Business events are back – but are they inclusive?

Greater awareness of a range of physical and mental health conditions has raised the bar for accessibility at in-person conferences, seminars and other business events. What do organisers need to know to ensure everyone feels welcome?
Woman in wheelchair at business event

When footwear retailer Schuh held its spring-summer 2023 press launch in April, the team responsible for organising the event decided to focus on putting accessibility at the heart of the planning, communication and production.

For instance, to help attendees manage any conditions they might have, the event agenda was sent out ahead of time, explaining what to expect throughout the day; a two-hour ‘quiet’ slot was set aside when no music would play; and shoe displays were set at various heights to suit every guest’s needs. The event was praised widely on LinkedIn by people impressed by the consideration shown.

“We’ve made many changes over the past two years to build disability confidence and trust,” says Alice Cleary, Schuh’s chief marketing officer. “We now have a blueprint for all our future events, whether industry-facing or aimed at customers or employees.” 

What needs to change after Covid?

As business events make a comeback after the Covid-related disruption, there is growing awareness among organisers of the need to prioritise accessibility and inclusivity in this way. That will mean putting more thought into how events should be adapted to meet every possible need.

After all, there’s a huge range of potential conditions to consider, from so-called invisible conditions such as Crohn’s disease, arthritis and diabetes to mental health issues and neurological differences such as autism and ADHD. 

But being inclusive doesn’t always mean that radical changes are needed. It simply means considering the full spectrum of attendees and offering options rather than a one-size-fits-most solution.

Rick Stainton is founder of The Power of Events, a not-for-profit that represents the main trade associations and major players in the events industry. He recommends that organisers of in-person events should look for step-free access when choosing a venue, keeping an eye out for ramps, or at least handrails where steps are unavoidable. Plenty of accessible toilets are a must, and organisers may want to consider quiet areas or zones where people can self-regulate if they are feeling overwhelmed, he says. 

“Most conference centres are fully accessible. Quirky venues are not always. A great safe bet is universities. They are fully bought into inclusivity and have the facilities to accommodate needs such as gender-neutral or individual bathrooms,” adds Paul Ince, who runs an annual marketing conference in his role as CEO of LikeMind Media. 

How to make realistic improvements for accessibility

One challenge for event organisers, of course, is to do all the above in a cost-effective way. Ince notes that providing extra rooms will often cost more, but explaining what they are being used for at the booking phase may help negotiations, particularly with supportive venues. And if the budget is tight, PowerPoint can run live captions for people hard of hearing and use the bionic reading font, which highlights parts of words to make text easier and faster to read for some people with dyslexia and ADHD.

When it comes to the structure of the event, consider regular breaks for those who struggle to sit for long periods and for people who need frequent toilet trips. Build in time for people to stretch their legs between speakers, particularly if a speech is longer than an hour.

Large crowds, bright lights and loud noises can cause sensory overload for some

Likewise, accessible seating, and knowing where this will be located in advance, can help people plan where to sit. Some may prefer the front because of sight or hearing issues, while others may prefer to be nearer the back because of sensory issues.

“Clear maps of the venue, where there might be stairs, where the accessible toilets are, where seating areas are, plus whether there is parking (and if not, what nearby options I have as a Blue Badge-holder) helps mitigate anxiety as I can prepare,” says Jen Parker, an editor and designer who has an autoimmune condition and suffers from chronic pain. She adds that a cloakroom is a must, as lugging coats and bags around is difficult when she walks with a stick.

Why communication is everything in event planning

Pre-event communication is key to all of this. Allow guests to provide information about any individual requirements on the registration form – whether that’s access issues, dietary needs or sign language – and let them know in the pre-event communications if there will be any flash photography, strobe lighting or images that may cause seizures, or amplified sounds or music. Consider the option of fast-track queuing for those not able to stand for long periods.

If that all sounds burdensome, technology is now able to help here. For instance, audience-profiling tools give organisations detailed insight into their audience’s needs. Guests are typically asked a handful of questions in advance, and the profiling tool analyses and summarises the data to help organisers shape an event around the answers.

“Individuals with neurological differences such as autism, ADHD or dyslexia can experience conferences in ways that differ from their neurotypical peers,” says Bruce Rose, head of audience at events agency Live Group, which recently launched an audience-profiling tool. “The overwhelming sensory environment of large crowds, bright lights and loud noises can cause sensory overload for some. Providing a quiet space in case of sensory overload can really help.” 

He adds that introducing a buddy system that pairs attendees with a volunteer to help them navigate the event can also greatly help guests. Another option is to offer a complimentary visitor ticket to anyone who needs extra support navigating the event.

Lessons from hybrid events

Equally, tapping into some of the technology we’ve all been using at home over the past few years can help too. For instance, if people can’t physically attend a venue, they may be able to take part online, assuming the in-person event is set up for hybrid participation. 

Leor Franks, business development director at law firm Kingsley Napley LLP, hosts many online events. He recommends Remo for virtual events thanks to its interactive breakout rooms and says Zoom works well for seminars and presentations. “Some platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, now also offer automated real-time transcription tools, which is helpful for those who find listening to event audio challenging,” he adds.

With so many tools at their disposal, there’s now no excuse for companies not to be considerate of certain requirements. After all, whether arranging an event in-person, digitally or both, small changes can make a big difference – and need not blow the budget.