WDP DAD home page map virtual conference
The slightly Sim City-ish map of Walton Hall & Gardens will invite visitors to click on an area where they can explore an interactive, 3D environment

As the coronavirus outbreak spread, one of the first industries to be severely impacted was the events and exhibitions sector and, arguably, none more so than events catering for the disability community. Unfortunately, it has led to many events postponing until 2021 when it is hoped the coronavirus will cause less disruption.

Refusing to let the pandemic stop its mission of providing vital information, advice and guidance to people, however, Warrington Disability Partnership (WDP) has embarked on an exciting new project to bring its Disability Awareness Day (DAD) to audiences virtually.

Dave Thompson MBE DL, Co-founder and CEO of WDP, discusses the decision to go digital and why he is allowing mobility and independent living equipment companies to participate for free.

COVID commotion

Having organised 28 successful DAD events over the past 28 years, 2020’s 29th event was shaping up to be another summer extravaganza before the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Held in and around a village of marquees at the scenic Walton Hall and Gardens in Warrington, the event sees tens of thousands of disabled people and their families and carers visit to meet the hundreds of exhibitors, enjoy performances from talented disabled artists, as well as discover new accessible sports and hobbies open to them.

Throughout this spring, however, it became increasingly clear that the growing spread of coronavirus was set to disrupt the organiser’s plans.

“When COVID-19 started to break in late February/early March, we decided to postpone and reschedule from July to the 27th September,” explained Dave.

“It was a hard decision because the daylight would be a lot shorter, the ground conditions could be a lot wetter and, equally so, people may not have been as willing to venture out on an autumn day as they would have been on a fine summer one.

“We thought at the time, however, it would be better to move the show and manage those risks, rather than cancel altogether. As time went on and the reality of the situation became clearer though, we found that this was becoming less and less of an option.”

In particular, WDP found itself in a difficult situation where its various event suppliers, such as those that supply the marquees, portable toilets, generators and more, required the charity to pay 100 per cent deposits for their services ahead of the rearranged dates.

“It made running a live event this year extremely risky for us as if the show did not go ahead for any reason, it could have caused irrevocable financial damage to the charity,” continued Dave.

“So, after weighing up the pros & cons, as well as considering the fact that DAD’s main audience is in the shielding community, we decided to cancel a live event for 2020.”

A difficult decision

Having successfully run DAD annually for 28 years, Dave recounted that the moment when the organisation decided to cancel the 29th live show.

“It was a very tough moment,” he said.

“We’ve overcome all the odds over the past 28 years to build DAD into what it is today and we had already started making plans for next year’s 30th anniversary in 2021 so the realisation that we couldn’t run a live event this year was a devastating blow.”

As well as being a difficult emotional decision to come to terms with, it also had a significant impact financially on the charity.

“As much as we are a charity, we operate as a small business to help fund some of the services we offer,” explained Dave.

“Financially, not having DAD will have a big impact on the organisation as we have two roles in the charity that are mainly funded through DAD finances. Even though we would have no cost outlay by not running the event, we are also unable to generate the funds needed to pay two of our staff.”

“I am certain the concept and what we have delivered will be a winner so we are willing to let companies try it out for free themselves and see how they get on.” Dave Thompson

Where there is a will…

After absorbing the fact that a live DAD 29 would not take place this year, Dave and the team decided to put their heads together to explore what else they could do.

“Since the lockdown, we’ve seen an explosion in the use of software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, so we started to think about potential ways these could be used,” he said.

“I searched the web and found some events that were trying different ways to operate. One interesting one was an event being organised by a nightclub in Manchester which held a rave over Zoom!”

Inspired by how others were using technology to adapt, the determined CEO considered if there were some way WDP could keep 2020’s DAD alive online in another form.

“At first, I thought about using Zoom but the more I thought about it, the more it became obvious that it wouldn’t be possible,” said Dave.

“Sure, we could run seminars and workshops but running an actual exhibition, where thousands of attendees interact with a large number of exhibitors, wouldn’t work.

“The idea of finding a digital solution stayed with me, though. I started speaking with some of the DAD stakeholders, including our management team and stewards, who are aptly named DAD’s Army. During these conversations, one steward explained he was involved with the charity, 4WardFuture, and he was sure that they could help us to take DAD virtual.”

virtual rendering stalls DAD
Virtually indistinguishable from its live events, WDP has even gone as far as to code digital grass in its 3D marquees

…There is a way

The decision to engage 4WardFutures proved pivotal as the two organisations came together to pull off the difficult digital development.

While Dave and the team at WDP had the will, it was the experts at 4WardFutures – a registered charity that involves people who have a range of neurodiverse conditions such as autism and Asperger’s – that would find the way to deliver it.

“After we brought our idea to 4WardFutures, the team began talking about some very high-level, technical stuff, such as augmented reality and AI,” said Dave.

“Honestly, that level of technology baffled me completely but they have technical expertise in abundance so when we asked them if we could do DAD digital, they immediately said yes.”

DAD goes digital

Working together with the development team at 4WardFutures, WDP has now created an innovative and interactive online platform that delivers all the fun and entertainment of its live event along with the information, advice and guidance that the show and charity prides itself on.

Hosted online at dadvirtual.org.uk and taking place on 25 October, DAD Virtual will include visitor favourites including the Arts Marquee, showcasing the best disabled UK artists; the Sports Zone, revealing a plethora of sports that visitors can learn about; as well as the Main Arena, where visitors can see a video of what they would have seen at the live event.

Determined to make the online version as close as possible to the live event, WDP has gone to extreme lengths to make the event feel as real and authentic as possible. The charity has created a virtual zoo – mirroring the zoo at Walton Hall and Gardens – and has even had the developers create grass on the floor of the digitally-rendered marquees – just like visitors are accustomed to at its live events.

