The Background: What is the Cambridge Rare Disease Network?

The Cambridge Rare Disease Network (CRDN) is a charity working towards improving the lives of those living with rare diseases, their families, and the relevant professionals. It also serves to raise awareness amongst the general public and helps bring light to ongoing research and new treatment options. 

CRDN is a pioneer in the rare disease community and held the world’s first ever rare disease-inspired exhibition of science, technology, and the arts, called the RAREfest in 2018. Hosted in Cambridge, the event was a huge, vibrant festival attended by students, families, and disease specialists. It featured 20 different booths and several interactive activities, demonstrations, and films for people to engage with. 

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic casted a shadow of uncertainty over the future of RAREfest. Jo Balfour, Managing Director at CRDN, knew they had to act fast and find a way to execute their event virtually if they wanted to continue the impact their events had been making.

But the question was this: How do we deliver RAREfest online while preserving its interactive and high engagement environment? Virtual conferences are notorious for being disengaging and boring.

“How on earth were we going to try and emulate that very hands on vibrant festival on a platform?”

–  Jo Balfour 

The Problem: Maintaining engagement with a virtual event

The whole essence of the RAREfest was to spark curiosity and engage attendees. With a virtual event, CRDN didn’t imagine they’d be able to generate the same level of intrigue and interest. Here are the two details they wanted to avoid with their virtual event:

  • Flat and two-dimensional visuals: Jo had gone over several virtual event platforms and attended some of the conferences herself, but felt very disconnected from the visual event spaces. They didn’t seem like “real events” at all. CRDN’s primary objective was to spark curiosity and there was just no way that bland visuals were going to take them there.
  • Lack of interaction: The RAREfest always saw a lot of engaging conversations taking place between speakers, booth representatives, and attendees. How would a virtual event platform be able to replicate these? CRDN took pride in the way its events connected people from so many different walks of life. All of that could well be lost.

The Solution: A virtual event platform that focused on user experience

After extensive research, Jo came across a recommendation in a science community forum online. And thus begins the success story of RAREfest 2020.

1. Creating a “realistic” virtual event

lobby gif

From the get-go, CRDN could tell that vFairs was different. The platform offered 3D event spaces with vibrant lobbies, aligning with the feel of CRDN’s RAREfest original events. Animated avatars would move around the lobby making users seem like they’ve just arrived at the venue. They also added wheelchairs to show diversity in the attendees so all participants felt included.

Graphics were a top priority for the organization. CRDN appreciated the level of customization vFairs offered and used it to their advantage. They customized their exhibit hall to complement their brand, creating a casual and welcoming atmosphere. The organizers also collaborated with their speakers and involved them in the booth design process. 

The end product was just how CRDN envisioned their 2020 installment to look like. The exhibition hall was vibrant and festive and truly stood out. It also provided attendees the space to easily navigate to their areas of interest, dip in and out of sessions, and generally enjoy their time. 

Pleased with the end product, Jo recalled,

“[vFairs was the] only platform that we found that made the exhibition hall feel as real as it could be”.

2. Simplifying navigation

crdn lobby

With the lobby layout, CRDN was also able to simplify navigation for their users. They divided their 20 exhibitors into four categories: 

  1. Science and medicine
  2. Technology
  3. Patient advocacy
  4. The arts

They also had two different types of sessions running simultaneously: 

  • Track 1 was geared towards adults with specialized interest in science and rare diseases. These sessions discussed ongoing research, treatment, and diagnosis information. There were lots of panel discussions, chats with technology experts, and general discussions taking place here.  
  • Track 2 was meant for children, families, and students – basically those new to rare diseases and wanted to learn more. These sessions were more casual with young speakers, children hosting interactive quizzes, and myth busting sessions.

The lobby made it extremely convenient to head to the sessions that were relevant to each speaker. They could easily navigate through the event, find activities that interested them, and also engage with other attendees.

3. Boosting NGO exposure

crdn lobby

RAREfest featured avenues for CRDN to showcase attending organizations. The exhibition hall hosted 20 different exhibitors and provided them the opportunity to interact with attendees. 

The poster hall enabled exhibitors to create their own graphics, bring attention to their causes and stories, and educate those in attendance. In this way, patient advocacy groups were able to boost funds collection and raise more money for important causes. They could also host helpful resources like PDF documents, posters, or short films at their booths to disseminate information in a more engaging manner. Attendees could download these or add them to their virtual ‘swag bags’ to review later. 

4. Maximizing outreach and going global

One thing that CRDN wasn’t prepared to witness was the large amount of global interest. All their past events saw students from Cambridge or patients from the UK in attendance. But the RAREFest 2020 had a completely different story to tell. 

With their vFairs virtual event, CRDN was able to take their event global. It saw attendees from 41 countries and 185 different parts of the UK. With such a diverse audience, the exchange of ideas was very constructive and brought several new perspectives to the table. The RAREfest hadn’t seen such dynamic discussions before. 

The Conclusion

vFairs offered a very dynamic experience to the attendees at RAREfest 2020. In our discussion, Jo rejoiced, 

“We wanted something that could take you on a journey, into a lobby, into different rooms, and make them come alive, and that’s what vfairs achieved”

All in all, CRDN were able to execute a well-designed, high engagement event with vFairs. While they are strong believers in in-person events, the exposure and engagement that virtual events offer are still something they’d like to preserve in a pos-COVID-19 environment. They’re looking forward to hosting more virtual events with the team and transitioning to a hybrid moment once congregating is safe again. 

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