We spend most of our time together with coworkers, family members, neighbors and strangers. And just as we were beginning to consider what goes into creating a more memorable and meaningful experience…BOOM, COVID 19 happened. It forced us to overlook the intangible takeaways from connection like coming out more inspired, more connected, and replacing that with taking precautions to ensure we came out safely and not infected.
As we live in a world where human connection is limited to zoom calls and we’re told to stay 6 ft apart, we asked the question; what does it mean to gather again?
Some of you know that as a design firm that specializes in place-making, we recently started designing spaces of our own. The reason: wanted to exercise our point of view in world class experiences and have them be more accessible to everyday people. The Viaduct has been home to our experiments in small wins of outdoor, safe micro gatherings where we can test what we know best; creating community out of like minded individuals who appreciate good design, food and shared values on the world.
For many people, Priya Parker’s “The Art of the Gathering” just made it to their reading list before Coronavirus hit. And what we are talking about is actually quite different. Our art of the “new gathering” honors Parker’s principles that primarily advocates that they are essential to the human experience. But ours is a formula for how to navigate hosting an event or experience both in-person and virtually, post pandemic.
We invited our friend Luna Maye, a sound artist, meditation guide, feminine goddess to sit down with us and discuss – What is the NEW gathering and how do we create shared space with safety in mind?
Luna had some interesting points – that we should never use the words Coronavirus or COVID during an event because that’s just our new way of life and overemphasizing it takes away from the reason we are gathering in the first place. She also designs an event a lot like she does music; with a crescendo to the flow of the evening. We took her input and applied it to our own definition of the art of the new gathering with these key rules.
1. First and foremost - get over the fear and make safety the new baseline without overemphasizing COVID.
Of course you need to address safety in all forms – social distancing, sanitizing, masks, and language included in your invitation or online information about COVID restrictions. That’s the baseline nowadays. But what you shouldn’t do is lead with worry and treat the experience like a TSA airport line. The restaurants, hotels and events that are doing this are missing the point – everyone is experiencing the same thing right now. This gives you a rare opportunity to stand out. Make people feel comfortable by surprising and delighting them beyond the regular restrictions. For example, help make all guests feel like the pandemic is an afterthought. Prep your panelists and speakers to limit the words COVID and Coronavirus. Make sanitizers in cute bottles with natural ingredients and treat the signs for protective measures fun or cute rather than loud and obnoxious. People need to smile when they encounter your moments, rather than get even more scared.
What not to do: do not use QR codes and omit paper menus as this reads impersonal. Do not put signs with CAPITALIZED letters and demanding rules. Do not make restrictions more important than the thoughtful descriptions of the event itself. Everyone wants to feel like they can escape the reality of negative news rather than lean further into it.
2. Gatherings are better when they are smaller and more intimate.
We’ve hosted 60 events, both in-person and virtual, since March of this year, and every time we learned that micro is better. Even when virtual, the smaller the group, the more intimate the affair. When in person, safe distance is no longer just a measuring stick for 6 feet – it’s the norm and the definition of feeling safe is different for everyone. When you control the crowd, you control the quality. Our rule of thumb is to keep it under forty people.
3. Start with the unexpected - intrigue, surprise and delight.
For our event Luna had a password at the door, left the gate closed so that people felt intrigued and the event a bit mysterious. We learned this in our restaurant design practice with the art of making the place feel “found” for the guest. Like they stumbled upon it and it’s their little secret. The Viaduct puts that into practice almost in a way that makes it difficult to find. Tucked away under the Rail Park in a nowhere neighborhood, it feels as though no one is working overtime to make it a popular destination. It just is.
4. Incorporate movement and mindfulness.
Start your dinner with a meditation, be unafraid to add breathing exercises. End the evening with safe distance dancing. Throw in a short 7 minute calisthenic exercise and maybe even a scavenger hunt. Movement helps people get out of their comfort zone which increases their awareness and tunes them into your guided experience. End the event with a mindful artistic expression like a surprise musical guest or a fire pit with smores!
5. Make masks a fashion statement.
Protective gear like masks will be our new reality until at least 2022, so why not make it fun? Instruct your guests to dress up and pair it with some visual examples. For an epic party you can even make a mood board like our friend Oliver from Home Studios did for his 40th birthday themed 70’s disco. Anytime the guests are prompted with a dress theme or inspiration they almost always come with bigger enthusiasm for the occasion.
To conclude, we think of designing an event a lot like storytelling. There is a peak, a memorable moment for your guests to share and a well timed ending that invites people to have closer intimate discussions and make new connections. This will be how people remember things…a slow ramp up to start, a peak high point, and then slowing back down again to round out the affair.Last tip is to please remember the art of gathering, is still a big part of how we meet new people and experience community. Join us in the effort to keep that going.