Experience Economy Expert Envisions Meetings in COVID-19 Times

Author: David McMillin       

events future

Is this the future of events? Possibly, but one expert believes the future will bring innovation to meeting design.

Back in the March issue, Convene took the 20th anniversary of the seminal business book The Experience Economy: Competing for Customer, Time, Attention, and Money, as an opportunity to ask its coauthors, James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, what has changed during those two decades in terms of what attendees expect out of their event experiences.

Obviously, the world has changed since we spoke with Gilmore and Pine in early January. We decided to go back to Gilmore to ask, what now? How has the pandemic changed what kinds of experiences might resonate with attendees?

Experience Economy

James H. Gilmore

Much of that has to do with how living through this crisis has affected the way they see things — something Gilmore has been contemplating about his own mindset. As COVID-19 has forced the world to stay at home, people have referred to their new reality as quarantining, isolating, or simply staying socially distant. For Gilmore, he told Convene in late April, it’s been a period of “hibernating.”

An assistant professor of design and innovation at Case Western University and author of numerous business books, Gilmore has looked for personal silver linings during his hibernation. In addition to growing a beard, he has stopped bothering with “scheduling” meetings, and reduced his time on email. He believes that all businesses can find a silver lining by viewing the slow period as an opportunity to observe how their audiences are changing — and how their experiences can better serve participants when the world reopens.

How long it takes for business events to come out of this slowdown is uncertain. Health experts and elected officials have been debating how to safely reopen the economy, but the initial return to in-person interactions seems likely to be limited.

“Larger gatherings — conferences, concerts, sporting events — when people say they’re going to reschedule this conference or graduation for October 2020, I have no idea how they think that’s a plausible possibility,” Zeke Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, told The New York Times. “I think those things will be the last to return. Realistically, we’re talking fall 2021 at the earliest.”

Should Emanuel be proven wrong and in-person events return well before then, Gilmore said that organizers can think of how the adjustments that may reshape everyday life — wearing face masks, getting a temperature reading in public, and reading disposable menus at restaurants, for example — can apply to experience design. He speculated that people may come up with their own resolutions geared toward the new normal of coming together. “Maybe some will say, ‘I resolve to change x, y, or z based on everything I have gone through,’” Gilmore said.

New Seating Arrangements and a New Focus on Family

Some of those changes may be the catalyst for more meaningful engagement. Consider one of the most important pieces of any experience: where and how people sit. Prior to the pandemic, Gilmore said that “the chair is the most powerful icon of an event,” and in most cases, the attendees’ comfort has been a secondary design consideration — the chair’s stackability for venue storage has been the paramount factor. If social-distancing guidelines continue to apply, Gilmore believes it may offer opportunities to improve seating environments. For instance, he said, “If people are sitting six feet apart, might that encourage event organizers to be more innovative about how seating is arranged at an event?”

Even if attendees are placed farther apart from each other, Gilmore thinks that they will want to feel a closer “familial” connection. Once scenario Gilmore envisions is pairing one attendee with four others — with the group taking a “divide and conquer” approach, each participating in different concurrent sessions before reporting back and sharing their insights.

“Who’s your tribe or your family that you’re going to traverse through the experience with? If you have to be six feet apart, it seems a smaller group would help,” he said. “Five people even 10 feet apart feels a lot better than 500 people six feet apart.”

Attendees may have similar feelings toward their online groups, too — obviously not dictated by physical-distancing rules but by a change in priorities brought on by the crisis. Gilmore has been pondering what he calls “communal media.” Rather than thinking about collecting hundreds of likes from hundreds of users on Facebook or Instagram, individuals may put a higher value on communicating with their five closest friends. “Just as Twitter used to restrict the character count to 140,” he said, “what if a new platform comes along that limits your tribe count to a few true amigos?”

There are many what-ifs to consider as the convention industry continues to operate in pause mode. When will people feel comfortable flying again? When will hotels open again? How will government travel restrictions impact international participation? The answers to all of these questions are unknown, but one truth feels clear to Gilmore: Expectations for experiences will change. And change creates opportunity for progress.

“This is an opportunity to create something new, not to try to automate or replicate what you’ve done in the past,” Gilmore said. “That’s the mindset to embrace, because if people are to again gather, the experience really is going to have to be worthwhile.”

David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.

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