Designing LIVE — Our Better Angels

There are inherent advantages to the self-policing nature of live events.

One benign outcome of the pandemic is that is that people have become more comfortable with the various technologies that let us connect virtually. Further, I suspect that as people spend more time connecting through social media, they are gaining both an appreciation of and a wariness regarding how it contributes to the larger conversation.

I am a huge advocate for integrating virtual connections into live events. But for me, the isolating nature of the pandemic has underscored the irreplaceable nature of face-to-face. In considering what we value most about “LIVE,” Bruce Mau finds it revealing to compare it to the most ubiquitous marketing channel, social media.

“Imagine social media in the light of day, without the sinister dimension of unbridled, anonymous nastiness,” Bruce says. “LIVE is governed by our better angels, by etiquette and conventions of social conduct.”

Certainly, the anonymity afforded by online platforms brings out the worst in some people. These are avoided in LIVE events, whether they are conducted virtually or face-to-face.

In LIVE, not only are there consequences for bad behavior, but there are ample rewards for those who contribute in meaningful ways. Events transform the experience from merely a place, at a moment in time, into a custom experience where people choose to gather with purpose. They attend conferences, expositions, and branded events because they hope to get something back. They seek new business solutions. They build their network of experts and influencers. They investigate best practices. They feed their curiosity about new innovations. They find inspiration. All of these things are more readily available to those who walk in the door with an empathetic mindset, eager to collaborate and open to the ideas being shared.

Some of this correlates to a sense of accountability that doesn’t always apply to virtual sessions. It’s easy to become distracted and lured away from a screen, but one positive outcome of the global crisis is that people have been forced to adopt habits that let them become better about focusing and contributing in live-but-virtual situations. We are learning to treat participation in live virtual engagements with the same respect we give face-to-face meetings, where we have invested time and money to attend. In reality, anytime we commit to being with people — in person, on the phone, or through a web platform — we have skin in the game. It’s called “building relationships,” and we can’t do without.

Ironically, the incursion of digital marketing into our personal and professional lives underscores the meaningful and uniquely sensory connection that is only possible through the human medium of LIVE events. And the beautiful thing about LIVE events is that they can easily embrace digital technology to expand through virtual connectivity — including audiences who are unable to attend in person.

By designing LIVE with our better angels in mind, and including enhanced virtual participation from the beginning, we can reach beyond our immediate audience to connect with more people than ever before. In this sense, LIVE becomes the platform for launching new, hybrid solutions that allow us to be more inclusive and diverse, while leveraging the benefits only LIVE can offer.

I miss the energy that I can only find on the floor of a LIVE event. And I can’t wait to get back to the important work of designing events to be even more inclusive, more broad reaching, and more personally relevant. That’s what’s possible in the new era of LIVE.

Getting Back on the Bike

It’s what we do after we fall that matters.

The other day, attached to an email from an old family friend, was a video — an old home movie shot on a spring day, probably on Super 8, with no audio. It shows a little boy on a big new bike. His mom gives him a shove and he pedals a confident loop around the front yard. But, when he stops, his legs can’t reach the ground, and he falls hard, with the bike on top of him. He looks at his mom, shakes it off, and walks the bike back to try again. The banana seat comes up to his ribs, and he has to use the porch step to climb back on. The next fall isn’t as hard. Soon, he’s riding like an old pro.

I haven’t thought about that bicycle in years, but the video brought it all back. It was a beauty. When I pedaled really hard, the handlebar streamers fluttered out and I imagined I was flying. I don’t really remember falling down, but I do remember worrying that I would. I was afraid I couldn’t learn to ride that gorgeous bike. And I remember my mom assuring me that I could.

This object lesson in falling and getting back up came at a good time for me. It’s been many, many years since I’ve faced something where I actually worried about failing. But this pandemic and the economic fallout — defined largely by what we don’t know — is a confidence shaker. What if we don’t have what it takes? There is so much riding on each decision and each action that it can be paralyzing if we let it.

Here are a few lessons we can all take from a little boy, a big bike, his mom and a spring day. We only fail if we stop trying. We will learn the skills we need and someday we will master the bike because we will grow to fit it. It will take us to places we’ve never been. And that sense of freedom will be magical.

Today, around the world, we face a challenge that is bigger than any of us can face alone. It’s seriously intimidating. We also face an opportunity to explore new things and to liberate ourselves from outdated assumptions and business practices. Many of us in the Live Events industry share an audacious vision that requires us to get back on the bike and keep riding. We will most certainly fall a few times, but we can help each other back up. And we can keep pedaling until our fear becomes joy.

