Compassion, Compliance, and Continuous Improvement

Better design means better for everyone

Thirty years ago, the Americans with Disabilities act was signed into law, declaring that people with disabilities could no longer be denied access to jobs, school, transportation, or to public places. The need to design our conferences and trade shows to be ADA-compliant may have been met with resistance by some and compassion by others, but today we can see that by transforming events to be more accessible to those with limitations, we made those events better for everyone.

In the United States alone, it’s been estimated that one out of five Americans has some form of disability — 48.9 million people. Add to this the graying of America, the fact that the percent of the population over age 60 is dramatically increasing. When we consider how many total people are grappling with issues related to personal mobility and impairments that affect vision, hearing, and cognitive ability, we realize that being inclusive is just good business.

That’s a fact we cannot ignore. Harder to prove, but even more compelling to me, is the notion that inclusivity expands our intellectual capital. Consider, in the 30 years since ADA has gone into effect, how many people with disabilities have been empowered to contribute. Whenever we increase accessibility, we increase diversity, which is an indispensable aspect of innovation. Continuous improvement as a species demands that we leverage our combined brainpower.

Today, we are called to transform the nature of live events in response to a pandemic. Compliance is in everyone’s best interest, and because we are designing for a space that we control (a big, empty ballroom) it’s not that hard. The members of the Go LIVE Together coalition have voluntarily set, and will comply with, health and safety protocols developed in accordance with guidelines from the CDC, WHO, medical and scientific professionals, and local health officials.

Further, the Events Industry Council, through its global APEX COVID-19 Business Recovery Task Force, has established a platform for curating, cultivating, and communicating the accepted practices across the global events industry. The prime directive is to enhance safety at in-person gatherings and fuel recovery efforts. And we’ve already begun to imagine what future events could look like. It’s all pretty inviting; you can take a virtual tour here.

To be sure, as an industry, we are getting a great start on the post-pandemic reboot. But we can do more. Consider the lessons of the ADA-era. We must raise the bar and design for expanded accessibility. Even as we manage the size and scope of attendees at live events, we can reach broader audiences by streaming live content for people to consume wherever they happen to be.

And we can surround live events with meaningful, engaging, interactive virtual content that unfolds over time, before, during and after the live event, to contextualize the experience in a robust way. Hybrid events give us new avenues through which to personalize the experience for discreet audiences, wherever they are on their journey, whatever their ability, and whatever their level of commitment or interest.

When we cultivate experiences that enable individuals to learn more, achieve more, and contribute more, we gain more as a society. Compliance is where we begin. Designing the platform for constant design, and continuous improvement, must be the goal.

No Blind Passing

The view on the other side of the hill for the live events industry

Most of us have experienced the frustration of being stuck behind a slow driver on a two-lane highway. If you’re on a hilly road, or one with lots of curves, you simply can’t pass them, because you can’t get a clear view of oncoming traffic.

Blind passing is illegal for a reason — it endangers everyone. But once you have a clear view of what’s ahead, you need to commit. It’s no time to be timid. You need to respond quickly, accelerate, and maneuver to make the pass. Otherwise, you’re stuck.

That’s the analogy I see for the live events industry. We’ve spent months responsibly moving forward, uphill all the way and straining for a clear view of the road ahead. I’m beyond ready to get back to the business of designing and producing live events, amazing moments that unfold in real time for large groups of people.

And despite the reality of pandemic-forced shutdowns in the conference and expositions industry, I am more convinced than ever that Live Events answer an essential human need. It’s a need for both social fulfillment and commercial exchange.

I expressed this optimism recently, in an interview for The Dow Report with Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association. He asked me what I’m telling clients when they seek advice. And here’s my response in a nutshell…

Let’s not squander this opportunity.

Collectively, we are well on our way to solving for the most critical issues. There is unanimous agreement that the health and safety of everyone at any live gathering is of utmost importance.

Fortunately, because events and exhibitions take place in controlled environments (as opposed to the mass gatherings we see at parades, festivals, and fireworks displays) we can control attendance to regulate flow and social distancing.

We can design to ensure that the latest CDC standards and official health guidelines are maintained while actually improving and personalizing the experience for attendees and exhibitors.

It’s a reinvention moment.

While as an industry we didn’t have a choice to have a pandemic, we do have a choice to use this pandemic as an opportunity. By incorporating small changes to event strategy, technology, and design, events can become more intimate, meaningful, and personalized. As an industry, we can emerge with an even greater value proposition.

At Freeman, our designers have been storyboarding the attendee journey, considering things like customized learning paths, a choreographed show floor, and re-imagined exhibits that naturally support social distancing guidelines.

Helping exhibitors focus on generating more qualified leads, as opposed to merely attracting big numbers, is another strategic choice that is good business and good health practice. The essential thing is to make each live engagement matter more than ever.

