How behavioural science thinking could bring business audiences back to events
A view from Saira Dickinson

How behavioural science thinking could bring business audiences back to events

People this week woke up to "Magic Monday", with Team GB securing three gold medals on the third day of the Tokyo Olympics in swimming, diving and mountain biking. This gold rush has brought back all the adrenalin, excitement and anticipation we experience at a live event. But even as we look forward to more of the same, there is one major element missing - the fans.

The world's biggest event - the Olympics, is taking place at empty venues and while last Friday's Opening Ceremony was visually spectacular, the absence of crowds made it almost seem like a practice run.

In the face of rising coronavirus infections in host city Tokyo, the decision to ban spectators at venues in and around Japan's capital city is no surprise. Prior to this, however, there were calls to postpone the Games or cancel them altogether, with the public in Japan wary of having such a large-scale event on their doorstep.

While many in England are looking forward to staging physical events again, now that "Freedom Day" has come and gone, if the Olympics have taught us anything, it's that in the ongoing face of the pandemic, we need to ensure that events can take place safely.

Changing behaviour trends

For event organisers, examining broader trends in people's behaviour pre-and post-pandemic can help determine how best to proceed. At events, we let our guard down and are on more friendly terms with strangers, wanting to share the experience and hugging people we don't know.

At music events/live gigs, we immerse ourselves in the busiest of crowds in order to soak up the atmosphere and to belong. We crowd around the bar and we all rush to the toilets when there is a suitable break. In short, we do the very opposite of keeping our distance.

Such behaviours were the norm pre-pandemic and it's likely to be a very long time before we are willing to share our personal space in this way again.

Our habits have been disrupted and many have re-evaluated aspects of their lives that they took for granted. Habits are not triggered by us wanting to achieve something, but by our environment. The saying "old habits die hard" has been disproved time and again during the pandemic, with people quickly adopting new behavioural patterns.

There is now a set of behaviours associated with distance and shielding - we wear masks, try to keep a one- to two-metre distance and work from home, avoiding others where possible. We do many more things online now than we thought possible 18 months ago.

So what does this mean for event organisers and venues?

We've all become used to keeping our distance in the new normal, with routes marked with one-way systems and separate entrances and exits, and this should be the basic rule for any venue.

When it comes to people's personal space, masks and social distancing are highly charged behaviours, visible symbols of our new reality and they send a clear signal to everyone around us. This also means others interpret these behaviours (or lack of) very specifically. So, the potential for misinterpretation is huge.

It's vital therefore to ensure that people can easily and clearly communicate why they're doing things the way they are. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted how an event held by the Chesterfield Chamber of Commerce in Virginia used coloured wristbands and stickers to help people communicate their comfort around physical touch, modelled around the traffic light system.

At WRG, a division of The Creative Engagement Group, we carried out a survey earlier this year to assess people's readiness to return to live events. One key finding is that attendees need reassurance. From a behavioural science point of view, seeing the preferences of others can be a strong guide in situations that we're struggling to navigate.

As an event organiser, this could mean carrying out a pre-registration poll asking your attendees what their preferences are, and then communicating these to all attendees, allowing them to make an informed choice.

Personal choice

We've also heard the words "personal choice" many times in the run-up to the easing of England's lockdown restrictions, with the government asking people to exercise "personal responsibility" in the absence of legal enforcement. Recognising that things are likely to get complicated initially is one way to approach this, while a sense of autonomy is a vital source of motivation.

Event organisers could tap into this autonomy to promote good behaviour or to help people feel comfortable with new social norms. They could provide guidance such as "keep your distance to protect others", or "putting up with a little inconvenience can go a long way". Such expressions can ensure that safety guidelines are adhered to as well as getting people's buy-in to commit to these.

We may only be on day three of the Olympics Games but already the lack of physical spectators has demonstrated the extent to which "live" encompasses so much more than the event itself - the roar of cheering, the excitement etched on fans' faces and the waving of banners is something we'll have to wait a bit longer for.

Motivating people to engage in doing the right thing – not just for themselves but for everyone around them, can go a long way towards ensuring a safe event and the return of those all-important fans.

Saira Dickinson is co-head of UK event production at WRG (a division of The Creative Engagement Group)