Attendees at PCMA Convening Leaders 2020 chat before a main stage session. People have emotional, anthropological, and economic reasons to meet in person, says Juliano Lissoni, managing director, MCI Group Canada. (Jacob Slaton Photography)
In February, we published two contrasting views of the recovery of business events. Trends expert Daniel Levine predicted that face-to-face attendance at meetings and events will exceed 2019 levels by the middle of 2022. In a more tempered view, Brass Tacks Events owner Kevin Molesworth, CSEP, said that despite a pent-up desire to meet face-to-face, many business travel budgets have been slashed.
The question of how the recovery of business events will play out inspired responses from readers. Kerry L. Kerr, senior director of global accounts for HelmsBriscoe, shared her own 11 predictions for what needs to change in order for the recovery to happen, including rethinking hotel contracts “and how we plan meetings, from the ground up.” She expects hotel buyout requests will become more commonplace in response to concerns about crowding, she said, and she hopes sales departments will gain back more control than they had in recent years, “when revenue management was calling all the shots.”
Juliano Lissoni, managing director, MCI Group Canada, found the topic “very interesting,” he wrote. “I’ve recently challenged myself to go beyond the noise and the bias of why or why not our business of making people to come together should persist in the future. We should not assume that just because technological tools are evolving, we will only want to gather in a digital format. Trying to understand what the future of the events business will look like requires us to have a deeper understanding of our human needs, particularly those that are biological and anthropological, emotional, and economic.”
Here is Lissoni’s contribution, which makes a scholarly case for face-to-face business events:
The COVID-19 pandemic brought an immeasurable amount of stress into our lives, both in economic and physical terms. Limitations of movement necessitated by physical distancing — leading in some cases to outright lockdowns — took their toll on citizens and businesses alike. But for companies in the travel, tourism, and events industries, the pandemic bore down like a tsunami, turning hotels and conference halls into potentially danger zones.
Fortunately, humans are resourceful, and the combination of curiosity and innovation soon played out in our need for socialization. While COVID-19 changed how we engaged with our teams, partners, and clients, it did not eliminate our need to meet altogether. We had to initiate a sudden mastery of the digital meeting and its creative tools. It didn’t happen overnight, but in a six-month span, the ability to meet, connect, and communicate effectively increased via digital tools, if not altogether enhanced. In many ways, COVID-19 took the human tendency to think about what’s next and fast-tracked hypothesis testing in terms of digital transformation and experimentation.
With the restrictions imposed in every part of the world, the events industry took a deep dive into creatively combining content delivery platforms and digital broadcasting. The concept of “content is king” was amplified by the immense potential audience size — where scale was not limited by fire codes and the different time zones in which that global audience operated —leading to a complex business model for organizers. Now as signs indicate that a return to life as we knew it is on the horizon, players in the events ecosystem are flooded with questions on how to manage the future. Will events go back to the way they used to be? Will events be digital forevermore? Will we advocate for a blended world of “phygital?”
The answers to these questions are not easily found, even as scientific communities progress with vaccines. Who we are and where we work also defines our preferences. The advancements in technology are creating changes in our patterns, from changing our physical activities to complementing our analytical and information retaining capabilities.
Some advocates of Darwinism suggest that digital tools will potentially replace interpersonal human connection. But where the events business is concerned, we should not assume that just because technological tools are evolving, we only will want to gather in a digital format. Human beings are far more complex than this, with preferences for social gathering being influenced by propensity to imitation, cultural homogeneity, ethograms, and symbolic behavior. So, trying to understand what the future of the events business will look like requires us to go beyond technology and have a deeper understanding of our human needs, particularly those that are biological and anthropological, emotional, and economic.
We Have a Biological/Anthropological Need to Meet
The traits that make us uniquely human come from our approach to cognition, communication, and language, including the largely innate and physiologically complex phonation, and the mechanisms of learning. As highlighted by University of Amsterdam professor David Baker, collective learning is a trend seen across human history, and it is a potential unifying theme of evolution and progress. Collective learning was central to the agriculture and industrial revolutions. And as per research from University of California, Davis professor Peter J. Richerson and University of British Columbia professor Joseph Henrich, the innate components our social psychology were shaped by cultural group selection and cultural evolutionary processes.
A cumulative culture is a result of the evolution of our cognition and the social learning. We humans are social organisms that evolved not only by developing knowledge and traditions, but also by passing them along by means other than human language, including gesture, and physically embodied forms of cultural knowledge. Humans came together at first for security. And as groups expanded, so the need for energy supply, which eventually contributed to the development of methods and processes in agriculture, expansion to new geographies, and the search for innovative resources.
