Open Mic Recap: How Can We Make Expos & Events More Inclusive?

Open Mic banner - How Can We Make Expos & Events More Inclusive?

This month’s Exhibit Marketers Café Open Mic event on LinkedIn focused on how to make events more accommodating for neurodiverse attendees. Thanks to Clare Forestier, Adam Fillary and Joan Eisenstodt who came on stage to join our robust conversation, and to those who joined us in the audience. While we still aren’t able to record LinkedIn audio events, here’s a quick summary for you. Be sure to click the bell icon on my LinkedIn profile to be notified of upcoming Open Mic events. (If you have a suggested topic, please share that in the comments.)

In case you haven’t yet listened to my interview with Clare Forestier on how to create sensory-friendly events, here’s that replay:

Our Open Mic discussion started by addressing how to know what our audience needs:

  • Clare said the conversation should begin long before the event, by asking the audience what their needs are (quiet rooms, noise-cancelling headphones, etc.). Adam pointed out that event planners need to be educated on what attendees need because we shouldn’t simply guess at it, and many people may not know where to begin.
  • Joan said to keep in mind that attendees have needs throughout the event, so consider those needs when selecting a venue, planning the program, and in every step of the planning. It’s a matter of inclusion, not add-ons. She shared an article with some very innovative hospitality-related accessibility initiatives.
  • The term “neurodivergent” describes people with a range of differences in brain function, and can include those with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, epilepsy, and more. They may find it difficult to deal with crowds, loud noises, bright lights/colors, or sitting still. (All of which are common at trade shows and events!) Experts estimate this includes 15-20% of the population, if not more.
  • I shared a story from my early years as an event planner when an attendee approached me in the hallway to ask if there were going to be any flashing lights during the general session. She said that if so, she wouldn’t be able to participate because the lights would trigger a seizure. Our event didn’t have any of that, so she was able to be a part of it all. I’ve never forgotten that and always think about those kinds of issues during the planning phase.
  • Keep in mind that neurodiversity may often be invisible. To learn more, check out this article from PCMA about the Neu Project, which provides a number of tips to get you started. Also the Neu Project has an extensive downloadable checklist available on their website – a must for every event organizer!
  • Clare pointed out that we can all think of someone we know who may be neurodivergent, so start thinking “How would Uncle Stuart or my sister or whoever handle this?” You suddenly realize that every experience you take for granted may be troublesome for somebody else. It opens your eyes. The Neu Project came about because of one woman’s journey to discover how to help her son, who has autism. Today, Megan Henshall is a leading advocate for neuroinclusive events.
  • Joan framed it this way: “Who might we harm by our actions and ‘cool stuff’ for meetings?” How can everyone participate with as few obstacles as possible? She also recommended the book, Being Heumann, which is Judith Heumann’s personal story as a disability rights advocate and leader for the Americans with Disabilities Act movement.
  • Adam pointed out that event apps are often lacking in ways to support neurodiversity, and with conscious effort could instead become a tool to assist attendees.
  • Quiet or sensory rooms are definitely becoming an important tool, from Nook Pods on the show floor, to two examples right here in Kansas City – the Overland Park Convention Center as well as our brand-new KCI airport terminal.

We also addressed the topic of how to coach speakers and exhibitors on these issues:

  • Clare said it begins with speakers rethinking slides (make them easy to read) plus designing for attention spans – offer a change of pace, longer breaks (especially important for those with mobility issues to move from one session or function to another).
  • Speaking of slides (as well as websites or other promotional materials) … here’s a great article on graphic design for neurodiversity. Fonts, colors and image choices matter. And when adding images online, Joan said she’s learning from Jamie Shields how to be more descriptive. (Check out one of Jamie’s LinkedIn posts to see an example of how it’s done!)
  • Joan emphasized the importance of speakers having mics so everyone can hear. She also pointed out that especially for virtual/hybrid events, each session should begin with a setup of who the speaker is and a description of what they look like along with other visual elements.
  • Adam pointed out that while speakers may be knowledge experts, they’re not always great presenters, so we must prep them. And even professional speakers need to be conscious of how fast they’re speaking (Guilty!) “Our industry is probably quite the minority that’s spending a lot of time thinking ‘How do I make this better for others?’ … it could be a beacon for making sure that human-centric experiences do think of everybody at the outset.” (Mic drop moment!)

A few final thoughts …

Adam said we need to be conscious that not everyone is as ready to have this conversation as we are, so we’ve got to work at onboarding people to the process and realize that it may take a while.

Learn from the events you attend, Joan suggests. Start taking notes and look at everything as if you were someone with a disability. “We have a great opportunity in the meetings, hospitality, and trade show industries to do better.” She pointed out a hotel accessibility ‘tester’ lawsuit that’s headed to the Supreme Court. “We need to be proactive and challenge our industry and ask them why,” she said.

After our Open Mic discussion ended, Nancy A Shenker sent me a message with her personal story of navigating a trade show with a broken ankle. (She gave permission to share it with you.)

Over the years, I’ve hosted several Trade Show Insights podcast episodes on the issue of accessibility, including one with Joan Eisenstodt and Lee Jacobia on their first-hand experiences navigating trade shows.

And a Virtual Lunch with Samantha Evans, ICE-CCP, CAE, MBA on how to make both online and offline events more accessible.
How are you making your events more accommodating for all attendees? Please share in the comments!
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