Our industry-wide movement is adding members every day. You can join us at www.golivetogether.com. You can learn about opportunities for action and toolkits you can use to engage your employees, partners, the media, and legislators.

Bring your worst fears and your brightest hopes. We’ve got this.

If Content is King

It deserves its own throne.

As I’ve written before, I am excited about the opportunity to fully leverage the potential of live, virtual connection to expand the potential for live human engagement. I believe we are positioned to design some amazing hybrid (LIVE/virtual) events. And I applaud all those who have managed, without a lot of warning, to shift their planned conferences and events to a purely online, socially distant experience.

I feel obliged, however, to wave a small caution flag. We can’t assume that the content we created for one medium will just pour directly into another. There’s a reason we don’t drink coffee out of a soup bowl or serve filet mignon on disposable food containers with plastic forks. The vessel needs to support enjoyment of the content.

Live events and virtual events each have specific needs and advantages that should be designed into the plan. Virtual events need the oversight and planning of a TV-show crew that understands the timing and tempo of the experience. They know when to zoom in and when to cut away to a breaking story. Likewise, production teams for huge live events may share the titles of their video colleagues, but in many instances they rely on the discipline and planning of a military operation. We wouldn’t expect the production team from the Today Show or Good Morning America to handle the demands of producing CES. And the reverse is true.

Right now, many associations and corporate marketers are considering the advantages of hybrid event solutions; we want to ensure that the designs are approached by teams who understand how to leverage each medium to the fullest.

If this is a topic that speaks to your situation, I hope you’ll enjoy this recent webinar with industry experts around designing, producing and marketing a virtual event.

In a Dark Moment — A New Movement

Accelerating economic recovery, together

I think we are already seeing that the legacy of this pandemic will be the way people forced into isolation were determined to find safe ways to connect. Musicians offering free concerts from their living rooms, where fans comment in real time and request favorite songs. Teachers figuring out how to reach their dispersed students through distance learning. Congregations worshiping together on Zoom, Facebook, or whatever platform serves their purpose. People persist in connecting.

The obvious irony, of course, is that being pushed apart brought us together. Human beings don’t like being pushed. Not by terrorists. Not by acts of nature. Not by COVID-19. Movements are born when people are ready to push back.

We’re seeing this in the Live Events industry. It’s pretty gratifying. When I first started worrying about the new coronavirus, my immediate concern was understanding the impact on my company and my employees. But by the time of my first blog on this pandemic, when events were being cancelled and our customers were trying to figure out the right thing to do, it was clear that this was a bigger problem. Clients, suppliers, fierce competitors and colleagues all struggled to find solutions. And out of this struggle, a movement started taking shape. It’s an unlikely coalition of leaders coming together around the  shared, vested interest in protecting and, when the time is right and it is safe to do so, jump-starting the LIVE Events industry.

Self-serving? Yes. And no.

Our shared purpose is two-fold. First, to ensure millions of workers and thousands of businesses reliant on events get the relief they desperately need to continue working in an industry they love. Second, to restore an industry that is a vital accelerator to economic recovery. For everyone.

Through participation in trade shows, travel to conferences, and attendance at performing arts and sporting events, customers are generated across the travel and hospitality industries. Food vendors, janitorial services, and represented labor in the host cities all benefit. And as I’ve written about before, by providing a forum to connect professionals to the latest technologies and research, we are an incubator for the very innovations that drive business and, perhaps, will lead to solutions the world needs to preempt the next threat to our welfare.

Speaking on behalf of my company, Freeman, we are proud to stand with a coalition of businesses who are ready to lead the movement to accelerate economic recovery.  Many people. One voice. Ready to Go LIVE Together. Please join us.

www.golivetogether.com

#eventsimpact #GoLIVEtogether

 

Meeting People Where They Are Now

Dealing with the destabilizing nature of the pandemic.

Everyone I chat with is focused on what happens once we are clear of the pandemic. Those of us responsible for any kind of corporate marketing, and especially the medium of live events, will need to guard against an easy mistake.

We can’t assume that the people we were reaching six weeks ago are the same people we will engage going forward. Not because the participant list has changed, but because they are not the same people they were before the pandemic.

We need to meet people where they are right now. This is always true, but will be more dramatic in the weeks and months ahead. Many people have been traumatized — they have witnessed illness and death on a scale previously unimagined. Everyone has experienced loss in some way.

Complicating this is the destabilizing nature of the pandemic. I can’t tell you how many action plans my people have put together only to have them made obsolete by the latest breaking news. Every day I hear the weariness in my colleagues’ voices as each new headline, new statistic, new prognostication sends them back to the white board to revise their plans. It’s an insidious game in which we seem to take one step forward and two steps back.

