Business travel professionals attending the Institute of Travel Management conference in Brighton, UK, last month had a new facility to try this year: a quiet zone.
For the majority of the 500 attending, the opportunity to rub shoulders, sometimes literally, with peers at this packed event was a joyful prospect, especially after the enforced isolation of Covid. But for a few, three days of frenetic interaction would have looked more like an ordeal to be endured.
“Some people can find fast-paced, full-on events overhwhelming. For them, these environments become too much after a few hours,” says Helen Moon, chief executive of Eventwell, the social enterprise which built the quiet space at the ITM conference. The zone was set away from the rest of the conference and included private booths, ambient lighting, various non-alcoholic and uncaffeinated beverages – and a sympathetic ear if needed.
On the same day, Eventwell operated a similar space at the ExCel exhibition site in London. It was used by 59 people.
Moon has worked in the events industry for 26 years. She founded Eventwell in 2017 after mental health struggles that led to a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism at the age of 49. “I love events,” says Moon. “They are exhilarating and exciting but as an attendee I find them very difficult. There were times I became overhwhelmed and ended up sitting in the toilets.”
A frequently quoted statistic is that one person in seven is neurodivergent, a catch-all term for those who learn and process information differently. Conditions bunched under this heading include not only autism and ADHD but also dyslexia, dyspraxia and tic disorders like Tourette’s syndrome.
Moon says that typically only 10-25 per cent of people who use Eventwell’s quiet spaces are neurodivergent. Yet whatever the reason that brings them there, the needs of those struggling mentally or emotionally are usually hidden.
Maiden Voyage is a consultancy specialising in promoting safety and wellbeing for travellers in diverse workforces. Recently, it created a video for a corporate client featuring business travellers with a range of physical and mental challenges.
One interviewee is a lawyer with autism, who compulsively re-checks he has everything he needs for his journey. It is an obsession that sometimes gets him into trouble at airport check-in and security. “There’s nothing arouses suspicion more than a man standing around a check-in queue tapping himself and checking his pockets,” he says. “Inevitably I’m the one that gets pulled out of the line.
“One of the things about being on the spectrum is that it’s an invisible disability. No one can see it from the outside. No one knows that’s what you’re going through. For me that’s the biggest challenge.”
The problem persists once the lawyer takes his seat on the aircraft. Another of his obsessions is air accidents and he struggles to avoid discussing the topic with fellow passengers. “The person next to you probably doesn’t want to hear that,” he says. “Because I’m very interested in and passionate about it, I don’t understand the social cues around other people trying politely to tell me to shut up.”
Business travel and meetings unavoidably place neurodivergent people in situations they find challenging: unfamiliar locations, processes and social settings. The good news is that these challenges are starting to be recognised. Better still, neurodivergent people themselves are articulating what would help them navigate their way through a business trip or event, according to ITM head of events Stacey Dean.
“People are becoming very open about needing quiet time, and allowing people to have this space to go to during the ITM Conference was very important,” Dean says.
“ITM carried out a wellness survey at the start of this year to gauge members’ level of comfort, enjoyment or anxiety at events. It also asked which elements could be enhanced to improve attendee experience, and alleviate any anxiety, not just during the event, but in the run-up, for example expectations for social networking.
“The feedback indicated some members would welcome a quiet space at the conference. We chose to partner with EventWell to create a Wellbeing Hub where delegates could switch off from any sensory overload they might be experiencing.”
ITM taking the trouble to consult its membership is exactly the approach advocated by Maiden Voyage CEO Carolyn Pearson. “Sourcing solutions for neurodivergent travellers without including the neurodiverse community in the conversation is a bit patronising” she says. “It’s giving them what I think they need rather than asking them what they need.”
However, consultation needs to avoid taking the form of finger-pointing by asking employees outright if they are neurodiverse. Instead, says Pearson, “ask travellers what they need from a health, wellbeing, disability or neurodivergency perspective.”
Often the answer is information. Pearson suggests more detailed itineraries, for example specifying check-in and departure gate closure times; and perhaps colour-coded for different elements such as the flight and the hotel.
Dean, meanwhile, has a raft of practical suggestions to make conferences less daunting. They include: setting up a meeting point for first-time attendees before a networking event, providing non-alcoholic drinks, avoiding seating plans so people can sit where they feel comfortable, and offering an app for delegates to ask questions instead of having to raise their hands.
Pearson recommends quiet spaces not only during the day but at evening functions, where the bibulous, raucous partying that many look forward to does not appeal universally. If your company has “a late-night, boozy culture, but you’re not in the in-crowd and don’t do that, that can exclude people on medical grounds,” she warns.
Such suggestions prompt some awkward ethical questions. Can and must the needs of a minority be accommodated alongside the preferences of the majority at an event? And, for regular business travel, is it even appropriate to send neurodivergent employees on work trips if it may distress them and result in failure to achieve business goals?
Not allowing a neurodivergent employee to travel would be “taking away that person’s freedom,” argues Moon. “Neuro-spicy people are trying to navigate a neuro-typical world. Why shouldn’t an autistic person be allowed to go on a business trip? It’s like saying someone in a wheelchair shouldn’t travel. For a long time people have not travelled because of that. It’s about accommodation.”
Moreover, Moon says, accommodation of people with differences is not only a moral imperative but a legal one too, thanks to the strengthening of disability and equal opportunity laws.
Pearson take a slightly more nuanced view. “Maiden Voyage is about making travel available to everybody by asking what they need to empower and enable them,” she says. “But if someone says they don’t think they can cope with a proposed trip, there has to be the option not to travel.”
In the end, however, says Pearson, solutions can often be found, even if that means exceptional remedies such as using a service animal, travelling a day earlier, or allowing the employee to take their partner. The autistic lawyer, for example, usually travels with his wife, whom he describes as his “human”.
Making the effort to facilitate hidden needs employees also pays off economically, Pearson believes. “We’re employing these people for their brilliance and therefore hopefully the benefit of that person travelling somewhere to do their job far outweighs what we have to commit to making sure they can do that successfully,” she says.
• The Institute of Travel Management is staging a webinar entitled Neurodiversity, Mental Health and Attending Conferences this Tuesday 23 May.