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.

We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

What to do when the scenery changes.

When Dorothy stepped out from her black-and-white Kansas farmhouse into the Technicolor world of Oz, she knew right away she was a long way from home. I know how she feels. Sometimes it seems that the world we called “normal” was left behind ages ago. For those of us in industries that rely on using conferences, trade shows, and expositions to conduct our business, it’s as if the coronavirus was our tornado. Except the truth is, we haven’t been in Kansas for a while. Not really.

Within the last decade, we’ve become adept at using technology to amplify the live experience. We learned to stream video of our live events, incorporate social media, and layer in new digital solutions, such as second screen technology, to be more interactive. We’ve gotten more strategic about applying data analysis, AR, and VR to create more personalized experiences. With these tools in place, there was nothing keeping us from developing the perfect live experience platform — designed to leverage the strengths of each medium within a true, “omnicom” approach. It requires a lot of orchestration. It demands a deep understanding of the unique audiences we’re trying to reach. It means committing to the alignment of message content with the medium, format, or technology that most effectively connects with our audiences. It means doing the hard work of designing a platform for live events that optimizes all of the tools at our disposal.

We simply didn’t make it a priority. In a pre-pandemic world, digital solutions were often characterized as “nice-to-haves” or “too expensive for our event.” I’d go so far as to suggest that the option to develop a practical hybrid event platform simply wasn’t pursued because everyone has had their collective noses so close to the grindstone that we didn’t notice the scenery had changed.

What’s new is that these technologies — and the nascent hybrid technologies now in development — are suddenly, urgently, vitally important to the continuation of our business practices. I see that as a good thing. We need to use this time to re-imagine all the possibilities. Back in March, I posted a blog suggesting that we must make our events more accessible and inclusive, as well as safe. And I called for the creation of Renaissance Teams to explore new solutions for the live events medium.

Bruce Mau tells us that new wicked problems require new wicked teams to solve them. In the Renaissance, it was possible for certain polymaths (Leonardo DaVinci, Akbar the Great, Galileo, etc.) to have expertise in all fields of knowledge — art, science, literature, philosophy, and so on. Today, the field of knowledge in any one specialty is so vast and changing so rapidly that it is nearly impossible to keep up. That’s why we need diverse teams of experts to act as a composite “Renaissance Person” who can examine the challenge from every perspective, through every lens, to recommend multiple solutions.

This is what we are seeing with the Go LIVE Together coalition. Teams of people representing diverse disciplines — from logistics to digital experiences to microbial-pathogenic threat analysis — are coming together to solve issues relating to safety, impact awareness, and legislation for our industry. It’s the start of something big.

Those of us who are charged with leading our companies, associations, and industries have an opportunity and an obligation to take this on. It’s why you need to support the Go LIVE Together movement. Unlike Dorothy, we can’t go back to Kansas. We can go someplace better.

No Laughing Matter

We are hardwired to experience events socially.

Have you watched any of the live DIY versions of late-night TV programs in the social-distancing era? The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel Live, The Late Show with James Corden, and Saturday Night Live are all offering cobbled-together programs recorded in the hosts’ place of quarantine and assembled with bits from other quarantined performers.

I love that they are putting it out there — they’ve done some nice work and I appreciate the sense of solidarity. But something has been bugging me and I figured out what it is. I really miss the sound of laughter from the live studio audience.

Likewise, when a guest musician puts it all on the line with some heartrending song and there’s no audience feedback, the silence is such a letdown. Even though I’ve never seen these shows in person, I miss that sense of sharing the experience with others. This confirms my belief that human beings are hardwired to enjoy live events socially. Further, when we’re a bit out of our depth, we often rely on fellow audience members, the mavens among us, to inform our own reaction.

Historically, theatres and opera houses would hire professional claqueurs to lead the applause at appropriate moments in a performance. This was especially true when a new piece was being performed and the audience literally didn’t know what to think. When they heard the enthusiastic applause of fellow audience members, they naturally joined in and everyone had a better time.

Many early radio shows and TV sitcoms were performed in front of a live audience so that the writers and producers could see what worked. They then amplified those laugh points with “canned laughter” and, over time, the concept of sweetening the track with a professionally recorded laugh track became common practice. The shows just seemed empty without it.

For similar reasons, even when we can’t make it to a college football game or a favorite pro-sport event, many of us will find our way to a sympathetic bar and watch it on TV with other fans. We feel the need to share the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

It’s all about the shared experience.

This should inform our approach to the design of virtual events. Without the sense that we are part of something bigger, there’s a risk that jokes will fall flat, poignant moments will feel lame, and the call to action will ring hollow. If we create virtual events building on a live platform, as part of an expansive experience, it’s relatively easy to capture and share real-time feedback — that’s vital.

And we can use technology to enhance the interactive aspects of the event, for live and virtual audiences, by digitally inviting real-time comments and questions, enabling audience chat platforms, and inventing competitions in which virtual audience members can earn points by participating and becoming de facto influencers. They can become your virtual claqueurs.

Until we can safely experience live events together, this kind of real-time interaction is imperative. And after it’s safe to get together… it’s still imperative.