Evolutionary psychologists maintain that not only did our human evolution follow Darwinian principles represented by inheriting brain traits from our ancestors, our “clan living” in fact gave our brains more synapses. Our social psychology evolved as we learned how to solve problems using cooperation, and our tribal social instincts helped to design current institutions and social norms.
In this context, the advancement of digital tools is helping us to share collective knowledge and redefine the concept of community. While it is tempting to assert that human learning processes will be accelerated by digital technologies, there is a big question mark as to whether it will be enough. Production and comprehension are affected by our social intelligence. Features of other individuals and the environment help to define social situations, affecting our social strategies.
Our brains are social by nature, we are wired to connect, and as referenced from psychologist Daniel Goleman, our brain structures are built for relationship optimization due to spindle cells — the fastest acting neuron that guides our social decisions — and mirror neurons, which make us capable of predicting the behavior of people around us by subconsciously mimicking their movements.
In their evolutionary anthropology study, Loyola University Chicago professor James Calcagno and Princeton University professor Agustin Fuentes identified that for cooperative (and selfish) reasons, our brains are wired to use language, social interaction, and behavior to try to understand the minds of others.
When it comes to business events, creating opportunities for people to come together in the same space is not about content distribution, it is about reinforcing human connections through social intelligence and amplifying the effects of knowledge spillover.
We Have an Emotional Need to Meet
Research by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Benjamin Campbell from the indicates that the human amygdala — part of our brain’s limbic system regulating behavior — makes us more emotionally sensitive to our social environment. The development of our emotions is part of human evolution. Back in time, chasing food, finding shelter, and dealing with all types of wildlife problems required humans to trust their minds — their thoughts and emotions — to guide them through every situation. Survival was a consequence of trusting the emotional radar and reliance on instincts as the first screening for information that was received.
There is a lot we can learn by observing evolution in primates. A monkey raised in cages in isolation does not thrive. Even a monkey with a doll that looked like another monkey did better than the monkey with no doll. As primates, we humans are not that dissimilar. Isolation is bad — but why are groups better than having one or two buddies?
A study from University of Illinois professor Patrick Laughlin, for example, tested the relationship between group size and performance compared to an equivalent number of individuals, finding compelling evidence that groups are far better in performing complex problem-solving tasks.
Another study led by Jahn Cornwell and published in the Journal of Sports Management, shows that being in a group while attending a sports event makes us feel more involved, be fully conscious of the activity, and the long-lasting memories making us to want to come back. Consequently, being in a group has a positive impact in our emotional lives. And emotion influences our cognitive processes with a marked influence on attention, by modulating it motivating action and behavior.
We Have an Economic Need to Meet
Attending events and conferences, joining informal discussions, and getting to know what others are working on and what progress they are making, are all critical steps for innovation. A team of Harvard Medical School doctors analyzed all medical research articles published at Harvard and correlated their data with the distance between the authors’ offices. They found that being less than one kilometer (approximately a half-mile) away raised the quality of research — with even better results if researchers were in the same building.
This knowledge spillover effect is a proven byproduct of being physically together at some point. Another seminal study from Wesley M. Cohen and Daniel A. Levinthal noted that knowledge spillover increases how we assimilate knowledge from the environment. Connecting with people and knowledge spillover are two elements that digital will enhance, but not replace.
The context of business events also creates the learning beyond, translated as what happens when we embrace new initiatives in the direction of our curiosities. We learn not only from the available content, but also through our social intelligence and interactions. Recent studies from cognitive neuroscientists Robin I.M. Dunbar and Susanne Shultz using statistical and comparative analysis techniques show that there is a clear relationship between neocortex size and sociality.
This social intelligence has a deep impact in the way we engage. The approach to cooperation is behind problem-solving for societies across history, so cooperation is behind innovation, social gathering, and evolution. While we accelerate or scale up learning with the right use of digital technologies, our need for close cooperation in groups remains.
We humans manifest complex structures of language, communication, culture, ethograms, and symbolic behavior. While we understand the impact of technology and how digital experiences can help us, our inventions need to be harmonized with our biogenetic and evolutionary identities. While our brains have had to adjust to the realities of lockdown, there is much that we miss from life in offices — most especially, seeing and interacting with colleagues. While technology will enhance our ability to communicate, it will not replace one of the most striking elements of our evolution: our social intelligence. Being together in person, in groups, matters.
In trying to provide a window into the future of the events business, it is fair to conclude that we see an omnichannel path ahead. Digital tools will enhance the way content is distributed and meetings focused on knowledge-sharing have a longer runway in digital, but as creatures with social brains, our evolution requires being together — either for triggering the right emotions that makes us feel part of a community, or for how we economically evolve by co-innovating. It is not Zoom we are tired of. We simply crave a return to meetings and conferences, meeting people, and shaking hands, because it is in these environments that we thrive.
Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.