Multiply this sense of frustration by the many companies, agencies, school boards, police departments and hospitals that are trying to execute plans while riding on an ever-shifting sea of new data. Even the heroes in this pandemic story — from first responders to grocery-store stockers — are undergoing a transformation.

It will be tempting, whenever we get the go-ahead, to try to pick up where we left off — to blow the dust off our marketing plans, event designs and show content and hope it will still work. It won’t.

To move forward, we need to acknowledge that people have fundamentally changed. Our company has been consulting with an industrial psychologist who explained that anxiety literally lights up different wiring in our brains. Fear and worry surrounding the pandemic have emotionally hijacked our thought processes. Acting “normal” in this situation would be counterproductive because nothing else is normal.

When we finally are able to go back to producing live events, we must avoid seeming tone deaf — where we risk creating ill will and evaporating trust. Instead, we should work hard to be tuned in. To do that, we need to appreciate where people’s heads are at in the moment. You can bet that most of us have dropped down a rung or two on Maslow’s Pyramid — we’ve been shaken out of any self-actualized complacency. We are all feeling a bit needy.

As marketers, a proactive approach begins with assuming that people won’t have the capacity for long or complicated messages. They are worried about paying rent and whether their kids will graduate from high school. Keep content simple and direct. Also, people under stress tend to filter out anything that seems to challenge comfortable beliefs. So we need to be strategic and intentional about sharing information that connects with their priorities. New information will be admitted only if it is super-relevant and helps them right now. That’s what they’ll be listening for.

This applies not only to individuals, but to companies and organizations that are scrambling to understand budgets, resolve human resources issues, repair disrupted timelines, and deal with a host of new challenges. That pretty much describes all of us.

I firmly believe that as soon as humans can get back together, they will! And when, eventually, we are able to resume commerce, let’s try to meet in a place of patience and kindness. Let’s use friendly voices and short, frank, reassuring sentences. Let’s remember that we are working with the walking wounded. And let’s pull together to make a full recovery.

Building Core Strength

Corporate viability helps customers today and tomorrow

We’ve been talking to some really smart industry people, listening to the pandemic experts and closely following the economic forecasts. What we’ve concluded is that, while we should prepare for any number of recovery flight paths, we cannot plan on any one of them playing out as scripted. Everyone agrees that the economy is taking a serious hit. Few agree on when we’ll turn the corner. Or on what we’ll see when we get there.

No one expects the events industry to bounce back overnight. No one expects it to rebound unchanged. It will take all of our best thinking to imagine and design the new shape of what’s next. I’m optimistic we will emerge with something better.

But I’m also a realist. And to be honest, the single most important thing we can do today to help our customers is work on core strength. We’re asking our people to stay safe, and many are using the extra home time to strengthen their core muscles. But we also need to stay healthy as an organization. We are calling on business leaders everywhere to do whatever we have to do to keep our businesses viable. Otherwise, with no partners to engage in commerce, there will be no economic recovery. There will be no jobs for our people to come back to.

Perhaps that sounds simplistic. Or draconian. But a look back across Freeman’s 93-year legacy confirms that this is the right move. History is full of relevant lessons. In WWII, Churchill did everything in his power to improve morale. But historian James Taylor notes that he also took steps to strengthen political and military effectiveness by ensuring that planning and decision-making processes were “simpler and more efficient.” The lesson: focus on what was critical.

In the U.S., many economists predicted a new recession as returning GIs flooded the job market in which factories converted to war-time efforts were no longer operating. In fact, businesses prepared to respond to the pent-up demand for their goods and services thrived, and America saw one of its greatest economic booms. The lesson: be ready with what customers want.

comprehensive study of the devastation and recovery of various communities hit by natural disaster urges not just rebuilding but redesigning to address fundamental problems:  “Sudden loss creates opportunities for reorganizing the elements of a community — not just facilities, but also services…. disaster-related challenges provide an opportunity to approach community redevelopment in ways that improve health and social well-being.” The lesson: leaders should focus on making things better than before.

Today, the World Economic Forum urges an investment in infrastructure as a way to stave off recession. “The U.S. infrastructure industry is 30 years behind its global counterparts but a new centralized and data-driven approach to infrastructure projects could help it catch up; Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and innovation could help make the industry more resource and cost efficient.” The lesson: invest in the core to prepare for recovery.

That’s our plan. Freeman is the world’s leading live event and brand experience company. We continue to lead today. We will lead the way to the future. And our success will always come, and only come, by being focused on our customers’ needs. That’s a strategic imperative. It’s what we do. It’s our strength.

