Planes, Uber, rental cars, hotel check-in, name badges, wi-fi passcodes, handshakes, hugs, swag, and maybe a tear; for many, many, years these were part of my regular professional routine (the tears not so much). However, for the last 14 months, they have been absent. Last week they returned as I attended the IRF Invitational at the JW Marriott in Marco Island.
First, let me tell you about the Incentive Research Organization (IRF). The IRF is the foundation that is focused on research around an organization’s greatest asset, its people. The research of the IRF focuses on the science that motivates and drives the performance of employees at all levels of organizations. No matter what your role, you should take the time to look at the IRF website and look at some research and available tools. ( www.theirf.org). Not only will it help you be better professionally, but there might also be a nugget or two you can apply in your personal relationships and as a parent.
In full disclosure, it is important to know that I am an IRF Trustee; however, that does not diminish that I am an event professional. Now to my thoughts on attending an IRL (in real life) industry event. The overarching takeaway was the value of human connection. Be it a handshake, hug, smile from across the room intended for you, and most of all, the energy of people being together. If there was ever a scenario when the sum is greater than the parts, it is when people gather together in real life. The event, by design, was a live event; there was no virtual component. Therefore, there was no need for a virtual aspect of this event. That is not to say the IRF does not do virtual events, but knowing the purpose of your event and what the attendees and sponsors want always has been and should continue to be a foundation of any event design, and in this case, it was a live event.
The second big takeaway for me was the lack of depth and dimension in my communications with my IRF colleagues over the past fourteen months. Through my volunteer involvement, there has been a core group of about thirty people within the IRF with whom I have spoken (phone and video) regularly since March of 2020. I enjoyed those communications and by most accounts they were productive. It was not until I saw those individuals in person that I realized the nuances of communications and connections that are missed when you are not together. Be it a small visual cue, the tone, inflection of a comment, or the conversation that occurs, leading to additional discovery and connection. Sure some tactical aspects of business and communication can happen ‘electronically’ however to engage in the experience in a manner that drives connection and commerce, one needs to be there.
Finally, there is the enhancement of content that occurs when you are together. From the energy that a keynote speaker gets from a live audience to the panel discussion that organically feeds off of audience questions and contributions to the hallway conversations that occur while you are ‘breaking bread’ centered around the speaker you just heard. Lest we forget, the impact and memories are created when the general session speaker pulls random attendees on stage. In this case, I was one of the attendees Jade Simmons pulled onto the stage to play the piano…I DON’T PLAY THE PIANO !!! When I think of the nooks and crannies of the content one experiences when at a live event, I often think of nature. It is one thing to see a picture or a video of the Grand Canyon, a black sand beach in Hawaii, or a bird in flight; there is an entire other sensory experience when you see it in real life (IRL)
Now for the part about moving the middle. Moving the middle related to employee recognition, rewards and incentives was a hot topic for many employees. This concept was of enormous interest to me on many levels, most of all because I have always considered myself to be in the middle. What is the middle? Who defines it? A sports team relies on those players in the middle for many reasons. In many cases, they are the foundation that supports the All-Stars or, in business terms, the ‘top performers. When the MLB All-Star game occurs in July, in theory, won’t a third of the players now be the middle, yet I don’t think anyone would suggest putting a lot of effort into ‘moving’ them. The reality is that the middle is only relevant to what your goals and objectives are as an organization. An approach of moving the middle has an underlying tone that there is something wrong with where they are. Would we not be served by taking a perspective of mentoring the middle, which, when done right, will get you the results while also not making those in the middle feel less valued. The research has shown that feeling valued drives performance, increases loyalty, and reduces turnover, which we know can damage an organization in many ways. Those in the middle are often your most loyal, most knowledgeable about the business, most connected to your customers. When you examine the reality, they are responsible for a large portion of your revenue and profits. So, what does the middle have to do with live events? While live events, conferences, and trade shows may not be the star, they are the middle, the foundation of what we do, and in many ways, what we turn to promote a new product, solution, and reward those other top performers. Without that live event, conference, or trade show, your ‘all-star’ product, solution, or research paper may never be seen, discovered, or talked about amongst your peers. Let’s not forget that the success of virtual this past year was because it was the only option to not having an event at all. To put it in piano playing terms from last week, I would have gotten a bronze medal for my performance last week; remember, there were only three of us playing.
As the IRF Invitational proved, when given the opportunity to attend a live, in real life, face-to-face event offering quality education and networking, people will show up in person, engage, connect and never look back.