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Diversity and the Event Experience

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 14, 2020

People don’t want to attend events any more. They want a unique experience.

Go to any conference or expo on the events sector and you will hear that refrain time and time again. You are also likely to hear strong calls for more diversity in the sector and for events organisers to build events that appeal to more than a small number of attendees. But how do these two go together?

It’s a sad fact that many experiential events don’t take into account the needs of the whole audience, making assumptions about access, language, and ability to deal with different stimuli.

A small step up from one part of the exhibition hall to another can render it entirely inaccessible for people in wheelchairs. A lack of provision of quiet spaces or the presence of continual loud noise and bright lights can be a nightmare for those with autism. Decisions to ignore the needs of speakers of other languages drastically reduces the audience and paints the client as being insular.

But it doesn’t have to be like this

Event designers don’t have to be stuck in the same old mindsets. As well as thinking about how cool something will look and the journeys of the “typical delegate”, it’s vital to spend time thinking through access issues. Can everyone access every part of the show, no matter their access requirements and no matter their language?

Taking time to walk around the show floor, either virtually or physically, asking critical questions can lead to small changes that make a big difference. Ask whether deaf attendees will be able to take as much from the show as those who aren’t deaf. Are people free to choose their own routes and take their time or do you need to add flexibility? If I don’t speak English, is it still worth my while attending?

Audiences are diverse

Perhaps a few years ago, we could take it for granted that we could predict the demographics and needs of an audience of accountants or sales people or computer scientists. We might have been able to guess in advance whether we need to provide nursing spaces or quiet zones or food for those with specific dietary requirements.

Today, nothing can be taken for granted. People from all different backgrounds can be found in all professions, and rightly so. If we’re expecting that people will phone in advance to tell us that we wil have five guests in wheelchairs or three people who don’t speak English, we might be in for a shock.

Diversity isn’t just a talking point; it’s a societal fact and it means rethinking how we design and plan events. Instead of expecting people to tell them their needs, event designers need to think about providing certain things, such as step-free access and a variety of foods suitable for different dietary requirements, as standard and proactively asking questions about others, such as language needs.

And the team should be diverse too

Since the audience will be diverse, it makes sense for event organising teams to reflect this diversity in their makeup. Having a single person in charge of the speaking programme or leaving a single designer to build an event on their own is now risky. At the very least, those creating and running events need to find ways to listen to those taking part in events and in experts in a variety of fields.

As a simple example, when planning international events, it really does pay to talk with a consultant interpreter as early as possible so they can help you ensure that the experience works for everyone. More than one event has flopped because a large part of the audience felt left out as a speaker rambled on in a language they didn’t really understand or with an accent they couldn’t follow.

While no-one will pretend it is easy to design events that work for today’s diverse audiences, the reputation of your clients and your company now depends on the event experience working for everyone there. Can you afford to get it wrong?

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