Today, despite furloughs, we have over nine hundred people at Freeman who are working with customers and fleshing out products and services we feel will be essential when everyone is ready to move forward. We are accelerating our capacity to support customers beyond the physical experience. We are embracing the concept that LIVE connection is not limited to physical connection. And we are deploying the critical resources to support our customers, when they’re ready to move forward, with what we believe will be the new look of what’s next. As importantly, we have the best people in the world standing by, waiting for the call to return to duty. Their expertise, their deep-seated values, are foundational to our recovery plan. We owe them our best effort to do whatever it takes to revitalize our business, our industry, and our economy.

That’s the plan. Be here. Be healthy. Be ready to move forward.

 

 

Hoarding: It’s a Maslow Moment

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What empty shelves tell us about ourselves

Much has been written about the hoarding phenomena that has accompanied the pandemic — I’m pretty sure there will be a vast catalog of memes when this is all done. Maybe someday, in retrospect, they will seem funny. Right now, it can be pretty disappointing to witness the retail carnage that seems to precipitate each visit to the grocery store. In trying to understand what’s happened to an otherwise civilized people, two things come to mind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken our sense of what’s dependable and real. And as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reminds us, we are only as good as the certainty of our food supply. Threaten our basic needs, and it’s a race to that fall-out bunker at the bottom of the pyramid. Like good little squirrels, we start to pack away supplies to make us feel better about the unknown future.

Also, there’s a lesson here from the oil crises of the ‘70s, when cars would line up at gas stations for hours in order to fill their tanks and spare gas cans. The trick was, there may have been ample fuel to meet basic needs — as much as every day in the previous week — but suddenly everyone wanted to have a full tank at the exact same time.  Millions of barrels of gasoline that had been part of the retail sector inventory were suddenly transferred to  consumers’ vehicles. The distribution system couldn’t cope with the surge. And while few people were intentionally hoarding, the effect was the same. People who didn’t need a full tank were depriving those who had no fuel at all.

What does this have to do with us in the pandemic-riddled world? Most people aren’t TRYING to hoard. They are just doing what humans do when our sense of normalcy is threatened. They stock up.

There’s an amusing essay in The New Yorker by the brilliant writer David Sedaris that I find more illuminating than some more serious news articles. After admitting that he is a failure at hoarding, Sedaris writes, “It helps to look at which shelves are bare. That teaches you, I suppose, what you should be hoarding.”

His ironic remark raises a question worth considering. What should we be hoarding right now? What will you wish you had in reserve when your “shelf” — perhaps your emotional resilience — seems empty? I want to hoard memories of time spent with my family. I want to hoard appreciation for the many, many people in my company, as well as clients, who have been generous and gracious under trying circumstances. I want to hoard so much gratitude for the healthcare workers, grocery store workers and first responders that I never run out, and never forget to share that gratitude throughout the many years that lie ahead.

I am optimistic about the future, but I know it will be a whole different future than I expected two months ago. What will we need to thrive there? It’s time to take stock.

Integrity Shouldn’t Be Breaking News

Organizational truths should be self-evident

Whenever anyone asks me what makes Freeman so great, I always answer, “It’s the people. People are our killer app.” It may sound trite, but it’s the truth. And it’s not something I can take credit for. It’s Freeman’s culture, built over three generations. It’s grounded in a true, palpable set of values that has been  steadfastly defended by the Freeman family and the many fine people who, over 93 years, have lived them every day.

Integrity is a core value that’s being put to the test in these hard times as people scramble for basic necessities and worry about their jobs coming back. It’s been said that integrity is what you do when no one is looking. Believe it. The difference between talking about integrity and having it is the difference between hoarding stuff and putting on a mask to deliver Meals on Wheels to the elderly and infirm.

A strong system of values has never been more important than right now, when the world is in upheaval. And at the risk of sounding biased, I have to say that Freeman’s people are showing that “values” are not things they search for when times get tough. Values are what they’ve been building on right along. Seeing what so many of our people are doing right now, during this pandemic, is humbling.

So, I can’t help but wonder when I hear people talking about integrity as if it’s somehow a news item — a panacea discovered to help cure COVID-19.  I see well-meaning marketing messages, CEO and company letters and campaigns trying to convince customers that “they are there”, “that we are trustworthy” and “we will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.” I mean, yes please. Do that. But for the love of all that’s holy, do it every day!

For Buck Freeman and his progeny, the best time to establish solid values began 93 years ago and the commitment hasn’t faltered since. That’s because “values” aren’t a strategy, they’re a way of life. Stop any Freeman employee and they’ll tell you about the True Blue House (it’s how we describe our Freeman culture).  It’s more than words on paper. It’s the lens we use every day to make important decisions that determine the course of business, the success of our customers and the effectiveness of our combined labor. Doing the right thing is standard operating procedure — not crisis control.

