Abilities Expo Goes Virtual

The consumer-based Abilities Expo show series has long been a great way for the Complex Rehab Technology (CRT) and mobility industries to connect with the end users and families who use their products every day. The events also connect consumers with non-profit and community organizations, and demonstrate activities from wheelchair dancing and service animal training to wheelchair sports such as boccia, archery, basketball and tennis.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began causing physical distancing and the closure of non-essential gatherings, only one 2020 Abilities Expo had taken place: the Los Angeles event, Feb. 21-23.

Since then, like most of the world, the Abilities Expo has had to adapt. The New York Metro event, typically held in the spring, was rescheduled to Aug. 14-16. There will be no Chicago show this year, but 2020 events are planned for July 31-Aug. 2 (Houston); Sept. 11-13 (Phoenix); and Dallas (Dec. 11-13) in the United States, and the Toronto event is scheduled for Oct. 2-4.

Later this month, the Abilities Expo will go virtual, holding its first-ever online show June 19-21.

A Format Whose Time Has Come

David Korse, President/CEO of the Abilities Expo, told Mobility Management that hosting a virtual edition of the show is not a new concept.

“We’ve always talked about the possibility, but never found a platform we liked,” Korse said. He acknowledged that many people with disabilities who want to visit an Abilities Expo in person aren’t able to. “There are so many people who are not physically in the 100-mile radius where most of our visitors come from,” he said. “It’s hard for someone from Minot, North Dakota, or from Tuscaloosa to get to an Abilities Expo.” Other consumers who do live closer to a venue might still be unable to attend because traveling even short distances is too great a challenge.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Korse added, brought the virtual show idea to the forefront. “Over the last six or eight weeks,” he said, “we have been inundated with calls from both sides of the aisle: from exhibitors and sponsors saying, ‘We can’t talk to anybody, we can’t get to our customers, we can’t see anybody, can you guys help us figure out some way to connect until we can see people again?’ And from people on the visitors’ side of the aisle: ‘Can you help us? You have all these resources, but we can’t physically go see anybody. We still need to buy products or review products or find resources, can you help us?’ And that was the impetus for moving this from the back of our brains to the front of our brains.”

Virtual tradeshows, of course, aren’t a new idea. But Korse said neither he nor Abilities Expo Chairman Lew Shomer “are fans of what virtual tradeshows have been looking like over the past 20 years. They’re not all the same, but a lot of them have cartoon booths and little cartoon avatars, and we just didn’t think that worked for us. Another thing that a lot of traditional virtual events have that we weren’t enthusiastic about was they’re live, which sounds like a good thing. Somebody can stop by your virtual booth and you can ask questions. But in reality, they’re fraught with both technical challenges and staffing problems. We’re going to be open for 72 straight hours: It would be hard to have someone in the booth.”

Instead, Korse said the Abilities Expo worked on creating a “digital exchange, an opportunity for people with products to say, ‘Hey, are you looking for a solution to this problem? I have a product you might want to check out.’ For people who have resources, non-profit or otherwise, to say, ‘I have stuff that might be a benefit to you,’ and for people to engage that way.

“The key for us was finding a way to do this that was easy, that wasn’t complicated for the exhibitor, would be intuitive for the visitor. Keep it simple. We believe we’ve done that.”

As with all face-to-face Abilities Expos, attending the virtual event will be free.

Capturing the Abilities Expo Experience

Korse said one of his team’s goals was to replicate the feel of being at a live Abilities Expo. So, for example, the Abilities Expo team is filming about a dozen speakers who are presenting on topics of interest to the Abilities Expo community. Those presentations will be edited to make them accessible, and then they’ll be staged in the Virtual Workshop. Attendees can submit questions to be answered by the presenters at a later time.

“You can look at any or all of [the presentations] for free, on demand,” Korse said.

The virtual event will also have an Events Arena: Athletes and artists are recording demonstrations that can be accessed on demand.

Just as traditional shows offer different sizes of exhibitor booths, the virtual event offers “booths” at three price levels based, Korse said, on the number of assets an exhibitor wants to use.

“They’ll all have contact information,” Korse said of the different booth tiers. “They’ll all have links to Web sites. They’ll all have links to social media, and contact names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of people in the organization that you might want to reach out to and engage with. There are Product Showcases, where you can focus on a product or service with a photograph, a description and copy that is linkable to your site. Depending on which level of sponsorship a company or organization commits to, there are also video assets that can be deployed: You can link to a YouTube video, or you can do a live Webinar. If you want to do a live Webinar from 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, you can.”

A first look at the virtual expo hall showed exhibitor booths of different sizes, with “larger” booths being featured at the top of the page as an attendee scrolls down.

Attendees can search alphabetized exhibitor lists or search for exhibitors within a certain category — manual wheelchairs, for instance — and get a list of the related exhibitors at each sponsorship level.

If You Build It…

Registration efforts started with a soft launch that invited attendees to pre-register for the virtual event, just as the Abilities Expo encourages pre-registrations for its live events.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody wanted to come?’” Korse remembered of that first round of e-mails.

One day after that first e-mail, more than 400 people had pre-registered. After the third day, that total was at nearly 3,000, and the registration numbers continue to grow.

Within the first three days of opening registration, Korse added that about 18 sponsors had signed up, about half of them not-for-profit organizations.

While this first virtual event was created as an answer to this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, an online show for consumers could also be a great future option for people who live farther away from live venues or who are unable to travel at all.

In fact, a virtual version of the Abilities Expo could also appeal to smaller companies and organizations for whom traveling to multiple Abilities Expos is cost prohibitive.

A virtual version of the Abilities Expo could certainly be something to carry forward, Korse said.

“We’re going to try something new we’ve never tried before because it seems like the right thing to do,” he explained. “When it’s over, it’ll either never happen again because it didn’t work, or maybe it starts happening more frequently because people liked it. It’s not going to replace the face-to-face shows, but it can fill the gap until we’re allowed to get more than 50 people in a room together, whenever that happens.”

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.

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