The Sociology Behind the Return to In-person Events

Aprilynne Pike

Have you noticed that in-person events are popping up everywhere? At Swoogo we certainly have. Working in the events industry provides a bird’s eye view of humanity at large, often in interesting ways. In particular, the return to in-person events over the last few months have seen the conflict between two incredibly strong and driving forces. 

The first is the very human need for interaction. Studies show us that face-to-face interaction with other humans is a necessity in our lives. Not only that, but gatherings have been shown to increase mental, physical, and emotional health, as well as increase our lifespans. 

Quite simply, humans need to gather together. 

Dun, dun, dun! 

But there’s another force that has loomed large and powerful in our world over the last two-plus years. Obviously, that’s the COVID-19 pandemic. 

2020 saw nearly a complete shut down of any meaningfully large in-person gatherings, with people poking their heads in and out of their proverbial holes as waves of infection came and went. 

Interestingly, since the Omicron spike of January and February of 2022, the US as a whole has stayed pretty stable. Areas have gone up and down, but the national average has stayed pretty consistent at an average of about 110,000 (reported) cases per day. 

That’s well above its low of less than 10,000 cases in early June of 2021. (This fairly closely mirrors the world-wide levels, though it’s exceptionally sticky to draw conclusions on such a wide scale, so I’m going to mostly stick with US levels for the purposes of this blog entry.)

So why, with cases still at about a medium level nationwide, is there such a demand for us to return to in-person events? 

I think sociology has our answer. 

Face to Face

There’s something special about face-to-face interactions. In fact, there’s a gap between a video relationship and an in-person relationship that cannot be fully bridged, even with conscious efforts. It’s why the corporate offsite is so prized among remote workers. (Like Swoogo.) A team that meets each other in person will be more dedicated to working with their teammates than one that doesn’t. In fact, a team that knows they will soon be meeting in person, will feel some of the same interpersonal pressure. Because that face on a screen … is still a face on a screen.

The same can be applied to so many areas of life: school, concerts, sports, business meetings, parties, you name it. It’s better in person. 

Digital to the rescue

Now, we want to give credit where credit is due—we’re big digital fans, because, well, it allowed the entire events industry to stay in business. And we don’t think it’s going away any time soon. In fact, I think we’ll see a lot of in-person events that are live streamed to online attendees (and saved to post as always-on content) But as an insider, I’ll tell you that what our customers are using Swoogo for the most these days, is to return to in-person events.

Face it

Even as tiny infants, faces are vitally important to our development. We gravitate toward faces even before we can talk, and that preference only becomes stronger as we get older. So it’s no wonder that Zoom, rather than simple audio-feeds, became the norm when communications went digital. It’s not perfect, but at least there’s a face. When given the choice between watching someone on a screen and listening to them in person, all other things being equal, nearly everyone will opt for the in-person choice.

In the events industry, this preference is massive. A study in Harvard Business Review found that an in-person business request was 34 times more likely to result in a yes than an email. It’s no wonder so many of our customers are anxious to get back to making those requests in person. 

Business requests aren’t limited to sales. Consider the following as business requests:

  • Donating to a cause
  • Committing to ambitious team goals
  • Requesting a raise
  • Volunteering 

That list right there is a huge chunk of all of our customers’ events. Whatever the goal of your business, chances are, you’re looking to gain an edge by being able to look your attendees in the face, and great way to do that is simply to return to in-person events. Kinda like everyone else right now.

Teacher’s Pet

In-person learning is the gold-standard for K-12 schools, but those benefits spill over into the adult world. Many of our customers are using events to instruct their attendees: whether they’re employees, continuing education clients, or community members. 

Teaching is a key element of events. 

What makes face-to-face learning so effective? Just as we’re always pushing to turn an event into an experience, there is a concept called experiential learning that may explain this. This concept suggests that 70% of our most effective learning comes from doing. Even if that doing is simply active listening, engaged with a teacher sharing the same space. All of your attention is more focused if you’re in the same place as your instructor. 

Confession: I am not a sports fan. So I asked a friend one day what the draw of attending a live basketball game was, when you could get more close-ups on TV at home. He told me that when you are at the game, you are part of the experience. And when I applied that to live theater performances … it made a little more sense.

At the K-12 level, where measurement is the most uniform, it’s indisputable that the states that risked returning their students to in-person learning had the least learning loss. How you believe that cost-benefit ratio shakes out is up to you. But what has also become clear in the events industry, is that companies are ready to at least offer the return to in-person events to their customers, and get a shot at a similar level of benefit.

Events are the gold standard

There’s no other industry in the world that focuses more acutely on gatherings than the events industry. That’s what events are—big, professional gatherings. So all of this research and sociology means a lot to us. We’re constantly studying what gets people to events, what makes an event impactful, and what draws attendees to come back. 

In fact, in an article from the Washington Post, Nancy Neipp, a director of global events at Cisco, says, “Events are a platform to translate our business strategy into bold, immersive experiences that accelerate engagement with audiences.” Well thank you very much, we totally agree.

In time gone by, you gathered with a smaller community. People didn’t fly out to events; they didn’t really travel very far at all, in general. Your community was frequently the people you grew up with. Ever heard of a block party? It used to literally mean the people on your block. Now, for better or worse, we’re less likely to know our neighbors, but more likely to travel hundreds of miles to attend an event with a friend or co-worker. The entire events industry exists to facilitate gatherings. Our company motto at Swoogo is: Empowering anyone to bring people together. We’re really proud of that. That is why we exist, and it’s why our industry exists. 

Why return to in-person events?

I came across a blog entry the other day called, The Life-Changing Magic of Meeting People in Person. It outlines how we’re already losing many of our face-to-face interactions to the internet, texting, and the simple tendency to—for example—not meet our neighbors. What was especially interesting to me, is that this blog entry was written in 2019. A problem that was already occurring in 2019 has grown exponentially over the last two-plus years. 

So why are so many people risking their physical health to return to in-person events? Because mental and emotional health is also so very vital. Relying solely on digital interactions opens us up to the normalization of things like parasocial relationships, forms of (usually digital) communication that more and more human brains are twisting into a skewed definition of friendship. Social media, for all its positives, is a huge factor in this redefinition of relationships.

Simply put, nothing beats in person. It’s science. And what we’re seeing in the events industry—both from the professionals we work with and reports of their attendees—is that people are hungry for that same-space human interaction.

You do you

Nothing in this blog article should be misconstrued as advice on what level of physical contact is best and safest for you. You decide. But if you, like me, have been wondering what’s pushing so many people out to in-person events now, even though in many places COVID numbers are higher than this time last year, maybe this very short look into the sociology of gatherings will give you what we like to call an a-ha! moment. 

No pressure. Still keeping away from the washed and unwashed masses? Do it. Ready to take on some risk for your in-person fix? Go for it. 

And if you’re looking for an event management platform to help accommodate attendees of myriad levels of comfort to return to in-person events, check out how Swoogo makes it easy to create in-person, digital, or hybrid experiences

Or should we say gatherings?