Of course, this company, like every other in the events industry, is under siege by the pandemic. That’s why I am so moved by the way our people have responded. Even though we have scaled back our operation until our customers can get back up and running, and our people are hurting, they have been incredibly supportive and gracious. And equally gratifying, our customers are reaching out, showing leadership, and acting with integrity. Not talking about it; doing it. Because that’s their core values as well.

As the legendary Peter Drucker famously remarked, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s not something you can just cook up in a crisis.

 

Why Events Matter

Nurturing what’s best in the human experience.

Like just about everyone I talk to lately, I am craving human contact. In fact, I am craving the jostling sidewalk crowds and weekend market throngs that used to annoy me. I want to rub shoulders with people. I want to watch tour groups move like a school of fish through Fisherman’s Wharf. I want the joy of discovering an old friend at a capacity-crowd concert.

It’s while I was thinking about this that a light came on in my head. Yes, safety comes first. Yes, we need to do our part to flatten the curve and give our healthcare system a chance to get on top of this pandemic. But I realized that the very things that I miss most about personal face-to-face interaction are the very things that make the live-events industry unique, valuable and irreplaceable. And I wonder how many people understand the extent to which the events industry is part of the fabric of America — and of the world. I wonder if they realize that the hospitality and travel industries they worry about are actually a subset of the live events industry.

Our conferences, trade shows and exhibitions serve as incubators for nurturing what’s best in the human experience. In this sense, our events are a catalyst for so much…

  • education
  • commerce
  • industrial progress
  • humanitarian progress
  • intellectual development
  • innovation
  • connection
  • collaboration
  • inspiration
  • fellowship
  • ceremony
  • celebration

I’m sure you can add to this list. And the beautiful thing is, these things are possible at a live gathering both because of and in spite of the designed programming and content. The human experience blossoms in peripheral contact with like-minded individuals who bring new perspectives that provoke unexpected connections. And when enough people start connecting the dots at these events, the picture they reveal can inspire seismic change.

This helps explain why live events have historically served as the incubator for so many tech start-ups — scrappy innovators that grew to become Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google. Without the incubator of tech events, they would never have found the interest, support and momentum that new ideas need to thrive. And when we consider that this is equally true for medical breakthroughs, food technology, manufacturing, and every other business and educational sector, we begin to appreciate how critical this human connection is to universal progress — in every field, benefiting all humankind.

I worry that, right now, potential breakthroughs in a variety of areas are languishing because, thanks to the pandemic, our social incubators are unplugged. And it’s why so many of us are advocating for swift measures to get the industry back up and running as soon as possible. This is bigger than the three million workers who were directly employed in the events industry before the pandemic hit. It’s bigger than the 1.6 million companies (80 percent of them with fewer than 500 employees) who exhibit and transact business at trade shows.

It’s as big as the human experience and our potential to create positive change. It’s as urgent as finding a preventive measure for the next global catastrophe. It’s as vital as building a better world for future generations.

#EventsImpact ­­— it’s where solutions are discovered.

We Are Social Animals

The human experience cannot thrive in isolation.

At 8 p.m. each evening of late, in my neighborhood outside San Francisco, you can hear a vigorous howling rolling down the mountains and up the canyon. It’s not wolves. It’s my neighbors. We are greeting each other in a primal way — letting each other know that we can reach out with our voices if not with our hands, that we are okay, and that we appreciate the extraordinary efforts of the healthcare workers whom we cannot thank in person.

Home is a beautiful place, but the more I stay home, the more I need to see more people. It seems as if we’ve been socially distancing for months, instead of a few weeks. And though we are separated, the pandemic has touched us all in this singular way — we are craving human connection. I am grateful for the video phone apps that let me stay in touch with friends and extended family. Streaming video has made work continuation possible. But, sometimes, I really just want to be in the same room with colleagues. I want to look directly into their eyes when they’re telling me about a big idea. I want to put a hand on their shoulder when I thank them for what seems like a thankless effort. I know my mom’s okay, but I want to fly to Indiana and give her a reassuring hug.

I think isolation makes us feel more vulnerable than we are. It creates a headspace that we fill with anxiety and dread. I now have a better understanding about why the worst punishment we can inflict on another human being is to put them in solitary confinement. Clearly, I wouldn’t last long. We are wired to be with our family, tribe, clan, school, denomination, company and team.

We are truly social animals. And we are better together. That’s the human experience.