As event professionals grapple with bringing people together, it’s not just physical distancing and venue cleanliness that keep us up at night. Recognizing an event’s role in the reunification of communities, whether they be membership associations, alumni groups or trade professionals, we ask ourselves what else will it take for attendees to show up in person.
To answer this we turned to a few researchers who study the psychology behind why people gather.
“Different people will emerge at their own pace, but when they do, they will crave physical connection, even looking people in the eye,” says Dr. Megan Meyer, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
The need for connections cannot be wholly satisfied by technology, though it will bridge a gap in a community’s sense of togetherness for a short while. People are simply energized, said Dr. Shawn Bediako, by new ideas, creativity and social connections. Bediako is a psychology professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a recent guest of The Exposure Podcast.
Bediako shared the extreme importance trust and belonging have in a community’s coming together. Anonymity will make social connection tenuous and increase suspicion. Groups that already are cohesive and have a level of trust will want to come face to face more quickly.
“When around others who they trust and understand, people are more likely to make that shift” out of sheltering. Bediako referenced Susan Fiske’s construct of core social motives: Belonging, Enhancing, Understanding and Trusting. Groups where those behaviors exist will enjoy greater success in gathering.
He and Meyer underscored the need for those bringing communities together to understand how different an individual’s reality may have been throughout these past three months. The pandemic has caused people to have their own unique experiences, related to job security or pay, physical comfort at home, familial relations and experience with sickness of themselves or loved ones.
“There’s going to be a lot of emotion in general,” Meyer said. She noted there may even be anger because there has been pain, and grieving, too.
That creates trepidation. People can feel vulnerable with these kinds of heavy emotions, and so they perceive a greater risk of being judged by others, which can be even further polarizing. Health is a very personal and private thing. So an event attendee’s reaction to temperature checks, or even coming out of the sheltering stage into a large gathering, is a big deal.
Event organizers can recognize the inequity of situation and emotion with differently paced schedules and activities created for more personal choice and comfort. Time could be scripted for the sharing of personal stories among smaller groups, to build trust one on one through greater understanding.
“Listen, and people will tell you what they need,” Meyer said.
Dr. Geoff Greif, Professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, also noted how planners should acknowledge the unplanned absence and even shift their expectations of participants’ onsite engagement or enthusiasm levels. This is also especially helpful for planning teams working alongside each other as those within a whole production ecosystem come together to plan.
“What has happened to these people?” he asked, as a way of showing we all must ask it of our colleagues, friends and clients. There has been, for most, a very abrupt halt wherein goodbyes were not said in a normal way. Even a parting from the office setting may not have been smooth.
It leads us all to a point as we come back together that Greif referred to as ambiguous reunification, an uncertainty around how we should treat each other and the spaces in which we gather. Using storytelling and being open about how the planning process led organizers to bring the event together can help set the stage for re-launch.
“You can’t err by going on the side of transparency,” he said.
As events return with perhaps smaller numbers of people, emphasizing the dependency of those people on the event’s ability to meet their objectives is paramount. That means marketing to loyal fans with objective-focused messaging. People will gather to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.
Events are vital in driving insights and personal connections outside of people’s closest networks. Events, shared both Bediako and Meyer, go a long way toward meeting the need for people to regain relevancy and competency post-pandemic sheltering. Pontificating to Grandma does not satisfy a professional’s need to feel competent. Events and trade shows will satisfy the need of professionals to be and feel good at what they do. What people do is part of who they are.
People, said Greif, are ready to return to the realm of competence and confidence.
“We all want to feel more in control.”