And the integration of hybrid solutions needs to be part of this formula. I agree with Marc Mattieu, who leads transformation at Salesforce.

He shared this perspective with us in a webinar series Freeman sponsored with SISO, in which he remarked that, “While digital connections have brought about increased efficiency, they do not enable starting something new / dreaming bigger / or the non-pre-programmed. That, ‘happens in live.’”

We like to say that live events, experienced face-to-face, have deep reach — we can connect with people in significant ways that engage all the senses.
When we layer in live internet-based elements, leveraging the latest digital technologies, we gain broad reach — we can easily grant access to constituents around the world and benefit by their interaction.

When done well, virtual events are designed as digital experiences, not simply content we watch online. When we truly connect virtual communities, they are here to stay.

At Freeman, we’ve delivered over 1,800 online event sessions with nearly 8,000 presenters, reaching over 187,000 attendees since March. We see hybrid events as the future. By engaging live remote and live in-person audiences, bringing them together through a single platform, events will be able to reach and impact people on a global scale.

The timing of when to launch will naturally be different for specific shows, associations, and corporations. It won’t happen with the throw of a switch. Some can move more aggressively than others, based on their market, audience, and unique mission.

That said, our industry is reaching the crest of the hill and pulling out of the curve. Now is the time to have your plans in place. Understand what’s at stake. Understand the opportunity.

And as soon as you have a clear view of the passing lane, don’t hesitate. Make your move and make it count.

The Size and Shape of “SAFE”

Setting a new gold standard

In the 19th century, international businesses urged their governments to establish a gold standard that would enable trade between countries using different currencies. The gold standard eased the risk and complexity of doing business across countries and continents by establishing a monetary system that all the trading partners agreed to. Each unit of exchange was equated to a fixed quantity of gold, so that buyers, sellers and investors understood exactly where they stood. It created a platform upon which multinational commerce could thrive.

Today, people are looking forward to the day they can once again congregate and connect without fear of spreading contagion. And to assure everyone involved that this social contract will move forward on a consistent, mutually equitable basis, we need to establish new safety protocols that take fear and risk out of the equation for live events. We need coherent guidelines to ensure the safety of labor, staff, exhibitors and participants. Further, we need them to be drawn up and accepted by the people who understand the big picture — who know the details of how events come together — so that all of the long tail connections involved are factored into the solution. With industry-wide agreement to follow basic safety protocols, families from Minneapolis and software engineers from Mumbai can all attend the event of their choice without having to consider, “Is this safe?” They already know it will be.

This is a primary goal of the Go LIVE Together (GLT) coalition. As stay-at-home sanctions are lifted, knowing that the timing and circumstances will vary from city to city, we need to be ready with guidelines and guardrails, based on proven health-science practices, to facilitate a safe return to live events. And the good news is that, because conventions and trade shows happen as controlled gatherings in ballrooms and convention centers (as opposed to mass gatherings in arenas with fixed seating and an obligation to season ticket holders) we have good options for ensuring safety. We can adjust distance between seats, widen aisles, and direct the flow of traffic. We can spread participation over three days, amping up content quality based on area of interest, and stage-gate audiences. We can rethink how and from how many locations we offer registration, refreshments, and social areas. We have total flexibility.

Our members are already working with industry leaders, venues and associations to identify and share the latest best practices. There is so much good work going on, led by so many committed organizations, that it is truly heartening. For example, the U.S. Travel Association has issued industry-wide guidelines in a document entitled “Travel in the New Normal.” A broad representation of the industry, inclusive of practically every segment of travel, tradeshow and events, worked with a panel of medical experts to develop these guidelines for reopening the travel ecosystem. This has been distributed to the White House and to each governor’s office. UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, has been involved since early days, monitoring the situation and sharing critical information. They also worked with the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC) to publish such useful documents as the “Good Practices Guide to COVID-19.”

We are also following the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC). Comprised of world-renowned leaders and scientists in the area of microbial-pathogenic threat analysis and mitigation, they have created the GBAC STARTM certification program that addresses personal safety, enhanced cleaning, social density at events, entrance controls and on-site service and management. These standards are already being adopted by companies and organizations such as Hyatt and the Miami Dolphins. And of course, everyone is closely following the latest CDC guidelines. So the heavy lifting has begun.

But there is much more to do. And it’s easy to do your part. If you haven’t already, visit golivetogether.com and join the movement. Help spread the word on social media. Let people know that live events are critical to our economic recovery and that a safety plan for their return is in the works. You can read more about the safety initiative here and learn how to be part of the plan to move forward.

The future of live events hangs in the balance. Let’s seize this golden opportunity to set a higher standard.