Bring it back to basics.
Throughout the pandemic, organizations have been challenged to evaluate and reimagine their programs and events. While the underlying reason was not positive, hopefully the outcome has been. Clarity around an event’s purpose is crucial but often muddled, especially for long-held or recurring events. Defining the event goals is ‘Event Planning 101’, and although the pandemic has shaken the events industry upside down, this is truer than ever due to the constant emergence of new platforms for events.
In addition to rediscovering (or redefining) your event’s purpose, event professionals must also assess what format – or formats – best meet the desired objectives. Part of event planning in a post-pandemic world includes not only selecting which elements to include in your event, but which elements make sense to return to in-person and which lend themselves to a virtual/online format. Just because we can return to classroom style lectures in event spaces doesn’t mean we should! In a rush to return to familiarity and ‘normality’, we should not forget the insights the pandemic provided.
Post-pandemic events should focus on these three areas:
The pandemic proved early on that virtual networking, even on a platform with all the bells and whistles, can supplement but not truly replace in-person gatherings especially those with networking components. There’s a reason the term “Zoom fatigue” surfaced so quickly! The physical and mental effects of sustained virtual communication has sparked several research studies on the phenomenon. A Healthline article attributed this exhaustion to the increased demand on our brain as it interprets visual and auditory signals separately while maintaining a pleasant, focused expression. This has been found to actively contribute to burnout, not only manifest as a side effect.
In a post-pandemic world, plan for engagement in as many ways as possible. Focus your time together on interactive and collaborative discussions, using case studies or other discussion-based prompts on the material covered. Incorporate hands-on experiences such as a sticky note wall where attendees can add their story or vote in a poll of the day. Set the tone for speakers to incorporate engagement by asking what interactive touchpoints their presentation will include. Include options such as word clouds, polls, or an interview-style format. Studies show that under ideal conditions the average adult has a maximum attention span of 20 minutes, so building interaction points in every fifteen minutes or so will provide a nudge for attendees to refocus on the content at hand.
On the flip side, recognize the importance of having designated places and times to take a break. This allows attendees to refresh, check in on the office or family, and recharge their social batteries. Have a quiet lounge that is a conversation-free zone for those who are easing back into social activities. Lounge areas engage the senses while letting the mind rest. Puzzles or games such as tic-tac-toe, checkers, or jumbo Jenga offer an opportunity for connection – no awkward icebreaker question required! Consider a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSM) project that allows attendees to work at their own pace for as long as they like. Community organizations often need help assembling hygiene kits for schools or shelters or provide cards and basic art supplies and write notes to a local children’s hospital or senior center. Depending on type of event, a live musical performance or visit from therapy animals at certain break times may provide a unique way to add value to the event experience.
Another lesson the pandemic taught us is the role of expectation in the attendee experience. Consider a short pre-event survey to better understand attendee expectations. What return on investment would make the event successful to them? The pandemic has caused a shift in priorities for many people and while networking may not have been a primary draw of your event pre-COVID, it may be now. Relying on data from two or three years ago will not shape informed decisions.
While you won’t be able to meet every expectation, knowing where the bar is set is a good first step. Depending on the industry or demographics of your attendees, including questions to gauge their comfort with traveling and the number of in-person events they’ve attended in the last year can help understand their perspective. If they have not traveled much in the past year, communicating how the labor shortage is impacting your venue or hotel can reduce frustration once on-site.
If your organization has made changes to the schedule or a standing event tradition, share this in advance. A short welcome video and event overview by the committee chair, or board member can help generate excitement.
In the age of Amazon, choice is key. Options in seating arrangements, meal items, and scheduling provides the freedom for attendees to choose what will best meet their needs.
Embrace the fact that attendees are in the same physical space again (goodbye virtual greenscreens!). According to CORT Events, design trends are leaning away from the minimalist warehouse look towards a warm, home-like space. Add color, texture, and dimension to event spaces through linens, centerpieces, balloons, or creative lighting such as light strips or lamps. Thrifted pieces can be an affordable way to find affordable but unique décor.
Emphasize ways the environment can set the stage for the type of activity occurring in the space. Where possible, utilize décor to direct and support attendee flow such as through use of stanchions or plants. Enlist a friendly volunteer or two at high tops in areas far from registration to provide wayfinding or answer questions. Technology such as a text helpline or smart devices can be useful but maximizing human interactions should be a priority. Some of the session tips above will also aid in creating a fun, surprising, and interactive environment.
Regardless of your event’s purpose, location, or attendees, celebrate the return to a shared in-person experience. Recognize that attendees are at different places in their return to the new normal, including in-person events. Planning with these three areas in mind will create a more welcoming and valuable experience for all.