I've spent over a decade in experiential travel and behavioral economics, and both sit on opposite ends of the emotional‐to‐rational scientific spectrums. But one very important thing lies squarely at the center of both: humans. With so many "wow, this is new" situations we have found ourselves in during the last 12 months, I couldn't help but analyze my own return to international travel through the lens of a behavioral economist. And more importantly, it affects how we guide our clients in making the experience of attending live events in a post‐Covid-19 world as human‐centered as possible.
Returning to Travel is Exhilarating (and Exhausting)
Brain science tells us why. I recently attended a client site inspection in the Bahamas. As excited as I was to travel again, there were many times in my pre‐event journey that I was struck by how new the entire process was. From the documentation required, to where to stand in the airports, to what items I needed to pack, I often paused to reflect on how the feeling was akin to my first time traveling abroad. Everything about travel now is different — even if you've been doing it for decades. It was a constant state of discovery, from the minute I purchased my ticket. Every time I engaged in planning or executing even the simplest tasks, decision fatigue kicked in.
There is brain science to support why. For those of us who are well traveled, much of the rote process of travel lives in our "old brain" or hippocampus. It takes less "brain energy" to process because autopilot kicks in. When we have to really think, read or process something, the activity moves to our pre‐frontal cortex which uses more mental energy. Our brains fatigue therefore faster, and in my case, I was exhausted more quickly and had far less mental energy than I had anticipated.
Implications: There is brain science to tell us that novelty (aka novel stimuli) excites dopamine neurons, giving us a strong, positive emotional boost. This will be important as we return to travel, as will the excitement of connecting with humans again. However, this also means the humans we're creating the travel experience for will fatigue faster and might need more downtime. So, take a hard look at your agenda and consider making some adjustments to accommodate attendee fatigue. For example:
- Avoid important meetings on travel days;
- Schedule important conversations earlier in the day;
- Allow more downtime; and
- Guide attendees with frequent communications to set expectations and get them comfortable with the travel process.
Balance Small Behavioral Shifts with Constant Reminders
Whether live or hybrid, the reality is that attendees are going to have new ways to engage with an event. In the past, we've taught them how to engage with us to get the most from the event by tweaking and updating the program over time. In 2020, we had to quickly shift our events to virtual and attendees had to learn a new way to participate again. It was tiring for planners and it was, even when successful, a different and sometimes less fulfilling experience for all. We've had to ask our audiences to change their behavior significantly in a short period of time.
We now have an opportunity to be more thoughtful in the changes we're asking people to make. The work of BJ Fogg, a social scientist and the founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, tells us that even when attendees are motivated and able to make changes, it only happens when triggers exist to remind us. This is why we need pop‐up alerts and calendar notices. Behavior change is easier when it emerges more naturally from many smaller changes, rather than a single massive shift.
One of the reasons the shift to virtual experiences felt overwhelming for many was because it was a major change in human interaction — with few triggers along the way. We need to start crafting tiny trigger changes to help ease attendees into new travel and event experiences. This includes sending out detailed pre-event communications, using ample signage to remind attendees of the safety protocols and having extra staff members onsite to enforce social distancing.
Communication tactics need to be prioritized and for hybrid events, we need to be deliberate about engaging the virtual audience in small ways before, during and after the meeting to make sure we're giving them every opportunity to ease into and optimize their experience. We need to design many tiny supportive triggers to guide attendees along the journey.
In the past, our goal was to create truly frictionless experiences that were easy to navigate. But the reality is, whether we are planning a virtual or hybrid event, there will be a great deal of friction to offset. We will have to use all the technology and behavioral tricks in our bag to make the experience as great and seamless as possible.
Safety and the Hierarchy of Needs
One of the things that struck me most when reflecting on my travel experience was how much Maslow's hierarchy of needs and four‐drive behavioral theory played out instinctually. Psychologist Abraham Maslow told us that all of human behavior was hierarchical — you had to have your physical needs met first, then you had to feel safe, and only afterwards could you acquire feelings of belonging, esteem and self‐actualization.
In 2001, Harvard Business School professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria expanded on this to say human beings have four drives in play at all times:
- To acquire goods, services and experiences;
- To bond with people and ideas that give us purpose;
- To learn new things and create something based on those learnings; and
- To defend ourselves, our tribes and our deeply held beliefs.
Defend is the only drive that must be deactivated to engage the others. My first instinct while traveling was to keep myself, and by extension my family, safe. To protect our bond, I updated them frequently, sharing everything I was doing to be safe — double masking, sanitizing surfaces, eating pre‐packaged foods, etc. All of these things helped me feel I was keeping myself and them safe, while the energy of acquiring a new experience and learning what the new world of travel looked like drove me on. The mix of these drives shifted as I learned more throughout the experience and, ever so gradually, felt safer. On one hand, the lower my defense drive, the more I was able to lean into the experience, learn from it and enjoy it. On the other hand, the safer I felt, the more easily I was able to forget the basics — mask wearing, daily health assessments, no handshakes, etc.
Lessening the drive to defend can work in our favor to keep our attendees engaged in a healthy meeting, but it can also work against us. One thing we will have to address is how the pandemic has caused some groups to feel a heightened need to defend their personal freedoms — wearing a mask, sharing test results, temperature checks, etc. There will likely be times during travel where attendees encounter individuals for whom the drive for personal freedoms supersedes the desire to actively engage in these precautions.
Helping our attendees clearly understand what our event safety expectations are as hosts, as well as those of the airlines, hotels and destination, will be crucial in helping individuals make a decision about whether or not they feel comfortable traveling. Planners should also communicate what the consequences are for those who do not adhere to health measures. Doing so is key to ensuring guests that their safety is of the highest concern. For tips, listen to the Eventful podcast episode on "How to Ensure Attendees Follow Covid-19 Safety Guidelines."
Melissa Van Dyke is the vice president of design and insights for the Creative Group, an award-winning meeting and incentive planning company. Prior to joining the Creative Group, she served as the president of the Incentive Research Foundation for nine years. She is an author and sought-after speaker on topics ranging from behavioral economics to event design.