“The whole idea of Disability Awareness Day Virtual is to literally transform the DAD live event into a fully virtual experience,” emphasised Dave.

“Each element has been created to be as true to DAD Live as possible, the only thing that is currently missing is WDP’s famous Teddy Tombola but the team are working on that!”

Most importantly for many organisations in the mobility, access and independent living sector, DAD Virtual will boast marquees where companies can showcase their products and services, share information and advice, as well as communicate in real-time with visitors on the day.

“Since the lockdown, we’ve seen an explosion in the use of software such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, so we started to think about potential ways these could be used.” Dave Thompson

How it will work on the day

When visitors visit the DAD Virtual website on the 25th, they will be able to tour the event site that is reminiscent of Sim City. Once there, people can click on a specific marquee that they wish to check out and, when selected, visitors will be presented with a list of the exhibitors that are in that marquee.

People will then have the choice to select a specific stall to visit or opt to virtually tour the marquee.

BAS stalls DAD event

Once at a stall, visitors can have a conversation by live chat with a representative from the charity or the company on the day, as well as communicating via email for the year after the 25th, elaborated Dave.

“The virtual tour will literally take people into a 3D environment of the marquee where there will be hotspots can be clicked on to interact with it,” he described.

“The stalls will look exactly as they would in a live event, with roll-up banners behind a table which have leaflets and brochures on. We even have donation buckets for charities where people can click to donate via links to the charities’ online donation sites, such as JustGiving.

“Visitors can pick up leaflets through PDF, watch videos on products and services, ask questions to representatives on the day in real-time via live a chat function, as well as link up with the company’s social media platforms and website.”

Getting the industry involved

For companies in the industry, the event offers a unique and effective way to reach out to their key target customers. Alongside giving visitors the opportunity to learn more about their company and products, each stall will also provide backlinks to a company’s website and social media channels.

DAD Virtual will even feature an instant live chat messaging system, where representatives from mobility companies can engage with visitors on the day, answering questions and queries.

“We are only asking exhibitors to do the live chat on the day; however, the DAD Live website will remain live for the rest of the year, enabling people to ask companies’ questions via email,” said Dave.

“Each stand will include a TV which will pop up a video when clicked of a representative from the company introducing the company. These talking heads videos will last 60 to 90 seconds and we will even shoot these for free with exhibitors via zoom.”

Giving it away

Remarkably, Dave has also confirmed that companies will be able to participate for free, providing an unbridled level of access to the potential thousands of loyal DAD visitors expected to embrace the virtual event.

Discussing the decision not to charge, Dave explained that trying to convince companies to invest financially in such a unique and new concept would be close to impossible.

Instead, WDP will allow companies to try it for free and if participating proves beneficial to the company, then they will be encouraged to donate to help the charity turn its 30th-anniversary event into something extra special.

“We do not want to make the show prohibitive by putting a charge against it, particularly if companies are unsure if it will be a success and we fully appreciate how hard some businesses and charities have been hit over recent months by COVID-19,” said Dave.

“I am certain the concept and what we have delivered will be a winner so we are willing to let companies try it out for free themselves and see how they get on. If it works for them and they generate leads, the only thing we ask is to be considerate that we are a charity and make a donation, as well as consider carefully about exhibiting at our live event next July.”

It really is a no-risk, win-win scenario for companies, added WDP’s CEO.

WDP DAD Arthritis Action Live
The DAD team has focused on bringing the unique look and feel of its live event on to a digital platform

The show must go on

With so many events postponed and cancelled in 2020, Dave stressed that there has never been a greater need for an event aimed at the disabled community providing information, advice and guidance.

“83 per cent of disabled people acquire their disability during their working lives and the sad fact about COVID-19 is that it will leave hundreds of thousands of people with some form of disability or long-term health condition,” finished Dave.

“Now, all of those people will, no doubt, be in the same position mentally and emotionally that I was in immediately after my accident back in 1989. It is something most people have never given any thought to and I have a saying which is ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’

“Just look at Sir Tom, the 100-year-old captain marching around his garden using a Drive DeVilbiss rollator to achieve something remarkable. Beyond what his efforts did for the NHS, he also brought four-wheeled rollators into the spotlight. Since his campaign, we’ve seen more people buying rollators after seeing him on the TV than we have ever sold in our stores.

“That shows that there are still so many people out there that do not know about what products and services exist to help them live better, more independent lives. It really reinforced to us the need to make sure that we didn’t let the community down and found a way to make DAD happen.”

For mobility, independent living and assistive tech companies interested in participating in DAD Virtual, contact Dave at DaveThompson@disabilitypartnership.org.uk or call 01925 240064

Virtual gates opening: 25th October 2020

dadvirtual.org.uk

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https://i0.wp.com/thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WDP-DAD-home-page-map-virtual-conference.jpg?fit=900%2C600&ssl=1https://i0.wp.com/thiis.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WDP-DAD-home-page-map-virtual-conference.jpg?resize=150%2C150&ssl=1Calvin BarnettCoronavirus NewsEvent DisruptionEvents & ExhibitionsIndustry Deep DivesNewsroomTrade FocusTrade News4WardFutures,coronavirus,COVID-19,DAD Live,DAD Virtual,Dave Thompson MBE DL,Disability Awareness Day,Sim City,Warrington Disability PartnershipAs the coronavirus outbreak spread, one of the first industries to be severely impacted was the events and exhibitions sector and, arguably, none more so than events catering for the disability community. Unfortunately, it has led to many events postponing until 2021 when it is hoped the coronavirus will...News, views & products for mobility, access and independent living professionals