…then bring all those emotions, excitement and empathy to your event programs.
Our plans for the summer include travel and exploration, a few visits to the shows and fairs that roll through town, and meet-ups with family, friends, neighbors and long-ago schoolmates. Along the way, I know we’ll savor moments that I want to deliver to my work as an experience designer for business events. That’s the premise of my book, Gather: The Business of Coming Together, and summer gatherings are ripe for revelations that make corporate events more powerful, empathic and enriching.
If you’re hitting the road for gatherings–or if the gatherings are coming to you–stay open for moments that you might bring to the events you plan and host. Here are five kinds of gatherings I’m making plans for where I know I’ll find inspiration:
We’ve got reunions planned this summer with family in St. Louis (for the first time since the onset of the pandemic), my high school chums in Northern Virginia, and with a group of fraternity brothers, this year in Ohio. I gotta say, as much as I look forward to these gatherings, I also feel some anxiety.
The high school reunion is especially fraught for me–I’m sure others share my trepidation. We aren’t the same people we were a few decades ago: we’ve outgrown the acne and horn-rimmed glasses, gym-class phobias and paralyzing insecurities; we’ve all experienced wildly different lives, loves and tragedies; we’ve gotten balder, doughier, and more (or less) domesticated. Barring any talks of politics, though, I know it will be a fulfilling and important life event.
That anxiety I know I’ll feel when I travel to the reunion is something I want to capture and exploit when I design a business event, especially annual events where the audience shares some history. How can we build anticipation? (Here’s a piece from The New York Times with some great tips about the importance of anticipation.) How can we engender feelings of the familiar and known while also inspiring the curiosity to engage deeper and learn more? How do we bring wallflowers into the mix? How do we keep the conversation lively and evolving; what about the role of laughter and storytelling? How do we “engineer” serendipity? Those are the things that I’m hoping to experience, relish and employ in upcoming events. I’ll let you know.
What is a conference if not a version of grown-up summer camp? We leave home, we travel, we gather, we have activities, we sleep in our assigned beds, we meet for a day’s worth of activities, repeat. Here are two favorite correlations between summer camp and business events:
- Activities. Activities. Activities. Days and nights are jam packed with things to do, most of them mandatory, as I recall. Many of them teach new skills like crafting, cooking, boating and equestrian. All of them tend to be communal, ideal for bolstering interaction and group problem solving. Why not give your business attendees the same hands-on activities as at summer camp? Integrate message, learning and interaction as much as possible; build your community organically and uniquely. And, of course, make time for training and executive presence.
- Campfires are key. I love that campfires have become a recognized buzzword in event planning to connote small-group interactions. In the wilds, the fire itself can fuel the group’s energy and prove mesmerizing for attendees, like moths to the flame. What mechanism can you add to your small-group sessions to give attendees that same sort of ephemeral heat.
I do hope there are neighborhoods that still rock a good block party. While the community ethos might exist year-round, it’s the summertime emergence of grills, picnic tables and rows of potluck dishes lining the communal asphalt that re-doubles bonds and reminds us of the humanity we all share. There’s also something about seeing familiar faces one year on: recognizing age, physical change and personal evolution.
The same goes for annual business events like user conferences or sales kickoffs. Think about how the heart and soul of a block party might inspire tactics for your next event. A few thoughts:
- Everyone brings something to the experience–perhaps something that’s important to them–to share with others.
- Everyone gets the chance to design a piece of the experience, whether programming the soundtrack, adding to the decor or adding to the content with a story or recollection
- Everyone helps to clean up; it’s a great show of egalitarianism and sacrifice, and a little KP can strengthen bonds and community.
At our last home in Silicon Valley, I was sad to see the traditional block party go extinct in a matter of a few years, mostly due to lack of leadership and the splintering of the neighborly fabric for whatever reasons (e.g., isolation, political and cultural diversity, laziness). Once gone, I doubt the prospects for resurrection are likely, sadly.
This summer, we’re hoping to attend a few “block parties” in the form of cocktail hours at our summer home on Lake Michigan. We’ll be the noobs, and these gatherings should give us the opportunity to ingratiate ourselves to the neighbors with whom we share this very special piece of nature that’s been in some families for over 70 years.
