Joanne Schroeder, President, UN World Leisure Organization, US, and Graduate Chair, Department Recreation and Tourism at Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, B.C., Canada, US, joined Filiberto Amati, MBA, and me in our program of conversations with thought leaders, functional to scope future landscapes of (business) events.
Joanne addressed our scheme of questions, challenges, and insights in a LinkedIn Live event, also available on YouTube on the Amati & Associates channel, from Nanaimo, BC, located on the land of the Snuneymuxw: “A vibrant First Nation of the Coast Salish People, located in the centre of Coast Salish territory on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and the Fraser River in the Canadian province of British Columbia”. Filiberto and I are familiar with WLO, as they are the publishers of the World Leisure Journal, where in early 2020, quite timely, we submitted and printed a paper about earlier collaborative research efforts on the “blurring” of leisure and work.
Joanne introduced herself as a “pracademic”, a practice-led scholar, with the ability to juggle between theories and the actual reality of the business world and communities. The UN World Leisure Organization was established as a US-based NGO in 1952, with the function to promote “leisure” as a practice to enable the human condition. “Leisure” is a very vast field of human activities, from culture to sports, from informal gatherings to major events. WLO is a hybrid organization, where academia and practice meet, for the pursuit of a preferable future thanks to leisure, articulated as a fundamental need and right of humans, worldwide.Contrary to the choices of IPBA, the hybrid academic / practitioner association chaired by Dr. Robert Govers, WLO did not choose to postpone their congress to a later time, in order to hold it in presence, and this connection to our earlier involvement by Dr. Govers is where our conversation begun. The WLO Congress was postponed from October 2020 to April 2021, in Beijing Pingu, People’s Republic of China, in order to redesign a live “in presence” event as a hybrid event, with direct participation on site in China, where contributors were in the room, whereas global attendance was interactively enabled in remote modality, digitally. This hybrid design made it possible to accomplish a successful edition of the annual WLO Congress for the organization, delegates, and other participants, although with lower attendance figures than usual. This was particularly positive for emerging scholars and young practitioners who belong to the Digital Native demographic cohorts, both emerging scholars and young practitioners, who more naturally connect, multitask (sometimes attending parallel sessions in parallel on their electronic displays), and digitally engage. A different story could be told by stakeholders at local level, from hospitality parties to commercial beneficiaries of an event, where losses derived by the online migration of events might be seen as substantial. However painful the losses for some, however, there is no expected going back from the hybrid model of event design and management. This was also confirmed by Joanne’s experience with virtual classroom activities, that were accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemics, where with avatars and other AR/VR technologies and applications have rapidly become a necessary component of marketing, educational, and event hybrid strategies, that will be requested, e.g. in terms of asynchronous experience and augmented content modules. This will affect business models across industries, from event management and its stakeholders, to academic and universities, where value creation and pricing points might be challenged under the new digital and hybrid modalities.
Shifting the focus to large events like the Milan Design Week, to be directed in 2021 by Architect Stefano Boeri, or the Dutch Design Week, the example was raised of a Whale Watching event -or an equivalent class of events with an impact- where sponsorship will have to be redefined into a substantial, content-driven action by-and-involving engaged stakeholders. Cause-led campaigns with substantial meaning and connection to the mission and vision of an event are expected to play a role across regional roots and global profiling. The inevitable necessity of recreating and redesigning our post-pandemic world will be dictated by the fundamental difference of online versus in presence networking and connecting. This because connection is at the very heart of leisure, therefore there will be major impacts accelerated by Covid-19, towards digitalisation, fragmentation, and deconstruction of relationships and structures, where new solutions will have to be invented, e.g. between climate change demanding less traveling and the fundamental need of people to meet each other face to face, informally and with serendipity.
At macro level, through Covid-19, the direct connection emerged between leisure and topics and themes like mental health, wellness economy, conservation economy (that is accentuated in coastal communities like Nanaimo), and regeneration. Sustainability will remain central when the world returns to health and safety, therefore while the various leisure sectors and industries will come back when the pandemic crisis is over, it might be expected that people go back to their leisure activities, from sports to holidays, and events — but people will not go back to life as it used to be before the pandemic crisis. In this view, Joanne introduced the important experience of social sustainability, cultural acknowledgement, and fundamental pursuit of historical justice represented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. There, a six years process that in 2015 generated 94 calls for action, designed to recuperate and valorize the language, culture, and values of the tribal regions in Canada. In Nanaimo only, an island with a surface equivalent to that of The Netherlands but a population of 8.000 only, more First Nations exist, whose cultural and contributions through aboriginal tourism, academic ad hoc initiatives (like the 2019 Vancouver City Lab by Prof. Suzanne De La Barre, VIU), and “special events”. For example, the teaching of the language, which is the natural repository and living treasury of culture and values, has become the core of experiential creative economy, tourism and hospitality packages. This whole new class of special events proved the regenerative power of leisure, and such regenerative power is proven by the resilience of First Nations. The key is empathy, and how to translate such unique empathy into the opportunity to redefine and redesign what used to be mass tourism and mass events, embodying the danger of experiential disneyfication and cultural exploitation, as seen in Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona, and more European destinations. Here, the subtle political challenge might also be to ensure that diversity translates into inclusion, as in the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation, as opposite to regionalism and nationalism. Empathy and authenticity are key to “special events” and “special events” are unique, small scale, transformational opportunities to convey knowledge and inspire change by connection to the fundamental spirit and the ultimate responsibility for preferable futures we all, as people, share because we are individuals in the human race, connected by regional history and the local experiences. Size will not matter as much as connection. For example, programs like the VIU “Indigenous Eco-tourism Certificate Training”, a First Nation, site specific training that was greatly affected by the impossibility to take place on site. Based on Joanne’s direct involvement, no hybrid or digital equivalent could be designed to recreate the authenticity and core value of the program.
In terms of Joanne’s vision of the future, the future will inevitably encompass the institutional world of UN WLO as well as her educational role. Leisure has always been, is and will increasingly be a key enabler of mental balance and social well-being. Perhaps never before as in the last 18 months, the global and local communities of citizens, tourists, and people in general have understood the value of leisure, by suddenly missing the opportunities to experience leisure. On the above basis, leisure will continue to form and offer opportunities to improve the human condition through events. The recreation of human relations and empathy through digital technology and new hybrid models will be the imperative of our post-pandemic world, where the notion of “value” will require deep rethinking in order to deliver what humans need from a perspective of sustainment and regeneration. Connecting to a higher purpose, inspiring higher social and cultural values are therefore natural developments to be expected by the leisure industries and the event sector. In spite of its tragic impact, Covid-19 triggered a sense of community that is peculiar. It also accelerated change in terms of the possibility to relocate in rural areas while still maintaining urban jobs, reframing and redesigning communities. It is a future where the notion of “Community” will be central to the co-creation of preferable futures, where discomfort and disruption will fuel a whole different notion of growth and innovation. Ultimately, we as humans will be pushed to the edge of a new purpose, where leisure will be central and events will be key as engines of change and progress.