In my conversations with meeting planners, many of the concerns I hear around planning live meetings in this new normal are logistical: how will we practice social distancing? Will I need more space for the same size event? How can we handle food and beverages?

Defining Safety

During these conversations, I am reminded of something from the movie “Field of Dreams”, where the protagonist played by Kevin Costner hears a voice imploring him, “If you build it, they will come.” Many of the CDC guidelines and planning conversations talk about managing the physical safety of people. However, physical safety is only part of the equation to entice attendees and speakers to participate. The other, equally important, consideration is psychological safety—the mental well-being of participants. Psychological safety is typically defined in workplaces as the belief that one will not be punished for surfacing ideas, asking questions, raising concerns or making mistakes.

If we extend this definition to include feeling comfortable and engaged while attending meetings, the prospect of ensuring psychological safety—to create a safe and welcoming environment—is another consideration for planners who want to maximize attendance.

Consider the following graph, which assumes a normal distribution of attendee profile, under two situations: Pre- COVID-19 (orange) and post-COVID-19 (blue).

In both cases, you have a normal distribution of people interested in attending, ranging from those who are very unlikely to attend and those who are very likely to attend. For a meeting before COVID-19, you would have people unlikely to attend perhaps because their interest isn’t enough to overcome the cost, travel time, time out of the office, or other similar barriers. In the post-COVID-19 scenario, the people who are most interested are still likely to attend, but many more people won’t attend than in the past.

Why? To answer that question, consider the profile of attendees in each of the four numbered groups.

Attendee Psychological Profiles

On the far left of the blue chart, Group 1 is what I call “Hypochondriac-lite.” While not intended to be a clinical assessment, these are people who will not attend a live event in the immediate time period after restrictions are lifted because of fear of COVID-19, either while traveling to and from or at the event itself. This group is unlikely to participate regardless of any steps you take.

On the far right, in Group 4, is what I call the “Laissez Faire.” These are the folks that likely believe the coronavirus situation was overblown and are ready (and have been ready for some time) to attend live events. This group—by virtue of their perspective—is likely going to be less concerned with preventative measures and personal protection measures (such as wearing a mask) and is likely the group that would cause hesitation in the people in groups 1 and 2.

Group 3 would want to attend live meetings, but have some moderate concerns with safety. I term them the “Physical Safetyists.” Their concerns can be generally addressed by following or exceeding CDC or local health and safety guidelines. To attract this audience, attendee acquisition should focus both on the content and the physical safety protocols.

Group 2, are the “Psychological Safetyists.” This is the group that would be concerned about attending a live event too soon, with significant concerns about the risk of infection or coming into contact with someone who is infected. While not as extreme as the profile in Group 1, Group 2 attendees don’t yet feel comfortable with live events. Attracting this audience will be difficult, particularly since it is a mindset keeping them away. Someone from Group 3 may be incentivized to join knowing that masks are recommended and available; someone from Group 2 may only join if masks are required at all times.

Move the Curve!

Groups 2 and 3 are critical in the post-COVID situation since, if you are going through the trouble of hosting a live event, you want to maximize attendance. If the aggregate attendees’ profiles do look like a normal distribution, the vast majority of people will fall into Groups 2 and 3. Therefore, taking steps to ensure physical protection and then communicating those protections to potential registrants could help sway people from Group 2 into Group 3.

Earlier, the question I raised was, “Why is psychological safety important?” The answer: if you don’t find ways to engage and involve the “Group 2” profile, you are likely going to attract something in the neighborhood of 60 percent of your previous meeting levels. By thinking through these 4 profile types and planning for them, you can maximize the reach, attendance and impact of your event!

Steve Marley leads ZS’s Meetings + Events practice area, where he works with organizations to think holistically about their meetings programs, includes finding ways to best balance the costs and effectiveness of both in-personal and virtual interactions in a compliant manner.

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