Festivals and Fairs
There’s no better way to get immersed in the majesty of local culture, history and citizenry, along with the robust, regionally distinct flavors and aromas. My wife, who was raised in the Midwest, loves to traverse the halls, stalls and corridors lined with the lifelong passions of kids and families. It’s so heartening to see children actually bedded down in the straw next to the pigs and cows and chickens they’ve raised since birth. You can learn all about their experiences on posters and placards festooned along the walls and railings. But I most love to hear their stories–swelling with pride and love, and the harsh realities of bringing their treasured animals to market.
Of course, the midway offers thrills, piqued by the squeals of kids being slung about in all directions on rides whose maintenance pedigree elicits just enough actual fear to make the experience life-affirming. The food offerings–best enjoyed and retained AFTER the rides–push yourself past the ubiquitous things-on-a-stick or things-on-a-stick-and-then-deep-fried. Tucked away you’ll find a few vendors of local delicacies. I’d credit fairs with originating the farm-to-fork enterprise.
For me, the composition of a fair, in time and space, is like a business expo or trade show. There are the halls and stalls, the sights and sounds of industry and invention, and all the products come to market for sale. But as much as we love a good fair, we just aren’t big fans of trade shows. Why? What do fairs have that most expos don’t?
- Passion and pride. At the fair, purveyors are beaming with pride, and once they start sharing stories, you can feel the passion pass right through you. LESSON: When staffing your booth, I suggest adding a few ringers to the booth staff, some of the engineers and experts who embody the products’ soul in ways a scripted spiel never could. Maybe they aren’t the most eloquent presenters or the most at ease in the situation, but their passion and authenticity will be obvious and contagious.
- Fuel for all the senses. Most expos have the sight and sound boxes checked, in spades. Touch is important when it comes to product demos and other activations. What about aroma and taste? Expo organizers and venues can be quite strict in what they allow, but see if there’s a way to add some aromatherapy or samples of non-perishable local cuisine. We recently attended a home show in town. The only attentive crowd we saw was surrounding a booth touting free samples of homemade pickles and sausages. It worked! We felt a little guilty toting two big sacks of food past all the other vendors on our way out. LESSON: If you can’t give away pickles and sausages, make sure your booth is right next to those who can.
Addendum: The Electric Forest Festival happens a few exits down the highway from us in Michigan. I’d love to attend, but the fun doesn’t start until after sundown; in western Michigan in late June, that’s like 11:00. If you’re one of the 30-or-so-thousand event goers, please share your impressions, especially in the vein of event design, interaction and the role of art and electricity in concert with nature–literally.
It might seem odd to include moving in this list, but a lot of people use the dog days of summer as a time to relocate. The need for gathering (on both ends of the move) plays a big part. We sever ties with those we are leaving behind, often gathering for one last bon voyage, some reminiscing and promises to stay in touch. At our new destinations, we seek out new tribes with which to bond.
Up into my 40s, I moved every 3-4 years, on average. I joked that “that’s what happens when you write too many bad checks.” That’s not true, of course (for the most part), but I know there’s some psychological issue there that we’ll save for another time.
We all know the physical and logistical stresses in making the decision to move: selling a place, finding a place, packing, shipping, unpacking and settling, not to mention updating personal data all over the place, finding new medical providers and other services, and don’t get me started on acclimating to a new time zone. Then there’s the challenge of making friends, building relationships and discovering where and with whom you want to gather. (As I write this, I am starting to reconsider this entire plan.)
At its essence, moving is about growing and adapting. Honing interpersonal skills and cultivating deeper self-awareness are ideal assets for becoming a better gatherer in business settings too.
Report Back on Your Summertime Gatherings
No doubt there will be weddings to celebrate, school orientations to attend, myriad backyard cookouts and pool parties to savor. I’d love to hear about your experiences gathering this summer, especially any revelations you gain that might find their way into your work.
And remember, whether your gathering is for business or pleasure: stay hydrated!